The National Motor Musuem

A look at Beaulieu’s motoring monument at the end of its Silver Jubilee Year

Her Majesty The Queen was not alone among famous Britons to celebrate a Silver Jubilee in 1977. On April 8th, 1952, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu first opened to the public the beautiful Palate House and grounds at Beaulieu, shortly after inheriting the Hampshire estate from his father, the second Baron. In the entrance of Palace House, the twenty-five-year-old Lord Montagu displayed five veteran cars as a memorial to his father, one of the pioneers and a Parliamentary champion of motoring. From this small beginning developed one of the most famous motor museums in the world, the National Motor Museum. Twenty-five years later, the Museum’s ultra-modern complex boasts a display of 140 cars and commercial vehicles and 70 motorcycles, while another forty, assorted vehicles either await restoration or are part of a reserve collection. They represent a fascinating cross-sectional commentary on the history of the motor vehicle i rom the earliest days. In those twenty-five years over 10 million visitors, inclusling no doubt a large slice of Motor Sports readership, have tramped over his Lordship’s ever-hospitable door-step, from Which influx his family has but one brief annual respite, at Christmas time. Such is the penalty of running one of Britain’s major tourist attractions.

Just in time to catch Jubilee Year, we called at Beaulieu in early December to discuss the Museum’s past, present and future with Michael Ware, the Curator, and Ted Veal, the Publicity Officer. A busy schedule meant that we were unable to avoid a clash with Lord Montagu’s own diary and a brief chat whilst he hosted lunch for a shooting party was all we could squeeze in.

The 110-acre National Motor Museum Complex with its lofty, space-age buildings, a Monorail and all the fun of the fair is in marked contrast to that first, modest display of five veterans. Lord Montagu was quick to spot the fascination which his first visitors had for those inherited veterans, a 1903 De Dion, an 1898 Daimler, an 1896 Leon Bollee Tricar, an 1898 Benz and a 1904 Vauxhall. Spurred by instincts both cornmereial and those of a died-in-the wool motoring enthusiast, he began to acquire more and more vehicles and motoring memorabilia, which rapidly began to outgrow their improvised exhibition areas in Palace House, by then a stately garage. The seams split in 1956, a year after a motorcycle museum had been added in the old kitchens and courtyard; to cope with the problem an old wood shed and a temporary wooden structure in the grounds were developed into a new Montagu Motor Museum, opened that year by Lord Brabazon of Tara, whose famous Austin racer from the 1908 French Grand Prix was, and usually still is (it is owned by Leyland Historic Vehicles), in the collection. Even this measure proved inadequate to cope with the increasing number of visitors-100,000 annually in 1957—and in 1959 Lord Bra bazon returned to open a new and much larger wooden museum, visited by 260,308 people in its first year.

By 1968, attendance figures had risen to over the half-million mark, the Transport Library of reference and photographic work had been started (in 1960) and the collection had again outgrown its accommodation. That year Lord Montagu made plans to found a Charitable Trust to safeguard the Museum and Library collections for the long-term benefit of the nation. The National Motor Museum Trust was founded in 1970 and the foundation stone laid for the new National Motor Museum, to include 70,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space on a one acre site. The nucleus of the new Museum when it was opened by HRH The Duke of Kent on July 4th, 1974, was his Lordship’s own vehicle and library collection, then valued at £500;000, at a peppercorn rent for a minimum of 60 years. A Trust fund was launched with a target of £750,000, of which funds already raised or covenants from industry and private individuals approach £500,000.

If that makes the Trust sound inordinately wealthy, it should be noted that almost all its income is needed to pay the interest on the original building loan. To indulge in future plans, of which more later, Lord Montagu is anxious for more income. Increased membership of the Trust, open to anybody, is one possibility. This would appear to offer good value. A Full Member’s ES subscription entitles him to a free threeyear pass to the Museum, concessionary rates for his guests (the normal entrance fee is £1.40) und a car badge. A minimum donation of £25 acquires Life Membership: a free pass for life, concessionary rates for guests, an inscription in a special book and a car badge. Companies can become Sponsors for a minimum donation of £200 (all the major motor and component manufacturers are Sponsors). For this, the company has its name displayed in the Museum, in the Book of Sponsors and in the catalogue, the Chairman and Managing Director each have special guest passes and car badges and annual guest passes can be issued to other directors. Sponsors’, Life Members’ and Full Members’ names are entered each year in a ballot for a seat in a veteran on the London to Brighton Run.

High overheads include maintaining a nucleus of 120 staff in the Complex, rising to 300 when students are taken on for the busy summer months. Of the senior staff, Ken Robinson is the Managing Director, John Willrich is Museum Manager under Curator Ware, Veal is Publicity Officer, Nick Georgano—he of the Motorsport and Motor Cars Encyclopaedias acclaim—is Head Librarian, Peter Brockes is Reference Librarian, Mrs. Vera Russell is Photographic Librarian, the Photographer is David Miller and Howard Wilson has succeeded Louis Giron as Workshop Head.

Ware emphasised that the aims of the Museum are to illustrate the vehicles which have frequented British roads since the 1890s, not to tell the story of the British motor industry. He regards such a theme as essential to enable visitors (590,000 of them in the last calendar year), the majority of whom are ordinary holidaymakers, not knowledgeable enthusiasts, to identify more easily with the vehicles on display. “We hope that there is a good reason for every exhibit—this is not just a jumbled collection. We have laid out cars in as chronological order as possible to show changes in body styles, advancements in engineering and as a social commentary,” says Ware. The racing cars and record-breakers make a fascinating adjunct to the main theme. Incidentally, Ware’s advice to the real enthusiast is to visit out of season, when the place is less crowded and fewer cars are away on exhibition elsewhere.

A strict collecting policy is administered by Ware, guided by an advisory board of experts, including W.II. An average of three vehicles a day are offered to the Museum, most of which are relatively modern cars to which people have a sentimental attachment, like a 100E Ford Squire on the day of our visit; Ware can turn most of them down immediately without reference to the Board. Offers of veterans are infrequent, so the possibility of a 1901 Progress from the Automobile Palate at Llandindrod Wells is causing some excitement. A more problematical case is Ware’s quest for a “£100 Morris”, the little two-seater Minor SV of 1931, and the question of whether a “£112 10s” Minor four-seater on offer should be accepted and rebodied to the £100 specification.

The extraordinary Museum building, designed by Leonard Manasseh and Partners, and built of brick and geodesic steel lattice work, its diagonals capped by a huge, cruciform glazed light extended at each corner to form entrance canopies, is entered through the Alcan Hall of Fame. This impressive, aluminium-sheathed hallway, is used normally as a tribute to giants Of the motor industry and heroes of the rating world, or as an exhibition hall for special features, such as the Ford 75th Anniversary display, which will fill it this year. Ware confesses to wishing it was a little bigger for such purposes. Its unusual centrepiece is the Trust’s 1909 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, perhaps one of the most famous and widely travelled old cars in the world. On the day of our visit it was occupied in carrying Paddington Bear to Southampton Station, for some reason or other, illustrating another means of bringing cash into the Trust: hiring out cars for films, TV, commercials, special functions and, in the case of the Ghost and the 1906 Renault, for weddings, is good business.

It would be quite impossible here to describe the many exhibits: the Museum fills an attractive catalogue with that task and our accompanying photographs show some of the more interesting scenarios. Veteran, vintage and post-vintage car sections fill the upper, entrance level, while on the lower level are sections for sports cars, racing cars, World’s Land Speed Record cars, sports cars and commercial vehicles, the last category occupying perhaps a disproportionate amount of space. The Graham Walker Motorcycle Gallery has its own gallery for exhibits ranging from a 1908 Arid l to a 1976 Norton commando.

A viewing platform in the centre of the motorcycle gallery gives a bird’s eye view of another facet of the Museum, the workshop, first formed in 1956 to administer to the Museum’s own vehicles. Now it is. so expensive to run that customer work has to he taken in to balance the books. Until recently it was run by Louis Giron, the onetime Bugatti and Birkin-Paget Bentley team engineer, who has retired into a consultancy capacity which keeps him just as busy as before. Mazjub’s Pacey-Hassan 4 1/2-litre Bentley engine and the engine out of the Villoresi Maserati 6C are among the projects currently occupying his “retirement”. Howard Wilson and his staff have their hands full with a customer’s Rolls-Royce Phantom II engine, a complete rebuild on a customer’s MG TD, several motorcycle rebuilds and, more rewardingly, a complete restoration of an 1899 Fiat, the oldest in the country (and complete with broken crank and smashed crankcase!), for a Bahamas man and a rebuild and rebody job on the ex-Peter Ustinov Mercedes 36/220, owned by the Trust for many years. The last two will both go on show in the Museum. Rewarding in more senses than one was the workshop’s recently-completed rebuild of a 1913 Newton-Bennett for Mrs. Kathleen Jessop, the daughter of the original designer: subsequently she presented the car to the Trust. The workshop is recognised as a conservation workshop for the Government-financed Area Museums Service and undertakes work for other museums.

One of the most interesting parts of the Museum which, alas, the public never sees, is the basement, a glorious hidey-hole for the collection’s overflow, vehicles awaiting restoration, spare parts and .oddments. Here a 20/25 Rolls-Royce, there the CrowleyMillings Jaguar C-type, a 1928 Bean, a vintage Citroen, the Cstinov Mercedes chassis and the famous John Whitmore LotusC,ortina racer, to name but a few. A locked compound holds thousands of mixed spare parts: “We used to collect parts like magpies, but now we just try to collect parts for our own vehicles,Ware explained, and indicated an immense stock of early timing chains, mostly surplus to use. Serious vintage and veteran restorers having problems with specific mechanical parts might well find what they need in this basement, but Ware does not want inquiries from time-wasters. In one corner a ’20s period garage is gradually taking shape; Ware is anxious to find more period bits for it, especially cans, boxes, fixtures and fittings.

Michael Ware admits to shortcomings in the Museum, particularly that of lifelessness. It can’t be easy to prevent a motor museum from looking likea big parking lot. A cut of nearly £70,000 from the original 1972 display budget didn’t help. Plans are afoot to put much more action into the displays by the early 1980s. He hopes for “mobile exhibition” in the basement, with the smell, sights, sensations and sounds which are a fundamental part of the motoring scene. These plans for audience participation will include examples of veteran, vintage and ’50s cars for the visitors to sit in and touch. A Calcott and a Phase I Standard Vanguard have been singled out for the job; a veteran has yet to be selected. “Our ideas are fresh and bright. We are simply short of finance,” says Ware. Another plan, already under way, is the creation of an Endowment Fund with aims which will include the rescue of significant vehicle’s from exportation, though not necessarily for display at Beaulieu. Ware feels that it is possible to make a museum too big, so that the average visitor is prematurely bored. The danger then is that the real enthusiast will feel he has not seen enough. As finances improve, Ware hopes to build up a significant reserve collection which enthusiasts and parties can see by appointment.

Talking of parties, the Trust has an Education Department to service school parties. Part of the service is to provide teaching packs to teachers before the visit to the Museum. The idea is to let the children observe the vehicles as part of our social and industrial history rather than as meaningless lumps of machinery.

The Museum’s Library Services, housed in the John Montagu Building, are an essential extension to the Museum itself and include one of the most comprehensive motoring libraries in the world. In addition to 4,000 books and complete sets of the major periodicals (for which there is a cross-reference index for every make of car) are 20-25,000 brochures for cars; motorcycles and commercial vehicles down the years and some 10-12,000 handbooks. Visitors to Beaulieu can consult the library for no charge, although there are charges for photostats and research. The library is being added to all the time and 13,500 items have been acquired since 1973. The Photographic Library contains some 60,000 prints, well over 100,000 negatives, including the famous Brunel collection, and 4,000 5 in. x 4 in. colour transparencies.

From a modest collection of cars to this monument of the motoring world in a Silver Jubilee span is a splendid achievement. It is easy, as enthusiasts, to criticise The National Motor Museum as over-commercialised, but common sense dictates that without commercialisation this vital tuitional archive simply could not exist.—C.R.