Petrol-heads know about Millbrook, the 720-acre Bedfordshire proving ground bought by Vauxhall in the 1960s for testing cars and now, still owned by General Motors, shared with other manufacturers and the military. The latter tests some fearsome off-road beasts there but the former confine themselves to road circuits. There’s no shortage: the straight mile, skidpans, a five-lane, two-mile bowl, a handling circuit, a hill circuit with corners that hurl you sideways, simulated narrow roads, potholed (i.e., normal) roads, sections with varying surfaces, cambers, cobbles and kerb heights, and an enormous covered crash-test facility into which you may not even peep.
But not many petrol-heads get there. You enter by arrangement, once your camera has been removed, and you’re not allowed to ask anyone what they’re doing. That’s because they’re doing interesting things such as driving disguised test mules or hammering production cars 24/7 until they break. There was a lorry that did nothing but accelerate and brake all day, and on the bowl I saw a mysterious blonde doing fast laps in a new and dirty Bentley Mulsanne, stopping every so often to take notes before batting on. Who, why, how about lunch? You mustn’t ask, or even look.
Not that there’s time for such distractions if you’re there with Aston Martin. It has a permanent test facility and if you buy a new one they’ll take you along for a performance-driving course in the model of your choice. I didn’t buy one but I wangled a day. Two, actually.
We drove V8 and V12 Vantages, the DB9, DBS and Rapide. I concentrated on the V12 six-speed manual, in which it was indecently easy to reach 162mph on the straight mile, using second to fifth up to 6,500rpm. You have to drop anchor at the three-quarter-mile point because it ends in a banked turn which in better hands the car might cope with but I wasn’t looking for a flying lesson. That was better left to my instructor, Steve, who holds a commercial flying licence as well as a Brands Hatch lap record.
Neither did we quite take off in the bowl, despite doing 100mph hands-off in the fifth lane, steering between lanes on the throttle in a vivid demonstration of understeer and oversteer in a rear-wheel-drive car of 50–50 weight distribution.
Skidpans are always fun but it’s chastening to switch off the electronic traction and stability gubbins and see what it’s like when it’s up to you and not the car. More reassuring was the emergency stop from 100mph on the straight, weaving through traffic cones to see how ABS enables you to steer while braking.
But it’s the hill circuit with its swoops, humps and hollows that really tests your driving skills. There, under Steve’s expert and patient instruction, I learned to maintain constant speed through corners on the throttle, to look not at the apex but ahead to where I wanted to be when I left the corner, not to turn in too early, not to twitch the steering while cornering, not to grip the wheel so hard that I was fighting the car — above all, to seek equilibrium. Balance of forces is what it’s all about. Steve rightly insisted that all these lessons can be practised at 30mph on normal roads. But I still reckon I need a week of it.
So which Aston would I buy to get another day? You can’t argue with the V12; it does it all. Nevertheless, I’d be tempted by the entry-level V8 for its no-nonsense punch and relative simplicity. It doesn’t have the outright speed of its big sister — we managed 150mph on the mile straight — but its dry sump means that the engine is sited lower and farther back, making it almost crab-like on corners.
But for all-round motoring — including the family — it has to be the four-seater, four-door Rapide in which I spent an idyllic few days on the winding Highland roads of Wester Ross. Fast, svelte and beautiful, the car handles better than most of us can drive, even with offspring and luggage. As our hostess — no mean handler herself — put it, ‘You don’t so much drive it as wear it.’ Enough said.