The golden era of motoring dating from the mid-20th century can be experienced by visiting the handful of royal collections dotted around the world.
Few are more storied than that of King Abdulaziz Al Saud, whose classic car collection is on show at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia.
Constructed outside the walls of the old city of Riyadh, on what had previously been used as farmland during winter months, it is part of a complex which includes the Murabba Palace, arranged around a breezy central courtyard set in a beautiful palm-planted garden, where the king lived from its completion in 1938 until his death in 1953.
On a recent tour I saw, up close, the magnificent craftsmanship of a range of vehicles. Perhaps the most significant was the Rolls-Royce Phantom III All-Weather, a gift from Winston Churchill in 1946.
Jonathan Mantle, author of Car Wars, says that after President Roosevelt lent King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, a crewed Douglas DC-3 plane, Churchill, who took this as a challenge, promised him “the best motorcar in the world”.
By the time the pair met, the model had been out of production for six years, but a pre-war model was discovered in a dealer’s garage by the Ministry of Supplies, fitted with a throne and dispatched to the king. It took a year to arrive.
Mantle writes that the king objected that the car was right-hand drive. He liked to sit in the front, especially while out hunting, and he would as the car was, be on the left of the driver, whereas the place of honour was on the right.
It is not only in Riyadh that such vehicles are treasured. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum has put a 1930 Mercedes-Benz 770K, which was ordered new by King Faisal I of Iraq, up for auction.
Online bids have exceeded $1.5 million. One of 117 W07 examples built between 1930 and 1938, its chassis bears the plate Baghdad – 83807. The vehicle was used as a state car for official business in the Iraqi capital, and after his death in 1933, at the age of 48, it was used for the same purpose by his son, King Ghazi, and grandson King Faisal II. The vehicle’s place in history, its rarity, beauty and its royal pedigree combine to give it a rare allure.
Of the modern royal generation, the Sultan of Brunei has a collection of about 7,000 cars, making him the largest private car collector in the world. His collection is estimated to be worth about $5 billion. It includes Ferraris, McLarens, Bugattis, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and BMWs.
Prince Turki bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to own. a Lamborghini Aventador, Mercedes G63, Bentley Flying Spur and Rolls-Royce, all models. plated in gold.
In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II has an impressive state fleet. Buckingham Palace Royal Mews museum collection has three models each from Rolls-Royce and a pair of Bentleys. Long-based models by Rolls-Royce are very rare and the Queen once boasted a 1955 model that was just one of 18 ever made. The claret and black painted limousine was returned to the maker in 2002. On her Golden. Jubilee Queen Elizabeth was. presented with a new Bentley state car. Although she isn’t required to obtain a driving licence because of her royal privilege, Her Majesty did learn to drive – and was trained as a mechanic – during the Second World War, when she drove an aid truck for the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. She is said to love cars, her Land Rovers in particular, and has been seen behind the wheel recently in Windsor and Norfolk. She has amassed a fleet of ultra-rare vehicles – including magnificent twin Bentleys – that is worth tens of millions of pounds.
Museum pieces of the future are often the stars of royal weddings. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drove a vintage Jaguar E-Type to their wedding reception in 2018. The 1960s crowd-pleaser was dubbed Enzo Ferrari once called “the most beautiful car in the world”. The twist at the wedding was that this was the “E-Type Concept Zero”, a prototype zero emissions model.
It can only be imagined what this car – with its place in history, rarity, beauty and royal pedigree – might one day make at auction.