Bedford Autodrome | Secret History

Bedford Autodrome | Secret History


Dan was at Bedford last month to drive the new GT3. And to wonder at the surroundings…

By Dan Prosser / Sunday, May 9, 2021 / Loading comments

All that time and dozens of visits, and I’d had absolutely no idea. I have been going to the Bedford Autodrome for a decade or so, driving through the barrier and along the tree-lined access road thinking only of thundering as fast as I dared around one of the venue’s handful of circuits.

I have roasted tyres there until they delaminated, cooked brakes until the discs glowed cherry red, set lap times, frightened myself, learned to chuck a car into a slide and hold it there, spun through the full 360 degrees even more often and laughed from my belly. I have even called this work, though I was always well aware of how inconsequential that work had been.

What I was lamentably unaware of until very recently is that here, in this windswept place where I have had so much fun at the wheels of countless cars, such seismic work used to take place that Neil Armstrong once visited. Jonathan Palmer’s Bedford Autodrome has always been a great big automotive playground to me, but for many decades it was something altogether more important than that.

I was there only a few weeks ago to drive the new Porsche 911 GT3. A merry old time I had too, combusting somebody else’s fuel at 9000rpm and slaying their tyres until chunks flew off. And it’s only since that most recent visit that I learned what this old airfield, first laid down in 1940, used to be home to. Like Silverstone, Castle Combe, Thruxton, Croft, Snetterton, Pembrey and Goodwood, the Bedford Autodrome was constructed on old runways, using the perimeter roads and aprons to create a circuit (or a handful of circuits, in the case of Palmer’s place).

And like many of the UK’s airfield-base race tracks, this one has a military past. It was constructed 81 years ago for RAF Bomber Command around the start of the Second World War. From here, heavy bombers would haul themselves into the sky, chug over the Channel and fly on towards Nazi Germany. It was known as RAF Thurleigh back then. The site was developed over the years that followed with additional runways and four enormous hangers. The RAF vacated Thurleigh in 1942, making way for the US Air Force. There is a small museum and monument dedicated to the memory of the 306th Bombardment Group adjacent to the circuit entrance to this day.

But it was once the war had ended that this airfield a few miles to the north of Bedford was selected for one very particular purpose. What had been made overwhelmingly clear over the preceding few years was that conflicts would increasingly be fought in the skies and that we’d travel more and more by air as well. Britain, thought its government of the day, should be at the very forefront of all this.

Speaking in parliament in 1945, the MP for Bedford, Sir Richard Wells, said, ‘In view of the imperative necessity to provide adequate resources in research and development for our future civil and military aircraft construction, and of the many new problems that now have to be faced with the approaching achievement of supersonic speeds, the Government has decided that it is necessary to embark upon the construction of a new research and development centre in this country in which all the latest and best wind tunnels and other apparatus can be installed. After a very complete survey of the country, it has been decided to place the new research establishment in the vicinity of Bedford.’

After that the National Aeronautical Establishment was formed. (Its name would later change to the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford.) The main runway was extended to 10,500ft (two miles) and at Twinwoods just a mile away, four state of the art wind tunnels were constructed. Between them, these allowed researchers to test various experimental aircraft designs at speeds ranging from 80mph to fully five times the speed of sound, or around 3300mph. One of these four tunnels, its fan mounted flat to the ground rather than perpendicular to it, was labelled the Vertical Spinning Tunnel and used to study the behaviour of aircraft in a spin, which was scarcely understood at the time.

Between them, RAE Bedford and Twinwoods became the very heart of Britain’s aviation research sector. Over the decades that followed, countless experimental aircraft were developed and flown from here. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, that titan among test pilots, flew all manner of prototype aeroplanes out of RAE Bedford during the post-war years, specifically helping to further mankind’s understanding of supersonic flight. In June 1970, a brave American test pilot visited Bedford to sample the delta wing Handley-Page HP.115 research aircraft. Eleven months earlier, Neil Armstrong had taken his one small step.

Between the late Forties and the eventual decommissioning of the airfield in 1994, countless engineering breakthroughs were made at RAE Bedford and Twinwoods. Using a catapult runway and a ‘ski jump’ ramp, for instance, engineers were able to demonstrate the viability of ocean-going aircraft carriers. The principles of vertical take-off and landing, those that underpinned the groundbreaking Harrier Jump Jet, were first defined here.

Without the supersonic research capabilities at Twinwoods there would have been no Concorde. Blind landing, radio guidance, navigation systems, rotary aerodynamics, the effects of windshear and vortices on aircraft and all manner other things were discovered, developed or better understood at this place. And these are just the things we know about. Not for nothing is RAE Bedford sometimes described as the UK’s Area 51.

You can still see the shabby offices where the country’s brightest engineering minds once worked, the smashed windows and rusting gutters paying unsatisfactory tribute to the pioneering work they did. Much of the airfield is used for the storage of unsold cars nowadays, the rest home to Bedford Autodrome’s several miles of race track. Corporate trackdays and magazine photoshoots where once the boundaries of powered flight were pushed in all directions.

The next time I drive along that tree-lined access road, it will be with a far greater sense of wonder.

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