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Creating a modern hub from a passion for vintage cars

Pre 2nd World war cars

Daniel Geoghegan likes to drive a Riley Imp to work. The combination of the low suspension and the lack of a roof on the 1930s two-seater sports car makes for a bracing ride to the office for the vintage car nut.
“Low-cost Botox,” he says.
Another attraction, he adds, is the fact that the advertising slogan that Riley originally used to promote its wares — “As old as the industry, as modern as the hour” — could just as easily have been dreamt up to describe his plans for Britain’s £4.3 billion classic car sector.
Three years ago the former property and private equity executive bought RAF Bicester, a 1920s airfield in Oxfordshire, and has since turned it into a thriving hub for the industry.
Car dealers, mechanics and manufacturers have brought the 348-acre site back to life. Pre-Second World War cars are on sale for six-figure sums in the former pumping station, where a specialist in oils for classic cars is hard at work in, fittingly, the airfield’s original lubricant store, while Mr Geoghegan has set up his boardroom in the old parachute store.
In all there are 30 historic car businesses operating across 50 1920s and 1930s buildings, many of them start-ups.
It’s as much about providing a future for the industry as it is about revelling in the nostalgia of a site that was used to train pilots during the Second World War, including for Bomber Command and Fighter Command, says the 43-year-old.
Whether it’s an Austin Mini or a 1929 Bugatti, we’re all on the same path – having fun
“We’re not about the past — we’re about the future of the past. We’ve maintained the spirit and style of the 1920s because in its day it was a cutting-edge technology centre. We wanted to celebrate that, so we’ve used the same style and colours. But it is not navel-gazing. We are allowing the buildings to be relevant again. It allows us to be the future of a historic business.”
With the support of private investors, Mr Geoghegan bought the site from the Ministry of Defence for £3.4 million in 2013 and has spent millions more renovating it.
The inspiration came from the frustrations associated with his hobby. While trying to get a 1928 Austin 7 restored, he had to take it on a 4,500-mile round trip all over the UK to find the various specialists who knew how to do the job. “Who has the time to do that?” Mr Geoghegan says. “I thought ‘how is the future of the classic car world going to be maintained if it’s such an ordeal to buy something, maintain it and have it restored?’
“Then I thought about the value for the people operating these small companies. For years these businesses have been in remote farmyards, and when they close there’s no one to sell to. It’s all a bit sleepy and fragmented.”
Many of the industry’s specialists barely have a phone line, let alone a web presence.
The aim of Bicester Heritage, Mr Geoghegan’s company, is to provide the equivalent of a centre for the classic-car enthusiast, a hub for “just about anything related to the upkeep, renovation, preservation, storage, preparation and general enjoyment of old vehicles”.
“For the industry not to have a focal point seemed like a huge opportunity, and one of the untapped business opportunities in Britain,” he says. Where once customers had to drive many miles to find these small companies, now there’s a one-stop shop. For the business owners, it means a vibrant referral network right on their doorsteps.
Carl Kenney, the 47-year-old owner of Vintage Magnetos, left his job working for a vintage Bentley specialist to start his business on the site year ago.
The company repairs and makes magnetos, dynamos and starter motors for vintage cars. “I had a walk around here and thought, ‘you only live once’. It seemed the perfect place to start.”
He needs to work on two magnetos — the devices that got engines started before car batteries — to keep the lights on. Last week he says he had 14 delivered. “I’m gobsmacked with how much work I’ve got.”
A number of the cars on the site are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds each, and some have a price tag running into the millions.
At Historit, a climate-controlled secure garage storing vehicles worth millions of pounds, a worker parks a car that used to belong to Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight boxing world champion, while a dealer next door has celebrity clients including Chris Evans, the Top Gear host, and members of Coldplay.
However, Mr Geoghegan says that he is determined to use the site to inspire interest in classic cars from a group that extends beyond its traditional heartland of wealthy middle-aged white men.
“If we want the industry to grow, we’ve got to lower the drawbridge. If someone’s got a £1,000 Ford Escort from 1989, if he or she loves it, we’ll love it. Whether it’s an Austin Mini or a 1929 Bugatti, we’re all on the same path — having fun. People turn up in all sorts of things.”
He acknowledges that all the site’s companies are led by men, however. “We’ve had very few women say they want to run businesses here, but we are keen [for them to do so]. One of the way we’d like to address that male [bias] in the industry is through an apprenticeship scheme.”
Mr Geoghegan isn’t blind to the broader appeal of owning one of the UK’s best-preserved Second World War airfields.
As well as the rent paid by the resident businesses, the site makes money as an event and film location, and was notably used for The Imitation Game, the 2014 Bletchley Park code-cracking drama.
The more than six million people a year attracted by nearby Bicester Village can only be good news for the company, too.
A hotel, conference centre and membership clubhouse are among the planned extensions at Bicester Heritage, while Mr Geoghegan harbours hopes that Aston Martin may one day move its James Bond car collection into one of the few buildings on the site that has yet to find a permanent purpose.
“It is boy’s-own stuff,” he says as he shows visitors around, pointing at everything from the grace of a 1929 Jaguar to a flashy early 1990s Ferrari.
“We don’t have to feign our enthusiasm, but this isn’t a plaything,” he insists. “We’re about creating jobs, a skill centre, a centre of excellence and a model of how to see the industry into its next 100 years. That is why we’re here.”
Scheme designed to pass on specialist knowledge
One of the things that motivated Daniel Geoghegan to set up Bicester Heritage was the fear that the specialist mechanical skills that make his passion for classic cars possible was on the verge of dying out.
“We are lucky in that there are still a lot of operators out there who learnt from primary sources,” he says.
“But a lot of them are one-man bands. If you don’t bring up young people not only is your business lost, which is a terrible epitaph for your career, but what happens to your knowledge?”
To tackle the problem, Bicester Heritage has established the UK’s first historic vehicle restoration apprenticeship course, in partnership with the local college, Banbury and Bicester College, with the practical elements taking place on site.
Mr Geoghegan says that the programme will provide 28 apprenticeships over the next 12 months, and he hopes that it will expand further in the years ahead.
“Where better to learn the skills than here in a working environment?” he says. “You are sharing a bench with a Bentley specialist or a radiator manufacturer — it exposes the apprentices to customers and employers and they can open a bonnet and know how to do it.”
He hopes that the apprenticeship scheme will help Bicester to become prominent for more than just luxury shopping bargains.
“The area needs high-skill jobs and we feel we can provide that,” he says. “And the industry needs a thousand apprentices in the next five years to stand still.
“We think this will become the Oxford or Cambridge ticket for classic-car education.”
Scheme designed to pass on specialist knowledge
One of the things that motivated Daniel Geoghegan to set up Bicester Heritage was the fear that the specialist mechanical skills that make his passion for classic cars possible was on the verge of dying out.
“We are lucky in that there are still a lot of operators out there who learnt from primary sources,” he says.
“But a lot of them are one-man bands. If you don’t bring up young people not only is your business lost, which is a terrible epitaph for your career, but what happens to your knowledge?”
To tackle the problem, Bicester Heritage has established the UK’s first historic vehicle restoration apprenticeship course, in partnership with the local college, Banbury and Bicester College, with the practical elements taking place on site.
Mr Geoghegan says that the programme will provide 28 apprenticeships over the next 12 months, and he hopes that it will expand further in the years ahead.
“Where better to learn the skills than here in a working environment?” he says. “You are sharing a bench with a Bentley specialist or a radiator manufacturer — it exposes the apprentices to customers and employers and they can open a bonnet and know how to do it.”
He hopes that the apprenticeship scheme will help Bicester to become prominent for more than just luxury shopping bargains.
“The area needs high-skill jobs and we feel we can provide that,” he says. “And the industry needs a thousand apprentices in the next five years to stand still.
“We think this will become the Oxford or Cambridge ticket for classic-car education.”


26/07/2016
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