New ‘Bicester Heritage’ classic car centre promises apprenticeships boost at former Rolls-Royce site

by James Mills
18 October 2022 3 min read
New ‘Bicester Heritage’ classic car centre promises apprenticeships boost at former Rolls-Royce site
Photos: Averill Photography

Work is underway to transform the former Rolls-Royce Heritage Centre into a new automotive hub that is being labelled a ‘Bicester Heritage’ site for the midlands.

Great Northern Classics won planning permission in July to create a destination in Derby that will bring together an estimated 30 specialist restoration and fabrication companies, with a visitor centre and event space that will cater to the curious as much as customers – with attractions including a full-size wire frame of Thrust SSC.

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And in a twist that is likely to be met with nods of approval across the classic and specialist car and bike industry, the team behind Great Northern Classics has placed apprenticeships at the heart of the project. By taking up residence at the Derby site, businesses will contribute to a not-for-profit training school that promises to hone the skills of apprentices each year.

The site’s scale is around 80,000sq ft and after opening, next summer, it is hoped to provide a base for an estimated 120 jobs, ranging from trimmers to body restorers, and car sales to detailing.

New 'Bicester Heritage' classic car hub promises apprenticeships boost

A main attraction for the restored site is a new mezzanine that will provide an events space, café and gallery viewing for visitors. Each workshop will be open plan, allowing visitors to peer down and watch craftspeople at work. Indoor, secure vehicle storage will be offered by the team behind Great Northern Classics, as will an outdoor zone that is intended for car club meetings.

Shaun Matthews, founder of Great Northern Classics, says he was inspired by his own apprenticeship, served at EKCO Cole, the electrical goods manufacturer, and later experience in business.

He and the team highlight the health of the heritage vehicle industry and contribution it makes to the UK economy. The Centre for Economics and Business Research has previously calculated that the classic car scene generates £18.3 billion in turnover, supports more than 113,000 jobs and creates almost £3bn in tax revenues. Despite this, onlookers say it faces a skills crisis: many restoration specialists are well beyond retirement age, with little opportunity to pass on their skills to a younger generation.

“I’ve enjoyed a varied career, ending up as co-owner of Deb Group, makers of Swarfega, and noticed one thing – every time I interviewed a skilled craftsman, they were no more than five years younger than me. The apprenticeship system was ruined in the 1980s.

“What really hurts is that traditional skills are lost as people get older and we have no-one to pass them on to. I wanted to do something about this and create something offering proper apprenticeships in all aspects of restoration.”

Shaun Matthews Great Northern Classics
Shaun Matthews is leading the rejuvination of the former Rolls-Royce Heritage Centre

Matthews owns classic cars including a 1935 Alvis Speed 25 and 1976 AC 3-Litre. He managed to raise funds through an investment group, Turning Point. It has since secured a £1.25m loan from the local council’s Derby Enterprise Growth Fund, and a further round of funding will be sought in the future.

The programme will deliver an estimated 10 dedicated places for apprenticeships, in addition to trainees working with third-party businesses. “There are loads of small engineering businesses in the East Midlands,” says Matthews. “By bringing them all into one place, they get better quality premises and the marketing of being together. In the middle of it all we can run an apprenticeship school which can share apprentices between them.”

Ross Allerton from Aston Engineering, specialising in the care of Aston Martins, said: “We find recruitment quite difficult. There is a skills shortage in the industry so for us Great Northern Classics is a fantastic opportunity. The project allows core skills to be brought together to create a hub of excellence.”

The historic site of Victoria Ironworks on Osmaston Road, Derby, began life as a foundry, built in the 1850s by Eastwood & Swingler Ltd, an iron casting business. The company’s commissions included beams for Sydney Harbour Bridge, the market hall in Singapore and Bennerley Viaduct, near Ilkeston.

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