Ben Collins: Surrey, The Stig and the books that have shaped me

PUBLISHED: 11:50 07 August 2020 | UPDATED: 14:58 07 August 2020

Ben Collins was The Stig on Top Gear for eight years. Image: Dickie Dawson

Ben Collins was The Stig on Top Gear for eight years. Image: Dickie Dawson

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Ahead of the release of his new book, ASTON MARTIN: Made in Britain, Ben Collins describes a pivitol journey to Surrey which led him to become Top Gear’s The Stig

Surrey life began for me in 2002 when I got lost driving over the hog’s back on my way to an interview. Sat nav was still a futuristic vision, one that only led you to the first few digits of a post code, and the former secret military base I was looking for wasn’t on there.

The picturesque villages around Godalming with their pretty red brick buildings and ornate greens came as something of a surprise being so close to London. There was no time to savour the view because I was in danger of being late so I thumped through the gears to reach my destination.

As an aviation buff, Dunsfold Aerodrome was a heavenly facility with its history as a World War 2 fighter base and subsequently where the Harrier Jump Jet was developed. Past the security gates and a knackered Hawker Hunter jet fighter there were some large, tired iron sheds that turned out to be the grandly renamed Top Gear studios. A dilapidated portable office overlooked the figure-8 section of tarmac that was to become home for the next eight years.

It was here that I met the orchestrator of the program, Andy Wilman, as he shuffled out of his car bearing a clutch of folders. He ushered me into a Ford Focus and I lapped the circuit while he timed me on a stop watch. It was a hot day and the brakes did well not to catch fire. As for my progress I was none the wiser on whether I had passed muster until I received a call booking me for my first job on the program as a character called The Stig.

Not far away was another mecca of speed at Brooklands aerodrome and racing circuit near Weybridge, a venue that features heavily in my book about Aston Martin. Brooklands was built to gargantuan proportions to accommodate the fastest machines in the world back in 1907 but it was so well designed that with a little preservation we could have been using it today to host the world’s fastest motor races.

Watching Aston Martin come full circle over a century since it began in Lionel Martin’s mews garage and tracing the outlandish characters who developed the succession of superlative designs ever since has really changed my perception of British engineering and its’ adaptability. You can see that today with Surrey-based F1 teams like McLaren manufacturing advanced PPE equipment.

The story of Aston Martin is about their pursuit of perfectionism and I hope that it will inspire the next generation of budding engineers to dive in, think out of the box and keep innovating. If I promise to behave myself, perhaps they will let me have a go in their latest creations.

My Life in books

The book I loved as a child...

I resisted every adult campaign to convert me into a literate member of society. I escaped their clutches by discovering the Garfield series by Jim Davis and my passion for pithy, entertaining yarns began.

The book that inspired me as a teenager…

Contact by Carl Sagan. With his total command of complex Astro-Physics he was still able to makethe subject relatable to an ignoramus like me as his story ripped through space, while weaving athrilling narrative about mankind’s first contact with Extra Terrestrials.

The book I’ve never finished…

There’s a long list. The Enid Blyton series that I escaped through numerous windows. And, shamefully, Lord of the Rings a capital sin which leaves me damned to face a horde of Orks in the afterlife.

The book that moved me the most…

Chickenhawk by Robert Mason relates his Vietnam War experiences as a ‘Huey’ pilot and by the end of his descriptions of basic training you feel like you could fly one yourself. His sense of irony hits you deep in the pit in your stomach.

The book I’m reading now...

Jack Reacher: A Wanted Man. Reacher is fixing more problems with an elbow strike to the temple and has picked up my thirst for a serial where I left off with Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ series.

- ASTON MARTIN: Made in Britain by Ben Collins, published in hardback by Quercus on October 15 Ben will be speaking at this year’s Guildford Book Festival on Friday 9th October. Please check details on www.guildfordbookfestival.co.uk

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