The United Kingdom has a proud record of preserving history in just about every aspect. One of its latest ventures involves building a resource of people with skills to be used for the preservation of classic cars and motorcycles. This is particularly heart-warming in view of the number of aging people still involved in classic vehicle restoration worldwide.
I was able to see this wonderful initiative first-hand when I attended an open day at Bicester Heritage during a recent visit to Britain. Bicester, which is one of the fastest growing towns in the UK and situated near Oxford, is proving a very important centre for such a vital project.
The site is a revitalised former World War II bomber station and is at the heart of the initiative by the Federation of British Historic Motor Clubs (FBHMC) to train young apprentices in the skills needed to maintain and restore classic vehicles as the number of experienced and knowledgeable technicians in Britain declines.
Founded in 2013, Bicester Heritage has gone from a standing start of a host of old buildings to home for over 40 specialised businesses and growing. It now has a collective annual turnover of more than R720-million, making it the largest single UK player in the industry. The British classic vehicle industry, in all its facets, is estimated to have an annual turnover of R80-billion and employs over 34 000 skilled people.
At its heart Bicester Heritage has a vision: to secure a robust and dynamic future for motoring past, present and future, the businesses that serve this market, the people who work in those businesses and the owners and enthusiasts who enjoy their specialist vehicles. Bicester Heritage is now a component part of Bicester Motion, a ground-breaking development which plans to create the UK’s principal destination for anyone who wants to experience motor cars from all eras, including the future. (The site includes a test track and is still active as a base for those wanting to fly gliders).
What is different and very important about Bicester Heritage, compared to other, similar, classic industrial groupings, is that each of the companies located on the beautiful 170-hectare site has to employ young people as apprentices to promote skills transfer for the classic vehicle industry. More than 100 apprentices have enrolled on the scheme to date.
This is all an integral part of the fairly recent decision by the British Government’s Department of Education to support the development of Heritage Engineering Apprenticeships financially. Prior to this announcement the FBHVC had been operating apprenticeship accreditation for more than 60 young people at various stages in their training, both at Bicester Heritage and the P&A Wood in-house Apprentice School. (The latter organisation, based in Essex, specialises in the restoration of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars).
Bicester Heritage continues to expand and this year a further eight buildings will be completed, at a cost of R200-million, doubling the former RAF Technical Centre’s floorspace. The new participants in the scheme will include a major coachbuilding and trim company.
All the companies located at the Bicester Heritage’s Centre of Excellence for Historic Motoring also benefit from valuable support from the Heritage Skills Academy (HSA) which advertises vacancies, interviews candidates, shortlists suitable candidates and arranges interviews with the relevant company’s management as well as looking after the interests of the apprentices and employers to ensure the apprentices receive the best possible training.
Four public open days, known as “Scrambles”, are held at the Bicester Heritage site annually, the first in January, then one in April, the second in June and the third in October, for 2020. I attended the latter. There are no tickets sold at the gate. You must book online, and it is sold out at 6 500 visitors to prevent overcrowding. Those arriving in pre-1990 cars have a dedicated parking area; we went in a 1964 Daimler 250 V8, which is basically a Jaguar fitted with a Daimler Dart V8 engine instead of a straight six, so qualified to park amongst a wonderful selection of classic cars.
Besides being able to visit the many companies located on the site – most of them working – there is also an amazing array of classic cars parked in the open and grouped as car clubs or interest groupings, many of the cars being unusual for South African eyes.
But the most important takeaway from this memorable day for me was to watch the young apprentices at work and to chat to some of them. They were all enthusiastic and keen to talk about what specific skill they were learning. Although they are working on restoring classic vehicles, they have the advantage of using the latest technology – including CNC machines and 3D modelling – to do their work.
Yes, Britain is certainly setting a wonderful example to the global classic vehicle world that now is the time to ensure the continuation of the specific skills used in this work environment. And the British government is backing the initiative as it is seen (correctly!) to be in the national interest!
By Roger Houghton