King of cars, car of queens

Rolls-Royce may be the marque of choice for many a royal occasion, but it was some decades before the company rose to regal prominence. Words by Malcolm Tucker

Most people would expect senior members of the British Royal Family to travel in a Rolls-Royce, the best car in the world, when on official state business. But it was many years after the invention of the motor car before the royal state fleet would have a Rolls-Royce among the Daimlers.

Edward VII, while he was still Prince of Wales, was the first British monarch to travel in a motor car, and that was in – or more correctly on – a Daimler in 1899, a vehicle that belonged to his friend, the then Lord Montague of Beaulieu. A few decades later, Edward VII’s grandson Edward VIII owned several Silver Ghost and 20 hp Rolls-Royce cars before he became King for a few months in 1936. His choice of cars was later influenced by his wife Wallis Simpson, and they favoured Humbers and Buicks for their personal transport. Although, in the years up to the Second World War, many senior royals owned Rolls-Royce cars for their private use, the palace fleet remained solidly Daimler.

By 1948, the cars in Buckingham Palace’s Royal Mews were ageing and the formal cars being offered by Daimler were becoming a little dated in design. Although the coachwork by Hoopers was as good as ever, the mechanical underpinnings were not on a par with Rolls-Royce engineering. There was a new addition to the royal fleet in the form of a gift from the RAF and the WAAF of a new 27 hp Daimler limousine.

Also in 1948, the Duke of Edinburgh, newly married to Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, paid a visit to the Rolls-Royce factory at Crewe. He was mightily impressed with an experimental car, chassis 11-B-V. Behind its Bentley radiator shell was fitted the newly designed straight-eight-cylinder 5.3 litre engine. Nicknamed “The Scalded Cat” by Rolls-Royce test drivers, it was loaned to His Royal Highness for his appraisal. Rumour has it that Prince Philip was so impressed by its handling and speed that he asked if the company could build him a more formal-bodied car for the use of Princess Elizabeth and himself.

The Duke’s request was accepted, and the first of only 17 Rolls-Royce Phantom IV chassis was laid down. With advice from Rolls-Royce and the coachbuilder H J Mulliner it was finished to His Royal Highness’s design. The order was confirmed on 15 November 1948 and, to preserve secrecy during the car’s construction, it was given the code name “Maharajah of Nabha”; known as “Maharajah” in the Royal Mews ever since.

Construction of the chassis was undertaken at the Rolls-Royce experimental workshops at Clan Foundry in Belper, near Derby, and chassis 4AF2 was delivered on 20 July 1949 to the Fulham premises of H J Mulliner to be wedded to its coachwork. Delivery of the finished car to the royal couple at Clarence House was promised for exactly one year later. The 5,675cc engine probably produced about 170 bhp through a manual gearbox which was later changed to an automatic system. At the time of delivery, the Phantom was a private vehicle and was finished in The Queen’s choice of a dark green, known as Valentine green, a colour that Her Majesty favours to this day. The interior had green leather to the front and Liebman grey cloth to the rear.

The Duke had specified that the car should be suitable for both chauffeur and owner-driver use, and so the steering rake and adjustable front seats were fitted, the whole front compartment being more comfortable than usual for a limousine of the time. The use of a speedometer marked in both miles and kilometres indicated that the car was expected to be used at home and abroad. Further evidence of this was the fitting of headlamps that could be switched from left-hand to right-hand dipping. For official duties, the car had a roof-mounted blue light for the occupants of escorting vehicles to more easily see it, and, when appropriate, the rear compartment could be illuminated by four lights and an additional strip light.

Following Her Majesty’s accession to the throne in 1952, “Maharajah” was not sent to the original coachbuilder H J Mulliner, but to Hooper & Co., a company that had been experienced in the supply and preparation of state cars for over half a century. Work included repainting in the state colours of royal claret over black, the front compartment upholstery to be retrimmed in dark-blue cloth, the front and rear numberplate mountings to be removed and the monarch’s heraldry to be hand-painted on the rear doors and boot lid.

Rolls-Royce now had a foot in the door at the Royal Mews and wished to increase its presence. Even before The Queen’s coronation, the company had decided to build a car for full ceremonial duties. Another Phantom IV chassis 4BP5 was sent to Hooper & Co. for the erection of a state landaulette. In this case the codename was “Jubilee”. Delivery was planned for early 1954. An automatic gearbox was fitted, and a comprehensive heating and ventilation system was designed to cope with the climate on any overseas duties that may be called upon. The Royal Yacht Britannia was nearing completion and the dimensions of “Jubilee” were checked against the garage dimensions of the ship. Similar to the finishing on “Maharajah”, the new car’s paintwork was royal claret and black with dark blue cloth to the front compartment and grey West of England cloth to the rear.

Bearing in mind that the Royal Mews had not ordered a new car, Rolls-Royce had to overcome the problem of having it be accepted by Her Majesty and the Crown Equerry, Brigadier Walter Slade, before it could join the state fleet. The resolution was for the car to remain in the ownership of Rolls-Royce, garaged at its London service depot in Hythe Road, Willesden, and be held for the exclusive use of the Royal Mews as and when requested. Not being on the royal fleet proper, “Jubilee” had to be registered and OXR 2 was allocated. The numberplates themselves could be easily removed when the car was on royal duties.

The arrangement remained, “Jubilee” doing sterling service at the 1955 State Opening of Parliament, the 1956 royal visit to West Africa and in 1957 visits to the Channel Islands, France and Denmark. Following the Danish visit, the car travelled on Britannia with Her Majesty and, upon docking at Invergordon, “Jubilee” was offloaded to the jetty ready for The Queen to be driven to Balmoral.

A state car renewal programme was being considered by the Royal Mews, and on 4 November 1958 the Crown Equerry wrote to Rolls-Royce confirming that they wished to finally purchase “Jubilee”. Its role in frontline duties in the state fleet lasted for over 30 years, finally being retired to the Royal Motor Museum at Sandringham in the autumn of 1987.

Two replacement formal state cars were also needed for the Royal Mews in addition to “Jubilee”, and Rolls-Royce was the favoured supplier with the advent of a new model, the Phantom V, that was to be launched at the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show. The coachwork on the two cars (5AS33 and 5AT34) would be identical with bodies built by Park Ward & Co., a subsidiary of Rolls-Royce. Interior dimensions were to be identical to those of the Phantom IVs, and both cars would feature a revolutionary Perspex dome in place of a traditional landaulette’s leather top. This would give the same visibility as an open car for the occupants and of the occupants. When privacy was preferred, a two-piece aluminium cover, normally stowed in the boot, would be clipped over the dome.

With their new V8 engines, automatic gearboxes, power steering and proper air-conditioning, the closed cars were exceptionally comfortable and capable of maintaining a micro-climate for the occupants wherever they were in the world. Prince Philip took as much interest in the design as he had done with the two Phantom IVs. He suggested changes be made to the cant rail to reduce the risk of heads and hats being bumped, the air-conditioning controls to be more intuitive and that the glass division be flat rather than curved, so that it could be used as a mirror for last-minute checks before exiting the car. The code names chosen for these Phantom Vs were “Canberra I” and “Canberra II”.

The new chassis was 19 feet 10 inches long, which would have to fit in Britannia’s 20-ft-long garage; too small a gap to allow for manoeuvring. The solution was to make both front and rear bumpers easily dismountable. The usual “royal” colours were chosen for both the interiors and exteriors. The Park Ward design did not suit the traditional pattern for the royal claret and black paintwork, so a change was made to have all above the waistline in black, and all below in royal claret.

“Canberra I” was delivered to the Royal Mews on 10 May 1960, and the handover made to the head chauffeur William Leslie Chivers and the Crown Equerry. Later, the car was driven around to the palace quadrangle where The Queen inspected it and questioned the Rolls-Royce representative, Jack Scott, about the new engine and chassis. Her Majesty asked that her pleasure at the design and craftsmanship be relayed to all concerned. The following February “Canberra II” was ready for delivery. It had been suggested that the waist-to-roof height be reduced slightly from that found on its sister car but in the event it was built to the exact same dimensions.

By November 1960 the last of the state Daimlers had gone from the Royal Mews, which left, by previous practice, the newest car “Canberra II” as number-one State Car, “Canberra I” as number two, “Jubilee” as number three and “Maharajah” as number four. This quartet made up the entire state fleet for the Royal Family, both for use at home and overseas.

Since 1952, Austin Princess limousines had played a supporting role at the Royal Mews but, by 1977, the year of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the final two were becoming unreliable and uneconomical to keep in service. By coincidence, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) had decided to present The Queen with a Jubilee gift of a Silver Shadow II for her personal use. Her Majesty thought it was a great deal of money to spend on a car for her private use, and she suggested the funds be put towards a car that was more suited for formal occasions. Even though a new Phantom was twice the price of a Silver Shadow the SMMT agreed.

Mulliner & Co. had been bought by Rolls-Royce in 1959 and merged with Park Ward in 1961 to become Mulliner Park Ward Ltd, and they were the chosen coachbuilders. An updated chassis was underway at Rolls-Royce, with enough changes from the previous model to warrant the name Phantom VI. The engine was the updated Silver Shadow unit, with the same high-pressure hydraulic system but operating drum brakes. The air-conditioning system was also adapted from the Silver Shadow II.

Code-named “Oil Barrel” (a deliberately misleading hint that the car was destined for a Middle Eastern potentate), chassis PGH101 was planned to be delivered to Her Majesty during her Jubilee year, but industrial action at both Crewe and Mulliner Park Ward & Co. delayed the delivery until the following spring. Again, the dimensions and colour scheme were as in the earlier cars except that the rear compartment was now in pale Baroda blue and darker Mountain blue carpeting. By now rear-hinged doors were illegal in the UK, so the rear doors had to be front-hinged. Safety issues aside, this made for a less elegant way of entering and leaving the car, and the need for photographs to be taken from the rear three-quarter view rather than the front three-quarter angle. During The Queen’s inspection of her newest car, she noticed that the wing mirrors were untinted and rectangular, unlike the green-tinted round ones on the other cars. Although out of production, a pair of the original design were speedily found and exchanged on the car.

Seven years later in 1985 the Royal Mews decided that the second Phantom IV, “Jubilee”, should be retired, and a new Rolls-Royce would be its replacement. It was decided that the cost of a custom-made “high-roof” Phantom VI was now too expensive. When Her Majesty came to the throne, a new state car cost 1 per cent of Her Majesty’s Civil List, but by the mid-1980s it would have cost some 6 per cent. A decision was made and a standard car with some amendments was ordered.

Peter Wharton had started working at Park Ward in 1934 as a lad in the Colour Drawing Office, rising to the position of a senior member of the design team. Having retired in 1979, he was happy to return to help design his fourth car for The Queen. The principle changes he made were a Perspex roof insert with a sliding blind and extended rear quarter windows. Both these features would give a well-lit view of those travelling in the rear of the car. When privacy was needed, panels could be clipped over the rear quarter windows and one with a small aperture over the rear screen. All colours inside and out were as those for “Oil Barrel”.

This particular vehicle, chassis PMH 10415, was to be the last Rolls-Royce Phantom to be supplied to the state fleet and was delivered on 23 July 1987. Its code name was “Lady Norfolk”. As with all the royal fleet, Her Majesty’s Crest was hand-painted on the rear doors and boot lid. The man responsible was Geoffrey Frances, who had painted those on the Phantom IV, “Maharajah”, for The Queen when she was Princess Elizabeth.

“Lady Norfolk” did not follow precedent and become the number-one car. It would have seemed odd for the monarch to be driven in a standard roof-height car with the “tall” roof, Perspex cupola cars following.

It was hoped that one last high-roof Phantom would be ordered before the production line closed in 1992. This did not happen, and a later Crewe-built pair of formal high-roof cars based on the Bentley Arnage did join the Royal Mews in The Queen’s Golden Jubilee year of 2002.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the reason for one more Phantom order to be put on hold was that the first Phantom IV of 1949, chassis number 4AF2, was and still is in frontline service. Its latest important outing was to carry Meghan Markle and her mother to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on the occasion of her wedding to His Royal Highness Prince Harry. There are currently no plans for “Maharajah” to be retired.