Interview with Rod Calvert OBE

In the 1960s, Rod Calvert was working as a test and liaison engineer for Vauxhall assigned to General Motors Overseas Operations representing Vauxhall Engineering in the USA. At the same time, GM set aside a £3.5 million investment to build a proving ground in the UK.

This investment transformed farm land in Bedfordshire into Millbrook Proving Ground. Rod started here in 1970 and later became Managing Director of the site.

Rod came back to Millbrook in 2020 to tell us more. 

When did you start at Millbrook?

Now that’s a challenge! I started at Millbrook before it was actually built. The project was approved in the mid-1960s. I officially started at Millbrook in 1970, but I worked at Vauxhall for a few years before that.

 

"I always say I'm like a stick of rock, cut me in two and it says Millbrook in the middle!"

 

What happened at the beginning?

I started as a graduate at Vauxhall and was assigned to General Motors Overseas Operations representing Vauxhall Engineering, as a test and liaison engineer. Meanwhile in the UK, General Motors, who were our owners at the time, deemed that there should be proving ground in the UK based on a functioning proving ground in the US called Milford – which just so happened to be where I was based at the time.

It was a real challenge to find a location for the UK project because it had to be partly flat and partly hilly. This was essential for automotive testing going forwards and would make the site different to any other UK test centre at the time.

Did you know that Millbrook has a level change of 93m from the highest point to the lowest point? 

Read more facts about Millbrook

When you drive around Millbrook and see signs such as ‘7.2% gradient’ and ’11.6% gradient’ – these numbers are what the natural gradients were at Milford Proving Ground in the U.S. This shows that Millbrook’s design based on a real, functioning example and built to an impressive level of accuracy that is needed for repeatable, standardised testing. 

When I left Milford and came back to the UK, Millbrook was almost complete.

After a few months, I was put in charge of all hourly paid workers – most of whom were drivers and mechanics. From there, I went through various roles and was eventually responsible for everybody at Millbrook from about 1985.

Rod Calvert OBE using Millbrook's virtual proving ground simulator

Rod Calvert OBE (right) with Nick Wignall, Track Manager (left)

Truck on the Hill Route (aka the alpine circuit) at Millbrook Proving Ground

"Lots of other proving grounds didn’t have hills, which was a real advantage for us."

What was Millbrook like when it first opened? 

We started with the basic track layout that remains today - the High Speed Circuit, the Mile Straight, the Hill Route, the Belgian Pave and a bit of a handling circuit.

We operated in was what is now the main workshop. We were based in the north end of the building, with only a curtain separating us from the workshops. It was cold, dirty and messy – not quite like the offices you work in today!

Initially, I was one of only 4 engineers. A couple of supervisors and a small team of drivers and mechanics made up the rest of the workforce. This obviously grew and grew, eventually becoming the hundreds that it is today.

Our senior managers back then would say to us “miles is smiles”, so we were all working hard to accumulate miles on these test vehicles. It was very tough, we were all under a lot of pressure as a brand new operational site, but we just about coped!

"Our biggest selling point was always our tracks. They were and still are the best commercially available tracks in the UK, and even some of the best in the world."

 

Do you have any favourite memories or stories?

When we opened we were 'new boys on the block'. Everyone knew that we were owned by GM, so big customers that were in direct competition with GM were really nervous about placing any work with us. Security and confidentially have always been very important.

I’d go and negotiate with potential new customers. I worked very hard to secure one particular OEM because we felt that if we could secure work with them it would be a huge achievement. Eventually, we ended up with a job from them.

When the vehicles arrived on site, they came in on a transporter and drove past my office window. You’d never believe it after the process we had just been through to secure this job… but every single car had a huge sign on the door with the OEM’s name followed by ‘test vehicle’. They were about as far from subtle as you can get! All I could do was laugh.

 

"When we opened we were new boys on the block."

 

What were Millbrook's biggest attractions to potential new customers, slightly wary of its GM ownership?

Our biggest selling point was always our test tracks. They were and still are the best commercially available tracks in the UK, and even some of the best in the world. They also included tracks that were unique, including hills, controlled surfaces and off-road routes. We constantly invested in the latest technology that was likely to be legislated for. When we did get it right, it showed that Millbrook was at the forefront of innovation.

We could also sell our heritage. Our track layout and operating experience was embedded in our history, going back to the evolution of proving grounds from the 1920s. Our link with a major car and truck maker meant we could be trusted in terms of skills, knowledge and operational efficiency, particularly when testing commercial vehicles.

Our biggest competitors were the manufacturers themselves. However, our policy of investing in the latest test equipment in anticipation of upcoming legislation changes meant we were able to provide cutting edge services and advanced development possibilities to manufacturers. This meant we could provide them with capacity when their in-house facilities were overloaded.

We would also offer 24-7 capability, so customers could turn to us for overflow work. I once got a phone call from an OEM just before Christmas saying that they’d had a production line stoppage and they needed to get 20,000 miles on 6 cars between then and January 1st. It was a challenge, but I managed to find a way. The customer said he knew I’d say yes because he’d actually already sent the cars – that’s how confident he was in Millbrook’s customer service! These kind of customer relationships are really important and form the basis of Millbrook’s culture.

Speaking of Millbrook’s culture, was there anything in particular that was always kept at the heart of Millbrook?

Because it was always quite small, everybody knew everybody. There was a family spirit about the place. We focused on cooperation, friendliness and belief in one another.

 

"There was a family spirit about the place."

 

We also always instilled a customer satisfaction ethic. Every time I stood up in front of the staff I would talk about going the extra mile for customers so that they would come back. This went hand in hand with our very strong quality ethic. People always talked about the Millbrook culture, customers and suppliers would notice it when they came on site. I’d always hear how helpful and friendly members of staff were towards customers. Those kind of stories are what motivated both me as an individual and Millbrook as a business. Our culture has definitely helped Millbrook retain its reputation over the last 50 years.

Bus emissions test cycle engineers working in the VTEC at Millbrook Proving Ground

"Opening the VTEC was a huge achievement... I always remember the picture of the iconic red London double decker bus in there."

Rollover crash test at Millbrook against FMVSS 208 test procedure

"The development of rollover testing was another example of Millbrook working on leading edge projects."

"Our senior managers back then would say to us "miles is smiles.""

What are you most proud of whilst working at Millbrook?

I’m most proud of getting an OBE for my efforts here. The other thing is more generic, but I was just so proud of the fact that we simply survived. We always made a small profit every year, constantly investing in the future. There was year on year growth and a pension fund that worked nicely. Everything was always good and everyone was always happy.

Do you have a favourite area within Millbrook?

Opening the Variable Temperature Emissions Chamber (VTEC) was a huge achievement. It was built using lots of new technologies to the automotive industry. I always remember the iconic picture of the red bus in there. That was our first big contract in that facility. That single picture manifests everything that we had thought of.

The development of rollover testing was another example of Millbrook working on leading edge projects. Rollover was the new thing, people knew about other forms of impact but didn’t know anything about rollover. An OEM we worked with came up with 11 different rollover scenarios. We officially had the world’s first test suite for rollover, which was a huge achievement at the time.

 

"We officially had the world’s first test suite for rollover, which was a huge achievement at the time."

Battery performance test facility at Millbrook Proving Ground view from the air

We recently opened a new Battery Test Facility, what are your thoughts on this?

It’s fantastic. We always had a plan for the future to invest in new technologies to constantly stay ahead. It’s great to see that this plan is still being implemented after my time here. Saying that, I don’t think anyone back then could have guessed it would be a battery testing facility we’d eventually be investing in; but it’s obviously the way the industry is going now.

In the late ‘70s we developed an electric van. It was one of, if not the first production electric vehicle in the world. It was a great project and shows how Millbrook has always been one step ahead. 

"We always had a plan for the future to invest in new technologies to constantly stay ahead. It’s great to see that this plan is still being implemented after my time here."

 

Who inspired you at Millbrook?

Phil Loakes was a legendary individual. He ran this place from a ground maintenance perspective. The place looks the way it does today because of him. A lot of us still meet up regularly and reminisce about Millbrook memories – Phil is always mentioned. He definitely inspired many.

 

"No matter how much the company changed, Millbrook never lost its soul, and that’s what I’m most proud of."