As a member of the AJBA, or Association of Belgian Automotive Journalists we were kindly invited by the dynamic Ford PR department to spend a day at its Proving Ground in Lommel. Since 1965, FORD LPG is the only vehicle proving ground of Ford of Europe.
Impressive it is: its total track length is not less than 105 km, it operates 24 hours per day and this 7 days per week. The annual test mileage lies between 5 and 10 million km. Constant maintenance and further investments over the last 10 years cost some 50 million Euros.
The team is also considerable of course: not less than more than 90 engineers, more than 70 mechanics, close to 80 test drivers, more than 30 testers of electronic systems, 25 maintenance people and more than 20 supporting staff are active here.
It is good to know that the test track and its facilities can be hired by other manufacturers and suppliers for testing purposes and driver trainings can also be booked.
New models are subjected to a series of intense six-month durability tests at this Proving Ground in Belgium. As said, prototypes cover up to 10 million kilometres (6 million miles) – 250 round-the-world trips – in total, testing on the track, in Ford laboratories at temperatures ranging from -40 C to 50 C and at locations around the world.
The scope of what has to be tested on a car has of course also grown and widened over the years, as cars have now a wide array of driver assistance and aid systems, taking also further steps towards autonomous driving. Hence the ever growing team of testers of these electronic driving aid and of course also infotainment systems.
Testing the torsional rigidity, anti corrosion and mechanical solidity of the cars is of course still a very important part of the testing procedure. So the proving ground has every imaginable road surface in store to test all this, as well as corrosive salt spray tunnels and mud baths. A high speed oval is of course also present. Maximum speed in the banked curves is 220 km/h, on the straights a good 240 km/h. Of course one can go (much) faster, but then the tyres start to warm up too much, impairing test results and comparable measurements. We sum you here the main activities of the proving ground:
o Durability & Corrosion Testing
o Functional Testing like vehicle performance, brake performance , etc.
o Software & multimedia Testing
o Driver Assistance Technology Testing
o Vehicle Dynamics Testing & Development
o Noise, Vibrations & Harshness Testing & Development
o Manufacturing Quality Fleet testing
o Drive Training : internal only until 2021, external as from 2022
But that is not all. Before a single new vehicle reaches a customer, prototype models cover more than 500,000 kilometres (300,000 miles) of tough simulated customer driving. Called Voice-of-the-Customer (VOC) tests, these extensive evaluations are conducted by 100 members of the public who follow routes and operational procedures designed by engineers at Lommel that closely resemble those of target customers.
Fine handling is the hallmark of every Ford…
The DNA of every Ford car is embodied in its agility and fine, pleasurable handling, and therefore the proving ground has a wonderful handling course. An enormous circular skid path is also present and skid cars with hydraulic lifters which control and vary the grip on all four wheels are provided for test driver training.
Indeed, test driver training is understandably a very serious affair, tests have to be accurate, reliable, comparable with each other and identical in their procedure. The test drivers are helped in this by signals along the respective test tracks, indicating the speed to be driven and the gears to be chosen.
Driving is believing!
We were first taken along the various test tracks in Transit vans, being seriously shaken and stirred, but appreciating here already the enormous solidity and impressive road qualities of these vans. Then we had a stint on the training skid path with the skid cars, only to be treated after a light lunch to have a go behind the wheel of the Ford products. Your servant had the opportunity to put the hybrid Puma through its paces. We were invited to perform a high speed slalom test and braking test, in the wet of course. I must admit that the Puma was totally impressive for me, with excellent handling, enormous grip and power to match. A good reason to present you soon in these columns further test reports and driving impressions of Ford products!
Icing on the cake was a very fast tour along the handling course and the high speed oval with a Ford test driver at the wheel. Your servant jumped as passenger into the sleek Mustang 5 litre V8, and needless to say this was a very exhilarating drive, where the formidable handling qualities and balance of this Mustang were amply shown…
A wonderful day, which will be long remembered, and the DNA of Ford cars, its excellent handling and agility proved an eye opener for me…
Soon more driving impressions of Ford cars in these columns!
Hans Knol ten Bensel