The ABC of Car Museums

Liz Swanton finds delight in motoring history.

In my early years of travelling, the term ‘doing our ABCs’ referred to ‘another bloody church, another bloody castle’, but not any more.

As a born-again petrol-head, ABC now means ‘another brilliant car museum’ and ­– theoretically – I have a hearty appetite for all but, as with castles, churches and cathedrals, there can be such a thing as TOO many.

And so, heading off for a driving tour around the United Kingdom, I had to remember there were lots of things to do, and not EVERY museum could be visited.

It’s fair to say that while the British car industry is enjoying a second coming of sorts, the British car museum industry has never died – and perhaps it’s not really surprising. After all, while Britain gave us Leyland and all the negative memories that name may conjure up, it also gave us Jaguar and Aston Martin and Bentley – automobiles so lipsmackingly gorgeous, it makes sense there are temples to worship them.

First choice was the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu (www.beaulieu.co.uk/) and there’s a certain irony in that it’s parked in a bucolic setting (Brockenhurst, Hampshire) where Robin Hood would feel at home and where there is already plenty of horsepower on offer. Brockenhurst is in the New Forest, and some of the famous ponies are lurking near the gates as I arrive.

Beaulieu Stock Images 22nd June 2014.

The beauty of Beaulieu is that when it promotes itself as much more than a motor museum, it’s true. There is plenty on offer for the non-automotive fan, so it’s worth allowing a full day – or two – to take in the ruins of the Abbey (a victim of Henry VIII’s vendetta against the Roman Catholic Church), the elegant and historic Palace House, and the beautiful grounds, as well as the cars.

But it was cars I had come to see and I was not disappointed. The display focuses on what the Brits have achieved in the field of automotive and motorsport, with plenty of information available for those like me who don’t tend to Google as they go – and the presentation is excellent.

Aside from a wide selection of the cars, I loved the 1920s garage in all its glory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (showing my age) and seeing the old cars and a penny-farthing bicycle in action around the property, under the control of staff members in appropriate costumes.

Pic by Samantha Cook Photography 05March15.  Opening of two motor sport displays; Grand Prix Greats and Road, Race and Rally, collectively known as A Chequered History.ole).

A side display is The World of Top Gear, featuring many of the star vehicles from the famous TV show. The reviews are good, but as I’m not a Jeremy Clarkson fan, it was easy to pass on that!

However, friends who love the show say the exhibition is very good, and certainly there was plenty of enthusiasm in evidence when I eavesdropped on others’ conversations over tea and scones at the excellent café.

Another point to note when you are planning your visit, is that Beaulieu hosts many special automotive exhibitions on top of the standing display, so if you have an interest in a specific marque, check the website to see if you can time your stopover perfectly.

Beaulieu Simply Porsche Day 3 small

For a host of reasons, I didn’t get to Beaulieu until early afternoon, and it was soon clear I would not get to see everything. That’s when I discovered the generous return visit scheme – free return within six days.

Suddenly, the entry price of £25 (advanced purchase is cheaper) seemed very good value, and two days later I returned to look at the house, the Abbey and the gardens. So glad I did.

Interestingly, while many of my car-loving friends knew about Beaulieu, I heard about it from someone who is definitely not a car buff and she loved it. That’s a pretty good recommendation! Booking on the website provides the best deals.

My second must-visit was perhaps surprising, given I share the cynicism of many Australian motoring writers about the Leyland P76. The British Motor Museum (www.britishmotormuseum.co.uk/) at Gaydon in Warwickshire was originally set up by British Leyland as its own Heritage Museum.

British Motor Museum small -credit Roy Thole (2)

(Above image by Roy Thole)  Back then, it predominantly featured Leyland models; now it bills itself as the world’s largest collection of historic British cars. That would be fairly accurate, especially if you visit not just the Museum itself, but also what is housed in the separate Collections Centre building. There you can see restoration work being carried out and drool, as I did, over the magnificent selection from the Jaguar Heritage Collection.

The genuine car ‘nut’ will be fascinated by all the prototypes on display – think Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover, and the marvellous Morris 850 – and at £14 entry fee, it is reasonably priced for what is potentially a full day of entertainment. There’s a good café too, for refuelling between sorties to the displays.

Other British car museums that come highly recommended include:

Somerset: Haynes International Motor Museum (http://www.haynesmotormuseum.com/) at Sparkford, home to more than 400 cars and motorbikes.

London: London Motor Museum (http://www.londonmotormuseum.co.uk/) at Hayes near Heathrow, is home to some stunning and unique collectables, as well as cars from movies – including some Batmobiles.

Surrey: Brooklands Museum (www.brooklandsmuseum.com) in Weybridge on the site of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, where it all began for British motorsport.

Leicestershire: Donington Grand Prix Exhibition (www.donington-collections.co.uk), at Castle Donington in Derby, is another motorsport mecca: home to the world’s largest collection of Formula One cars.

Cumbria: Lakeland Motor Museum (www.lakelandmotormuseum.co.uk) at Ulverstone in the Lake District. It features a tribute to speed record star Donald Campbell who died during a water speed attempt in the area.

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