HRH Prince Michael of Kent KCVO

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Stalwart of the classic car scene, The Prince explains that his enduring love for the sport is in his genes

It is perhaps no surprise that Prince Michael’s entry for September’s RAC Centenary Rally was a Bentley, and the fact that he has chosen a pre-war car speaks volumes for his motoring preferences. The tall figure of the Prince with his distinctive beard is a frequent sight at automotive events, but though once a keen Jaguar E-type owner, he accepts that times have changed. “I no longer see the point of having a fast car. Long gone are the days when you could give it its head, but you can get at least as much fun out of driving a vintage car,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be very fast, but the joy you get out of mastering the thing is just as much as driving a modem car fast. So my own interest now has come back to the older cars — I find they are more fun.”

A regular competitor in rallies, Prince Michael’s enthusiasm goes back to his childhood. “I used to sit on people’s laps and steer various cars up and down the drive; I think the motoring gene was well established even then. The first thing I actually drove was a jeep in Jersey, aged seven, changing gear and everything myself. From then on I tried to purloin the cars of anyone who came to the house to motor up and down the drive.”

Things were rather more relaxed then. “I used to drive merrily on the road before I had a licence — but that was a long time ago and there was no traffic around.” It is 27 years since His Highness entered his first rally, the 1970 World Cup London-Mexico event, in an Austin Maxi. It was, he says today, “rather an odd way of cutting one’s teeth”, but it has led on to a varied competition career. “I’ve done the RAC rally a few times, as well as several local ones. But by far the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in a motorcar is the Mile Miglia. I’ve done it half-a-dozen times now, in a DB2 Aston, then a C-type Jaguar, then in both of the DBR2s, a pre-war Lagonda, and a vintage Bentley. It’s heady stuff: I have actually seen an old man standing at the side of the road as we drove past with tears rolling down his cheeks. You don’t see that very often.”

Probably his best-known exploit is the Class B 1000-mile record run with Stanley Mann, Vaughan Davis and Phil Greenwood in the famed Bentley ‘Mother Gun’ in 1992, for which he was one of the driving team. “The record had stood since 1924, so it wasn’t hard to break. But the lovely thing was to do it in a pre-war car rather than a modem one.”

The run took place at Milbrook, on the steep walls of the speed bowl. How did he find driving on the banking? ‘The Millbrook bowl is completely featureless, but the wind has the unnerving effect of trying to push you up to the top of the banking. If you felt a bit dozy going round and round, that soon woke you up. Our average speed was 105mph or so, but on a separate occasion I did a 120mph lap. It’s all very well in a modem car, but when you look down and see all the various bits holding the wheels on, you try not to think about it too much.”

All of his events have been rallies of one sort or another; what about the circuits? “I never was tempted to race. I always found that driving on a road you know exactly where you are, whereas if you are on a racetrack there’s absolutely no indication of what’s coming up. I must have a very bad memory, because I can go round a race-track for half-a-dozen laps and still not have the foggiest idea whether it’s a left or a right-hander next.”

Despite this, the Prince has had the pinnacle of driving experiences, at the wheel of a Formula One car — Nigel Mansell’s Lotus in 1982. “Nigel took me out in a road-going Lotus and showed me the lines, and as a result I could make some sense of it. It was very forgiving I managed to have a lot of fun even at about three-tenths of what the proper people drive at.” As a spectator, too, the Prince has many fond memories, especially of Goodwood. “I went to the Tourist Trophy from a young age. I loved going to Goodwood in those days; the atmosphere was always wonderful, especially the drinks party for the drivers in the house the night before.”

As well as being Honorary President of the RAC Motorsports Council and Patron of Brooklands Museum Trust, Prince Michael is closely involved with the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs and its defence ofthe right to use old cars. “We have put a very robust position forward, and bought a lot of time for ourselves.” He is also President of the exclusive Benjafield’s Racing Club.

Yet the Prince’s enthusiasm for the old-car hobby does not blind him to the penalties of the car age, particularly safety. He has instigated a safety award scheme, backed by British industry, to raise driving standards. “Our committee awards prizes to anyone, from schools upwards, who demonstrates clever thinking on safety, and the number of prizes goes up every year”. He does admit to a personal dislike of traffic-calming schemes, but takes the pragmatic view: “Anything that can be done to reduce accidents is worth it.”

The car he is using on the RAC event will suit the North of England moorland route perfectly. “It’s an 8-litre engine in a 4-litre chassis, and it’s very potent. I drove it the other day to the Grand Prix, just as a spectator, and it has terrific performance; it makes the right noises and it looks the part.” In contrast, next month he will again join the slowest event on the calendar, the London-Brighton Run, perhaps in the RAC’s Mors. But being well-used to old cars, his enthusiasm remains tempered by realism. “When its wet, your car breaks down — it’s one of the rules.” GC

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