Ah! Bicester!

Article taken from Octane June 2014, read the original article here.

On an old Oxfordshire RAF bomber base, once-derelict buildings are being restored and let out to classic car, bike and ’plane specialists. Octane can’t keep away…

It sounded almost too good to be true. A dedicated ‘village’ of classic car, motorcycle and aeroplane specialists on an old RAF base, an hour or so from London by road or rail, within an hour-and-a-half of five international airports and less than 30 minutes from Silverstone and its associated ‘Motorsport Valley’.

We’ve watched developments closely over the last year or so, trying not to be either overly cynical or naively excited. Would it happen? Could it possibly turn out to be as good as it sounds? A year on, the reality is looking even better than the dream, and a visit to Bicester Heritage will get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end.

It helps that it’s situated on what was RAF Bicester, referred to by Our Transport Heritage as ‘one of the finest examples of an unmodified pre-war RAF station’. The first ever flight from this location was on 19 August 1911; it became a military airfield in 1916, was converted into a bomber base during the 1920s, expanded in the ’30s and was a maintenance station in 1945. It was gradually wound down into the 1970s, though the US Air Force briefly made use of the offices and equipped one of the hangars as an emergency hospital in 1991.

How it has survived the attentions of housing developers is little short of miraculous – indeed, it came close in the 1990s, but locals protested and the site was made a conservation area by the district council. It was finally put up for sale in 2009, attracting around a dozen bidders. The Ministry of Defence was keen for the site to be preserved, so the Bicester Heritage team spent 1000 hours preparing a bid document explaining its intentions. It worked, and the 348-acre site was secured for £3.4 million.

That seems a reasonable price on the face of it, and it must help that there’s been a rent-paying glider club there since 1956. But 19 of the 50-odd buildings are Grade II listed, most of the buildings were semi-derelict, and there was no guarantee that English Heritage would approve their conversion into workshops, showrooms and offices – and even less certainty that anyone would want to move into them. Bicester Heritage is now looking at a ‘multi-million pound sum’ to bring the place up to scratch.

It’s well underway. Drive through the gates and you’re greeted on the right by the empty Station Offices, as yet untouched, and on the left by the old Guard House, beautifully restored. It’s currently home to the Bicester Heritage HQ, in which we find director Dan Geoghegan and assistant Tiggy Atkinson; the Estate Office, run by former Silverstone circuit manager and Donington Park MD Brian Pallett; and Historic Promotions, organisers of the Donington Historic Festival.

Ahead are three tree-lined avenues, heading off in the classic RAF airbase ‘trident’ format, devised to enable ground crew to head up the central spur directly to the airfield and air crew and support up the outer spurs on hearing the scramble bell.

The scramble bell, incidentally, hangs from the porch of the Guard House, but it’s not the original, which was presumed missing-in-action until the local air cadets attended a recent VSCC event at Bicester Heritage and announced that the bell was in use as a doorstop in their HQ, having been donated when the bomber base closed. It’s about to be reinstated.

Dan is our guide today, and we head up the left-hand spur first, because this is where phase one of the development has taken place. We pass the Fire Station, restored and close to becoming one of the first ten buildings to be restored and occupied, and then the Bore Hole Pump House, which Dan jokingly – or perhaps not – suggests would make a great minibrewery, seeing as the water well is still workable.

Workmen are putting the finishing touches to the Power House (pictured bottom right), where former Bonhams employee Robert Glover has set up his new dealership, specialising in sales of the best pre-war cars. There’s a Bentley and a Bugatti inside, and Robert soon arrives with a potential customer in a Sunbeam 20.9hp. Robert knows Dan through VSCC racing, a common thread in the conversations to come.

The Power House has been beautifully restored, the roof and iron rainware replaced, original windows swapped for exact copies still made by Crittall. Inside, the part-tiled floor is far from perfect but it’s original and important to save – though not as important as the working sculpture hanging over it: a wonderful six-tonne crane, now perfectly restored.

We leave Robert to his next customer and peer through the windows of the adjoining building, which has been converted into two fully equipped apartments, available for rent to anyone needing overnight accommodation. Dan announces that he’ll live on-site, and the air turns thick with jealous words.

We’ve skirted past the large fenced-off Main Stores building to the right, just about to receive the attention of the builders, and Dan is striding across the grass – quickly pointing out three units that will soon receive glass fronts ready for their new occupants, including trimmer Harry Fraser – and heads for what he refers to as ‘the most expensive building on the site in terms of cost per square foot’. The sign says ‘Technical Latrines’ and is designated Unit 100, or ‘loo’ – who says the RAF didn’t have a sense of humour? Inside, the toilets and sinks are all period-correct, though rather more luxurious than they’d have been originally, but what Dan is really excited about is the combination of paint colours, all matched to the original Ministry of Defence approved palettes of the time.

‘Our chairman [former research physicist Francis Galashan] spent over 200 hours researching the right colours for the entire site,’ he says, before naming each of those colours in a stream of consciousness so fast that my notetaking fails to keep up. I guarantee he’ll tell you if you ask.

Behind the latrines is a thug of a building that turns out to have been the Power House, understandably hidden behind a

brutish anti-bomb perimeter wall. The thick steel armoured doors have been prised open just enough for us to squeeze through but we’re not the first to have eased our way in, because the walls are liberally decorated with graffiti. Underneath it are tiles, elegantly curved around the wall’s internal buttresses and still exhibiting a surprising gloss.

These buildings seem almost unfeasibly well built, but then a Lancaster bomber would have cost around £35,000 in its day, approximately the price of 70 farms. Set against that, costcutting on the buildings would have seemed churlish.

Close by, four-cylinder vintage Bentley specialist Ewen Getley is happily setting up his new coffee machine, the finishing touch to his new workshop in The Engine Test House. He’s sat it on the original thick concrete workbench, yet another of those neat features that has thankfully survived the decades. This place is full of them.

We’ve made our way across to the central spur road now, and I’m picturing the air crew hanging around amidst these wonderfully leafy, mature trees (over 300 of them across the site) – until it’s pointed out that the English Elms, Beeches and others would have been mere saplings at the time.

Still, it’s quite a view down through the middle of the site, with two of the hangars visible at the far end. It would once have been possible to see the airfield between the hangars but the Fuel Tanker Shed was later built at the end of the central spur, blocking the view. The shed’s days are numbered, for there are bigger plans for the area, as we later find out…

What will be done with the great big office building (once the Armoury and Lecture Rooms), I ask. ‘We’d like this to be the club of clubs,’ replies Dan; ‘serviced offices for car clubs, with a central switchboard, meeting rooms and even a roof terrace.’ It makes sense.

Just before this ‘clubhouse’ there’s a horseshoe of storage buildings forming a courtyard that has already proved to be perfect for social gatherings. One of the units has been turned into a glass-fronted ‘social space’, decorated with pictures of the Bugatti Type 51s shot here for Octane a few months back by today’s photographer Matt Howell. He can’t believe how much the site has changed since then.

This will be the ‘artisans’s courtyard’, rented to craftsmen if all goes to plan. Imagine being able to nip from building to building for auto-electrician, trimmer, panelbeater, carpenter…

Threading past the adjacent Special Repair Shed takes us to the right-hand spur. The buildings here are untouched as yet but there’s less decay and dereliction than you might expect – except for the old Works Service Building, which was attacked by the ‘Bicester Arsonist’ back in the 1980s. I think he had an off day though, because there’s not much damage. Dan points out the Link Trainer [simulator] building (‘Wouldn’t it be great to rent it to a race simulator company,’ he says), the Lubricant Store (‘We need a classic oils outfit there’) and the Hucks Starter Shed, which would have housed a Model T or Morris Commercial used to start the plane engines (‘We have to get one!’ exclaims Dan).

It’s time to – at last – check out those huge hangars. Two were built in 1926 to house the bombers. They’re Type A hangars, at 122ft wide and 249ft long utterly vast, but not as vast as the two 150ft x 300ft Type Cs that were added in 1936. It’s in one of these that Historit is based, run by Charlie Morgan and Andrew Ferguson to allow storage of up to 500 cars at any one time. With a 10ft-thick concrete floor, walls built to withstand bomb blasts and a massively engineered roof designed to radiate heat gathered from the hot engines of the bombers fresh from their latest missions, it’s an excellent environment for the storage of classic cars (and bikes, military vehicles, race transporters and double-decker buses, as current incumbents prove). Temperature and humidity stays naturally steady, regardless of weather. Engines are started once a month and the cars exercised around the airfield perimeter road within the £110-a-month cost.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the perimeter road isn’t so very different from that on which Silverstone started (also from an RAF base). This prompts talk of plans for the future.

‘We could join the two Type C hangars together with a large atrium to create a permanent exhibition space and dealer area,’ suggests Dan. ‘Customers could try the cars out on the perimeter road without having to venture onto public roads.’ It seems like a great plan, perhaps a bit of dream, until we head back to the office and there’s a neat architectural model of exactly that. They’re serious about the atrium.

You must be wondering by now if all this is just pie in the sky. We were. But take a look at the profiles of the team members on the Bicester Heritage website: most are historic car, bike or plane (or all three) enthusiasts but all have years of experience in massive corporate projects, property development, venture capital and heritage buildings (including the historic thermal spa in Bath). Ten companies are already on site or about to move in; another ten are booked to move in by January 2015. A kilometre of water mains has been laid down, and there’s already site-wide wifi. There’s an aeroplane auction taking place the week after our visit, the MPs of the All-Party Parliamentary Historic Vehicles Club have driven through on a rally, and more events are planned.

So we’ll stick the Octane neck out and say that, however crazily ambitious it seems, Bicester Heritage looks very promising. Very promising indeed.