UAE at 50: rolling back the years to discover Sheikh Zayed's magnificent lost limousine

How a motor historian trackeddown Rolls-Royce Phantom V used by the Founding Father

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It’s a long lost part of the UAE’s history. A six metre, two and half tonne Rolls Royce Phantom V limousine with several careful past owners, most notably Sheikh Zayed.

The car was tracked down in Austria by Abu Dhabi motoring historian Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan and is now owned by a private collector in the UK.

Mr Khan is currently writing a book about the Rolls Royce to be published later this year in time for the UAE’s 50th anniversary,

The vehicle has a tendency to oversteer, while the petrol consumption of its V8 6.2 litre engine and 105 litre fuel tank is, to put it plainly, "awful"

It has been almost two years since he revealed the discovery. At the time, Mr Khan was researching a book on the cars of Sheikh Zayed, which he plans to publish in 2022.

The Rolls-Royce will also get a book of its own, scheduled to hit the shelves later this year.

But it was another publication, Memories of Emirates, by the UAE's National Archives, that started his quest. Among the book's illustrations was a colour photograph from 1966 of a gleaming Rolls-Royce being unloaded from a barge at Abu Dhabi, after shipment from England by importers Grey Mackenzie.

The car had been ordered from Rolls-Royce the previous year as the state vehicle for the Ruler at the time, Sheikh Shakhbut.

Six months after the car was unloaded on the beach – at that time Abu Dhabi had no port – his brother, Sheikh Zayed had become Ruler. With the office came the official Rolls-Royce.

After persuading the then owner to sell, Mr Khan acquired the vehicle on behalf of the UK collector, and has also located all the associated paperwork that established it was the genuine article.

The rear of the Rolls Royce Phantom V. Courtesy: Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan
The rear of the Rolls Royce Phantom V. Courtesy: Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan

It includes the original bill of sale, which records the car cost around £10,000, the equivalent of £165,000 or Dh830,000 today and something of a bargain, given that the current Phantom model is around twice that.

Extras included a refrigeration unit, an illuminated drinks cabinet, a pull-out picnic table and flag holders.

Rolls-Royce records confirm that the chassis number – 5VE15 – matches the one sold to Abu Dhabi.

It registered the owner as “His Highness Sheikh Shakbut bin Sultan Al Nahaiyan Ruler of Abu Dhabi”, with the car sold through Jack Barclay of Mayfair, London, and payment made via the Ottoman Bank, which had a branch in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed made most use of the car. It was on active service at least until the end of the 1970s, when it greeted Queen Elizabeth II on her first state visit to the UAE in 1979.

Fitted with huge desert tyres, it transported Sheikh Zayed to his historic meeting on the border of Dubai in 1968, where the Rulers of the seven emirates agreed to come together as one country.

Three years later, on December 2 1971, it was dispatched by Sheikh Zayed to bring the UK diplomat James Treadwell to the newly established UAE, where he would present his credentials as Britain’s first ambassador.

Finally, it was given by Sheikh Zayed to Edward "Tug" Wilson, the founder and first commander of the Abu Dhabi Defence Force. Mr Wilson was a personal friend of the Ruler and also founded the Royal Stables.

Mr Wilson returned the car to the UK where he drove it in the 16,000-kilometre 1990 London to Beijing Motor Challenge.

Although there are currently no plans to return the Phantom to Abu Dhabi, Mr Khan hopes one day it might be displayed in the capital.

“I am driven by a passion to bring this car back to Abu Dhabi where it belongs,” he says.

Before shipping the car from Vienna to its new owner in the UK, Mr Khan could not resist taking a turn behind the steering wheel of what he calls the “most important motor car in the history of the nation".

He reports that the vehicle has a 15-metre turning circle and “a tendency to oversteer’’, while the petrol consumption of its V8 6.2 litre engine and 105-litre fuel tank is, to put it plainly, awful.

But as they used to say of those thinking of buying a Rolls-Royce: “If you have to ask how much it costs, then you probably can’t afford it.”

This article has been updated to better reflect the chain of ownership of the car