Motoring: All our yesterdays on wheels: Phil Llewellin visits a museum offering motoring magic to the fans and fun to the uninitiated

JOHN Godfrey Parry Thomas, a brilliant engineer and a brave racing driver, is one of motoring's forgotten heroes. He set the world land speed record of 171 mph in 1926, but was killed a year later while trying to make his 27-litre monster, Babs, go even faster on Pendine Sands.

The burly Welshman also designed the very sophisticated and innovative Leyland Eight, which should have been a rival for the Rolls-Royce. Launched in 1920, it was doomed to be one of the British motor industry's magnificent failures. Only 14 were built.

But Parry Thomas now has a memorial, in an important new museum in rural Warwickshire. The sole surviving Leyland Eight - a huge two-seater with a 7.2-litre engine - is a star of the Heritage Motor Centre, which opens today and has the world's biggest collection of British cars, 300 of them.

Peter Mitchell, its infectiously enthusiastic managing director, nominates the white Leyland as one of his two favourite exhibits, the other being the 9.7-litre Austin that contested the French Grand Prix at Dieppe in 1908.

'I've driven many cars whose performance is much more explosive than the Austin's,' he says, 'but nothing can match the thrill of driving one-and-a-

half tons of engine at relatively high speeds on tyres about three inches wide and with brakes not much bigger than pennies]'

Visitors may wonder why such famous British marques as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lagonda, Sunbeam, Humber, Hillman, Lotus, Singer and Vauxhall are not represented in a museum that cost pounds 8m to build. The answer is that the pounds 8m came from the Rover Group and the museum concentrates on those manufacturers that were clipped, butchered, rationalised, reorganised, consolidated and boiled down to the current triumvirate of Rover, Land Rover and MG.

Cars kept by the likes of Albion, Thornycroft, Trojan, Wolseley, Austin, Morris, Standard, Triumph and Riley were originally brought together in 1975, under the ill-fated British Leyland Motor Corporation's wing. The present British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, formed in 1983 and strongly supported by the Rover Group, exhibited about a quarter of its vehicles at Syon Park, Middlesex, until the new Heritage centre was built.

The impressive art deco building - focal point of a 65-acre site - also houses an archive containing about five million engineering drawings, miles of film, mountains of photographs and shelf upon shelf of specifications and production records.

'It's the biggest motor industry archive in Britain and probably one of the three biggest in the world, with Daimler-Benz and Ford,' says Mr Mitchell. 'But they can't match our breadth of information, because we cover so many marques.'

The oldest of these is one of two three-wheelers built by Herbert Austin in about 1896, when he was running the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company's factory in Birmingham. At the other end of the time-scale stands a modern Mini. The gulf between them is bridged by cars ranging from unique breakers of speed records, such as the thigh- high MG that did 254.9mph in 1957, to such mass-produced models as the Austin Seven, Standard Vanguard and Triumph Vitesse.

The cars are complemented by themed exhibits and a Land Rover demonstration track. A small nature reserve occupies land left to nature when the site was part of an RAF base.

'We are aiming to attract at least 40,000 schoolchildren a year, because the motor car and motor industry involve all manner of educational things, from social and economic history to ecology, physics and fashion,' says Mr Mitchell. 'And we must try to appeal to the people who have to be dragged here by husbands, boyfriends and children. We want the unwilling visitors to go home feeling that they've had a good day out.'

The Heritage Motor Centre is at Banbury Road, Gaydon, Warwickshire (0926 641188).

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)