This defunct Royal Air Force base became a haven for old cars
If you live on an island nation that is pressed for housing and 348 acres of mostly open land come up for sale, the real-estate developers are usually the ones who score. But if it’s England, where history is treasured, and the land is a 98-year-old Royal Air Force base that has remained largely unaltered since bomber crews trained there during World War II, then events might take a different turn. As, indeed, they did five years ago when a pie-eyed pair of classic-car enthusiasts took control of the sprawling military base and turned it into an astounding old-car oasis and event destination that is unique in the world.
Bicester Heritage, as the former RAF Bicester about two hours northwest of London is now called, is the home of 35 companies specializing in the sale or service of classic cars. More than 300 vehicles are also stored by their owners on-site, many of them in a single massive bomber hangar, with thick concrete floors and 36-foot-high ceilings, that has been converted into a state-of-the-art-climate-controlled storage vault. A small test track formed by taxiway sections—the main airstrip remains grass—gives owners a place to exercise their cars as well as learn how to drive a new purchase from one of the several dealers on-site.
Besides being England’s best old-car country club, Bicester Heritage welcomes the public throughout the year with its periodic “Sunday Scrambles” and the annual “Flywheel” car-and-air show that attracted some 3000 cars and 5000 people last year. The site hosts auctions and, starting this September, the Goodwood Survival, a free event at which the proceedings of the Goodwood Revival classic-car races 100 miles away will be live-streamed.
But all of this was a dream just five years ago, when real-estate investors and classic-car lovers Daniel Geoghegan and Bob Meijer cooked up the plan while recovering from a rollover in their prewar Riley during a vintage rally. The vision was for a “motoring marina,” as Geoghegan describes it, where owners could store their cars and get first-rate work done. But for a while it was a dream lacking a suitable site—until the airbase sale was announced.
The RAF had abandoned Bicester (in typical English fashion, the name is not pronounced as it reads, but as “Biss-ter”) in 1976. Except for one hangar used for a time as an emergency hospital by the U.S. Air Force, the rest of the property—with its dozens of stout red-brick structures and three giant hangars—was left to rot for almost 40 years. A line quickly formed of speculators interested in the land, but as the site had by then been designated historic and the best-preserved wartime-era RAF airbase in the country, the government selected Geoghegan and his cohorts based on their willingness to preserve and restore the base and keep it open to the public.
When the new operators took over in 2013, “we were given a bucket of keys, none of which worked,” recalls marketing and business development manager Philip White. An office of sorts was set up in a shipping container by the front gate, and workers started the arduous task of repairing and updating the base buildings so that tenants could move in. The old parachute storehouse, the fire-truck garage, and the administration building were among the structures fixed first. The new landlords spent more than 200 hours alone researching paint colors to get the buildings restored in period-correct hues.
The first tenant to move in was an old-car mechanic who was lured out of his sweet deal occupying a shed on a llama farm. Entering the base the first time “was like discovering a barn-find car,” says Robert Glover, who moved his eponymous company, which focuses on selling prewar sports and touring cars, up from London into a showroom in the base’s old motor-pool yard. “Everything was boarded up, there was graffiti everywhere. It didn’t look great, but you could see what was underneath was important. You just needed to bring it back to life.”
The lease rates at Bicester are two to three times higher than for a typical anonymous garage on a British industrial estate, but tenants don’t seem to mind paying extra to be in a community of like-minded businesses. Glover feels that being at Bicester helps sell his cars, what with the service shops nearby so potential buyers can get questions answered from experts and the test track that allows new owners to be introduced to the wonders of cable brakes and ancient crash-box transmissions away from normal traffic.
Stroll the grounds, and you’ll see a menagerie of classic cars parked in every corner, from Goldfinger-era Aston Martins to prewar Vauxhalls and Lea Francises to classic Porsche 911s. Inside the buildings, restoration specialists fuss over real honest-to-goodness D-type Jaguars, Shelby 427 Cobras, and Maserati single-seat racers. One business on the grounds does nothing but restore magnetos, an ancient device for making spark, and another handcrafts new and authentic-looking radiators for prewar classics (as well as the odd Supermarine Spitfire airplane).
Another dealer of classics operates out of the base’s former power station, which sports three-inch-thick blast walls of solid concrete and a roof capped by three feet of gravel. “If you don’t have power, then you can’t make tea and the empire falls,” explains White, the marketing manager.
At the heart of the base are the three looming hangars. One is the storage facility, and the two others will become event spaces. On our visit, one hangar was partly filled with hundreds of auction cars as well as pedal cars from a private collection amassed by a London dentist who collected more than 580 vehicles during his lifetime.
Although you can drop a lot of money at Bicester, the prices for the events and for car storage ($200 a month including battery tending and periodic tire rotation so they don’t flat-spot) are surprisingly reasonable. “The perception of classic cars is that it’s a rich man’s game,” Geoghegan says. “Our mission is to lower the drawbridge.”