Prodrive Factory Tour: Behind the Scenes With the Motorsport Maestro's
Tim Dunlop takes us for a spin around the Prodrive factory, admiring their amazing collection of racing cars and learning about the company's diverse engineering portfolio both inside and outside of the car world. Images by Tim Dunlop
If, like me, you have spent time travelling up and down the M40 - particularly around the Banbury area - you have probably seen the large building at the side of the motorway emblazoned with a big sign that says ‘Prodrive’. Even if you only have a mild interest in motorsport this name will instantly resonate with you, whether it be Subaru Impreza's in the World Rally Championship, Aston Martin’s at Le Mans or maybe even the BAR Honda Formula 1 team, its safe to say Prodrive have a fantastic trophy cabinet having been part of some of the most high profile campaigns across all forms of four wheeled sport.
One day, curiosity got the better of me after seeing a Prodrive post on social media saying they were now open again for factory tours (which were stopped during COVID). I promptly booked my place and my son also tagged along, having inherited my petrol head genes - much to his mother’s disgust! Arriving at reception, we were greeted by two absolute icons, immediately setting a high bar.
First up was a Rothmans liveried Porsche 911 SC, Prodrive's first ever car and one that competed in the Middle East Rally Championship. Driven by Saeed Al Hajri with co-driver John Spiller, they took the overall title in 1984 and ‘85. Next to this was another Rothmans car, this time the fire breathing Metro 6R4 from the Ulster Rally in 1986 piloted by Jimmy McRae ably assisted by Ian Grindrod in the passenger seat.
Looking past the two rally cars there are a couple of other interesting displays in the reception area, an example of the Prodrive Racing Simulator is over near the seating area with a Hummingbird folding bike on the far wall, both help to enforce our tour guides statement that Prodrive is a very diverse business with expertise in many different areas. However, it’s the race engine on a stand near the workshop door that has me more curious as I simply cannot work out what car the small capacity straight six, Aston Martin branded block is from, maybe all will be revealed later.
After a short introductory film it's time for us to head into the workshop and into the Legends display, here we find a great selection of more cars Prodrive have been involved with. On the right-hand side, we have an ex Ari Vatenen Subaru Legacy, a BMW E30 M3 in the superb BASTOS livery, and a Rothmans liveried Mk2 Escort again driven by Vatenen, but this car was co-driven in period by Prodrive founder Dave Richards. To the left we find an ex BAR F1 car in the Lucky Strike livery, an Aston Martin Vantage GTE car and then for me the start of the show an ex-Safari rally Subaru Impreza complete with extra high suspension, exhaust snorkel and cattle bars.
Legends Tour complete and phones tucked safely away (no photos are allowed in the main workshop) we press onward. The Prodrive facility is very compact, so you don’t cover a huge amount of ground on the tour but there is certainly loads to see. From the wiring room, where technicians are busy hand making looms for new builds and restoring old looms, into one of the preparation areas where used Subaru’s are being stripped, their body shells strengthened, welded, and modified to become the dramatic Prodrive P25. After this we are shown into a fabrication room where skilled technicians use a mixture of the latest machines and much older equipment to fashion parts for a variety of projects.
Past an all-electric transit van (another project Prodrive have been involved in) and a Renault Twizy - apparently being used as a research tool for an all-new electric city car that’s hidden under a cover in the corner - we then make our way past the crowded but dusty trophy cabinet. Now this for me was a real surprise, I had expected given Prodrive’s history to see this in reception as a real feature, however according to our guide, Dave Richards does not want to pigeonhole the business into its past victories (rally, touring cars, Le Mans etc) and prefers for people to think of the company as hugely diverse and able to work across many different sectors.
Next up is a quick look at the Hummingbird Bike production area, this is a great example of Prodrive’s versatility. The bike, available with an optional frame made from Flax, is the lightest folding bike in the world. It’s a little on the pricey side (from £3,495) but certainly innovative and quite stylish. We get the chance in reception after our tour to look a little more around the bike and even lift it from its display stand. At 6.9kg it's amazing how light it is.
Our next stop after Hummingbird could perhaps not be more different as we enter the engine room, in here we are treated to time with one of the head engineers who talks us through some of the engines they are working on. This includes new Subaru engines which Prodrive modifies for the P25, an Aston Martin Vulcan engine which is back for some routine servicing and then a close look around an engine from a Ferrari 550 GT1 car that is a real work of art. I ask the engineer about the mystery engine on display in reception and am told it’s from the ill-fated AMR One project, this car was a successor to Aston Martin’s V12 powered DBR1-2 LMP1 car and was designed to further build on the victories that car had seen. The project is one that many people don’t talk about due to the car’s poor performance and the fact it was disbanded very quickly following terrible running at Le Mans in 2011 (where both cars only completed a handful of laps).
Attached to the engine room is the dyno suite. Here skilled technicians can put engines through all types of tests, loads, weather conditions, etc to make sure the finished article is of the highest quality. Interestingly during our visit, the engine on the dyno is for a new DACIA Dakar Rally car Prodrive is working on.
Out of this room and into the main workshop area, here we walk past three Prodrive Hunters in various stages of build. This machine, billed by the company as the world's fastest all-terrain hypercar, is a vehicle capable of competing in an event like the Dakar. Hunter has also been designed to be used where drivers want to go fast, perhaps where the roads and terrain are not suitable for regular 4x4’s. That’s why the small number of road-cars they are building will find homes in the middle east. It certainly meets the oft-overused definition of a race car for the road.
Much of the space in the workshop is taken up by Aston Martins, we are visiting in what is commonly known as closed season and with Aston launching new GT3 and GT4 cars in 2024, a large number of chassis are in the workshop. The car is still to be revealed to the public so that might explain why the camouflaged test car that was previously seen as we entered the workshop at the start of our tour, is now covered up when we make our way back round.
What we could have a good look around was parked at the rear of the workshop in the form of a Beechdean Ice Cream sponsored Aston DBRS9 which was visiting the facility for a ‘freshen up’ in advance of it taking part in some classic races in the new year. This car is one I have actually seen race a couple of times; I think my ears are still recovering from the superb sound the DBRS9 made around Oulton Park one Easter Saturday in period.
The final part of the tour is perhaps the most up to date with the chance to see the Prodrive P25 production area. 4 cars were in build during our visit, all resplendent in the icon Subaru Blue with a mixture of right hand and left-hand drive cars in a variety of specs. I particularly like the almost complete car with the naked Carbon Fibre roof and trimmed interior. We even spotted a Silver painted bumper in the production area so hopefully that means someone has been brave enough to step away from the blue for something a little more non-Subaru. Although this car is I suppose technically a resto-mod the level of engineering and detail is breath-taking and it's easy to see why the price of these is over half a million pounds.
Tour over and we head back to reception for a coffee after what has been an enjoyable couple of hours, it’s a great visit and one I would urge any petrol head to do, just try and resist making rally car noises whenever you feel the urge brewing.