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Declassified: RAF Hethel's New Life As A Lotus Test Track

Hundreds of aircraft used to take off from the base now hundreds of cars are tested on the old runway each year.

As part of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force, we have been taking a look at how old RAF bases are being used today, after being closed at the end of the Second World War.

In Norfolk, we explored the former site of RAF Hethel, which was home to an American bomb group during the 1940s.

During World War Two, its runway was the launchpad for a number of vital missions during the conflict.

The site is 55 acres, excluding the land taken up by the test track.

RAF Hethel Track CREDIT 389 Bomb group memorial museum RAF declassified
At the heart of RAF Hethel is the old runway, which was the launchpad for vital missions during World War Two (Picture: 389th Bomb Group Memorial Museum).

However, today, the runway launches a different kind of fast-moving technology; it is now part of the test track for Lotus sports cars.

Lotus Track RAF Declassified
Hundreds of planes used to take off from here, now hundreds of cars are tested on the old runway every year.

RAF Hethel was home to the 389th bomb group of the United States Army Air Forces, known as the Sky Scorpians.

The bomb group took part in dangerous missions, including a 1943 attack on Romania’s Ploiești oil fields, which supplied much of Germany’s fuel.

Old Hethel Track MUST CREDIT GROUP LOTUS PLC
The site is 55 acres, excluding the land taken up by the test track (Picture: Group Lotus PLC).

Now we know what the runway is being used for, but what about the rest of the site?

Clubhouse MUST CREDIT 389 bomb group memorial museum
Next to the track is the original control tower (Picture: 389th Bomb Group Memorial Museum).

In the 1940s, it was a key hub for the base, but now it has been refurbished and lives on as the company’s driving academy, fondly referred to as the club house.

Lotus Factory RAF declassified
Just yards from the former runway are the hangars. While they used to house warplanes, now they house a Lotus factory.

Around 2,000 vehicles are built by hand here each year.

Chapman-Esprit-JPS plane MUST CREDIT GROUP LOTUS PLC
Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars, with a Lotus Esprit and JPS plane (Picture: Group Lotus PLC)

The founder of the company, engineer Colin Chapman was an ex-RAF pilot, so it is easy to see why he was so keen to get his hands on the base.

Talking about Mr Chapman, Alastair Florance, who has worked on the site for decades, said: "He knew there were a number of air bases in East Anglia which were needing to be repurposed for other activities.

"At the time, Lotus was based in north London, and had outgrown its facilities. So in 1966, we moved here to Hethel.

"Having all the facilities and the buildings already there, when we moved here it meant that we were able to quickly start assembling cars and designing cars in the former hangars.

"I think the people who would have worked at this air force base during the war would actually be very interested in what we're doing with it now."