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Inside the Royal Mews

The Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace stands as a tribute to the Royal Family’s long-standing love affair with the motor car. Words by Peter Pigott

The year 1904 was a historic one in the motoring world. For the first time, there were so many cars on the road in Britain that the public had to register their ownership and affix a metal plate to the vehicle to demonstrate that they had complied. While state vehicles owned by the monarch were (and still are) exempted from having a licence plate, it was around this time that the Royal Family decided to start using the motor car – rather than the traditional horse-drawn carriage – for their official state duties.

Meanwhile, on 4 May 1904, Manchester-based engineer Frederick Henry Royce met the Honourable Charles Stewart Rolls, a well-connected aviation pioneer and motoring enthusiast. The pair began producing and marketing their cars almost immediately, with one of the first, designated the “Type A”, being sold in August of that year to the wealthy sewing machine magnate, Paris Singer.

It was to be several years before Rolls-Royce cars enjoyed Palace custom, as the Royal Family initially favoured Daimler vehicles for their state duties. King Edward VII was one of the first members of the Royal Family to ride in a motor car, while he was still Prince of Wales, in August 1899. Motoring enthusiast John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu (soon to be the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu) heard that the Prince was staying at Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire. He drove over in his Daimler and after lunch, accompanied by two young ladies, took His Royal Highness for a drive. They motored through the New Forest at an exhilarating 40 mph, and the Prince was reportedly so taken with Montagu’s Daimler that he ordered one for himself. Thus began the royal connection with Daimler motor cars, which continued when George V succeeded his father Edward VII in 1910.

However, Rolls-Royce did attain quasi-royal approval as early as 1911, when the Indian government ordered not Daimlers but eight Rolls-Royce cars for George V’s use at the Delhi Durbar to mark his coronation. During the First World War, Rolls-Royce cars were used to maintain the King’s secret messenger service from the Front. And when His Majesty toured France in 1916, it was also by Rolls-Royce. Nevertheless, the family loyalty to Daimler continued post-war with his son George VI. He is reputed to have said that he thought Rolls-Royce built very fine cars for industrialists, while Daimler provided transport for gentlemen. However, the views of His Majesty did not influence his brothers, the Duke of Windsor (who had a 40/50hp Silver Ghost), the Duke of Gloucester (a Phantom III) and the Duke of Kent (a Wraith), or his sister, the Princess Royal, who also had a Phantom III.

Pre-war, an experimental eight-cylinder Bentley engine appeared, code-named “Scalded Cat”. This was considered far from handsome, but as author George Oliver noted, it had “quite outstanding top-gear performance”, with such accelerative powers that it even worried its engineers. According to company mythology, it was this car that interested the newly married Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, when he visited the Bentley factory at Crewe in 1948, and was even loaned to him for a while.

Whatever the truth about the Duke of Edinburgh and the “Scalded Cat”, later that year he and the then Princess Elizabeth enquired whether Rolls-Royce might consider producing a car for them. The young royal couple was at that time driving the Daimler DB18 saloon that had been given to them as a wedding present by the Armed Forces. However, in the depressed post-war market, both Rolls-Royce and Bentley were only building smaller six-cylinder models – the Silver Wraith and the Bentley Mark VI respectively – both aimed at the export market for owner-drivers and not intended for use as large, chauffeur-driven royal vehicles. Then, by fortunate coincidence, the Foreign Office received a request from the Spanish government to provide three Rolls-Royce cars for General Franco. The proviso was that they had to be heavily armoured, and Rolls-Royce knew that this would burden a six-cylinder engine. With these firm orders, the company decided to go ahead and build the new 12-feet-1-inch wheelbase Phantom IV, powered by a straight-eight engine and designed for the most exclusive clientele, including the British royal couple.

Their Phantom IV was fitted out in a sumptuous style with bodywork by coachbuilders H J Mulliner, who designed extra-large windows to enable the occupants to see and be seen. When No. 7162, as it was numbered, was completed in July 1950, a public announcement accompanied its delivery saying that the Phantom IV had been “designed to the special order of Their Royal Highnesses, the Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh”. As the Rolls-Royce was privately owned when delivered to the young couple, it was painted Valentine green. Only when Princess Elizabeth became Queen in 1952 and the Rolls-Royce became an official state car was it repainted in the maroon hue of all the monarch’s vehicles, known as “royal claret”. Now known as Rolls-Royce No. 3, it is the oldest model in the Royal Mews and is still sometimes seen at events such as Ascot. Also still in use are General Franco’s Phantom IVs – when King Juan Carlos’s son Prince Felipe married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano on 22 May 2004, the Spanish couple travelled in one of the Rolls-Royce cars.

Between 1950 and 1956, only 18 Phantom IVs were built – all for royalty or heads of state including the Shah of Iran, the Sultan of Kuwait and the Prince Regent of Iraq. In 1954 Rolls-Royce also built a second Phantom IV, a landaulette, for the exclusive use by the British sovereign. It was purchased by the Queen and used by the Royal Family until the late 1980s. The coachwork built on each Phantom IV chassis was distributed between H J Mulliner, Hooper and Franay of France. But while historic coachbuilders like Mulliner had been awarded their official royal “By Appointment” badge as early as the 18th century, Rolls-Royce still could not claim that distinction – despite being patronised privately by the Royal Family since the 1920s. It was not until 1955 that the company was finally granted the warrant to display the royal coat of arms, together with the words “By appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, motor car manufacturers”. Other members of the Royal Family were to follow the Queen’s lead and acquire Phantom IVs, including the Duke of Gloucester and Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent. In July 1954 a Phantom IV became the official car of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon. Painted black, this Phantom IV was a seven-passenger limousine with coachwork by Mulliner. Instead of the usual Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, it was adorned with her personal mascot of the winged horse Pegasus – a growing royal tradition.

The classic Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy mascot – often nicknamed “the Silver Lady” – had been created for the company by the talented sculptor Charles Sykes. Edward Seago – a favourite artist of the Royal Family – designed Her Majesty’s personal mascot. It depicts St George poised over a slain dragon. The mascot can be transferred from car to car, depending on which state vehicle the Queen is using. When being driven in Scotland, she often displays a lion mascot instead. The Duke of Edinburgh’s mascot, a heraldic lion wearing a crown, is adapted from his coat of arms. The late Queen Mother’s mascot, of Britannia on top of the globe, was originally made for George V’s Daimlers, and is now in use by the Prince of Wales. When he married Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005, they left Windsor Castle for the Guildhall in the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI. Prince Charles’s personal mascot, a polo player, was designed by bronze-makers Lejeune.

Following the success of the Phantom IV, the Queen went on to use its successors, the Phantom V and Phantom VI, for her state duties. The first Phantom V was built in 1959 and was comparable in many ways to the Silver Cloud II and Bentley S2 – both with eight-cylinder engines – except that the length of the wheelbase of the Silver Cloud II was either 211 inches or 216 inches, and the Phantom V was 238 inches. Her Majesty’s Phantom V was for many years carried on the HMS Britannia, where a special garage and hoist had been built to bring it ashore.

The last Rolls-Royce with separate chassis was the Phantom VI, based on the Silver Shadow, which was built from 1968 to 1991. One was presented to Her Majesty by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to celebrate her Silver Jubilee in 1977. A second model was later bought in 1987, replacing the landaulette, which was sent to the royal museum at Sandringham. The two Rolls-Royce Phantom VIs have also often travelled with the Queen. For example, in 1994 they were transported to Russia by the Royal Air Force for use during the state visit by Her Majesty.

During the 1990s, the Silver Jubilee Phantom VI was the main state car. However, another classic car marque owned by Rolls-Royce was soon to be added to the royal collection: Bentley. When Rolls-Royce first purchased the Bentley firm back in 1931, it had caused considerable shock in the motoring world. For an automobile manufacturer that put silence, refinement and luxury above all else to buy one that was patronised by the “Bentley Boys” who liked speed, noise and excitement was perhaps surprising.

The Bentley Motors company had been undercapitalised from birth. But whatever his financial woes, founder Walter Owen Bentley, or “W O” as he was widely known, made the best racing cars in the country. For Rolls-Royce, the purchase eliminated a potential rival while giving them a proven high-performance roadster.

The first of two Bentley limousines joined the Royal Mews on 4 June 2002. This custom-made vehicle was presented to Her Majesty by a Bentley-led motoring consortium to mark her Golden Jubilee, and built with input from Her Majesty, the Duke of Edinburgh and the head chauffeur at the Mews.

There are eight state limousines currently in use today – two Bentleys, three Rolls-Royce cars and three Daimlers – all painted in royal claret, bearing the illuminated shield of the royal coat of arms and, when the Queen is being driven, the Royal Standard.

When not in use, all are housed at the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace. The history of the Mews can be traced as far back as the reign of Richard II, when it was at Charing Cross, where the king’s falcons were kept. The National Gallery now occupies that site. Then used to stable the royal horses, the Mews was transferred to its present location when King George III moved his collection of horses and carriages next to the house he had just purchased from the Duke of Buckingham – the present Buckingham Palace. The current building was designed by royal favourite John Nash in 1825, immediately after he had completed the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. From 1904, the royal horses and carriages had to share the Mews with the new “horseless carriages” – the early royal Daimlers. The Mews was damaged during the Blitz on 19 December 1940. The culprit was not the Luftwaffe but shells bursting from a nearby anti-aircraft battery. Luckily, the horses had been removed to the safety of Windsor Castle, but three of the Daimlers suffered.

Official responsibility for the Mews rests, as it always has done, with the Master of the Horse, the third Great Officer of the Royal Household after the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Steward. In practice, this role is largely ceremonial, and the Crown Equerry is the operational head of the Mews. The staff he oversees includes a team of chauffeurs whose task it is to drive members of the Royal Family, senior Royal Household employees and official visitors. Each chauffeur is allocated one or two cars, and it is their responsibility to keep them clean, valeted and polished. There are no petrol stations at the Palace, although Windsor Castle has its own pumps to allow vehicles to be refuelled. Four of the cars have been converted to run on the more environmentally friendly liquid petroleum gas.

Many of the state limousines could be spotted at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011: the two Bentleys were used to drive the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princes William and Harry, to the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. The Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrived in the Queen’s original 1950 Phantom IV. Meanwhile, Catherine Middleton herself – soon to become the Duchess of Cambridge – was chauffeured to the Abbey in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Phantom VI, giving the assembled crowds their first glimpse of her wedding dress through its large rear windows. While public tours of the Royal Mews invariably feature the resplendent coaches and carriages, the state Rolls-Royce cars and Bentleys also on view are no less magnificent – or historic.