John Wathew, Builder of Millbrook Proving Ground

Interview with John Wathew

Ever wondered who built Millbrook's famous tracks? As an engineer at Vauxhall in the 1960s, John was tasked with the construction of a new proving ground in the UK.

Using General Motor's proving ground in Milford, USA, as a base design; John sketched out and built most of the tracks that remain today. 

From finding a location, to building and maintaining the tracks once they were open, John had a chat with us about his Millbrook memories. 

When did you start working at Millbrook?

I was initially employed at Vauxhall. Throughout the 1960s, I was working on the development of a new proving ground for them. This was all before we even found Millbrook as a potential location for it. Vauxhall searched over 80 different sites for this project, but hardly any of the sites were suitable. What made it so difficult to find a location was that we were after an area that specifically had 600 acres of flat ground, and 200 acres of hills. Also, many estate agents and land owners wouldn’t sell, which just added to the difficulty of finding a place; especially as some of these sites had 8 different land owners! They eventually narrowed it down to 6 different locations, from which 3 were selected. One was in Wales and two were in Scotland, so both quite a distance from Vauxhall’s Luton base, meaning neither were exactly ideal.

We planned to air freight vehicles up to the sites in Scotland, but after various meetings we realised that wouldn’t be efficient. Therefore, we decided to go ahead with Wales. I hand drew out the circular track and the mile straight, working from an Ordnance Survey map.

 

"All the surfaces that I created were inspired by GM’s American proving ground in Milford. It was like trying to follow a recipe."

 

When did Millbrook come in to the plan?

Whilst I was detail planning the site in Wales, two adjacent farms came up for sale, only down the road from Luton. The acreage was in excess of what we required, it had the adjacent hills and there was enough flat land. There were a few issues that had to be scheduled in to the building programme, but otherwise it seemed perfect.

We originally decided to call the site Lidlington Proving Ground rather than Millbrook, to avoid confusion with Milford Proving Ground in the United States.

Milford Proving Ground, Michigan USA, Millbrook's Inspiration

"All the surfaces that I created were inspired by GM’s American proving ground in Milford. It was like trying to follow a recipe."

Millbrook high speed circuit under construction

"We moved 2 million tonnes of earth."

Aerial view of Millbrook Proving Ground test tracks

"Vauxhall searched over 80 different sites before finding Millbrook as a location."

Millbrook Proving Ground Hill Route Construction

What was Millbrook like before the Proving Ground was built?

It was basically farmland with a winding road going through it. Even now, there are parts of the tracks that are still on that old road, you probably can’t see any evidence of it anymore though. I remember there were 2 derelict cottages at the centre of the site. One of them still had this lovely bath in it that, in contrast to the rest of the house, was still in really good condition. However, it ended up being used to store concrete block samples, which I found quite amusing.

There were also a few old Duke of Bedford houses at the workshop end of the site, along with the main farmhouse. I once spoke to a couple of the ladies that lived there and actually apologised that we were going to be demolishing their houses. They said I shouldn’t be sorry, they were ever so pleased because Vauxhall were building them brand new houses up by the station with fully fitted bathrooms and kitchens! That made me feel a lot less guilty.

What was it like having to draw out all of the tracks by hand?

I think CAD would have made my life a whole lot easier! Drawing out all those arcs by hand was a challenge, but it was just standard procedure at the time.  

 

"I think CAD would have made my life a whole lot easier!"

 

How did you go about beginning to actually build the proving ground?

All the surfaces that I created were inspired by GM’s American proving ground in Milford. It was like trying to follow a recipe. There were even exact gradients they wanted on the Hill Route, which had to be built in to the plan. I was told that at the time of building, it was the biggest earth moving job in the country. We moved 2 million tonnes of earth!

As you can imagine, there was a huge workforce behind it all. We had civil engineering contractors, mechanical services, planning and engineering, electrical services, the local authority, architectural services, consultants and services… so quite a lot of parties were involved!

The building planning department organised progress meetings with all the different parties. They would always give us extremely tight deadlines to get information/drawings to them because the project was always moving so quickly. There was a secretary who would convert all these comments in to readable minutes which were sent out the next day by internal mail (not email!). Every action had a name or a team next to it and a deadline, so there was no escape! Everything was extremely efficient, there was no messing about.

 

"Everything was extremely efficient, there was no messing about."

Millbrook Proving Ground Belgian Pave under construction in 1960s - 1970s

What was the hardest track to build?

Definitely the Pave. It was a nightmare. The detail of that track is incredible. The curves are cambered and made to be smoother than the straights. Its design is all to do with vehicle control. It just looks like a load of old blocks if anyone else looks at it, but it’s actually very technical. Those blocks actually originally came from the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, which is quite a fun fact.

We hired stonemasons, who were shown an existing Pave track as well as some detailed photos. They were then left to their own work, without any overall supervision. They ploughed on down the straight laying these blocks down. Unfortunately, what they had built didn’t resemble what we required. The stonemasons were asked to stop, we got the JCB in and scooped the whole lot up. Between us all, we decided that stonemasons were the wrong trade to be building this - they were too precise! So, we replaced the masons with labourers, who were told to lay the base course around 5-10m at a time. When it was bedded like this, we could go along and tweak it slightly as we went. I had to walk around that circuit so many times, checking every single section to approve it before the labourers could go ahead and grout it. I’m just very thankful it was the Pave I had to do that for, and not the Mile Straight!

 

Did you know that 3,500 tonnes of granite blocks were hand-laid in the construction of the Belgian Pave?

Read more facts about Millbrook 

What was it like working at Millbrook once it was in operation?

It was a great place to work, I always really enjoyed it. It was always a cracking group of people to be working with which made it all the more entertaining. However, it was definitely frantic at times, but aren’t all jobs?

We would sometimes get a call about a pothole on the High Speed Circuit and I’d need to do an immediate temporary repair. Someone else would keep watch while I quickly ran on to the track and swept up the broken chunks, filled in the hole and then ran back off the track again. Sometimes having to quickly run up the banked track and get back over the barrier before a vehicle came was a bit nerve wracking!

 

"It was always a cracking group of people to be working with which made it all the more entertaining."

 

Do you have any favourite memories?

As part of our work with America we had to develop a City Course. It featured a series of right angle bends to simulate driving in a city like New York. The Americans had their own course and I was told that we needed one similar to it. So I drew out our own version, adding all the necessary curves and turns to replicate city roads. In America they had a huge tarmac facility to accommodate this type of testing. We had to try and condense that in to a tiny space at the end of the Mile Straight. It brought a lot of work to Millbrook which was great, but it meant that it was always busy so it was taking up the Mile Straight. It was then decided to modify parts of the inner handling course to accommodate city driving.

I got a call from them one day saying they think they’ve hit a telephone cable. When I got down there, I realised that ‘we think we’ve hit a telephone cable’ was definitely an understatement - they’d completely pulled a massive telephone cable from the ground and broken it! I couldn’t believe it because I had a map that laid out all the telephone cables on site and there was nothing in that vicinity.

As you can imagine, I went back to my desk and sat worrying about it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Then I suddenly thought that there must be a reason it wasn’t on my map. I knew this area was heavily involved with various operations during the war, so I thought this could be a line that was used back then and was out of service now. Just out of curiosity, I got a map out and drew a straight line from Bletchley Park to the old RAF base at Chicksands. Believe it or not, it passed right through the point we dug up at Millbrook! Somewhat to my relief but also my amazement, it must have been a line used by spies during the war that wasn’t in use anymore.  

Vehicle road load data analysis acquisition on the Belgian Pave at Millbrook Proving Ground

"It just looks like a load of old blocks if anyone else looks at it, but it’s actually very technical."

Dave Boon on Millbrook's Track Simulator, Virtual Proving Ground

"It’s almost hard to believe that all those tracks that I helped build can now be used as test tracks anywhere in the world, irrespective of time of day or local conditions in Bedfordshire."

Rod Calvert, John Wathew, Dave Boon and Peter Davis visit Millbrook's autonomous car testing facility

John (far left) visiting Millbrook in its 50th year, along with Dave Boon, Peter Davis and Rod Calvert (left to right)

Are there any characters that you worked with over the years who particularly stand out?

Too many! Actually, that JCB driver that hit the telephone cable was called Henry, he was definitely a memorable character. He was notorious for digging things up and hitting things he shouldn’t. I always made sure all cables and pipes were marked out so we knew where we could and couldn’t dig. I can laugh about it now but at the time I wasn’t impressed (and neither were the emissions engineers)!

Has Millbrook changed a lot since your last visit?

Definitely. I always love coming back and seeing the place again, particularly to see all the new facilities. The track simulator is brilliant. These are tracks that were built in the 60s and 70s, with provenance back to the 1920s. To see a virtual representation of them that simulates the real world so accurately is truly inspirational. It’s a valuable facility with a huge variety of possibilities that extend beyond only vehicle development. It’s almost hard to believe that all those tracks that I helped build can now be used as test tracks anywhere in the world, irrespective of time of day or local conditions in Bedfordshire. The fidelity of the track is visually amazing and it’s a first class achievement for everyone involved.

 

"It’s almost hard to believe that all those tracks that I helped build can now be used as test tracks anywhere in the world, irrespective of time of day or local conditions in Bedfordshire."