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New car museums don’t pop up often. But Great British Car Journey in the Derwent Valley is so new you could easily drive right past the small industrial estate on which it resides, just off the A6 Matlock Road.
It’s so fresh there aren’t even any signs up yet.
“The gate was being installed just yesterday,” explains founder Richard Usher. “And you can’t have any brown signs until you’ve been open for a year,” he adds, ruefully.
The museum has been at least three years in the planning and all started with an Austin Maestro.
“He called me up one day,” begins Jason Jones, one of the busiest men of the museum and whose phone is perennially ringing, “and said,‘ You should see what I’ve just bought.’”
Rather than some supercar, it was a timewarp Austin that was quickly moved into a car bubble.
“When was the last time you saw one?” Usher rhetorically asked Jones, who worked for the boss when he owned Blyton Park. It gained more and more company, each as ‘normal’ as the next.
Between it and the line-up of Sevens that greet visitors are 130 cars of Britain’s finest and most forgotten.
Each has a tale to tell, whether in its ownership history, how it came to be, or its place in the nation’s automotive backstory.
Instead, it is the Austin 16 Shooting Brake, one of many built by patients suffering from tuberculosis at Royal Papworth Hospital.
“It has personal significance,” says Usher, “because my mother had TB.”
He also notes the obvious parallels of today’s highly contagious, isolating and life-threatening pandemic. “Many don’t know anything about the story,” he adds.
The backdrop of the everyday machines mixes large blown-up marketing material, posters and period photographs with bespoke illustrations by a local artist.
Seamlessly, too: not even a modern high street (Blockbuster aside…), with 1960s,’70s and’80s cars parked outside a Sainsbury’s Local, looks out of place.
Behind one of the five Seven varieties is a photo of the home of Herbert Austin.
“We were very lucky to get access to Lickey Grange because it was being redeveloped into luxury flats,” explains Usher.
“I just happened to find out that the flat that was the billiard room was up for sale. I rang up the vendor, told him what we were doing and asked if we could photograph an AustinSeven outside the room in which it was designed. Fortunately he was car-ey.”
Standing front and centre of the photo is the museum’s Chummy, ‘Jumbo’, which had been owned by a local nurse and is pristine – like so many of the display cars.
Later is a depiction of a Daimler passing Wembley Stadium.
Not just any Daimler, but the very DE36 limo owned by Arthur Elvin, who turned the stadium from ‘white elephant’ to national institution.
The passenger side of the rear bench is softer, for his wife’s comfort, and the roof two inches higher, for his bowler.
Preservation is an integral part of the museum, not just of the cars but of the history of the industry and the people who made it.
“In there you have got Austin, Morris, Rootes and plenty of other people,” says Usher. “Most who come here will not have a clue who Billy Rootes was, it’s a disappearing history. Volumes of cars have disappeared, but so has Longbridge.
“I’m a Brummie, sadly old enough to remember driving down the road into Longbridge and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m in the middle of this factory’.
“Now, it’s a very different landscape, and when I went through it recently I felt completely lost. Austin has been pivotal to this museum, and I have a recent love for the Seven. It’s such a charming thing.”
Usher owns fewer than half of the cars in the collection. Some are on loan, including an Austin Carlton Saloon de Luxe from a local family who also agreed to sell its Austin 10 to the museum.
“It has been very difficult sourcing exhibits,” Usher admits. “The Chevette was impossible: it was a no-brainer when it was auctioned from the Vauxhall Heritage fleet by Brightwells.
“The whole thing is getting crazy price-wise – even the red Mk3 Escort, because where are you going to find a W-reg Escort in that condition? We’ve been obsessive about that kind of thing.
“People have asked, ‘Why haven’t you got XR3s?’ Well, because they were popular; it’s the 1.3L I want, the absolute original.”
“I don’t think there’s anything obvious missing, no glaring omissions. I suppose we haven’t got every Cortina – we haven’t got a Mk2 or a Mk3 – but it’s infinitely expandable.
“We concentrated on the ‘Great British’ theme because it gave us a story, but you could have a side chapter on the Japanese invasion because a Datsun Bluebird or Nissan Sunny is just as rare.”
Usher says it’s taken “long enough” to collate everything. “I’d quite like a breather,” he adds, with one of his regular laughs.
Plans to open last year were delayed, which was a blessing in disguise. “It wa s abit touch and go,” he says. “COVID-19 probably did us a favour, because if we had opened in April as planned we would have had no visitors at all.”
Usher is an undeniable enthusiast and very hands-on – during our visit he arrived in his Rover Streetwise with bags of shopping, having been let down by a supplier – and he happily chats with visitors, of which there have been many.
“It’s been very busy: we will have had 1600 this week,” he says as a couple admires his own Seven drophead, a veteran of runs around the Lakes. “Not bad for our second week open.”
Many of the cars have low mileages, led by the 14-mile Mini 30th Anniversary. Vinyl roofs and questionable interior finishes abound.
A tablet and a headset guide visitors through the exhibits, and each car has a QR code to scan, revealing a Top Trumps-style card.
Some, such as the Austin woodie, are hero cars with a longer story to tell, narrated by Usher.
Most cars work – drip trays are testament to that – and 30 or so can be driven around the industrial estate as part of the Drive Dad’s Car experience.
From Seven to Rolls-Royce, Minor to Bentley, via Capri, Midget and Minis aplenty. With an instructor alongside, the visceral joy of driving old cars can be passed on to the next generation – the Reliant Robin has been one of the most popular, says Jones. The 20-minute drives start from £49.
It’s a unique museum, where you’re more likely to hear “We had one of those” than “I had a poster of that”, as visitors recall their own experiences to pals and kids.
The cars are a world away from the Euroboxes the youngsters will drive and the electric machines they will have in the future.
This is a time capsule buried in the Peak District, with an important future promoting our rich automotive past.
Images: John Bradshaw
- Name Great British Car Journey
- Address Derwent Works, Ambergate, Derbyshire DE56 2HE
- Where Just off the A6, near junction 27/28 of the M1
- How much? Adults £15, Seniors £13, 5-15s £7, under-5s free
- Opening hours Daily, 10am-6pm May-Oct; 10-5pm Nov-Dec (closed Tues/Weds)
- Tel 01773 317243
- Web greatbritishcarjourney.com