Prodrive | PH Meets

Prodrive started designing and building race cars 35 years ago. Today, the firm is literally in orbit

Prodrive has the most comprehensive motorsport manufacturing facility in the world. That’s a small sentence, but a very big claim. When you think about all the other global players who are active in this field, can a Banbury-based outfit that is probably even now still best known for its Subaru Legacy and Impreza rally cars really be that big?

Anyone expecting a small backyard operation would be in for a rude shock when they make their first visit to the Prodrive facility, a 110,000 square foot unit that takes a fair while to pass on the M40. They moved here in 2015. It is absolutely ma-hoosive, and it seems even bigger when you’re inside it.

Car factories make cars, but mainly they’re assembly plants using parts that come in from outside. Prodrive is an important part of that ‘outside’. Their mission statement in 2019 is something along the lines of running motorsport programmes for major vehicle manufacturers and developing advanced technology for the automotive, aerospace, defence and marine sectors, but underpinning all that is a talent for, well, making stuff.

And what stuff. Since it was founded in 1984 by David Richards CBE (former chairman of Aston Martin and former team principal of the BAR and Benetton F1 teams) Prodrive has built literally hundreds of works cars. Altogether they have won six World Rally titles, five Le Mans titles, four BTCC titles, and six World Endurance Championship titles.

We all know about the Subaru Legacy and Impreza Group A and World Rally Cars, the Rothmans Porsches and the BMW touring cars. Now, with Prodrive Works, the wheel has come full circle. Works gives collectors and investors the chance to meticulously and faithfully restore these cars to their original glory. PW has the resources and more importantly the relevant historical experience to return these cars to their original state.

Many of the people in this department have been there for so long, they actually built the cars that are now coming back for restoration. Andy Brown goes right back to the Bastos BMW E30 M3s cars of the late 1980s – the one next to the Saeed Al-Hajri ‘King of the Dunes’/John Spiller Rothmans Porsche 959 he’s working on at the moment is a personal favourite – and he’s still here physically doing the rebuilds.

The people he works with have also been around for a while. Paul Howarth is team principal for the Aston racing side of Prodrive and head of operations. He’s been there for 30 years. Jason Hill, engine designer for the Alain Menu Ford Mondeo BTCC car, the Ferrari 550 and the Aston DBR9, S9, 1-2 and Vantage, has 20 years in the Prodrive bank. PH is being shown around the premises by Ben Sayer, a 19-year Prodrive veteran who came here with a marketing background and an engineering degree, a perfect combo for the media/PR job he’s been doing ever since. ‘Talking to engineers, it’s useful to have a vague idea of what they’re talking about.’

An interesting side angle of Prodrive Works is an inspection service which will verify the provenance of a car and provide official certification of its authenticity. ‘When we were running the Subarus, we were building about 15 chassis a year for the works team, which would be rotated through the year,’ says Ben. ‘At the end of each year, we wouldn’t need them any more so we rebuilt them and sold them as customer cars, maybe 10-12 of them each year, which would then compete in championships across the world. These cars would sell for £300-£400,000 each. That income then goes back into the Works programme.’ The only Subaru legend car Prodrive kept was the Richard Burns Safari car which sits in pride of place in the reception area.

‘Today we get a lot of people coming to us saying “I’ve got this car, here are a couple of pics, can you tell me if it’s the real deal?”. So Paul Howarth will inspect it and if it’s correct we’ll give them a certificate.’ This is the Prodrive vehicle verification service. It costs £2500 plus VAT, assuming the car can be brought to Prodrive’s HQ. Alternatively, Prodrive will travel to the car.

If it’s pukka, copies of original documentation relating to the vehicle, as well as any history we have on that car will be supplied, along with that precious certificate to confirm its provenance. Suddenly, you’ve got a much more valuable car, especially if it’s won an event, and especially if it’s a Colin McRae car. It then makes total sense for the owner to have it properly restored.

The obvious place to take such a vehicle would be to the folk who built it originally. It’s probably true to say that a Prodrive-restored Prodrive car will very likely be worth more than a Prodrive car restored elsewhere. Prodrive can easily source most of the parts. They own the intellectual property for a lot of them too, so if necessary they can remanufacture them.

In the Works restoration process the engines are rebuilt by the same techies who work on the racing Vantage GTE and GT3 cars, of which more in a minute. Right now an Aston and an ’04 Impreza S10 are going through this Works restoration process. At the end of that process a Works-restored car becomes very valuable indeed.

For the last 15 years Prodrive has been mining sports car racing gold with Aston Martin. We walk alongside a towering structure loaded with boxes, reminiscent of the scene at the end of Indiana Jones when the US Govt is storing the Holy Grail. ‘We’re building about 75 Aston customer cars this year, which is more than we’ve ever built,’ says Ben. ‘We’re up to about 60 cars so far. When they’re out and about, racing around the world, we’ve got to be able to ship spare parts to them.

‘Under the regs the Vantage GTE engines have to be based on the standard road car’s V8, but you only have to keep the block and heads. The rest of it is open. So they’re dry sumped with bespoke pistons and conrods and bespoke turbos.

‘There’s no production line. Each engine is built by one person. It takes between two and four weeks, depending on which engine it is. A GT3 engine would be a couple of weeks, a GTE would be more like four weeks. They’re quite similar engines, but with the GTE everything has to be weighed and measured for homologation and inspection purposes. That’s where the extra time comes in.’

If you fancy it, a GT4 car costs in the region of £175,000, while a GT3 is approaching £430,000. Running any race car isn’t cheap, of course, but going down this Aston route knowing you have access to such a high level of knowledge and parts backup surely drops the mental pressure down a notch or two. Some customers are now entering DBR9s in historic race series, and Prodrive is doing engine rebuilds for those as part of the Works offering.

Despite the enormous size of Prodrive’s Banbury HQ you never get the impression that any part of it is standing idle. It’s your actual hive of industry. We walk into a room and see fabricators concentrating on cool projects in their own work stations. ‘We manufacture everything for own cars in house,’ says Ben. One guy is making a front lower wishbone for the Vantage GT3 and the GTE works cars that Prodrive runs at Le Mans. Another is making coolant header tanks. A third is fashioning intercooler housings. All these items are exquisite and could easily be put on display in any modern art gallery. Even the vices these lads are using look amazing. Most PHers would probably be very happy here cutting, forming and welding something special from a few pieces of sheet steel.

We go into a new building within the building, the Powertrain Development Centre. It’s only been up and running for the last two months and houses an absolute beast of a dyno – a 660kW (880hp) transient monster. What’s the rationale for this? ‘We’re a motorsport team that does everything,’ says Ben. ‘We design and build all our own engines. We don’t buy in engines to go into our cars.

‘For the last five years our dyno facilities have all been off site. This unit is about as sophisticated a unit as you can get. The charge air that comes in is temperature, humidity and pressure controlled, so you can increase the pressure to replicate the speed of the car, and adjust the temp and humidity to replicate different circuits around the world.

‘It’s basically an electric motor, and because it’s transient it can drive the engine as well as acting as a brake, which a steady-state dyno can’t do, so you can replicate gear changes. You can run a full simulation, accurately, of what the engine is going to do in the car.

‘660kW is a lot. It’s like a mini power station. It’s so powerful we had to have a special new power supply brought in from the centre of Banbury.’ Visions of locals’ lights dimming whenever the dyno is cranked up spring to mind. ‘Actually, when we’re running it and it’s going the other way it pushes power back into the grid. There’s a GTE engine on there now, which is running at probably around 400kW. Effectively it’s driving an alternator to produce current, rather than just wasting the energy as heat.’

This dyno will allow Prodrive to do more electric hybrid work. Given that the WRC is going hybrid and F1 is already hybrid, it makes sense. The room is big enough to accommodate an entire electric drivetrain.

Now we’re in another room full of chaps poring over wiring looms. Prodrive does all the electrics on all its cars. ‘Everything is built to the highest aerospace standards,’ says Ben. ‘If you opened up a Eurofighter Typhoon, it would look exactly like this. It’s the highest grade componentry. It takes six weeks to build a harness on a Vantage GTE, and there are twelve harnesses on each car.’

There are about 400 people working on the Prodrive site. Here in the sub-assembly section some of the lads are stripping down and rebuilding hubs and bearings from the Aston race cars. Towards the end of September the cars will be shipped off to Japan for the next race at Fuji and the Banbury crews then won’t see them again for about six months as they go racing all around the world.

Here are some Aston bonnets and bumper sections, carefully wrapped in very expensive looking tailor-made shipping bags. That’s because the racer body sections are made of carbon fibre, which is not cheap, in Prodrive’s Milton Keynes factory. ‘It’s very labour-intensive to make, it’s all got to be hand-laid, and the raw carbon-fibre sheet is still expensive.’

Now we’re out of the Motorsport area and into Advanced Technology, the bit of the company that works with aerospace and defence as well as automotive. The clang and fizz of metal being hit by other bits of metal that we’ve heard in other parts of the facility is replaced here by a soft, sci-fi sounding background hiss. The atmosphere in this part of the building is temperature controlled as variations of as little as one degree will affect critical geometry measurements taken by Prodrive’s CMMs (coordinate measuring machines).

There are ‘several’ (ha!) five-axis mills, one of which was used to carve from solid the fabulous motorised centre console trickery used in the Range Rover SVAutobiography, plus lathes, and an EDM (electrical discharge machining) unit that immerses an electrically charged hair-thin wire in what’s called di-electric water to cut metal into impossible-looking shapes and to incredibly precise measurements. Here’s a video that shows you what can be achieved with one of these babies.

Prodrive also designs and builds complex electro-mechanical systems like the active aero on a certain world-leading hypercar that we’re not allowed to identify here. We’re looking through the window of a clean room that’s being used to develop and also (any minute now) niche-manufacture a very advanced electro-mechanical hydraulic system to go on another very expensive car, which must also remain anonymous.

Through the glass of this glaringly white, positively-pressured room, your humble scribe (who is not an engineer) sees components that put him in mind of Cyberdyne Systems from The Terminator. All way beyond his pay grade, but it looks like very serious kit. It’s normal for engineering companies to talk about aerospace standards to establish their credibility, and we’ve already heard that, but this seems to be way beyond that. We appear to be up to NASA levels now. ‘Over in Composites we have done some space work,’ confirms Ben. ‘There are Prodrive-manufactured things orbiting the earth right now.’

Prodrive is a powerful brand, and one that will be familiar to most PHers, but until you go there you have no idea of the amazing things they’re doing there in 2019, and what giant strides they’ve taken since 1984. The areas they’re involved with now make the old Scooby-doo period look positively prehistoric. We’ve not even touched on the marine side, or the ballistic and vehicle suspension advances Prodrive has brought to the defence industry, or their work with fully-electric trucks, or the world’s first 48-volt DC-DC converter that they’ve designed and that will play a big part in mild hybrid development over the next decade, or the Prodrive Ventures investment arm that seeks out design-led, technological, innovative and disruptive propositions from any sector.

Ever seen the Hummingbird folding bicycle? At 6.9kg it’s the world’s lightest folding bike. Three years ago Prodrive invested its expertise in Hummingbird. Now the bike is manufactured by Prodrive Composites and assembled at the Banbury HQ. In the interests of science your PH scribbler had a go and managed to steer through about a million quids’ worth of legendary motors (including the Burns Safari Subaru) without scraping any of them. It’s a sweet ride. It’s not cheap at £3.5k or so, or £4.5k for the electrified version, but if you’ve got the dosh and a use for it you’d probably consider it to be a no-brainer choice.

So, they’ve taken ‘Motorsport’ off the logo nameplate outside, but the single word that remains – Prodrive – drastically undersells what they do there, really. Shouldn’t they have a more all-encompassing, Marvel-type name, you know, like Cyberdyne Systems? ‘We’ve had that debate,’ smiles Ben. ‘The thing is, businesses always get known for what they’re very best at. We know Tiger Woods is a really good golfer, but if he were also a very good tennis player you would still only ever think of him as a golfer.

‘It’s the same with the motorsport business. As soon as someone mentions Williams or McLaren, people say, “oh yeah, Formula 1”, but actually there’s so much more to those companies. So if we didn’t do motorsport at all here, you’d probably know us for all the other stuff, but because we do do motorsport and we do it so well, people will always know us for that.

‘A lot of our clients come to us because of that. It’s about prestige. They also come to us because they want a motorsport mentality to work on their project. They want people who can think outside the box, come up with solutions, and do a good job.’

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