Hidden from view, among the green and pleasant lands of Central England, lies a top secret testing facility that has become well known around the world. Photos are forbidden, cameras confiscated and visitors vetted to protect the prototypes that manoeuvre under their cloaks of camouflage. Any who wish to gain access must first negotiate the security that remains as strong today as it was when the site was a US air base. Where once Avro Ansons took to the skies, now Aston Martins take to the track. Where American Airmen would test their dynamism in the air, now English Engineers test aerodynamics on the ground.
Since 1948, MIRA (formerly known as the Motor Industry Research Association) has been developing one of the most comprehensive, independent transport testing facilities in the world. The organisation is known for its secrecy and that’s the message it spreads far and wide to win business. It thrives on bringing the biggest names in vehicle engineering to a place where they can hide. And when the companies can’t come to MIRA, MIRA’s engineers go to them.
The organisation now operates across the globe as an engineering partner to the transport industry. Commercial Director, Terry Spall, is busy travelling to every corner, introducing new customers to MIRA’s unrivalled capabilities. For you, though, he took time out of his demanding schedule to give you a privileged glimpse behind the scenes at one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.
“There are other places that offer some of the things we do, but nowhere else that offers ALL of the things we do.” Terry explains. An aerial image of the site emphasises just how little can be seen from the main road, where a single administration building appears to be the only sign of commercial activity in the area.
Soon, the road-side presence will become more developed as the whole site has been granted “Enterprise Zone” status, opening up the potential for a full scale technology park to append the existing facility. Three years into an expansion programme, Terry is keen to show us how MIRA Technology Park is growing and invites us to take a tour of the site.
Terry drives us into the heart of this automotive development facility, tucked away in the Warwickshire countryside. On the way, he points out a modern building that looks more like a prestige car showroom than a research laboratory. This is Aston Martin’s home on the site.
“We designed and built that building around what Aston Martin wanted, so now they have a base here and access to all the facilities.” The secretive car company can also call on engineering expertise at MIRA, ensuring the prototypes are kept well out of public sight. Beyond Aston Martin, a host of other recognisable names and logos appear on state-of-the-art office blocks and workshops, as well as many lesser known brands who supply some of the major components for the cars we all know and love.
We pull up at a barrier and a voice from the control tower booms through Terry’s two-way radio, giving us the “all-clear” to go track-side. The car picks up speed and we turn onto the main runway, which has been remodelled to resemble a typical British dual-carriageway.
“On the left is our Intelligent Mobility City Circuit” Terry points out. This is a fully configurable set of roads and traffic light controlled junctions that is used to test autonomous vehicle technology (“Driverless Cars” to you and me). I can’t help noticing there are no buildings anywhere near this “city” circuit, but he explains that they are simulated using a complex SkyClone system that can artificially disrupt GPS signals to represent a street surrounded by skyscrapers. This has helped develop driverless car systems with a negligible margin of error.
We continue to the end of the runway where a lorry passes with two enormous stabilising wheels on the trailer. It is about to take on the Wet Handling Circuit – a series of low-grip surfaces, made with different materials and soaked by sprinklers to mimic the conditions on ice, or snow covered roads. Our driver lines the car up at the start of the similarly prepared Straight-Line Wet-Grip Facility before turning off the traction control and demonstrating how companies use this part of the track to develop and test Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS), and various tyre compounds.
As the car regains its composure at the end of the wet strip, our attention is caught by a large blacked-out vehicle hurtling around an outer circuit at astonishing speed. We head round to see more. This “High-Speed Circuit” is a 4.5km motorway loop allowing for continuous high speed endurance testing. As our car approaches the end of the straight, Terry explains that we are traveling at the “Neutral Speed” (86mph) for this corner. At this speed the car will enter the tight banked corners without any steering input, and glide round safely. We feel no sideways force at all, and only a slight downward compression as the car speeds round the tightest part of the bend, inches from the crash barrier.
Returning to the Technology Park, we pass the Climactic Wind Tunnel (used by HRH Prince Harry in preparation for an Antarctic challenge) and crash-test laboratories. While the existing businesses on-site currently operate within MIRA’s security envelope, the expansion will allow visitors to access new parts of the Technology Park outside the high security area, without compromising security on the testing facility. Part of Terry’s role as Commercial Director is to promote the new Technology Park as a Centre of Excellence for vehicle engineering, design and development. This is clearly what MIRA does best, and almost 70 years after taking over the airbase, there remains a sense that the sky really is the limit for MIRA’s ambitious expansion plans.