I had a day out of the office today; a relatively rare thing, as we're still short-staffed. But we got an invite from a group of defence companies to go to Millbrook Proving Ground to see a new armoured car, and these things are too good to pass up. How often do you get to drive an armoured car?
Millbrook's in Bedfordshire, not far from Woburn. It's one of the places car and truck makers go if they want to prove their cars can do what they say they will - so it's got a banked track where you can test out maximum speeds, it's got a network of roads through rolling countryside and woodlands where you can simulate different sorts of driving (they do a lot of movie stunt work there - the sequence in Casino Royale
where Bond rolls his Aston Martin end-over-end was filmed there).
They also have what they call a severe off-road circuit. This is seriously rough stuff - huge gravelly hills, sections with big rocks, potholes, simulated mortar holes, roads that twist the chassis of the car. That's what they use to test military vehicles, usually. Tanks get stuck there.
Anyway, this is a big defence sector event, and all the military magazines are there. All the execs from the companies involved are there. It feels like virtually everyone is ex-military or possibly wannabe military. Lots of floppy or cropped hair. Lots of jargon being thrown around. If it hasn't got a three-letter acronym, invent one quick. Sample overheard conversation: 'So I was going to join the polo club in this village, and it was run by this retired brigadier. And I was a bit late for my first session, and this chap said to me "You're being a bit of a nuisance." And I wasn't having that. I mean, this isn't the old Army, where you could be rude to anyone who ranks below you.'
First off, we got driven around the offroad course in this new armoured car, which is called an Ocelot. Great big thing, high off the ground, enormous wheels with loads of clearance between them and the chassis. You can mount a turret on the top. It's shaped so that if a mine goes off underneath it, the blast goes sideways and nobody dies. It looks like this:
Inside, there are two seats up front facing forwards and four in the back, in pairs along the sides facing inwards. When you're sitting in those, you can't see out, so being driven over all this rough stuff was rather like being strapped inside a big, hot cocktail shaker. When you go over particularly bumpy bits you bash your head on the padded handles either side of the headrest. I felt slightly ill.
After lunch, we get a chance to drive the Ocelot. I had the second go, and sitting in the back of the vehicle was a senior execs of one of the companies who developed it. Retired Colonel, bloody nice chap. Wearing civvies but you can tell that he's never stopped wearing the uniform in his head. Strapped myself into the four-point harness, looked at the controls - automatic, handbrake on the side, lots of buttons. Instructor next to me gives me a few pointers - there's a turbo lag, so you won't accelerate as soon as you put your foot on the gas; there are the buttons that turn off the differentials so you're driving all the wheels, and so on.
And off we go. I've never driven off-road before; it's fun, but it's not easy. The rock run — 20 yards of big rocks set into a slight downward slope — jerks the steering wheel all over the place. There are huge concrete ditches set at angles across the road, so you have to lower each wheel in turn into them. You roar up hills and creep down them. The bit where you go through the big ditch full of mud is particularly tricky, because there are deep wheel ruts under the mud which send the wheels the wrong way, and you have to try to accelerate over them with the mud clawing at your tyres.
And all the while I'm being given instructions and rally-style directions. 'Get to the bottom of the hill, gas on, now floor it! Don't lift off don't lift off don't lift off and cover the brake! Brake! Bottom of the hill and left, left, left, move the steering wheel faster, left and right! Rightrightright!'
Fifteen minutes' drive and we get to the end of the course, and I'm hot and sweaty but feeling pretty chuffed with myself - got all the way around, didn't get stuck in any mud, and there were no yells of pain from the back.
And that's when I noticed the smoke coming out of the dashboard.
'Is that smoke there?' I asked, as calmly as I could.
'Oh, probably not,' the instructor said.
Then he looked down.
'Everyone out of the vehicle, please. Quickly as you can.'
There were huge clouds of smoke coming out of the vents in the bonnet.
'What did you do?' asked the ex-colonel chappy.
'I think I broke your armoured car,' I said.
He raised an eyebrow.
'Ooops,' he replied.
One of the other journos, an urbane chap who also writes for the Jaguar Owners' Club, sniffed the air.
'Smells like electrics, doesn't it? I hope it's electrics. If it's electrics, it's probably not your fault.'
The instructor and another ex-mil type were trying to get the bonnet open. They appeared to be having problems.
'It's definitely on fire under there!'
Big blast from a fire extinguisher, just as the on-site fire service turn up, sirens blaring, and leap out to unroll hoses.
'That's a little unnecessary, don't you think?' said the urbane journo to the ex-colonel.
'Leave them alone, they're enjoying themselves,' he said.
Another Ocelot turned up to give us a lift back.
'What did I do?' I asked the instructor, as he walked past me to talk to the other driver.
'Nothing; electrical fault,' he said.
I would like to emphasise that HE SAID IT WASN'T MY FAULT.
Back at the reception, I grabbed a drink and listened to a conversation over walkie-talkies concerning the whereabouts of the sodding recovery truck, as various people consoled me with reminiscences about the time they blew up the gearbox of an APC.
'It's certainly a worry and we'll report it in our faults dossier, but really, don't worry,' the ex-colonel told me. 'We'll find out what it was.'
'What happens if it was my fault?' I asked.
'We'll put the bill in the post, old chap. And we probably won't invite you back.'