As the phrase goes, location location location.
The Megatron was probably the right idea at the wrong time in absolutely the wrong place. Even moved a few yards in either direction could well have made the difference between it being a giant white elephant and a sensation.
Originally conceived by a property developer from nearby Huntingdon, the pitch for the Megatron was that it had been the spaceship of a princess, with visitors getting to see the amazing interior of her ship as it served up food, along with a variety of other alien and robots.
Certainly now, in these days of upmarket burgers and viral sensations, a UFO shaped burger bar full of high tech, touch screen ordering and quirky sci-fi memorabilia is the sort of thing – with cat cafes and cereal cafes and dining experiences on a crane – that would smash through a Kickstarter target in hours.
But the past is another planet, and the £3million spent in 1989 making a quirky, distinctive destination for fast food connoisseurs proved to be too much for the VHS generation.
The location did not help. Plonked down around half a mile from RAF Alconbury, and just a stone’s throw from the house of Prime Minister John Major, it was technically next to an off-ramp on the main road between Peterborough and St Neots. But the steepness of the banking around it meant, apart from the odd flash of laser at night or a glimpse of the white domed tip, you couldn’t see it to know where to stop.
Passing trade was unlikely at best.
The thinking behind it was that having a cool burger bar near Alconbury would attract the US Air Force personnel to it, looking for a taste of home on their doorstep. But that overlooked the fact that Alconbury had its own fast food franchises on base thanks to Burger King. So instead of the captive audience of burger-deprived American service personnel, it was effectively just a large and expensive dome in the middle of the Cambridgeshire countryside.
Unsurprisingly, that’s what doomed it. By the time McDonald’s took over the site in 1994, it had already changed ownership a couple of times, with a reported weekly taking of less than a grand.
Trying to regenerate the McDonald’s stripped out the sci-fi touch screens and trappings, changed the exterior colour scheme to something more corporate, and introduced a traditional menu, ending up with this:
But even the experience of a corporate giant like McDonald’s wasn’t enough to save the Megatron, although incredibly it limped on for another decade before shutting for good in 2005.
In 2008 it was finally pulled down, demolished despite a bid to have the building listed, to make way for future developments that have yet to materialise. Satellite maps on Google still show the saucer, sitting unobtrusively on the roadside. But today, the site looks like this, with ongoing planning rows over an attempt to locate a travellers encampment on it.
First time I saw the Megatron was on, of all places, The Wide Awake Club. Timmy Mallett wandering the sci-fi environs of this strange fast food bar, wearing a pair of prism glasses (replicated with some effects on the camera) to make everything all sparkly and lens flare. I wondered if the Buck Rogers Burger Station was making a surprise comeback.
My father was transferring to RAF Alconbury soon after it opened. We were through visiting potential houses in the area ahead of the impending flit when the UFO shape of the Megatron caught my eye and sparked the memory of the Wide Awake Club. And thanks to pester power, we ended up going in for launch.
You entered down a slightly sloping corridor from the airlock doors, with strobe effects guiding you down. Inside the saucer, it was near enough empty. The pastel tables with their slatted lamps were unoccupied.
A giant alien looked down from the wall, overseeing proceedings. You ordered from a TARDIS console-like structure near the doors – one that was clearly, as anyone at school in the late 80s and early 90s would recognise, powered by an Acorn Archimedes, a fact important enough to make the official Acorn Christmas 1990 newsletter
Among the other memorable delights was pounding music and a rare copy of the Aliens side-scrolling game machine in their arcade section against the far wall.
The food was nothing to write home – standard burger bar fare, with a vaguely Wimpey-esque feel about it. Robot and star shaped chips and lukewarm burgers. I drove my parents mad asking to go back, even given how disappointing the food was. But the gimmick was amazing, especially for a pre-teen nerd in training.
I went back a few more times once we’d moved through, each time wondering how the place could survive given how rarely we saw anyone else in it. School pals visiting from our old home got dragged along to show off the big UFO sitting in the countryside.
But it wasn’t enough. Even before we moved a couple of years later the rumours were swirling locally that the Megatron was doomed, or had already shut. Just over a year after thatMcDonald’s acquired the site and began gutting the interior. Another sci-fi themed burger bar had bitten the dust.