Want to See Classic Cars in Britain? Head to the Bicester Scramble
At a restored airbase, enthusiasts can see vintage metal from Europe and beyond.
Goodwood Festival of Speed. The British Motor Museum, Gaydon. Shelsley Walsh Hillclimb. A track day at Silverstone. Now you can add another quintessentially British automotive experience to your bucket list: The Bicester Scramble.
The what? Think of it as a British version of Woodward Dream Cruise meets Monterey Car Week. Except this one happens four times a year and attracts more than 6,000 pre-1990 vehicles a time, ranging from classic British iron and iconic Italian supercars to Japanese rarities and glittery Americana. Along with that comes a stunning assortment of automotive oddballs and curiosities of all shapes and sizes. Oh, and it's held on an old British airbase straight out of central casting, one that looks like it should still have Spitfires bouncing across the grass.
The Bicester (pronounced bisster) Scramble is run by Bicester Heritage, the brainchild of Dan Geoghegan, a corporate finance and venture capital specialist who decided to turn his passion for classic cars into a business while recovering from injuries received when a colleague crashed a 1932 Riley he was co-driving in a rally. But the Scramble is just a part of the story. Geoghegan aims to transform Britain's classic car industry and create a bucket-list destination for automotive enthusiasts from around the world.
Geoghegan is a longtime classic car aficionado—his father ran a car restoration business and his mother used to run he and his brothers to school in a Facel Vega, an elegant French two-door built between 1954 and 1964. He realized Britain's classic car industry, which employs more than 34,000 people and generates more than $7 billion in revenue, faced some key structural problems. First, classic car specialists tended to be scattered all over the country, often working alone in small, hard-to-find shops. And second, they weren't passing on their skills to a new generation of automotive artisans. "All the guys I knew who were really good at what they were doing were working in farmyards," he says. "They had no enterprise value, no pension plan, no knowledge capture, no knowledge transfer."
His solution? Buy an old airfield.
Geoghegan's big idea was to create a business park devoted to the restoration, repair and storage of classic vehicles. And an old airfield—for a tiny island nation, Britain has plenty of them—with the buildings, roads and room for classic vehicles to be repaired, refurbished, driven, and stored, seemed the perfect starting point.
RAF Bicester, which dates back to 1916 and has some 50 buildings on site, is where the prototype Handley Page Halifax bomber first flew in 1939. It's also where in 1991, some 1,200 staff from USAF Medical Center Wilford Hall, Lackland AFB, Texas, were stationed as Operation Desert Storm began. Now, as the headquarters of Bicester Heritage, with 93 percent of the buildings restored to their 1930s glory—right down to period-correct paint colors—it is home to 41 different classic car businesses.
Wandering around Bicester Heritage, even on days when it's not filled with Scramble attendees, is car spotter's heaven. Here is a shop that specializes in vintage Bentleys, making new engines, superchargers, and rear axles from original drawings if needed. Over there, a race preparation outfit filled with mouthwatering hardware ranging from 60s-era Bizzarini and Ferrari coupes, to an Alfa Romeo Guilia Super sedan, a Porsche 911 and even a 1965 Mustang, as well a Jaguar C-Type and a pre-war Riley. And here is a workshop filled with oily old British iron such as a Triumph Stag, a Morris Minor, a Daimler 2.5 V8, and a Standard Ten, all being worked on by young apprentices learning to become classic car mechanics.
You might hear the chuff-chuff-chuff of a single-cylinder veteran from the dawn of the automotive age or the ripping snarl of a French-blue 1930s Delage as they're taken for a tuning run around the old hangars. That all this is happening among sympathetically restored buildings dating from the 1920s and '30s, rather than on a nondescript industrial park near a freeway interchange. That alone makes a visit to Bicester Heritage like stepping through a tear in the automotive space-time continuum.
But Dan Geoghegan doesn't want to simply focus on the past. Bicester Motion, the next phase of the development of the old airfield's 444-acre site, is an ambitious venture to create what he calls an "immersive automotive resort." Elements of the plan include building a 344-room hotel and conference center, and an area dedicated to brand experience centers for premium automakers, where visitors can sample new vehicles in special on- and off-road driver training areas. F.A.S.T. (Future Automotive Speed Technologies) will be a hub for companies working on advanced automotive technologies, and old munitions storage buildings on the far side of the airfield will be redeveloped into luxury cottages for auto enthusiasts, with the living accommodations built on top of deluxe garages.
"In unemotional terms, it's a commercial property business," Geoghegan says, bluntly. "Could we have done this somewhere else? I'm not so sure. We've got a beautiful, historic backdrop. But it's got to have commercial longevity for everyone to succeed."
They say three things are important in the commercial property business: location, location, location. Bicester Heritage has all three. Situated about 60 miles northwest of London, and easily accessed by road and rail, Bicester Heritage is within 90 minutes travel of about half the U.K. population, Geoghegan says.
It's in the heartland of Britain's fabled F1 Valley—the Mercedes-AMG, Red Bull, Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point), Williams, and Renault F1 teams are headquartered all within a 25-mile radius. Britain's biggest outlet store, which attracts 7.6 million visitors a year, making it the country's second-most visited tourist attraction after Buckingham Palace, is less than a mile away.
"Everything we do here we want to have a wow factor," Geoghegan says. "We want to be proud of it. We want people to turn up in their cars and go to the motoring café and hang out. We want to share the incredible technological story of the motor car."
Geoghegan says he wants the whole operation to run efficiently, like Disneyland, and wants it to have the same appeal in terms of attracting people back for further visits. But, he stresses, this is not about the Disneyfication of the automobile. "It should be authentic," he says.
2020 Bicester Scramble dates: April 26, June 21, October 4.