Inside Land Rover's top-secret test facility

Published: 21 November 2011

For CAR’s December 2011 issue, I was lucky enough to drive both the Land Rover DC100 concepts just before they were shipped to the LA motor show. The location, naturally, was Land Rover’s Gaydon test facility, which, stangely enough, was a first for me. I say strangely because I’ve now been in this business for 12 years, and in that time I’ve been to car makers’ proving grounds all over the world: Hokkaido with Nissan, Lang Lang with Holden, Namyang with Kia, Stuttgart with Mercedes, Fiorano with Ferrari, Hethel with Lotus…

Yet somehow the stars had never aligned for Gaydon, a place that’s just a couple of hours from my front door. Until now. We wait at a gatehouse to be allowed onto the test track, and a strict sergeant major type ticks the PR lady off for leaving her engine running. Then the barriers go up, we turn right at a roundabout and head over a flyover.

I look to the right and see line after line of Defenders parked up. Land Rover sells 18,000 of them a year these days, which is still pretty healthy for a six-decade-old design, but some way off its 60,000-a-year 1970s heyday – it’s those heights that the new Defender – due in 2015, and the car that the DC100 concepts preview – aims to return to.

We park up at an aircraft control tower, where we’re asked to leave our car before proceeding any further. We see a line of Jaguar XK-RSs and, just parked up with everything else, a camouflaged mule of the all-new 2012 Range Rover. We’ll see it whizzing about all day, together with a Jaguar CX convertible prototype.

Gaydon test track: the history

Now, the aircraft control tower gives a first proper clue as to Gaydon’s past: it started life as an RAF aircraft base, before expanding during the Cold War-era when V Bombers (in this case Victors and Valiants) were stationed on site. Later, Gaydon became a training centre for RAF navigators, before being bought by British Leyland in the 1970s, whereupon its life as an automotive test facility began. Today it’s owned by Jaguar Land Rover, while Aston Martin – once united with JLR under the Ford umbrella, these days independent – buys chunks of track time for testing.

We jump in a Freelander with off-road guru Roger Crathorne, and head down a labyrinthine network of roads. There are some 620 acres of land at Gaydon and 32 miles of road, some of it paved, some not. Superficially it all looks rather normal, but there are Salvador Dali-like twists: sections of heavily ribbed road, other bits dominated by speed bumps, some of your classic Belgian pavé, other sections with all manner of different manhole covers dotted randomly over the surface. All of it is designed to put a chassis to the test; the engineers call this area Low-Speed Endurance.

Every road imaginable

We loop around another roundabout, then turn off onto what’s signposted ‘Dev World’, a series of unpaved routes with the occasional water splash – referred to as wading troughs – that recreate developing world conditions. The roads aren’t as demanding as that perhaps suggests, and they’re not simply left to deteriorate – the ground staff continually fill in potholes, plus grade and roll the surface. When we visited, these staff were also busy taming foliage, lugging chopped branches about in long-wheelbase Defenders.

The final piece of the Gaydon jigsaw comes with the Emissions Circuit, a large oval track in the centre of the facility. The name suggests cars trundling round at low speed, but you’re more likely to see Astons and XKs roaring past at full bore. The Emissions Circuit was built as part of a raft of tests required to meet the US emissions regulations brought in during the late 1970s, and the name has simply stuck. It was off-limits during our visit. Grrrr!

Tour complete, it was time for me to get behind the wheel of the stunning Land Rover DC100 concepts. You can read the story – a full interview with design boss Gerry McGovern, the drives, plus an in-depth tech lowdown – in the December 2011 issue of CAR Magazine, out now.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator