Motoring with the Monarchy

by Kristian Harrison

Sun, 07 May 2023

Motoring with the Monarchy

With the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III taking place this month, Kristian Harrison takes a look at the storied history of the British monarchy’s love affair with cars and takes a peek into the many garages of the new sovereign.

It won’t surprise you to know that the UK has an entire fleet of royal cars, which are usually housed at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace unless stationed at other royal residences when required.

However, did you know that King Charles III owns a vintage Aston Martin which runs on cheese? Now you do!

Before we go into that, it’s important to understand that there are various categories which all vehicles encompassed by the Crown’s umbrella are separated into.

The most important of these is State Cars, which are used for public engagements and on ceremonial occasions by the monarch or visiting heads of state. There are currently five of these: two Bentleys and three Rolls-Royces. Almost as important are the Royal Review Vehicles, which are modified cars designed for use at official parades and ceremonies, currently consisting of two Range Rovers. 

The prestige of these cars are noticeable by two important distinctions. Firstly, by their dual-toned exterior: the lower sections are painted in Royal Claret (a deep maroon), while the upper sections are painted Masons Black. Secondly, they don’t require registration plates, the only vehicles in the UK granted this exception alongside the State Hearse, first used last year for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The third and final class is the Semi-State Cars, which do have plates and are used for less formal situations and general support. These currently consist of a pair of 2012 Jaguar XJ Limousines and three 1992 Daimler DS420 Limousines. Of course, there is a whole array of other vehicles, used for security convoys, logistics, transporting larger numbers and a plethora of other reasons, which are used as and when needed.

Of course, whilst these cars are used for public events and pageantry, it’s the royal family’s private collection which turns most heads. No nation with the UK’s historical background and global diplomatic reach could fail to have built up quite the showcase, especially considering its figureheads have long been petrolheads themselves!

Indeed, the first royal motorist was King Edward VII, who in June 1900 (whilst still Prince of Wales), took delivery of his first car, a 6bhp Daimler Mail Phaeton. The future king continued to be an enthusiastic promoter of ‘horseless carriages’, and following his accession to the throne in 1901 he awarded Daimler, Britain’s first automotive manufacturer, his royal warrant. 

The Royal Mews, previously used explicitly for horses and carriages, was converted into a garage for the motor cars and Edward ordered another new Daimler: a 22bhp ‘touring carriage’ to be used for travelling in both in the UK and mainland Europe.

The first time a motor car was used by the King for an official engagement was on October 19, 1904, when he was driven to and from Woolwich Garrison in a 36bhp Daimler with a limousine body.

This passion continues until this day. Whilst it was no secret that Queen Elizabeth II’s greatest love was horses, she shared almost as much affection for electrical transport too. She was an enthusiastic motorist, particularly when ferrying visiting dignitaries across the moors of Balmoral in her Land Rover. She was an army ambulance driver in WWII and was also more than familiar with what goes on under the bonnet, having trained as a mechanic aged 18. Right up until her death and throughout her 70-year reign, the Queen was seen behind the wheel almost as much as she was in the back seat.

Shortly after her accession in 1952, the royal warrant was stripped from Daimler and given to Rolls-Royce. No one knows the exact reasons why, but the most likely reason is a Rolls-Royce factory visit undertaken by the Queen and Prince Philip, where the latter became particularly enamoured with a new experimental vehicle that was being created. It was duly delivered to the couple a year later and instantly became their preferred vehicle for royal obligations.

Despite the wealth of choice available to Her Majesty throughout her reign, it’s often said her favourite car was a 1961 Vauxhall Cresta PA Friary Estate. It had particular quirks to suit her outdoorsy lifestyle, with bespoke modifications including fishing rod holders built into the roof, a dog guard for her corgis and a gun rack, as well as custom Imperial Green paintwork. It remains in the royal garage at Sandringham today, the same estate where she could often be seen driving a young Prince Charles around.

This same Charles is the biggest petrolhead in the family… or should that be biofuelhead? The climate-conscious king has retrofitted many of the Royal Family’s cars to run on environmentally-friendly fuels almost as a passion project.

With more than 100 cars said to be in his private collection, it’s impossible to list them all and indeed half of them undoubtedly remain top secret. However, he does have some absolute crackers tucked away.

Take for example his 1970 Aston Martin DB6 MkII Volante, given to him as a gift by his mother for his 21st birthday. In 2008, as much as he loved driving this vintage sports car, he wanted to do so guilt-free. Fortunately, he was approached by engineers at Aston Martin who claimed they could make it run on white wine and a cheese by-product called whey thrown into the mix, named E85. Despite concerns it would ruin the car, Charles discovered it ran better than ever and once exclaimed that his car “smells delicious as you’re driving along.”

That’s not the only epic snippet of trivia about this beautiful beast. HRH hired Thruxton circuit and the services of two-time Formula One world champion Graham Hill to help him get to grips with the 148mph machine and the monarch also stuck a fake red ‘eject’ button on the dashboard, a la James Bond, designed to make his passengers nervous.

Another of King Charles’ favourites is a 1989 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante, actually given as a gift from Bahrain’s late Emir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, to which he added a manual gearbox and Balmoral Green paintwork, making it much the same as the one James Bond drove in 1987’s The Living Daylights.

Of course, you’re unlikely to see the King driving around London in these. In fact, these days he almost exclusively uses an all-electric Jaguar I-Pace bought in 2019, thanks to its emission-free running helping to reduce air pollution in the capital.

Electric vehicles will no doubt be the way forward for the green-thinking monarchy, especially with Charles at the helm, but let’s hope he brings out some of the rare vintage for truly special occasions.