Estate of grace
The sight of a gleaming Rolls-Royce or Bentley parked outside Blenheim Palace dates back to long before Salon Privé made its debut at the 18th-century estate in 2015. In fact, ever since the dawn of the automobile, fine motor cars have been gently trundling their way up the seemingly endless drive to the steps of the 300-year-old palace.
Set within 12,000 acres of rolling Oxfordshire hills at Woodstock, Blenheim (named after John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough’s triumph at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria in 1704) is the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough and the only non-royal, non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of palace. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, one of the most renowned architects of the English Baroque style, Blenheim Palace is probably most famous as the birthplace and ancestral home of Britain’s great wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill.
The palace’s long association with Rolls-Royce and Bentley traces back to July 1913, when a Rolls-Royce 40/50hp Silver Ghost Roi-de-Belges Tourer, fitted with cabriolet coachwork by Arthur Mulliner (chassis number 2531, registration R 1745), was delivered to the 10th Duke of Marlborough – the present duke’s grandfather. Some years later, in 1934, the duke also received delivery of a new Bentley 3½-Litre Drophead Coupé by Windovers. This rare and notable car’s journey came full circle in 2019, when it was welcomed back to the palace as an entrant in that year’s Salon Privé Concours d’Elégance.
On 3 June 1962, Rolls-Royce and Bentley held a meeting at Blenheim Palace, which featured more than 500 cars from all over the country and across the world, including Springfield models shipped over from the US. Indeed, a charming black-and-white Movietone film of this impressive gathering, entitled “The Silver Lady” – Royce & Bentley, is available to watch on the Racing Daydreams website. Perhaps the most notable entrant to the event, by today’s standards, was UR 6571 – the second race-prepared 4½-litre “Blower” Bentley, the car that Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin claimed second place in at the 1930 Grand Prix de l’ACF in Pau, France.
In June 1975, the Oxford section of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club displayed 50 Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars in glorious sunshine at the palace. As Ralph Symmons, Club Chairman, observed at the time, “We always like to have a rally at Blenheim. It’s a fantastic setting for the cars.”
On 11 May 1990, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars held a spectacular May Ball at Blenheim Palace, which featured a floodlit pageant of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, whose owners sedately manoeuvred their treasured classics around the Great Court accompanied by the marching band of the Scots Guards. The evening concluded with a firework display, with the manufacturers’ latest offerings arriving through the smoke.
The story picks up in 2015, when Salon Privé’s move to Blenheim Palace was announced for the annual gathering’s 10th anniversary. Set against the spectacular background of Vanbrugh’s architectural masterpiece, Salon Privé cemented its position as one of the world’s most prestigious automotive events, with the present Duke of Marlborough, Charles James Spencer-Churchill – a huge motoring fan – as its Honorary Patron.
Over the past seven years, countless Rolls-Royce and Bentleys have graced the palace’s lawns. In 2019, Salon Privé celebrated Bentley’s centenary in style with Bentley Masters – a record-breaking gathering of 1,321 modern and heritage Bentleys. Models from every chapter of the company’s legacy were on display; everything from EXP 2 – the oldest Bentley in the world and the second car built by WO Bentley – to EXP 100 GT, the Bentley concept car of the future, which made its UK public debut at the event.
As Bentley’s Chairman and Chief Executive, Adrian Hallmark, said, “The sight of over a thousand Bentleys gathered in one place was truly extraordinary and totally unparalleled in our history.”
Also on hand were scores of original grand tourers, ranging from Cricklewood-era cars of the 1920s and Derby Bentleys of the 1930s, to Crewe models from the 1940s up to the present day.
That year also saw the famous 1939 Bentley Corniche unveiled at Blenheim Palace. Once thought to have been lost forever, the renovated one-off classic made its world debut on the first day of the Salon Privé, fresh from having been completely restored by Bentley Mulliner.
Not a year goes by without Rolls-Royce or Bentley picking up some silverware in the Concours d’Elégance. Notable examples include the colourful, Hooper-bodied 1949 Bentley Mk VI Light Touring Saloon, formerly owned by the Maharaja of Mysore and entered by the Pune-based enthusiast Yohan Poonawalla, which won the Duke of Marlborough Award in 2021. An unusual 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III with Sedanca de Ville coachwork by Arthur Mulliner won the Fit for a King class that same year, and RREC member Steven Murray was awarded the highly coveted Salon Privé Club Trophy for his 1953 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith.
In addition to the Concours d’Elégance and the Club Trophy displays, both Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and Bentley Motors provide the event with their ongoing support. Their participation at Salon Privé is a vital part of the marques’ sales and marketing programme, and the sizeable presence on the South Lawn by these two manufacturers of luxury motor cars is testament to the value they place in the event.
There remains one chapter in the history of Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Blenheim Palace’s close ties that remains to be written. Two Rolls-Royce motor cars have been awarded Best of Show runner-up – a 1934 Phantom II Continental by Hooper & Co in 2016 and a 1912 Silver Ghost by Barker & Co – but a Rolls-Royce or Bentley has yet to win Best of Show at the professionally judged Concours d’Elégance. If there are any car owners out there with a contender for the grand prize, the organisers would be only too happy to hear from them…
For more information about Salon Privé, go to www.salonpriveconcours.com