BMC DRIVING SCHOOL

Why the BMC. Driving School was setup.

It was around September 1960 with the Motor Show on the horizon and four cars in the catalogue that could exceed 100mph, the company had become concerned at the ability of their Sales and Service representatives to demonstrate the capabilities of these cars to the full. Accordingly, BMC. instituted an Advanced Driving School, based at Abingdon, which was headed by ex-Police Sergeant H. J. Shillabeer. Using a Wolseley 6/90 for instruction, which will take the form of a high-speed driving course together with normal instruction based on the Police Driving Manual. The course will finish with a written examination.

Memories of BMCs Driving School at Abingdon by John Bayley, Morris Commercial Apprentice.

To many, Morris Commercial and Austin Apprentices, a chance to attend the BMC Advanced Driving course was a highlight in their time served with the company. Three whole weeks with good food, good friends and driving fast cars, by the standard of the day, and leaning car control skills not yet mastered. With several hundred company car drivers on the road at all times, it was inevitable that accidents would happen.

It was even suggested that, with cars rolling off the production line every minute in several plants across the country, the firm's fleet was easily replaced and that an attitude of irresponsibility towards careful driving was rife.


Now, as one of those drivers, along with many ex-apprentices, I knew of no such attitude. However, the enormously high cost of insurance, even with an excess well above the value of the car, my claim may not be valid. Most ex-apprentices that remained with the company after their term will have enjoyed the experience.

It was decided that action was needed to reduce the accident rate, and the BMC Advanced Driving School was the result. I believe it started in the late 50s based at the MG works at Abingdon. It was headed up by Harry Shillabeer, a recently retired Hendon Police chief driving examiner, and two or three of his instructor colleagues.

The course was of three weeks' duration, as previously mentioned, and the delegates were accommodated at the Plough Inn in Clifton Hamden, a delightful venue with the most wonderful food. Day one of the course was an introduction to the next three weeks. Harry would inform everyone that it was to be fun, good food was going to be enjoyed during the day and in the evening, and that the object of the exercise was to train us to drive at the highest speed possible, but in complete safety. This era was before national speed limits. We would spend time at a skid pan learning vital car control techniques. In addition, but very importantly, we had to learn many parts of the police driving manual "Roadcraft" by heart and the remainder of it very well, because a written theory test would need to be taken towards the end of the course.

From now on we would be separated into teams of three, with the instructor making four, allocated an Austin Westminster or Wolseley 6/110 and off we would go, taking it in turns at the wheel and being given instruction on all aspects of advanced driving. When not at the wheel, the two delegates in the back could brush up on the manual, but taking the mickey out of the driver was always encouraged. As Harry said, the more you enjoy the more you will learn.

I cannot remember all the towns and resorts we visited during the course, but Lyme Regis, Bridport and St Neots in Cambridgeshire come to mind. A nice lunch was enjoyed and then more tuition in the afternoon. One of the rules was that no speed limit should be exceeded by more than 10 miles per hour, or you are buying the next lunch for your team. However, if you were stopped for driving above a limit but within the extra 10 mph, the legal position was your problem.

Because most of us loved driving the course was thoroughly enjoyable up to the time for the examinations. The theory test was a written affair and based largely on the police drivers' manual "Roadcraft". The final day was the practical test with just you and Hatry Shillabeer. One and a half to two hours driving as fast as you safely could and being challenged the whole time on your observational skills. Nerve racking it most certainly was. My test began sitting in the car, wringing wet in perspiration, waiting for Harry. He got in the car and talked a little while about anything other than driving, to cool me down, and then said "Let's start. Drive through Abingdon towards Dorchester and the test will start at the de-restriction sign leaving the town. Up till that point, John, you can do what you like."

The test covered all sorts of driving conditions and roads, and the commentary section demanded that you described everything you saw, how far ahead you were looking, every road sign, and every vehicle that was visible. It was necessary to look so far ahead to give you chance to get your commentary in, unless you could talk as quickly as Sir Peter 0' Sullivan did at the Grand National. At the end of the test, it was that awful waiting until all the participants had taken theirs. Believe me, that was nerve racking.


It was a great testament to the quality of the course that a very high percentage attained a first class pass, with varying scores from 85 upwards. The actual score was not recorded on your certificate, and, therefore some people's claims may have become shrouded in ambiguity. My claim of 99% is definitely one of them, but will you settle for the correct score of 94%?

The other offering from this school was the advanced commercial driving course. This was two weeks long and was usually attended after successfully passing the one previously described. Many of the principles were exactly the same, but many other factors came to prominence. More of these later.

We started off this encounter in a Mobile Training Unit, (MTU) which was equipped with five comfortable seats in the cab area. If my memory serves me correctly, these MTUs were fitted with a five speed gearbox and two-speed Eaton differentials. Mastering the technique of split shifting was a priority. Our journeys varied from the car course to take in narrow roads, village schools and built up industrial areas more in keeping with the experience expected of a lorry driver.

When not in the MTU other vehicles employed on this course were an articulated lorry, with a 40 foot flatbed trailer and, for good measure, an off road experience in an Austin Gypsy. The artic was to be driven through London, small villages and past schools at finishing time to hone your skills in all-round conditions.

The observation exercise was the same as on the car course, but with additions. Many more traffic signs, involving weight, height, speed and others became important. Driving at a much higher level from the road improved the view across the fields on country roads and this was invaluable to avoid meeting other commercial vehicles on bends, which was always frowned upon. Once again the commentary was mandatory, and I am reminded by another ex-apprentice, David Pusey, of a part of the commentary being given by the late, and much missed Duncan Smith. It went something like this:- "The weather is fine and sunny and the roads are dry, visibility is excellent, there's no traffic in front of me, or coming towards me, my mirror check shows there's nothing behind me. In the field on my left is a herd of cows, the nearest one having its tail in the air having a p and is, therefore, unlikely to jump the hedge, and that's your .....lot. "

As you can see much enjoyment was derived from this adventure, but I understand it proved successful when checked against the insurance premiums, in the same way as the car course. All company drivers took part, no matter how long they had been driving for the company.

Many of you will have your own experiences of the school, but I suspect very few have gone through life driving about and experiencing emergency situations without, at some point thinking, my training helped me there. I have done many times.

Metropolitan Driving School Skid Pan

One highlight of the course was to have a day on the Metropolitan Driving School Skid Pan.Standing in the hallway at the Metropolitan Driving School in Hendon, I overheard a student reciting the following couplet:

'Mirror, mirror in the car, Most important part by far.'

However, more of that later. A day at Hendon is one of the fascinating ones enjoyed by the students of the B.M.C. Advanced Driving School, which is run at the M.G. works at Abingdon by Mr. Harry Shillabeer, himself a one-time instructor at Hendon.

The three-week course at Abingdon caters for employees whose job it is to drive or demonstrate BMC cars with the object of raising their standard as skilful and safe driver to the highest possible level. As might be expected the method used by the police at Hendon are the basis of the BMC. course and each student is given a copy of the police driving manual Roadcraft, as well and the Highway Code.


The theme of Roadcraft is what is known as the system of Car Control which is firstly the selection of the correct position of the car up to and through a hazard, secondly adjusting for the correct speed for that hazard, and thirdly the selection of the correct gear for that speed and that hazard, so that acceleration may possibly be used to stabilize the car through and out of the hazard.

Hendon Police College
Early picture of the Hendon Police College (Gettyimages)

Looking Back

Great stress is placed on the use of the rear-view mirror; for example hand signals are useless if there is no one on the road, front or behind to heed them, and heavy braking should never be resorted to without glancing in the mirror first to see if there is a vehicle coming up behind. Hence in commentary, students are heard to say 'mirror signal' or 'mirror, brakes' and hence the jingle quoted earlier.

Commentary driving is a mean of improving a driver's powers of concentration and simply means that he describes aloud the features an hazards as he observes them in front of him, and also the action he intend to take to minimise and negotiate the hazard.

On Watch

By this means the driver is trained to observe anything ahead which might constitute a danger, such as mud on the road, or the view of person's feet under a waiting bus, or the sudden puff of exhaust smoke from a stationary car. Our party was shown round the classrooms at Hendon and we saw road models as well as sectioned engines and gearboxes, used to give, the students a full knowledge of the 'innards' of the cars they will be driving on police duty.

We tumbled over ourselves to find out our ‘reaction time, that is the fraction of a second between seeing that the brakes must be applied and the actual instant when the brakes begin to act. The tester is a mock-up car with a steering-wheel and clutch, brake and throttle pedals. The idea is to push the throttle pedal until the speedometer shows 30 m.p.h. and then, when a hazard appears across a screen in front of the driver, to clap on the brakes. The 'thinking time' is recorded electrically and there was great rivalry to clock a good figure.

Later we were treated to a wonderful demonstration of skidding and sliding on the police skid pan by P.C. Bill Mason, a delightful craftsman, driving a Wolseley 6/90 with very hard, bald tyres. Then it was the students' turn and a happy day at Hendon came to an end with each one showing off his prowess at the wheel of a skidding car under the gentle and authoritative words of Bill Mason.

PS. The Driving School moved from Abingdon to Cowley in the late 1970s. If your have fond memories, or pictures of the school, please contact me John Baker at info@austinmemories.com