Interview with Dave Boon and Peter Davis
Hear about Millbrook's 50 year history from two different perspectives.
Dave was an engineer at Millbrook for 45 years, working his way up through various roles. Peter was a photographer at Vauxhall, often asked to photograph various tests at Millbrook, before eventually accepting a permanent position at the proving ground in 1989.
Both worked on various projects spanning 5 decades; with stories about tests, people and memorable moments from all over the business.
What were your roles at Millbrook?
Dave: I started at Vauxhall apprentice school in September 1969, and I came over to Millbrook in 1973. I went through various engineering roles over a period of 45 years. It was strange not coming here to start with, but coming back now after 5 years is almost a bit spooky, it feels like coming home.
Peter: I worked at Vauxhall from 1969, and would often come over to Millbrook for various photographic jobs. I worked elsewhere for a while but then got a job as a photographer at Millbrook in 1989. I was delighted to get a job here, I think it was the best job I ever had. I worked here for 14 years, retiring in 2003.
"It was strange not coming here to start with, but coming back now after 5 years is almost a bit spooky, it feels like coming home."
What made it such an enjoyable place to work?
Peter: Working in photographic meant that I knew everybody because I was always asked to do various jobs in different departments. There were some jobs that were more favourable than others. For example, one day I’d be out on the tracks on a lovely summer’s day, and then the next I’d be down in a pit in a workshop somewhere, getting covered in oil and dirt! Overall, there are some great memories from the job. Everyone would always work together and help each other out, I definitely got to see that first hand in every department whilst working in photography.
"One day I’d be out on the tracks on a lovely summer’s day, and then the next I’d be down in a pit in a workshop somewhere, getting covered in oil and dirt!"
"The emissions lab was the first operational lab on the whole site – it used to be tiny. It’s great to see how much that has expanded in recent years."
"They used to hang the dummies from their heads; so on a dark, quiet morning it was quite eerie in there!"
Do you have any favourite memories?
Peter: My supervisor and his colleague were once asked if they could go down to the barrier with a whole consignment of overhead lights which were in big cardboard boxes. After doing so, they consciously brought all of these boxes back and put them in the big recycling bin. Later on, I was coming across the bridge over the High Speed Circuit and there was a huge gust of wind - the whole batch of boxes all blew right across the countryside in front of me. Track control had to radio in to tell people to stop driving because there were a load of wild cardboard boxes on the loose! It was very entertaining.
Another memory I have is of barrier testing. I often had to lift the pit cover because there were several cameras you could put in the pit underneath the impact point. Now, you have to remember that this was before a roof was built over the barrier testing site so you never knew what you’d find when you opened up the pit. There was all sorts of wildlife, rabbits that had fallen in and were scampering about or a load of frogs hopping around. It was always a job having to clean it out properly before you could put a camera down there!
There were lots of stories in the crash testing department. I heard about an engineer who was the first one in work one day. He heard one of the guys from his team approaching so he thought he’d go and sit amongst the dummies. As the other guy came in he started slowly lifting his arm up and making a ghost noise. I think the poor bloke had the fright of his life!
Dave: There were all sorts of funny stories about crash test dummies. They used to hang the dummies from their heads; so on a dark, quiet morning it was quite eerie in there. A funny one I always remember was at Sled. We had an apprentice when I was working in the emissions lab who said he wanted to see a crash test so I organised for him to go. It was only a dummy run, excuse the pun! But when it shot back the dummy’s head fell off, on to its lap, down on to the trolley and then rolled in to the pit. You’ve never heard so many swear words in your life! Instrumentation were obviously annoyed because it ripped all of the cables out of the dummy. However I think photographic were more annoyed that the cameras didn’t catch it! All I know is that the apprentice and I were definitely amused.
Are there any particular departments or test facilities that were your favourite?
Dave: One thing you have to do while you work here is see a tilt test. You tilt these great big vehicles up until the wheels gradually start to leave the platform. It’s all strapped in so that if it starts tipping you can just put a hand on the strap and it comes back. It’s quite amazing being able to control a 20 tonne vehicle like that, makes you feel a lot stronger than you are! The test is all set up and engineered so that the vehicle can’t go anywhere, but it does look quite scary tipping a vehicle that heavy to see when it starts to topple over.
Are there any projects you worked on that you’re particularly proud of?
Dave: Definitely working on the Queen’s jubilee limousine in 2002. All the development work, conversion to LPG, reliability testing and driver training was done here, and that’s the limo that you still see all the time now. It was a very proud moment for Millbrook.
Did you know that Millbrook's engineering team tested the Queen's Jubilee vehicle in February 2002?
There were 2 vehicles that we were sent to work on. One was Q for Queen and the other was V for Validation. The validation one would run various durability and development tests. Everyone was driving it to get miles accumulated - we had quite a lot of fun with it to be honest. I don’t think I could have ever found another job where I could drive the Queen’s cars around every day – it was all part of the fun of working at Millbrook! I remember there being a cassette player next to that seat because apparently Her Majesty has a selection of cassettes she likes to play during journeys. They liked the car so much that the Royals themselves asked for another one, so Bentley eventually refurbished the validation/test vehicle and gave it to them too.
"I don’t think I could have ever found another job where I could drive the Queen’s cars around every day – it was all part of the fun of working at Millbrook!"
Peter: Looking back to before I worked there, I think Vauxhall was always the Queen’s favourite. There was an estate car that she always had, complete with fishing rod and shotgun holders! The number plate was always MYT1 (Mighty One) – which originated with the Queen Mother I think. I think Vauxhall showed it at a car show at the NEC one year on their stand.
Were there any colleagues that stand out as particular characters that you worked with over the years?
Peter: There was one chap who worked in the crash lab. He had a very distinctive, loud voice and I wouldn’t be surprised if security could sometimes hear him – they’re on the opposite end of the site! Another one of our colleagues was a bagpipe player. He would lock himself in a room at lunchtime to practise. You’d hear this distant bagpipe noise all the time which was interesting, although he was very good at it if I remember rightly.
Dave: A colleague I’ll always remember was a chap who was a very good ballroom dancer. He used to always practise for competitions in a room just off the workshop at lunchtime. I popped my head in one day to have a look and my other colleague pulled me out and said he’ll get angry if he sees someone watching him!
Peter: I remember him! He actually used to work at Vauxhall with my father. My dad used to tell me that on lunch breaks he would always be dancing around with a yard broom! I think you could write a sitcom about all the characters that worked here over the years.
"My favourite thing about Millbrook was always the camaraderie of the place."
"As a photographer, the biggest change for me came later in my career when digital took over. Trying to get used to the technology behind that was hard."
Dave Boon, Peter Davis, John Wathew and Rod Calvert visiting Millbrook's Autonomous Village
What were some of the biggest changes while you were here?
Peter: As a photographer, the biggest change for me came later in my career when digital took over. Trying to get used to the technology behind that was hard. I was used to wearing a witch’s hat and mixing chemicals in a dark room! All of a sudden it was all about sticking a card in a machine and pressing some buttons.
Dave: For me, the biggest changes were all the upgrades to the emissions lab, because that’s where I spent most of my time. I remember when we installed a new dyno with a crane that wouldn’t fit under the door. We ended up temporarily deflating the tyres of the crane so that it was low enough to get the dyno in. Maybe not the most technical solution but it worked!
I’m sure it’s changed a lot since you were both last here – what are your thoughts on all the recent changes?
Dave: It’s grown a lot, it’s terrific to see how much it’s moving on. The emissions lab was the first operational lab on the whole site – it used to be tiny. It’s great to see how much that has expanded in recent years. And that simulator - that is a great achievement! All the changes are amazing.
Peter: I agree, it’s brilliant to see all these new facilities. The new battery testing facility is massive, it’s incredible. Millbrook is obviously still doing very well.
"That simulator - that is a great achievement! All the changes are amazing."
What was your favourite thing about working at Millbrook?
Peter: My favourite thing about Millbrook was always the camaraderie of the place. I’d meet all these engineers from different departments every day, it was always really interesting seeing them at work and being able to photograph it.
Dave: I agree, it was like a big family. If you ever wanted to get something done, you could always go and get it done with someone’s help. There was all sorts of expertise here, so if you wanted certain bits and pieces made for vehicles or something modified, someone could always help.
"My favourite thing about Millbrook was always the camaraderie of the place."