Saturday 6 October 2012

Millbrook Proving Ground up for sale?

Word on the street suggests General Motors is on the point of selling its UK Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire.

Rationalisation of GM’s future requirements for test and development activities suggests that demands for the well-known proving ground are likely to diminish, paving the way for a transfer of ownership. About 60% of Millbrook’s business is thought to have its origins in GM; the remainder is generated by outside interests.

Several parties have expressed interest but the most likely future owner could be JaguarLandRover (JLR) which has increasing demand for Millbrook’s extensive resources and is in the throes of reorganizing it UK operations.

JLR is also in the midst of an aggressive new model programme which places huge demands on facilities and people.  

Of particular interest to JLR are Millbrook’s proving grounds, most notably the secure high speed test track capable of 150mile/h (240km/h). An added bonus is Millbrook’s own description of offering ‘extreme testing for extreme conditions’.

Not to be discounted either is Millbrook’s ample, secluded environment which would make it easy to extend engine and vehicle test facilities. Also, Millbrook already employs many highly skilled engineers of which JLR is currently short.

In addition, JLR is revamping its engine test facilities in the light of ever-unfolding emissions regulations especially in the USA. For example, Horiba Automotive Test Systems of Northampton is working through a £7 million contract at Jaguar to update five engine emission test cells having recently completed a £5 million contract at Land Rover.

Compliance with California’s upcoming regulations is important to the SUV, sports and luxury car maker as the UK business, owned by TATA Motors of India, knows full well that without such clearance JLR would be unable to sell vehicles in the state.

JLR has six principal sites: Gaydon, Oxfordshire and Whitley, Coventry for design and engineering; manufacturing sites at Halewood on Merseyside, Castle Bromwich and Solihull in the West Midlands which has for many years been the home of Land Rover production. Finally, JLR (TATA) is building a new engine plant in Wolverhampton.

It is expected that a new upcoming cross-over vehicle, could be built at the west Midlands site. Halewood is the home of both Freelander and Evoque, the latest product from JLR. Castle Bromwich symbolises JLR’s expertise in aluminium vehicle production and will be production location for the new F Type.

JLR’s centres for design and engineering have traditionally been located at Gaydon and Whitley. But the addition of a site like Millbrook would offer the company additional engine and vehicle test facilities. The extensive test tracks on offer in the Bedfordshire countryside would provide JLR with unique secure facilities to conduct all-round development, particularly off-road development.

GM has found that it no longer has the need for Millbrook, some 40 percent of the work of which is taken up by third parties, including Transport for London. Just how many of its existing customers JLR will be able to retain remains to be seen. However, it is almost certain that Millbrook will continue to work for GM under the terms of an agreement that will be made with the new owner. Transport for London and the Ministry of Defence are also likely to continue as customers.

Other UK vehicle manufacturers include BMW, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Such companies are unlikely to want to discharge any work to Millbrook which might be confidential in nature.

This not to suggest they would not use Millbrook for more general work. Indeed, the extensive nature of Millbrook’s facilities provides plenty of options to attract a whole range of test and development work, including safety, systems test and vehicle conversion.

        Among recent work at Millbrook has been development of X82, the next generation Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro van built at Luton, Bedfordshire.

The idea for Millbrook blossomed in the mid-1960s when Vauxhall and Bedford began developing ideas for a proving ground based on their parent General Motors facilities in the US. Construction began in 1968 and following GM’s acquisition of Lotus Millbrook became Millbrook Proving Ground Ltd, a subsidiary of Group Lotus.

However, the facilities were separated out from Lotus in 1993 and became part of GM holdings UK Ltd, effectively “privatizing” them. Subsequently,  Millbrook has developed a world-wide client base. It describes itself as one of Europe’s leading locations for the development and demonstration of every type of land vehicle, from motor cycles to passenger cars, and heavy commercials to military and off-highway.

Millbrook employs some 300 highly skilled engineers suggesting the business has an effective sales turnover of £30 million a year.

        Meanwhile, in Germany GM has invested 28.5 million euros enhancing its Opel/Vauxhall Dudenhofen facility. The work includes a new high-speed circuit and full electronic control and measurement technology.

A statement from the purchaser is expected in the near future.