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Seventy years of loyal service

The Platinum Jubilee celebrations gave us a fresh chance to admire the Rolls-Royce and Bentley State Cars that have served The queen over the course of her long reign. By Nick Swallow

Some events only happen once in a generation. Others once in a lifetime. But the Platinum Jubilee was of a different magnitude – something that has never happened before in the country’s history and will, quite possibly, never occur again.

A celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s 70 years on the throne, the four days of festivities in early June included Trooping the Colour, the lighting of more than 1,500 beacons throughout the UK, a Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral, over 60,000 street parties around the world, and a show of pageantry featuring a cast of thousands. It also saw the cars of the Royal Mews once again perform their royal duties with elegant composure.

Although The Queen was sadly unable to attend the Service of Thanksgiving, three of the State Cars that have served her over the course of her 70-year reign were present on that day. Millions of TV viewers worldwide watched as Prince Edward, Duke of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, drew up in the venerable 1950 Phantom IV that has served Her Majesty since before her coronation in 1952.

The Queen’s grandson, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, arrived next in the Bentley State Limousine that was presented to Her Majesty on her Golden Jubilee in 2002.

Finally, deputising for Her Majesty, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrived, acknowledging the cheers of onlookers from the Perspex-domed rear compartment of the Phantom VI that was presented to Her Majesty for her Silver Jubilee in 1977.

Two Rolls-Royces and one Bentley. Three cars spanning 21,000 royal engagements, dozens of overseas tours and 70 years at the heart of almost every state occasion. For a vehicle like the Phantom IV to still be in service after 72 years speaks volumes for its engineering and the constancy of its owner alike.

Yet in the early post-war years Rolls-Royce was not a favoured royal marque. Daimler had held the royal warrant to provide motor cars since 1900, and King George VI favoured the stately Daimler DE 36. Rolls-Royce’s good fortune in overturning that royal tradition owes much to a pre-production Bentley Mark V. The 11th in a series of pre-war test cars from the experimental department at Clan Foundry, it was powered by the B80 6.3-litre inlet-over-exhaust straight eight, largest of the new “B” range of engines. The effect of a powerful eight-cylinder engine in place of the Mark V’s intended 4.25-litre six can be guessed at by the test team’s nickname for this car. They called it the “Scalded Cat”.

The Scalded Cat would have remained a footnote in Bentley’s history had the Duke of Edinburgh not taken it for a test drive during a visit to Crewe in 1948. A keen driver, he kept it for a week and enjoyed it immensely. On returning it, he hinted that he would like to see a car with performance in the Royal Mews.

On 15 November 1948 an order came through for a Rolls-Royce motor car for Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. As it would be used for royal duties it would have to be a limousine, but Prince Philip also wished to drive it himself, and took a close interest in its design.

The prestige of supplying the royal couple overturned a Rolls-Royce board decision to retire the Phantom name with the pre-war Phantom III. The new Phantom would be powered by the straight-eight B80 engine that had so impressed Prince Philip on his test drive of the Bentley Mark V. Although the Phantom IV was originally conceived as a one-off, Rolls-Royce eventually built 18 of them; all went either to the British Royal Family or heads of state.

The new Rolls-Royce was intended as the couple’s personal vehicle, and unlike State Cars it had a registration number, LGO 10. It was presented to the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Elizabeth on 6 July 1950. But their dreams of private continental journeys were soon dashed. On 6 February 1952, King George VI died in his sleep and the young princess shouldered all the responsibilities of a monarch. The royal couple’s Phantom IV was subsequently sent to coachbuilders Hoopers to be repainted in Royal Claret over Black. The front compartment was retrimmed in dark blue cloth, the registration plates removed, and The Queen’s heraldry was hand-painted on the rear doors and boot lid. Its first public engagement as a State Car took place on 10 April 1952, when Her Majesty distributed Maundy Money at Westminster Abbey. It is still doing royal duty to this day, having served as the bridal car for Meghan Markle on her marriage to Prince Harry in 2018. The only notable upgrade came in 1955, at 30,000 miles, when Rolls-Royce servicing in Hythe Road replaced the manual gearbox with an automatic.

Rolls-Royce was keen to cement its new relationship with the Palace, and in 1954 presented Her Majesty with a ceremonial Phantom IV, a Hooper-bodied State Landaulette, chassis 4BP5. This vehicle, codenamed “Jubilee” (it was Rolls-Royce’s golden jubilee year) was loaned to the Royal Family before the Palace purchased it in 1959, an act confirming that Rolls-Royce held the Royal Warrant. It remained in the Royal Mews until 2002, when it was used in part exchange for a second Bentley State Car.

The Phantom IV is a rare beast, even by Rolls-Royce standards. In comparison, over 800 examples of the Phantom V found buyers. Two of those were acquired by the Royal Mews for The Queen’s use; they were created in secrecy at Rolls-Royce’s coachbuilder, Park Ward, and given the codename “Canberra”. The new cars had the Jack Phillips-designed V8 engine, full air conditioning and power steering. But their most striking feature was a large Perspex dome for the rear compartment so that The Queen and her consort could more easily be seen by the crowds lining the streets at royal occasions. An aluminium two-piece cover for the dome was stowed in the boot for when privacy was required.

The new Phantom V, like its predecessor, was carried on the Royal Yacht Britannia for overseas tours, but its 20ft length presented problems when manoeuvring into the onboard garage, so designer Dick Robbins devised demountable bumpers, which freed an extra nine inches (even so, the Phantom V was a snug fit, as visitors to the Royal Yacht can still see today).

The first of two Phantom V State Cars, Canberra I was presented to its new owner in May 1960, and the Palace sent a note to Park Ward; “Her Majesty has asked me to convey to all employees of Park Ward who were responsible for the production of this car, her appreciation of the excellent workmanship both as regards appearance and comfort.” Canberra II was delivered in February 1961; this became the number one State Car. Together with the two Phantom IVs, these would be the mainstay of the royal garage for the next 18 years.

For Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, The Queen lit the first of a series of bonfires that spread the length of Britain, echoing the chain of beacons that had heralded the approaching Spanish Armada in 1588. She went in procession to St Paul’s Cathedral, travelling there with the Duke of Edinburgh in the Gold State Coach, last used for her coronation in 1953. Other celebrations included a river procession, fireworks on the Thames, a north London and south London drive, and the Services Silver Jubilee Musical Pageant.

The Silver Jubilee also marked two significant milestones in the relationship between the Palace and Rolls-Royce. In May, the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club became the first club to have its cars reviewed by The Queen at a royal residence, when over 850 Rolls-Royces – including 500 pre-war models – paraded before Her Majesty at the Inner Quadrangle of Windsor Castle. The event was televised by the BBC and attracted large crowds to the subsequent parade down the Long Walk.

Sadly, the Silver Jubilee gift to Her Majesty from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – a bespoke State Phantom VI – was delayed until spring of the following year, due to industrial action at Crewe and coachbuilders Mulliner Park Ward. The new Phantom VI, codenamed “Oil Barrel” was near identical to the Royal Phantom Vs; the main difference being front-hinged doors and double headlights. A second, standard roof Phantom VI with a Perspex roof insert, “Lady Norfolk”, joined the royal fleet in 1987 and these two vehicles are still in service at the mews today.

The emphasis of Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 was different from that of the Silver Jubilee 25 years earlier. If, in a sense, the nation thanked Her Majesty The Queen in 1977, then in 2002 The Queen wanted to thank the nation. While the focus was firmly on the young people of the country, and particularly those in schools, there were six key themes that shaped the events: celebration, community, service, past and future, giving thanks and Commonwealth.

The festivities lasted from February to October, and once again The Queen travelled the length and breadth of the UK and also visited Commonwealth countries around the world – travelling more than 40,000 miles to the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and Canada over the year.

By the time of the Golden Jubilee, Rolls-Royce and Bentley were once again two distinct companies, each under separate ownership. Richard Charlesworth MVO, Bentley’s Director of Royal and VIP Relations at the time, recalls those dramatic days. “Her Majesty asked to be kept personally informed about the sale of Rolls-Royce and Bentley by Vickers plc in 1998,” he says. “She was keenly aware that both marques had been standard bearers for British automotive engineering throughout her reign.”

The Queen’s decision to accept a new State Limousine from Bentley Motors, as a gift from a consortium of automotive manufacturing and service companies, marked the start of a new marque tradition and was a public gesture of royal support for Crewe and its workforce.

The new State Limousine would be based on a lengthened Arnage platform, but it became clear that the car would have to be a clean-sheet design. Designer Crispin Marshfield recalls, “Our brief was to create a car with a light, airy and open feel to the rear compartment so that the occupants could be seen by the public on state occasions. The Queen and her guests needed to be able to enter and alight from the car with grace and dignity, so the roofline had to be correspondingly high, with doors that opened wide. That dictated a design with a low waistline and large daylight opening.”

Two design proposals were submitted from many created by Bentley’s design team. Once the favoured design had been chosen, Charlesworth, Director of Design Dirk van Braeckel and a small project team travelled to Buckingham Palace, to present the proposal to Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh in the palace cinema. “Both Her Majesty and the duke were interested in the process and were quite clear about what they wanted,” recalls Charlesworth. “For example, the original sketches and renderings showed a lot of brightware – chrome bezels, window surrounds, body lines and so on – and The Queen asked us to tone that down a bit.”

The interior, too, was to be simple and uncluttered as a direct request from the royal couple. They declined cocktail cabinets and elaborate infotainment systems in favour of a simple radio and CD player. Crewe’s beautiful veneer door panels and waistrails were also politely rejected. Charlesworth says, “The Duke of Edinburgh explained that when in ceremonial regalia he’s encumbered by belts, medals and swords and didn’t want to be bumping into the woodwork as he settled into his seat.” As with the other State Limousines, the rear seats are upholstered in cloth – a lambswool sateen produced by British textile manufacturers Hield Brothers.

The State Bentley’s rear seats are electrically adjustable up and down, so that when travelling with other heads of state both The Queen and her guest can be seen with their heads at the same height. As with the high-roof Phantom VI, detachable panels fit over the backlight to create a smaller rear opera window when privacy is required, though as a 21st-century touch the panels are carbon-fibre, not aluminium. Large, forward-opening rear doors were engineered to open to a full 81 degrees, with steps built into the rear sills to aid entry and exit.

Time was at a premium; work started in 2000 with a hand-picked team working through weekends and public holidays to create the Bentley State Limousine in time for the official handover in May 2002. They built two vehicles; the first was intended as a prototype, but its quality of workmanship was such that both vehicles were – and still are – used as State Cars. Inside the luggage compartment is a metal plaque reading “Designed, Crafted and Built in Crewe, England” with the signatures of 34 Bentley employees.

Charlesworth explains, “The prototype, the ‘V’ [for validation] car chassis 00049, was originally intended for the Bentley Heritage Collection, while the ‘Q’ car with chassis 00050 was presented to The Queen. However, she was so impressed by her new Bentley, that we were asked if the Royal Mews might have that, too.”

There was one hitch; the Q State Bentley was a gift, whereas the V car would have to be the subject of a commercial transaction. A discreet agreement was made whereby the retired “Jubilee” Phantom IV Landaulette and the 1960 Phantom V “Canberra I” were exchanged for the “V” Bentley State Car, with permission to sell them at some stage in the future. At the Bonhams Goodwood Revival auction in 2018, “Jubilee” sold for £800,000.

Though Bentley had been chosen for the Golden Jubilee State Limousine, Rolls-Royce and the RREC clearly still occupied a special place in our monarch’s affections. On 27 April 2002 Her Majesty once again agreed to review a parade of RREC cars at Windsor to mark her Golden Jubilee. Two of The Queen’s cars led the parade of “500 cars for 50 years”, followed by the 10hp SU13 and “The Silver Ghost” AX201.

Afterwards the Duke of Edinburgh – whose drive of the Scalded Cat in 1948 was the catalyst for Crewe’s tradition of royal service – sent a note via his equerry: “The Duke of Edinburgh has asked me to write and thank you for the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Enthusiasts Club Rally last Saturday. The Rally was a spectacular display of engineering beauty.”

The words of a true Rolls-Royce enthusiast.