The Great British Car Journey
A museum for petrolheads, by petrolheads.
One of the last things I did before the pandemic hit was going to a museum. My Dad and I took my grandad to The Silverstone Experience. It was early March. Oddly enough as this whole pandemic debacle draws to a close (he says optimistically), Dad and I went off to another car museum. This time, the Great British Car Journey.
Producer Ian looking at a Sunbeam Alpine
Tucked away in the Derbyshire Dales, hemmed in by lush green hills, the museum is just north of Derby and easy to get to via car. From the outside it doesn't look overly impressive, a converted wire factory on the far end of an industrial estate tucked by the River Derwent. But this museum is a little different to most because you can drive the exhibits.
Yes, you can drive some of the cars on show. And I'll get to explaining that in due course. The museum is smartly laid out in a series of chapters, spanning from the dawn of the motor industry in the UK, and progressing on through time as it goes, looking at the evolution of the car as a piece of UK history; how its construction changed over time and impacted the people of the UK. The story is told fantastically via an audio headset, weaving in the troublesome politics and people that give the British car industry much of its character. As you move past the span of Austin Sevens into the growth of Austin and Morris as the key players in getting Britain on the road. From there you move into the technicolour sixties, fronted by the Mini, the seventies with its sporty aspirational cars like the Triumph Spitfire and later the Ford Capri. How political turmoil and the powerhouses of GM and Ford toppled British Leyland. As the museum wends on it moves into the 80s with hot hatches, the 90s and Mondeo man and finally the present day.
The concept is fantastic and the execution is brilliant. There are no signs to read at each exhibition car, just a QR code that you scan with your audio handset, giving you more to listen to, a Top Trumps style fact file to read and even a chance to look at important documents relating to that car, be it the original sales invoice or a complaint to the MD of TVR about the size of the fuel tank on the 350i. This means you can pour over each motor with great detail or just amble through listening to the main story and taking in the sights. But more impressively, none of the cars are fenced off. You can walk right up to each one, peer in through the windows, get close to admire the lines and take in the smell that aged leather, wood and heavy engine oil so beautifully create. There's a real sense that the museum was created for people passionate about cars, by people passionate about cars.
Not a lot of museums put an MG Maestro next to a DMC DeLorean and a Ford Sierra, but logically it works.
And remember I said you could drive the exhibits? Well, down the furthest end of the hall is a section called 'Drive Dad's Car' and it literally does what it says on the tin, you can drive "Dad's" car. The museum keeps a series of cars featured in the exhibit in drivable condition and you can pay a fee to hop in with an instructor and set about doing some laps around their course on the estate. On our visit, which was for Dad's birthday and Father's day, we'd booked the Mini and the Ford Capri, but if you want something older there's an Austin Seven, if you want quirky there's a Reliant Robin and if you want luxury there's a Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar all available to have a go in.
So, do I recommend the Great British Car Journey? 100% yes. And once you've finished perusing the museum you can get fish and chips up at Britain's only inland seaside town, Matlock Bath.