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By royal appointment

Prince Philip’s passion for motoring helped drive the rise of Rolls-Royce and Bentley to become the Royal Family’s marques of choice, as Klaus-Josef Roßfeldt explains

It is no exaggeration to say that Prince Philip played a major role in making Rolls-Royce and Bentley official suppliers of motor cars to the Royal Family.

Up until the late 1940s, Daimler had held this prestigious position for decades. In addition to the State Cars in the Royal Mews, Princess Elizabeth’s personal car was a 1944 Daimler DB18 2½-Litre Saloon, registered JGY 280. And on 2 February 1948, a Daimler DE27, registered HRH 1, was presented to the royal couple as a wedding present, financed by contributions from members of the RAF and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

It is probably appropriate to cite the idiom “the best is the enemy of the good” as an explanation for the developments of 1948 that prompted Prince Philip to consider a change of marque. He had been invited on an inspection tour of Rolls-Royce’s factory at Crewe. The plant had been engaged exclusively in the production of aero engines during the Second World War but had been converted, from the ground up, with a view to motor car production, with aero engine building to be concentrated at the company’s Derby Works.

During his visit, a prototype car – or “experimental car” in Rolls-Royce parlance – was demonstrated to the prince, which was powered by an in-line eight-cylinder engine. This was the most powerful version of an engine series that had been developed with four, six and eight cylinders as a rationalised range to cover a wide spectrum of demands, from trucks to military vehicles, and was also capable of being employed as a stationary power plant (for driving winches or pumps, for instance). A particular advantage was the series’ “rationalised platform strategy”. Thanks to parts that were largely identical in construction (size and material), valves, pistons and the like could be produced in large quantities at a considerably reduced cost. An added bonus was that repairs could be undertaken quickly and with a minimum of special tools.

Such economic advantages were dwarfed, however, by the eight-cylinder car’s driving performance. With its powerful engine, the test car offered what, at the time, was breathtaking acceleration. This led the test drivers to coin a nickname – none of them called the test car the “Comet”, its official code name; instead, all referred to it as the “Scalded Cat”. It was Rolls-Royce practice not to restrict the use of experimental cars to works drivers, but to use them on a variety of occasions. This included service as VIP transport and on loan to critical or demanding customers to obtain their impressions and feedback.

Rolls-Royce did not hesitate to loan the prototype (chassis number 11BV) for a full week to the husband of Britain’s sovereign in waiting. The company also “let slip” that a second experimental car existed, equipped with the same powerful eight-cylinder engine but with more compact close-coupled saloon coachwork.

Both of these cars deserve closer examination. The first was a 1939 model developed on a Bentley Mark V chassis, a series that had an extremely short lifespan. Fewer than 20 Mark Vs were completed before the outbreak of the Second World War prevented progress beyond the pre-production stage. One chassis had been lengthened and modified so that the six-cylinder engine, intended as the power plant of the Mark V, could be substituted with an in-line eight-cylinder. During tests, the car achieved fabulous acceleration figures and a top speed in excess of 100mph.

In 1940, the car was shipped to Canada to avoid any risk of it being damaged during air raids. Four years later, it returned to England. In September 1947, it was fitted with a more advanced variant of the eight-cylinder engine, bored out to 6,516cc from 5.3 litres.

In his book Rolls-Royce and Bentley Experimental Cars, Ian Rimmer wrote, regarding 11BV, that Prince Philip “liked the car so much he was reluctant to return it”. It came as a relief, perhaps, when the car manufacturer was able to casually offer a different experimental car for direct comparison. Another test vehicle from the Crewe range sporting an eight-cylinder in-line engine had been built based on the Bentley Mark VI, using the standard steel sports saloon body from A-post to tail combined with “a stretched front”. The chassis was the rigid frame of the post-war vehicles, modified at the front to permit the installation of the relatively long in-line eight-cylinder engine. The engine’s length had also necessitated the repositioning of the radiator further forward. The car’s front suspension was less complicated than the pre-war design.

The car performed “with verve”, especially as the cast steel cylinder head had been replaced with an aluminium one, saving weight and providing better heat dispersion. It was an open secret why the new test car had been issued with the chassis number 2SC1 – the combination of letters was an abbreviation of “Scalded Cat”. As Rimmer wrote, “What started as a nickname became a model code.”

Until this point, Rolls-Royce had not seriously considered whether or not to compete directly with Daimler in the realm of cars with eight-cylinder engines, although there was already competition in the six-cylinder sector. However, Crewe faced a new situation when they received a specific request from Prince Philip – “Would Rolls-Royce be prepared to build an eight-cylinder car for him and Princess Elizabeth?” The management realised immediately that such a request provided the possibility of gaining, in the foreseeable future, the enormously prestigious status of supplier to the Royal Family. The company’s competitor Daimler had enjoyed the distinction of being the British monarchy’s motor car manufacturer “By Appointment” for half a century.

Without delay, Prince Philip received the reply that the car would be manufactured in strict accordance with his wishes. A vital component, of course, would be an in-line eight-cylinder engine of the type that had so impressed the prince during his excursions in the experimental cars. But instead of focusing on a single car, Crewe saw an opportunity to add a model to their portfolio with sufficient power to meet other demands, such as to propel heavily armoured State Cars. It was a small niche in a global market still suffering from the effects of the Second World War, and a very limited production was expected. Nonetheless, it would enhance Rolls-Royce’s prestige and benefit the company’s other models.

During the war, Rolls-Royce had outsourced its very limited car manufacturing activities to Clan Foundry in Belper, Derbyshire, and it was now decided to build the chassis for this new model there. This combined the advantages of secrecy with avoiding any disruption at Crewe. Chassis number 4AF2 was developed in close co-operation with coachbuilder HJ Mulliner, who would build the body, and London Rolls-Royce dealer Car Mart. Consultations with the latter during the summer of 1948 led to a formal order on 15 November 1948.

The car was to comply as precisely as possible with the wishes of Prince Philip. The customer was initially listed as “D of E”, which could be interpreted as the Duke of Edinburgh, but this was deleted in favour of the name “Nabha”. This was a ruse to keep the project confidential throughout the production process, implying that an exclusive order was being fulfilled for the Maharajah of Nabha. An Indian ruler with this title did exist and had a reputation for being enthusiastic about cars, however, it is unlikely that he was privy to the subterfuge.

Rolls-Royce had not yet decided on the new model’s designation. HJ Mulliner described it on their blueprint as a “Rolls-Royce special chassis fitted with limousine body”. The earliest entry in Rolls-Royce’s factory records refers to a “Silver Phantom”. There are reports that the Duke of Edinburgh made several visits to HJ Mulliner’s workshops to ensure the driver’s seat was tailored to exactly match his stature. A bench-type front seat, common on chauffeur-driven cars, was expressly rejected. Most of the work was executed simultaneously – the “running chassis” (the frame with all mechanical components) was built at Clan Foundry workshops, while the panels of the coachwork took shape in the Fulham works of HJ Mulliner.

With its wheelbase of 3,683mm (145in), the ladder frame, reinforced by a massive cruciform centre cross-member, offered space for a generously dimensioned passenger compartment. Thanks to the absence of D-posts intruding into the rear quarter lights, visibility was excellent, while rear doors almost 100cm (3ft) wide guaranteed comfortable entry and egress. This was all achieved without the need for a cramped front compartment, so Prince Philip was not compromised when he chose to take to the driving seat himself.

The car was propelled by an eight-cylinder engine with a capacity of 5,675cc and was fed by a single Stromberg carburettor. Its power output can be estimated at around 170bhp, but Rolls-Royce adhered to the marque’s custom of providing no exact horsepower figures. Transmission to the rear axle was via a four-speed manual gearbox, with the lever mounted to the right of the driver’s seat. Braking was applied by drums all round, front and rear, which were operated with light pedal pressure thanks to a gearbox-driven servo motor.

Public interest in the car focused not so much on its technical specifications but on the elegant semi-razor-edge lines of the coachwork and its luxurious fixtures and fittings. The leather front seats with cloth upholstery to the rear were typical of limousines with a partition. More unusual were the car’s right and left folding armrests – normally absent from chauffeur-driven cars. At Prince Philip’s request, a compass was mounted on the dashboard, as was a speedometer with scales in both miles and kilometres. The speedometer was obviously laid out for touring abroad, as were the car’s headlights – a special switch could be used to focus the headlights for driving on the right. In addition, a kneeling Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet statuette could be substituted for Princess Elizabeth’s personal mascot – a figure of St George slaying the dragon.

The heiress to the throne was an enthusiastic driver, and her husband even more so. Mechanics and engineers recalled that it was not unusual for a mud-spattered Phantom IV to be presented for maintenance work – undoubtedly the consequence of spirited driving by His Royal Highness.

The death of King George VI in 1952, and Princess Elizabeth’s subsequent accession to the throne, rang the changes for 4AF2. The Phantom IV, so much appreciated by the prince and princess, was modified to State Car specifications. The work was not entrusted to HJ Mulliner but rather to Hooper & Co. The area that had housed the registration plate was remodelled, a new colour combination was applied – Royal Claret over Black – and Her Majesty’s coat of arms was added to the rear doors and boot lid. Henceforth, the car was to be used mainly for formal duties, and not private motoring, as it had been.

Over the following decades, 4AF2, originally ordered on the suggestion of Prince Philip, provided immaculate service whatever the assignment, including royal tours in Britain, continental Europe and West Africa. It was soon elevated to “State Car number one” status, with Daimler relegated to the second tier. It was also joined in the Royal Mews by a companion in the form of another Phantom IV, chassis number 4BP5 – a landaulette by Hooper & Co. In addition, The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, opted for a Phantom IV, chassis number 4BP7 – a limousine by HJ Mulliner.

In 1960, two Phantom Vs, chassis numbers 5AS33 and 5AT34, were acquired. These were joined in 1978 by a Phantom VI, chassis number PGH101. The latter was a gift from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) to mark The Queen’s Silver Jubilee (although delivery was delayed due to industrial action in the UK). Another Phantom VI, chassis number PMH10415, was added to the royal fleet in 1987. In addition, a significant number of members of the Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, opted for Rolls-Royce cars, further enhancing the marque’s prestige in the public eye.

In retrospect, a break in the continuity of production and distribution of Rolls-Royce cars in 2002 was likely, and could be traced back to the 1998 takeover of the Crewe plant by the Volkswagen Group. Reportedly, Volkswagen was not initially aware that it had acquired only the factory, the production equipment and the rights to the Bentley marque. Crucially, the trademark rights to Rolls-Royce were not included in the deal. As a result, an interim solution was found that allowed the trademarks to be used for the production of Rolls-Royce automobiles over a limited period.

A smart move by Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, who was at the helm of Bentley Motors in Crewe at the time, eventually solved the issue of supplying royal cars. For Her Majesty The Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, the SMMT presented her with a new State Car – a purpose-built model, designed by Bentley Motors and appointed to the specifications of Prince Philip and Her Majesty. A separate “Mulliner division” had been established at Crewe for bespoke requests, and The Queen was reportedly delighted with the end result. After several years of faithful service, a second Bentley was ordered. It was identical in appearance to the first, which is why many casual observers are not aware that the royal couple in fact have two Bentley State Limousines.

In a way, a circle has been completed. In 1948, the driving performance of two Bentley prototypes had aroused the admiration of a young Prince Philip for Crewe’s products. Today, more than seven decades on, the royal fleet boasts two Bentley State Limousines that appear at key events, quite frequently in the company of the royals’ Rolls-Royce motor cars, along with several “series production” Bentleys.