Curbside History: Millbrook Proving Ground, 1972 – Where Vauxhall Got Tough on Quality

Here’s something a little different. A promotional film produced by Vauxhall in 1972 for the then new proving ground at Millbrook, just 30 minutes from the Engineering Centre in Luton, as a European equivalent to the the Millford Proving Grounds in Michigan, and intended to support the development of Vauxhall and Bedford products.

Previously, Vauxhall had use of a smaller test facility, known as Chaul End, close to Luton and used this until Millbrook was completed in 1970, at a cost £3.5 million (£50 million adjusted). Other manufacturers in the UK were either using disused RAF airfields – good for testing on long straights and aprons, not so good good for hill and curve based test – or using the shared jointly funded MIRA (Motor Industry Research Association) facility south of Coventry and almost spot on the geographic centre of England.

Privacy, security and the full range of facilities were the key to Millbrook, as well its proximity to Luton, where GM built this rather splendid Engineering and Design Centre in 1964.

Highlights of Millbrook are the 2 mile banked circuit, the mile one straight and the full range of curved and hill routes, as well as the test track specials of Belgian pavé surface, water splashes and dust tunnels, and off-road tracks.

Vauxhall made a big play in the 1970s on quality and safety, promoting features like collapsible steering columns, decent ergonomics like recessed handles and crumple zones. This went along with a lot of advertising around body protection and corrosion resistance, to address an inevitable question for anyone who had an early F type Victor. Millbrook, as a dedicated facility was effectively unique in the UK, and was also used as part of this.

How much it worked, or was necessary, is debatable. The early 1970s Vauxhalls, such as Viva HC and Victor FE were not exactly roaring successes, technically or commercially, and by 1976 Vauxhall was openly paired with Opel, and preparing to build essentially German developed cars with an English accent.  You didn’t need Millbrook to add a new front clip on an Opel Ascona or the put the Viva engine into the Opel Kadett to make a Vauxhall Chevette, and Vauxhall’s engineering capability was essentially permitted to wither and decline. Bedford Trucks was sold as a business in 1986 and failed six year later.

In 1988, Millbrook was transferred to Group Lotus, then owned by GM, and when Lotus was sold it remained with GM Europe.  It is now owned by engineering consultant UTAC, a world wide business working as a consultant in vehicle testing certification and development.  The site is still functional, and you don’t have to look very far in the UK press or TV to see evidence of it being used as a venue for tests and demonstrations, as well engineering development.


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