Mira Proving Ground

Secret test facility is inviting members of the public to a unique driving experience

Mira is opening its doors to paying members of the public for the first time on September 11/12. The famously secretive proving ground celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, but even then the general public wasn’t allowed anywhere near the front gates.

When I visited the site prior to September’s ‘Motors Live at MIRA’ event, I had to sign a form saying I wouldn’t take any photos. Just as well I didn’t get camera happy – on my trip round the facilities someone was spotted taking pictures by Richard Adams, MIRA’s PR manager. In a few minutes the ‘control tower’ was notified and the person ‘dealt with’. MIRA takes its secrecy very seriously.

No doubt this is one of the factors that has helped make the facility such a success. Car manufacturers, component manufacturers and even the military can test products to breaking point without the worry of being spotted or reported on. Also, all profits are poured back in to the proving ground. This isn’t because the owners are particularly charitable, but because no one actually does own it. A strange business model?

Chris Harrison, events manager for the Chester Group which is organising Motors Live, explains: “Although this place was built in 1946 on an old airfield, MIRA’s history can be traced back to the early 20th century. At the time vehicle manufacturers were doing their own development, so they decided to get together and share their results. This place was born out of that philosophy and the only way I can describe it is that it’s like a golf club. All the companies that use it are members of MIRA, it doesn’t pay dividends and it doesn’t pay profi ts out to anyone.

“You could say that the members own it. You can’t buy a stake in it, so the only way in is to become a member. Your membership fee is based on your company’s annual turnover – I think it’s 0.001 per cent – so the big boys pay more.”

Thanks to this set-up, members use MIRA’s various testing grounds – set in 750 acres – almost daily. Adams knows how much the public is interested in what they do, which inspired Motors Live. “The event kills two birds with one stone,” he says, while negotiating one of the ride and handling surfaces that visitors will get to drive in various cars. “Firstly, we get inundated with requests to come and have a look around, but sadly that’s impossible 99 per cent of the time. Now I can say ‘we’ve got a weekend coming up, come and see what’s going on’. Secondly, I think it’s going to be a really good event. It should be good for the staff, for the stakeholders, for the local community and great for people who have an interest in motoring and MIRA.”

So what can you do at Motors Live, apart from marvel at MIRA’s 57 miles of track? Before you try any of the experiences it’s worth having a look at the Belgium pavé that you may have seen on BBC’s Top Gear. The pavé, an extremely bumpy cobble surface that stretches for over a mile, is used to test wear on various components. “The road surface actually takes a hammering as well as the cars,” says Harrison. “The cement that holds the cobbles together starts to wear and then they all start to come loose. It had to be completely rebuilt 10 years ago. It must have taken them three years because each block – and there are millions of them – had to be put into position, put in the right orientation and then measured with a laser to ensure that it was in exactly the same position as before. That way you can ensure repeatability – whether you tested a car here 40 years ago or today, the results should be the same.”

Most of the Motors Live experiences will be based around passenger rides, although visitors will also be able to get behind the wheel themselves. There will be cars on a wet handling circuit, two off-road courses – including one that visitors can drive on – a special rally stage, a dry rally stage, a straight line wet grip track, a high-speed oval (which is amazingly steep) and a skid pan. And that’s just the start…

Most of the Motors Live experiences will cost £15 on top of the £25 entry fee, but I doubt many people will be able to hold back once they’re on site and have the opportunity to take a high-speed passenger ride around an oval that’s steeper than Daytona. MIRA is an extraordinary place and it’s well worth a visit. For tickets and more information go to www.motorsliveatmira.org.