Campbell's day out in Dagenham reveals a wealth of treasures

| 22 Feb 2013

Apart from an impressive wind turbine that would catch the attention of anyone with a leaning towards engineering, there’s little to mark out Ford’s Heritage Centre as anything other than an innocuous outbuilding.

But opening the doors reveals it as a lot more than that.

I’m greeted by keeper of the fleet Paul Harding, who wastes no time in making me feel 100% at home, spending a good hour talking me through the entire contents of the building.

He insists that I squeeze my clumsy frame into any of the machines I wish, while simultaneously enthusing about driving Cosworths and relating fascinating snippets on every car in the building.

The place documents the US-based company’s car-building years, covering everything from three Model Ts right through to an XR2 Fiesta and the latest models.

It doesn’t take long to know that I’m in for something special, because the first car to greet my eyes is an RS200. It is one of three, the other two being the last example ever built and an early prototype featuring ear-like intakes poking from above the B-pillars.

While other manufacturers show off their cars in pretentious glassy buildings, the modest setting of Ford’s collection warms the heart.

Fancy revolving turntables and interactive exhibits are swapped for thin layers of dust and cheap plastic covers, adding to the feeling that you’ve accidentally come across something rather special. It is also worth mentioning that these cars are not museum pieces: the vast majority are taxed, tested and in regular use.

The buildings offers sanctuary to around 75 machines at any one time, all of which are crammed in to make up a maze of motoring exotica.

It’s one that any enthusiast would happily get lost in, though, as they happen upon such cars as a V8-Pilot, complete with self-jacking port, a wonderful Prefect with one of the comfiest cabins I have ever been in, and the last Ford Capri ever built. The latter is the Brooklands that TV chef Jamie Oliver used on his latest show – Food Fight Club.

The four walls don’t just hold the Blue Oval’s cars, there’s also a cross-section of its most successful commercial, the Transit, covering everything from a fabulous Mk1 to Supervan 3, packing a supercharged 3-litre V6.

There’s plenty of more serious race-bred machinery, too, including three Escorts in the form of the 1970 London to Mexico rally-winning car, the 1977 Lombard RAC Rally-winning machine of Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorszelius, plus an exacting recreation of the former.

A faithful replica of the 1955 Ford Zodiac Monte-Carlo Rally car provides a taste of some earlier motor sport and there’s also an example of the GT70 (main pic).

One of just six, it was built after a conversation between Ford Competition Director Stuart Turner and works driver Roger Clark on the flight home from the 1970 Monte-Carlo Rally. So keen were they to get the project for their perfect rally car under way, the initial drawing was sketched out on an in-flight menu.  

Sadly, the success of the new BDA-powered Escort, allied to the complexity and cost of developing the mid-engined machine rendered it surplus to requirements.

As always, it’s the people you meet on such a trip that make just as much of an impact as the cars, a fact confirmed when the head of custodian Ivan Bartholomeusz emerges from under the bonnet of a Sierra RS500.

Having worked for Ford for nigh-on two decades, he’s bagged a dream job as the firm’s Heritage Specialist responsible for keeping the rare and (in many cases) exotic machines fighting fit. I immediately set about grilling Ivan on the perks of his job.

He’s done it all, from driving Ford’s two GT40s at Goodwood (sadly neither were in the building at the time) to green-laning Model Ts in the Highlands of my homeland.

Even my question of “How easy is it to start a Model T?” is answered in a flash, as Ivan disappeares from sight only to re-emerge brandishing a crank handle.

“Not always easy,” was the apparent answer, as the Ford man gave up on one machine stepping to the next while I pranced around wielding an iPhone camera.

Much elbow grease and numerous expert adjustments later and the wonderful old machine spluttered into life.

Mission complete, I am beckoned into the workshop’s office to view some of Ivan’s most prized motoring exploits on YouTube.

The office itself is the kind of place I aim for as living quarters, full of pre-built models, diecast toys, period posters and manuals.

It’s not the only one like it either: the Heritage Centre’s conference room has lots of throwbacks to the past, including Dagenham’s original ‘clock in/clock out’ timekeeper and a table that has (as Harding notes) played host to many an important decision.

Having spent the best part of five hours – in what was supposed to be a fleeting reconnaissance trip – I have to admit defeat to the prospect of a rush-hour scramble through London.

It is a testament to the day that not even a 70bhp modern, and a strike-enforced lack of decent radio news, can dampen my enthusiasm for the latest chapter in my career as a motoring hack.