If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably wondered as you’ve driven down the M40 past Prodrive’s massive Banbury HQ exactly what goes on within its walls. As one of the preeminent forces in British motorsport, it’s likely that most with even a passing interest in cars have heard the name, but far fewer will be aware of quite how far their influence extends, in the world of racing and beyond.
To kick off a series of tours, road trips and other events offered exclusively to our 313 members, a pair of small groups were recently given the rare opportunity to go behind closed doors and enjoy an intimate tour of the facility, exploring the business’s past, present and future and its far-reaching reputation in the motorsport scene.
Rallying is the likely the first image on the mind of many when they think of Prodrive. The first event the firm ever contested was the 1984 Qatar International Rally, fielding a wild, Group B-spec Porsche 911 SC/RS – at the hands of local driver Saeed Al Hajri, it won the event, setting something of a precedent for Prodrive’s future exploits. This Porsche, bedecked in the unmistakeable blue and white of Rothmans, is still owned by the firm as part of its heritage collection, and sits in a prime position in the main building, a reminder of how far they’ve come since.
However, it’s another manufacturer famed for its boxer engines that, for many, is most intrinsically linked with Prodrive. It’s an image that’s permanently seared into the minds of most British rally fans: a cold November day in 1995, and a blue and gold Subaru Impreza ripping triumphant donuts in front of packed grandstands at Chester Racecourse, saltire flag billowing from the window. At a time when rallying rivalled Formula One for outright popularity in the UK, Colin McRae had become the first British World Rally Champion, and Prodrive were the outfit that helped get him there. Since then, only one other British driver has repeated the feat – Richard Burns, in 2001, also driving for Subaru. Guess who was still running the Subaru World Rally Team?
Prodrive’s long and diverse history with rallying is clearly visible in their heritage collection – alongside a gaggle of Subarus, everything from an MG Metro 6R4 to an E30 BMW M3 to a WRC-spec MINI Countryman were on display, but other exhibits highlighted some of their activities away from the forests of Finland and mountains of Greece. A Ford Falcon touring car, run by a satellite operation in Australia’s V8 Supercars championship, and an ex-Jenson Button BAR-Honda F1 car also form part of the collection.
They share a space with the various Aston Martin Vantage GT racecars currently being prepared by the outfit, the latest fruits of a relationship that began with the two-time Le Mans class-winning DBR9. Our 313 members were also able to get up close and personal with Sébastien Loeb’s BRX Hunter, an outrageously pumped-up, Ian Callum-designed cross country rally car, designed to make light work of some of the harshest racing conditions on Earth. Fresh off the transporter and still bearing battle scars from the Dakar Rally, it was a quite literally massive draw of attention.
It’s away from the world of slick tyres and long-travel shocks that some of Prodrive’s less publicised, but just as fascinating work is taking place, in their Advanced Technology division. Effectively a group of vastly intelligent people whose job is to solve engineering problems for clients, examples of their work on display ranged from amphibious cars to hydraulic systems for Sir Ben Ainslie’s Americas Cup racing yacht, and from the Hummingbird, the world’s lightest folding bicycle, to a compact medical ventilator that was pressed into production within weeks of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, saving countless lives. Not bad for a firm that started off fielding a single Porsche in a regional rally championship.