After almost 35 years at the top of its game, Milltek Sport has rightly earned a place at the top table of global tuning and motorsport brands. But how did it all happen – and what’s on the horizon for the Derbyshire firm? I went along to find out.
Making everything in the UK may not be the cheapest way to work, but it allows quality to be tightly monitored
In the cut-throat and competitive world of the automotive aftermarket, for any company to last into double figure years is a notable achievement. For a firm like Milltek, who is now well into its fourth decade – and going strong, it’s really rather impressive. Defiantly insisting on UK production in a market that is swamped with cheap imports, the firm is living proof that making products up to a quality, rather than down to a price, still can resonate among a discerning customer base.
Milltek's Derbyshire factory is an intriguing mix of modern, hi-tech machinery and old-fashioned craftmanship
The early history of the company is a reassuringly familiar one; founded by petrol-head entrepreneur Phil Millington in the South West and cutting its teeth on a range of beautifully made classic car exhausts made under the ‘Falcon’ banner, the whole operation started with just six talented (and evidently multi-tasking) staff. Starting on cars like the Jaguar E-type, and various Rolls Royce and Bentley models, the young company learned early on that if you build them right, the orders will flood in. And boy, how they did, with names such as the Sultan of Brunei and Princess Anne soon being added to their order books!
The eclectic clientele and dogged persistence of quality soon paid dividends, with export orders quickly following, the staff count happily rising and a move to the Midlands finally giving the rapidly expanding operation room to stretch its legs and get a grip on the then exploding tuning market which was taking the world by storm by the mid ‘90s. The classic car business showed no sign of abating, so was split to continue under the Falcon brand, while in a smart new production facility, ‘Milltek’ was born, developing carefully engineered solutions for the scene heroes of the time. The VW Golf GTI and Corrado and Audi TT were early clothes-horses for this well-received spin-off, and working to the same quality that had been good enough for previous royal clientele seemed to be a hit in the tuning world too, causing many sleepless nights for competitors, no doubt.
Welding technology may have moved on in leaps and bounds since the company's foundation, buts skills are still skills!
Since then, many things have changed over the years, but the basic philosophy hasn’t changed a jot; namely, build them in the UK, build them right – and back them up with exemplary customer and dealer back-up. Although Phil is still involved with the business behind the scenes, these days it’s headed up by yet another petrol-head, Steve Pound, who has used his extensive IT and retail experience (as well an encyclopaedic knowledge of motors) to hone the brand further, making efficiencies in production, raising quality, reducing lead times and, as you might imagine from an IT whizzkid, giving Milltek a website that is considered one of the most user-friendly in the business, especially by the firm’s dealers who can live stock check, order new items, reserve parts and update their own inventory in just a few clicks.
Under Steve’s stewardship over the last few years, the headcount has grown from 48 to 59, with the firm adding to its property portfolio with a spanking new HQ and logistics centre, smack bang in the middle of Derby. An additional production development facility allows the R&D team to work on new models in parallel, meaning that even over just the last few years; Milltek’s production output has grown by almost half again!
Aerospace grade, non-magnetic, 304 grade stainless - and lots of it. Material choice is everything, here...
This investment allows the product and technical teams to focus on a lot of cars at the same time, meaning Milltek’s new product output is perhaps the most prolific in the industry, usually crafting 2 or 3 new releases each month and having made over ONE HUNDRED new products under Steve’s watchful eye. It’s not just a case of new fitments either; Milltek’s engineers are as obsessed with breaking new technological advances as they are in increasing the catalogue. Exciting innovations like ValveSonic, which offers OEM valve technology in an aftermarket system, Milltek’s unique ‘Hollowtek’ weight reduction manufacturing techniques and the latest ‘Active Sound’ have sharply raised the bar in the aftermarket sector to allow enthusiasts to buy exhausts that outperform even the most yet-wateringly priced alternatives. Even more simply engineered releases like the company’s especially formulated metal polish – to ensure a perfect appearance on the system tips – shows the company’s obsession with the smaller details of the exhaust market.
Speaking to Steve, it’s clear to see that the whole Milltek team has grasped the concept of building a brand that both dealers and end users want to enhance their cars with. “Our waking thought is how to make the experience with our products better,” he explains. “Can we improve the fit and finish with a small technical improvement. Can we give our dealers better information or support, or can we solve an issue on the standard car that spoils the ownership experience. It’s all an important part of how we tackle each new system design.”
Jigs for everything! After each design is signed off, sample jigs are always kept to ensure perfect production fit.
“Production is a case in point,” he continues. “We’ve inwardly invested very heavily for the last few years to ensure that our stock level is now some 40% higher than it was just a few years ago. Three years ago, we had £750k on the shelves ready to go, now we hold well over a million pound’s worth of carefully trended stock. Not only does it mean we can deliver most popular lines to dealers for the very next day, but for lines that have temporarily sold out, we can reduce the re-order time from eight weeks to just three.”
Stock holding is key. By reducing lead times for retailers, Milltek has gained customers all over the world.
Creating these systems in the first place has become a lot harder over the company’s lifetime, of course. Despite the post-Brexit landscape, Milltek’s export drive goes from strength to strength, meaning each new application is still subject to the gruelling EU emissions and approval protocol, allowing it to be sold anywhere in the world. Indeed, ‘responsible’ tuning has suddenly got very sexy, with Milltek’s industry leading HJS sports catalyst range gaining full R103 and EC approval – making them fully legal for road use even in tough markets like Germany and Switzerland.
Quality fit for a world stage. These days, regulations mean aftermarket manufacturers need to surpass OE standards
The company’s development process rarely varies. In most cases it will buy whatever the car of the moment is, making sure it’s at the front of the queue when the early cars lands. This means it had time to test and develop the application over many road and track miles before most customers have even picked their up from the showroom. The results are system that fit and function perfectly, working as well on track as they do on the road.
On the subject of track testing, Milltek has always used front running race drivers as its test team. “Our rationale is that if we use the quickest racing drivers, driving at ten-tenths on a given circuit, they’ll push the car to the maximum of its ability – far beyond mere mortals like the rest of us,” smiles Steve. “After our static, noise and rig tests, if our tame racing drivers can’t break them after a few months of frankly ludicrous driving, we figure that they’ll be more than up to the task of even the quickest enthusiast. It also has the added bonus of allowing us to configure systems to pass track-day noise tests at every European and US circuit, which we know is a must for our customers.”
This is where Milltek does its final beta testing - on track. If they can't break it here, it's added to the line-up
Longstanding ambassadors and test pilots are GT ace Tom Onslow-Cole and VW racing and Seat Leon Supercup star Lucas Orrock, ably assisted by a fair chunk of the current BTCC and VLN grids – many of which are also proving Milltek’s custom fabrication prowess with bespoke systems. With a list that includes Team BMR Subaru, Motorbase and even TMG (Toyota Motorsport Germany) it’s clear that Milltek is committed to using the sport as its proving ground for its technology. “It’s an old cliché, that’s for sure,” Steve laughs, “But again it comes back to the same philosophy; if we make something that’s good enough to win in the UK’s toughest saloon championship, or the world’s most gruelling endurance race, we’re proving that our products are over-engineered for the road. The same fabricators and craftsmen that make these systems ahead of race season make our road car systems the rest of the year – and in the same British factory.”
MSA Head Coach and GT3 Champion Tom Onslow-Cole races and tests for Milltek, being part of the sign-off process
Perhaps fittingly, another future opportunity for the firm lies in its past. Having been one of the first firms to create solutions for classic cars, the Milltek Classic range is now rapidly growing to become the systems of choice for discerning collectors looking to equip their rapidly appreciating 80s or 90s classic. Catering for icons like the UR Quattro and Peugeot 205 GTI, the Classic range is a totally re-engineered range of all-new systems using the very latest production and silencing technique, but for all the coolest old cars. Aimed squarely at the concours purist and afficianado, these systems are very tasteful in their appearance and tone – showing how far the market has progressed from the 5” bean cans and flatulent drone that typified the same systems in period.
The Milltek Classic range offers the latest tech and build quality for a carefully selected range of modern classics
So what does the future hold for Milltek? Does Steve ever lie in bed at night worrying that electric cars and hybrids will ever put him out of a job? “I can’t see that coming for a few years yet,” he smiles knowingly. “If you look at the current performance market, we’ve literally never had it so good! Cars like the 5.0 Mustang and Audi RS range show us that big, shouty engines still have a willing customer base, and then a glance at the hot hatch market reveals a true renaissance, with gems like the latest Civic Type R, Focus RS and Golf Clubsport pointing the way to a bright future for a good while yet.”
EVs may be on the up, but there's plenty of life in the ICE yet - as Milltek's latest releases - and demo cars - prove
Clearly not satisfied with its success in the exhaust market, Milltek Innovations sets the same quality benchmark for associated petrolhead products. First out of the blocks in 2017 have been the impressively over-engineered Gaming Simulation Rig and the feather-weight Liteblox batteries. Both have proven to be a big hit with track-types!