Bicester Heritage is one of those places that transcends any attempt to be retro or vintage. It is pure history. You feel like you’re about to bump into Benedict Cumberbatch in a set of braces*. Now a thriving heritage centre, this historic bomber airbase is the place to be inspired.
The sheer lack of bollards, high-vis bibs and dog poo bins means there’s a visual purity that’s hard to find these days. There is a hush, a hands-behind-back level of respect for everything on display. There’s an atmosphere at Bicester that really has to be experienced first hand.
There was a respectable number of vintage cars on display. Enter Marcus Rowe. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to cajole a 95 year old Citroën into doing what it’s told, he’ll tell you. Along with the rest of the Bicester crowd (pictured) we interviewed Marcus about crucially why he would desire to drive such a car. “It’s that coming together of it being so old and the physical difficulty of driving it. It’s the sense of achievement you have when you arrive or even when you start the engine.”
Marcus’ car is a Citroën 5HP from 1922. It’s a cheap two seater designed to transport anyone around on a budget. Found in a scrapyard in Hong Kong (which explains the RHD) it was restored in the late nineties before being shipped to the UK in about 2003. Marcus came to own it through his Vintage Sports Car Club. The previous owner stated that he’d give a discount for a young member, and that was that.
We first met Marcus though our shared love of 120mm film. It’s a glorious medium that can really deliver amazing and rewarding results. So, we negotiated the site and plonked the car on Bicester's airfield. Marcus said he even had a Box Brownie camera - a staggering 100 year old contraption.
“It’s as simple as a camera can be and I love that. The 5HP is also as simple as a car can be. I think there’s a part of me that enjoys things that last a really long time and still remain usable.”
There was something beautiful about imagining someone take a picture of an old car on such an old camera. The 5HP itself seems to have aged well. The all-black boat tail and smooth wheels offer a 1920’s elegance. “I don’t have a problem with driving it on a damp day like today, it’s much better that it gets used than it sits around.” The only dial is an Ammeter - the ‘are my lights on’ dial: not that they make much of a difference anyway.
It’s completely baffling to drive, the pedals were originally arranged with the accelerator in the middle and brake on the right. Though now converted to standard setup, you're still left with brakes that only operate the rear wheels; and there's no synchro, so you’ve got to be good at those gears. ‘There’s so little power it is actually quite difficult to drive in modern traffic - you have to keep your momentum going.”
I asked Marcus how people react to the car. “Almost nobody in Britain today has owned a car like this or even seen one, so I think people look at it and think: ‘that’s brilliant’ or ‘that’s cute’ or maybe ‘thats weird’. I tell people that I’m doing a service to the community when I drive this car. Everybody just smiles. I pass people and they just smile, it brightens up their day.”
And that’s the thing about this old Citroën. At Bicester, so many wanted to explore it, to ask questions about what it is and about its history. It seems that the Citroen 5HP still 'has it'.