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Williams has an ever-growing catalogue of illustrious Grand Prix cars. Now these two men must dovetail this sumptuous history with the high-flying Formula 1 team of today Writer Simon Arron, photographer Matthew Howell

The northern end of the A338 is something of a throwback, a reminder that Britain can still be a nice place to drive as it cuts between open countryside, the landscape speckled with pheasants and sheep. Close to Grove, Oxon, a small roundabout interrupts the flow and filters into a smart engineering complex, set back discreetly from the main road. There are no ceremonial placards to tell the wider world what goes on here, nor what has been achieved, but a sign by the roadside reads, very simply, 'Williams F1'.

The Grand Prix team is based here, of course, as are Williams Advanced Engineering and, between them, the Williams Conference Centre, which does what it says on the tin and also houses the family museum – the Williams Collection. For the past year or so, this has been the platform for another new business, Williams Heritage, whose mission is to preserve, showcase, run, sell and service cars from the team's back catalogue. It is overseen by Jonathan Williams, Sir Frank's son, and Dickie Stanford, who first joined the company 30 years ago and has since served as chief mechanic and F1 team manager, among other things.

The main exhibition hall is notable for its striking ambience, darkness prevailing but subtle spotlights picking out many a purposeful line. At the time of our visit, only one car stood apart from the F1 silhouettes, an ex-Alain Menu Renault Laguna that Williams Touring Car Engineering once ran in the BTCC. There is much more to this, however, than the display area.

"The museum houses what we call our 'prime' cars," Williams says. "There are 123 chassis on the books at present – we sold about 10 last year – and the company owns 120. We are custodians of the other three, although one of those [not on view] is an Earth Dreams Honda F1 car from 2008…"

Stanford elaborates: "It belongs to Rubens Barrichello, but he has yet to pick it up. He asked us to collect it from the Honda/Brawn factory and store it for him, which we did, but now he needs to pay for it to be freighted to Brazil. We're still waiting…"

Although the Williams F1 tale began with Frank Williams Racing Cars, in 1969, there is nothing here that pre-dates 1978, when Patrick Head's first Williams Grand Prix Engineering chassis, the FW06, was launched.

"I recall Bobby Rahal sending my dad a note," Williams says, "telling him that an ex-Piers Courage Brabham BT26 was coming on the market and wondering whether he'd be interested. But he said, 'For this museum, it's the Patrick Head cars onwards. The earlier stuff is part of my history, but I don't want it in a museum that should represent where Patrick and I started'. He has been very consistent on that.

"At Goodwood in 2009, though, there were two 40th anniversary celebrations – one for my father's time in F1 and the other for the Porsche 917. It had never occurred to me that the two things coincided! The Goodwood team sourced a few older cars with Williams associations and there was a De Tomaso 505 among them. Dad was being wheeled around, stopped by the De Tomaso and said, 'Wow, that's so pretty. I haven't seen one of those since the early 1970s'. I thought it would be a difficult car for him, because of its association with Piers' fatal accident at Zandvoort, but it really caught his attention and he even mentioned that he'd quite like to own it, which threw me, although the idea was never pursued."

In relatively recent times, the only obvious interloper in the collection was an ex-Alain Prost 641, from 1990. "In its own way," Williams says, "even that was part of our history. We'd signed a contract to run Jean Alesi in 1991, then Ferrari made a fairly late bid for him because Nigel Mansell had unexpectedly announced his retirement at Silverstone.

"Dad did once say that he'd like to dedicate a small corner of the museum to our competitors' cars – a Piquet Brabham BT49, a McLaren MP4/2 and so on. That was his thinking at the time, so the 641 was part of our settlement with Ferrari. I think we got some money, but we also got the car. We had it for 12 years. It was fully operational – and even went back to Italy for a complimentary service – but we eventually sold it on. It was becoming too much of a star attraction in what was supposed to be a Williams museum, simply because it was so distinctive."

With a set amount of space and an inventory that will but grow in future years, the museum is likely to become thematic, with a rotating cast and areas set aside for the company's non-F1 projects, such as the aforementioned Laguna, the Le Mans-winning BMW V12 LMR of 1999 and the MG Metro 6R4. In F1 terms, though, the post-Head collection is complete.

"We have at least one of everything from the FW06 to the FW36," Williams says, "and hopefully in a year or so we'll get a very good FW37. We even have cars that didn't race, most notably the FW08B six-wheeler and also the FW15D, a passive version of the C that was used for testing early in 1994, prior to the arrival of the FW16. That was a Senna test car, although it was quite well used by the time he arrived in January 1994. It had been fettled around Prost and Hill, but Senna used a bigger steering wheel and his hands began rubbing on the cockpit sides. During testing, the factory gave permission for a travelling composites technician to make a small adjustment to the cockpit surround."

Stanford adds: "The modification was tiny and we were all wondering whether it was actually worth it, but it did the trick."

Not only are the cars present and correct, then, but most of them are still operational – despite obvious hurdles such as software obsolescence. Readers with long memories might recall a Motor Sport feature from five years ago, when Damon Hill's Williams FW18 cut out during the F1 world championship's 60th anniversary celebration in Bahrain. At the time, Stanford and his team were unable to interrogate the chassis because their MS-DOS laptop was on the blink and nobody at the circuit knew how to fix it.

"Happily," Stanford says, "there is now a company that can take a modern laptop and convert it to run older software such as MS-DOS. In that particular incident with Damon and the FW18, we pulled the fuel tank to bits that night and then realised the problem had in fact been a consequence of running too high a gear at too few revs, which the Renault alternator didn't like. After we put it all back together, we told him to use low gears with high revs and the problem went away…"

Williams: "It was pretty much what happened to Nigel Mansell at Montréal on the final lap in 1991. He was trundling around a first-gear hairpin in third, waving to the crowd, and the Renault alternator couldn't keep up. The car fired up perfectly in the garage after being towed back, which made it all the more painful."

Some cars are likely to remain ever static – there aren't enough parts to run the Honda-powered FW09 or FW10, for instance, but Williams Heritage retains two Honda engines and can operate an FW11. "The FW14B's active systems still work, too," Stanford says. "In fact we got it up and running not so long ago."

Williams: "Yes, up, running and stalling – although it was an engine problem rather than anything to do with the active ride."

Stanford: "It turned out that we had a Ligier-spec engine, which we didn't know at the time. Their V10s were the same as ours, but once up and running the engine was looking for Ligier electronics that we didn't have. Sorting that out is a future project."

Williams: "It was just one of those things. We were due three engines from Renault and obviously nobody noticed that one was originally from a Ligier – we didn't find that out until 2012! We were attempting some straight-line running and the same thing happened twice, once with Valtteri Bottas and once with Karun Chandhok. It would be fine in first gear, then they'd select second and you'd hear brr-brr-brr followed by silence as it coasted to a halt. It wasn't so much powered by Renault back then as by a Land Rover Discovery, which we kept using to tow it back."

Rest assured, though, that the car will run again. The intention is to operate the fleet at as many suitable events as possible – the Goodwood Festival of Speed is an obvious destination – albeit purely on a demonstration basis.

"These cars were designed to run at a very high limit," Williams says, "but when you run at the kind of level heritage operations require, they are actually relatively simple. If you bring them back from the threshold of trying to hustle around Silverstone in 1min 20sec, or whatever, and say 'Let's try to get around Silverstone in 1min 50sec', they become quite user-friendly."

There are sound reasons for not wanting to see the cars returning to full competitive mode.

"We've just turned down a trip to Suzuka with the FW18," Stanford says, "because from the information we'd seen it was clear the event was likely to turn into some kind of race – and obviously we don't want to risk damage to Damon's title-winning car.

"All the cars in our collection are special and we don't want to have to repair a monocoque. They are as they were at the end of their racing careers, although they have been cleaned and rebuilt."

That brings us to FW19/4, individually the most successful of all the team's chassis. "Jacques Villeneuve used it from the second race of 1997 all the way through to the seasonal finale at Jerez," Williams says. "He used the same car to take all but one of his poles, all his wins and every point that counted towards that title. It's also the car with which Michael Schumacher got physical in Jerez. You can still see the dents the Ferrari's wheel left. There was a rumour that we'd left the tyre mark on it and that a diligent cleaner removed it two years later, but…"

Stanford: "There was a tyre mark, but it had already been cleaned off when the car left the track. The period scuff around the air intake is still there, though."

The idea for Williams Heritage came about because cars in the collection weren't really doing a great deal. "From time to time a car would be packed off to Goodwood or wherever," Stanford says, "then we thought, 'Hang on. We've got all these assets, with engines, so why don't we get them out there?'"

Williams acknowledges the input of the firm's CEO Mike O'Driscoll and says, "Mike has been here two years and has a very good grasp of heritage. He saw value in the team's past endeavours and that gave us quite a strong platform, because it's not as though we've been in the championship for a decade and have enjoyed a couple of good seasons. We've been around for 40-odd years, with 16 championship titles, 114 wins as I speak and, as of 2014, we were a top-three team once again. We felt there was something to pursue. The budgets for such things are a bit chicken and egg: you can't throw money at it from the start but have to build up as you go along."

Stanford: "We have to prove that we can make it a profitable business before we evolve."

For now, that means borrowing spare mechanics from the factory on the far side of the car park – those who work on the current F1 chassis but don't travel to Grands Prix – but in time Williams Heritage hopes to employ its own. That doesn't mean, though, that new 'old' Williams models will suddenly enter the market – it's simply part of the process to service what already exists.

"The only exception," Williams says, "is an ex-Carlos Reutemann FW07C tub we still have, where feasibly we could make up a new car around an original chassis. I can't see us building anything else."

Stanford adds, "We have drawings and it would be quite easy to take a mould from an old set of FW07 bodywork, because unlike modern cars they are not difficult shapes. We'd have to go to a fibreglass specialist, though, because we no longer have any of those at the factory!"

The entry-level to Williams ownership? It's probably an ex-show car, one that has been stripped down at the end of its racing life and lightened as much as possible to save freight costs during a worldwide tour of shopping malls. "You might find such a car that was driven by somebody like Juan Pablo Montoya," Williams says. "It will have a podium finish under its belt: it won't have an engine or gearbox, and the pedals might be missing, but it is the real thing."

The Williams store rooms are, predictably, a frequent source of intrigue.

"We come across lots of things that make you think, 'That caused us aggro' or, 'Those were good – we stuck them on and they stayed'," Stanford says. "I was looking for some BMW hydraulics recently and came across two complete valve blocks for the FW23, still in their protective wrapping. They'd been machined, put in the stores and then never touched. The amount of work that had gone into making them…"

Such things come as more of a surprise to folk from beyond the factory gates than they do to those within. "We had some clients here not long ago," Williams says, "and one had worked on the design side with two now-defunct F1 teams. He was very impressed with our physical inventory. Where he'd worked, everything simply used to get binned.

"We have a good recollection of procedures and also still have technicians who were very important to our programme in the 1990s. They remain so now. We don't have the means or resources to run an FW15C in the same way that we did in 1993, perhaps, but with our expertise and operational hardware we can operate it in a way that doesn't compromise its integrity.

"Do we have every part from every drawing that has been drafted since WGPE was formed in 1977? No we don't, but I reckon we have about 95 per cent…"