Making History – Jeff Coope Interview (part two)

In this concluding part of DTW’s interview with the National Motor Museum’s Jeff Coope, he outlines his vision for the museum’s future.

Image: BMIHT
Image: BMIHT

A former motor engineer, Jeff Coope is perhaps unique amongst senior colleagues at Gaydon in that he doesn’t have an old car of his own to tinker with at weekends; a matter of some amusement and no little embarrassment for someone in his position. This probably explains why the previous day he’d been out test driving a variety of Triumph TR6’s with a view to purchase.  “It’s interesting, he tells me, you put you hand on the injector fuel rails for the PI injection system on a TR6 and it’s alive! What else do we make that has a pulse? Effectively, we’re lighting little fires under bonnets aren’t we? Controlled fires at a huge rate and we’ve refined that to great art, although we’ve probably taken it as far it can go now, relatively speaking.”

“But that’s the thing about this place, it shows you what we did in the past, but it also gives you an insight into what we were thinking the future was going to be.  We’re sitting here today talking about hybrids and plug-ins and that’s our vision of the future. It’ll be interesting in about 20 years time when we look back. Will our thoughts of the future become the future or will we get it wrong? That’s the interesting thing to look at. You see that all the way through the museum, it’s a great showcase about what happened throughout the ages but it’s also how each generation envisages its future.”

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Speaking of generations, the next one is something that also occupies Coope’s mind, because although museums may be about the past, they also have to look to the future.  “One of the things we’re really keen on doing is making sure that as well as passing on the vehicles and the archive onto the next generation, we pass the skills on to ensure they can look after it. Because otherwise it just becomes a dead museum doesn’t it? If these cars don’t work and they just become display models, then you lose the heart and soul of the place, so we train our own apprentices. Obviously we’ve got a lovely new workshop down there, so we’re looking at training apprentices not just for our use, but for the historic car industry. We represent the academic passing on of these machines, but the classic car movement is about using them – getting them out on the road and keeping them there.”

However, engaging with the next generation raises its own set of challenges, especially to the gaming generation for whom things either work or they simply get a new one.  “When I grew up as a lad I was helping my dad fixing his old car with a tool roll and a socket set. So for my generation it was second nature. But you’re talking about youngsters now, they have to be introduced to the old technology to gain an interest in it. One of the things we want to do is inspire them into today’s car companies. That’s why we show a little of our version of what tomorrow’s going to be, and hopefully when youngsters come in, if they’re not inspired by the past, maybe they’ll look at that bit and think; ‘that looks interesting, I wonder how you get into that?’ If we can inspire the next generation of automotive engineers, we’ll have served a purpose.”

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Thanks to the success of the Museum’s commercial activities, the next phase of the  modernisation programme begins this year. Giving the BMIHT archive its own purpose built facility.  “We’ve got two collections – the car collection and the archive collection. We’ve put the cars in an ideal environment – this new shed of ours and that’s brilliant. We’ve got a sensational archive; it’s huge, 800 sq metres of it which is going into a new state of the art building, purpose built. So then we’ll have all our collections under ideal conditions for preservation. Once we’ve moved the archive into this new repository, we then move our cafe downstairs into that huge area. You’ll have a shop, a library, a cafe, and a cinema which will be open to the public. Visitors will be able to wander around and if they want to do more they can pay and come into the museum. But it’s like domino’s, we’ve got to build the new archive to get the cafe down there – giving us additional capacity in the old cafe area for conferencing, which then funds the trust.”

But it doesn’t end there. Jeff’s vision is for the Museum to become a destination in itself. Once the archive is complete, the final piece of the jigsaw will be a 180-bed hotel on site.  “We’ve got planning permission, we’ve got the concept, we’ve got the layout, so next we’ll get a hotel developer in because it’s a £17-18m project and as a charity we can’t afford to develop it in-house. But with the bedrooms we can go into multi-day conferencing. We can have weddings at weekends, because people can stay on site. So we can only see it as a benefit to us and it will be up within the next four or five years. We’re just developing the specifications and I think it’ll turn the British Motor Museum into a destination, you know, somewhere you go for the weekend. There’ll be enough to see and information to take in to spend a whole weekend here and soon you’ll be able to.”

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Listening to Coope talk about the BMIHT’s upcoming plans is infectious, because there is genuine zeal with which he describes what they’re doing here.  “Our memorandums and articles say ‘To preserve for the nation, and future generations artefacts and vehicles of the British motor industry’. We want to turn this into one of the World’s great motor museums. With these three buildings, and the hotel, we’ll be well on the way to achieving that.” 

Jeff may be looking ahead, but what’s genuinely impressive is how far into the future he’s projecting.  “We’re always thinking in living memory, but lets forward ourselves 200 years. How valuable is this centre going to be in 200 years time? Because by then this thing about personal transport will have died out as a phase we went through. Can you imagine that generation’s teachers telling their youngsters; ‘Back in the 2000’s used to light fires in machines to transport themselves – how mad was that?’ Imagine the value of this place then!”

Jeff Coope’s automotive career began working on single cylinder development engines for the nascent K-Series power unit at Austin Rover during the 1980s. Both he and the UK industry have travelled some considerable distance in the intervening time.  “I come to it as someone who was an automotive apprentice and worked in it for over 30 years. Now I’m looking after its past, which I’m quite pleased about really. I loved working in product development, it’s brilliant to have done that and now to be doing this; hopefully setting it all up commercially, so we can pass it on to the next generation in really good fettle. It’s a pleasure working here because it’s just so different. Yeah, it’s a different concept here because when you’re working in a commercial company, it’s all about the future and making money, whereas here it’s all about the past and it’s not all about making money any more. It’s about preserving the past to give to the future.”

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Part one here

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

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