Roar of the countryside

Roar of the countryside

Starting out with just £100 former rally ace Malcolm Wilson has created a £48m-turnover niche automotive business that thrives in harmony with some of the North’s most beautiful countryside. He tells Brian Nicholls why rally cars just had to be the new future for a 12th Century hall and its estate.

Greenies thinking industry is incompatible with prime countryside should visit Dovenby Hall Estate, Cockermouth, and see how easily a top UK automotive niche firm works close to a national park.

The hall, dating to 1154, is now the entrance to where all Ford rally cars are built – by Malcolm Wilson’s remarkable M-Sport. He, during more than three decades in rallying, won two British national titles in the 1970s and the British international title driving a Ford Escort in 1994. He, further, drove for three factory teams in the World Rally Championship (WRC) and, for several years, was Ford’s chief test driver.

Today M-Sport, his family business, has a world-leading private team. Its international titles and rally wins have included two manufacturers’ titles in FIA World Rally Championships. As managing director of Ford and M-Sport’s Manufacturer teams at Dovenby Hall, he’s responsible for Fords in WRC activities, and development of its Fiesta SportTrophy programmes.

Malcolm Wilson 04

His £48m turnover company, moreover – 95% earned outside the UK – has just won a vital five year planning battle to develop there further with a £19m investment. This will provide a new workshop even bigger than one already football pitch size. The firm will also be able to produce its own carbon fibre material, and will have a two and a half kilometre test track. A hotel might follow.  

The payroll of 220-plus – including 28 at its facility in Krakow, Poland – could show 100 more by 2021, mostly local. Working with Lakeland College, M-Sport is proud of its machinists, for example, noted for winning skills awards. You’d think a five year campaign to safeguard the firm would leave creases but Malcolm at 60 looks 10 years younger. “It must be the stress,” he jokes.

Planning objections mainly centre on noise concerns, and Malcolm’s grateful for support in finding a solution through Allerdale Council and Northern Developments in Carlisle, also working on the project. “It’s a shame our proposal had to go to a judicial review,” Malcolm says. “But we can now move forward.”

An admirer marvels: “Malcolm never thought he’d outgrow this place as it stands. It shows how good a businessman he is.” Cockermouth born and bred, he’s proud his team can remain at Lakeland. “Success without them would be impossible. Without their dedication world titles wouldn’t have come. We also appreciate ongoing support from Ford Motor Company.”

The ultimate aim? To be a one stop shop for any manufacturer wishing to develop a car at Dovenby. Malcolm explains: “Any prototype here would be assured secrecy. We’re pushing for accreditation on this. Nowhere else in the UK has it. It would be a really strong asset for us as a centre of excellence. We’ve everything on site required – engineering, design, fabrication, composite, test facilities too.”

Testing, rebuilding, maintenance and reconditioning are done with latest equipment and technology. Components are made there: electronics are assembled by hand. Facilities are among the best, David Evans, rallies editor at Autosport and Motorsport News, told the BBC.

Even an existing test track at nearby Greystoke Forest is beyond what other WRC teams might access, in Evans’ view, and Christian Loriaux, drawn to Dovenby Hall’s £1m research and development facility from Prodrive in Banbury, is considered one of the sport’s finest technical engineers. Engineers and designers work closely with the technical teams building the Focus RS WRC cars. A computer links the engineers to Ford’s global engineering network.

Yet recession threatened ruin. Malcolm admits: “The end of 2012 was probably my most difficult period in business.” Ford’s multimillion-pound pullout from WRC, despite two world title wins together, cost jobs at M-Sport (employing 200 then).

What then? “Being against the wall I think can bring out the best in people,” says the voice of experience. Fortunately, rally-enthusiastic Qatar became a sponsor, and the team also secured a technical partnership with Bentley for its endurance racing internationally. Today M-Sport not only continues itself to contest the WRC but also develops Bentley’s continental GT3 race car in association with the firm’s motorsport team at Crewe, running it at events also.

Malcolm Wilson 02

“We do for Bentley what we did earlier for Ford, an entire project: design, develop, manufacture and build the GT3. We run their race programme, we sell their cars worldwide to teams and private customers. A prestigious job – fantastic.” So without Ford’s millions but a technical tie-up still, M-Sport is ‘self-sufficient…positive again’.  

M-Sport’s customer base has spiralled over two years. Through its own good performances in the WRC, M-Sport wins the custom of private teams contesting all levels. “We feel very confident about our latest investment – our biggest ever. We were nearly out of space. With an additional 112,000 sq ft factory and test track we can do more and more in-house and look to increase our manufacturing.”

Malcolm’s past is still a dream, he admits. “My parents had a car breakers’ yard. I loved rallying as a youngster. Just to take part in a rally was my hope – not necessarily to win, but to enjoy a sport I loved. Immediately I could drive it was all I wanted. I started rally driving in 1974, at 17.

“Essentials, I realised, were a natural ability for driving, the rest being hard work. I was fortunate. I had early success, getting recognition in 1975. In 1977, at 21, I had my first factory drive.”

But he was also interested in business. “I started in a garage at home in 1979. I was 23 and saw opportunity for business in motorsport. I’ve had a fantastic career, always with goals, like I’d stop rally driving at 40. I did. There were other things I wanted to do.

“When I was an aspiring national rally driver, hand-fettling my Mk2 Escort hoping to emulate Roger Clark, any idea of responsibility for Ford’s World Rally programme was a pipedream” he recalls. “Now we’ve grown as a company. We cope with pressures and cater for more private teams than ever.

“In 2006, we won the FIA Manufacturers’ World Rally Championship with the Ford Focus RS WRC06 – our first world championship win. We delivered the trophy to Ford, their first WRC title since 1979, and repeated it in 2007.”

Appointed OBE in 2009, Malcolm had set up with £100. “By 1996 when we got the Ford contract, I already had, worldwide, lots of good customers. We won 11 regional championships in places like the Middle East, Portugal, Greece.”

Ford had appointed him after his personal venture beat Ford’s outfit. His team of 18 within months became 106 descending on Monte Carlo for round one of the 1997 championship. Converted farm buildings at Cockermouth, to which the business had relocated earlier, were inadequate, so initially Ford work was done at its Boreham site in Essex. “Dovenby Hall was in a terrible condition then. A purpose built factory, brownfield instead, would have been easier. But I wanted to create something unique – so that even if something went wrong, Ford would think twice about moving back South – even if they got rid of me.

Ford reservations were understandable, and many still can’t understand, Malcolm says.  “Yet we’ve proved everyone wrong. Here we employ top people of many different nationalities. All have settled in Cumbria, and there’s no problem recruiting when someone does occasionally move on.

“We appear to be a training ground for the likes of Red Bull Formula l team. Someone wishing to get to Formula l may come to us first. It becomes known that if people have worked for us for a reasonable time they must be ok.”

In Mexico it’s still recounted that a rally car rolled into a lake and was submerged for 10 hours. M-Sport got it out, dried it off, and enabled it to finish the rally and get a world championship point.

Before Dovenby Hall re-opened in 2000, 38 properties on both sides of the country were considered. Almost 30 suggested by Allerdale Council were ruled out. Then a planning officer suggested the empty, sorrowful looking Dovenby Hall Estate. The council and support agencies gave expertise and loans; £12m went into reviving the listed building. Malcolm, with Northern Developments at Carlisle, focused on retaining originality, wood panelling and all. Designers worked empathetically.

From a dilapidated and disused hospital, the old manor house set in 115 acres became seamlessly wed by glazed walkway to a hangar-like workshop and final assembly area. A huge walled garden had been remodelled into a facility larger than many Formula 1 teams have. The hall provides offices. Original 12th Century stonework stands out and walls bear the names of drivers who’ve rallied Fords to victory.

“Like most companies, we’ve had growing pains,” Malcolm tells. “I’d do it again, though capital’s harder to access. We got from English Partnerships roughly £1.5m first time round. Dealing with banks was a lot easier then too.

A Swedish firm, like M-Sport, makes rallycross cars. But all Ford rally cars are built at Dovenby. Almost 2,000 competing globally are moving tributes to that. The R2 can be bought as a kit. But four wheel drives are built and serviced at Dovenby, and return also after any crash. Krakow is a miniaturised Dovenby but without engineering and design.

M-Sport’s a limited company owned by Malcolm, his wife Elaine and son Matthew, 28 – also a former driver. Is Malcolm hands-on?  “Technology has moved so fast that to run a business now on this scale and still be involved in every technical aspect of the cars isn’t possible.”

Rallying has taken him as far as New Zealand. But it was in Spain he turned out his biggest team for one rally: 146 in all, 45% of the entry being Cumbrian built Ford Fiestas. Proudest moments? “Winning the World Rally Championship for Ford in 2006. It was 27 years since Ford had last won it.”

Does he ever feel he’s lord of the manor amid such gracious surroundings and so widely admired an organisation? “I take pride in ensuring everyone looks after the place. It’s somewhere special and an incredible workplace too. Guys in the design office can look out over the fells…”

Malcolm Wilson 03With Ford support, the team reportedly made Colin McRae the highest paid rally driver ever on £3m a year. Today M-Sport can only pay its drivers a fraction of that, or indeed what competing manufacturers such as Hyundai, Volkswagen and Citroen pay their drivers.

“We’ve just had one of our least successful rally seasons,” he affirms. No issue, though. “We took a gamble with two very young drivers, Elfyn Evans from Wales and Ott Tanak from Estonia.”

They’re still learning their trade in his words, but promising a good future. Any Northern firms feeling ‘Northern Powerhouse’ should exist in motorsport might be interested that while M-Sport will always value hearing from any car manufacturer, it also welcomes chatting with any firm interested in gaining international exposure through sponsorship.  

Opportunities exist in both the rallies and the race programmes and, says Malcolm: “The rally programme is global for events in the WRC. We’re going to China this year, for example – the first time for over 10 years. We’ve a good global outreach and clever marketing ideas.”