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New museum for the common man

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James JENS Elliott
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Everyday cars from the past will find favour over Ferraris at The Great British Car Journey. Words James Elliott.

A new British motor museum designed to be the antidote to priceless car collections that everyday motorists cannot relate to is to open in Derbyshire on 12 April. Uniquely for the UK, visitors will even have an opportunity to drive the car they always dreamed of on a private mile-long course.

 New museum for the common man
New museum for the common man

The Great British Car Journey museum, or exhibition as its founder prefers to call it, is the brainchild of Richard Usher, ex-Auto Windscreens boss and former owner of Blyton Park. His inspiration came when a regular visitor to the Lincolnshire track gradually hooked him on a very low-mileage Austin Maestro: ‘I realised it was something I had an enormous affection for – it was the first car to have a glued-in windscreen after all, so it was important to me as a windscreen man! – and I ended up buying it. Then I started to think about its rarity and the fact that so many everyday cars, built in vast numbers, are now virtually extinct – many are far rarer than contemporary exotica. There were 700,000 Maestros, but where are they now? And what about Avengers and Sierras – you just don’t see them; even a Mk3 Escort is a rarity.’

When Usher sold Blyton Park two years ago, he set himself a mission to gather all the affordable British mass-produced cars that have put the populous on the road. In a two-year buying spree he amassed more than 50 vehicles, which form the foundation of the Great British Car Journey, plus a collection of a further 35 British cars that the facility has acquired and 30 or so from other people involved in the museum. ‘Finding the cars was harder than you might think,’ adds Usher. ‘Try and find a nice original Sierra 1.6L that hasn’t been turned into a Cossie rep, or any decent hatchback Chevette. But we need them because this is about real people and social history as much as anything else.

‘We’re optimistic about its appeal because the nostalgia market is huge, but what has really surprised us so far is the level of interest from younger people who get very excited because they learned to drive in a Metro or whatever.’ Just two months ago, planning permission was given to develop the old Richard Johnson & Nephew Wire Works beside the River Derwent in Ambergate, about 12 miles north of Derby.

Then the team embarked on a £500,000 refurbishment programme of the main 2635m2 building – which looks like it could have been part of the Longbridge assembly line – to house the collection as well as a café, gift shop and workshop. An audio and video feed will take visitors through a nine-stage saga of the rise and demise of the British motor industry, starting in the 1920s with the Austin Seven, travelling through the Morris Minor and Mini, and on through the darkest days of British Leyland. For a projected entry fee of less than £15, sampling has shown that the experience should take anything between 90 minutes and an entire day.

It aims to tap into the thriving Peak District tourist industry, and its key appeal will be the opportunity to drive cars for a 15-minute spell on the site’s private roads for 100 days of the year. Called Drive Dad’s Car, this can be booked in advance on the website and sessions will cost from about £50, including an instructor riding shotgun. The driving fleet will be kept in the factory’s old canteen and feature everything from a Morris Minor Million to a Jaguar XJ-S. Usher concluded: ‘The site has a lot of space and we can expand in the future. It’s never going to be Bicester Heritage, but…’

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Left and right These images reveal the look of the new museum’s refurbished factory home in Derbyshire; exhibits will range from Austin Sevens to a McLaren and an F1 car, but the focus will be on more common cars.

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