The prince and the palace coup

He once spent the night in a goods yard in his Austin Maxi, but then the Queen’s cousin is a celebrated car buff. Now he’s heading an invasion of Hampton Court Palace. Ahead of September’s prestige concours, we spoke to Prince Michael of Kent
Writer Gordon Cruickshank

If you plotted the venues for the grander concours d’élégance events you’d have a map of some beautiful places: Venice, Pebble Beach, Versailles, Villa d’Este. Britain can’t offer rolling Atlantic breakers, but it can deliver grandeur. Hurlingham and Syon Park have provided impressive stately home settings, but you can’t top a royal connection. Windsor Castle and Marlborough House, beside St James’s Palace, hosted the last two versions of London’s newest concours, and this year it moves to the even grander setting of Hampton Court Palace. Its patron is HRH Prince Michael of Kent, and we had a conversation about his motoring interests.

We met in the Prince’s study at Kensington Palace, walled with books on many countries and on military history. A mounted BRDC badge sits on the mantelpiece (he is an honorary member) and on the walls are photographs of the Prince – driving the Bentley-Jackson ‘Mother Gun’ for Stanley Mann’s 1992 distance record, in a Maxi on the 1970 London-Mexico rally, passing Buckingham Palace driving the Napier-Railton during last year’s St James concours. And when he comes in he is wearing a BRDC tie. This man genuinely loves cars.

First, Hampton Court. Prince Michael talks enthusiastically about the first of these concours, at Windsor during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “A great success. I believe the Queen was very pleased,” he says. “This year it will be run at Hampton Court, which is splendid as it has never been used for anything of this kind before. The layout is ideal as there is a fan-shaped sweep of gravel of a scale and shape that lends itself to displaying cars. And they will also spread along the Great Water, which will be very splendid.’

As before there will be some 60 supreme cars of all ages, prime examples of motoring beauty whether upright Edwardians, pre-war pinnacles or spanking new concept cars. The Prince makes a comparison with Pebble Beach but adds “Pebble Beach is bigger, it’s more formal, and the cars are judged on extremely demanding criteria. We don’t judge the cars; to compare one with another is such a performance and often gives rise to – (slight pause) – dissatisfaction. We do, though, give certain commendations.”

Will there be a road run, and will he drive? “There will be a run, probably not long but at least a chance to open up a little. The car I’d like to drive currently consisted of a chassis and some wheels and seems unlikely to be ready. But I think I’ll be able to lay hands on something.” That’s certainly true. Few owners would skip the chance of a royal hand on the wheel – even if he did fail his first driving test. “I was upset about that. I took it on a Hillman Minx with a very sticky throttle and as the examiner was of delicate constitution he was very alarmed and failed me.” He had plenty of experience already: “We had a long drive, and I would ask any visitor, ‘Please may I drive your car?’ That gave rise to some interesting expressions, but I generally prevailed and by 14 I had driven some 100 cars – even one with tiller steering.”

That interest had one special focus: “Every year we went to Goodwood for the Tourist Trophy – huge excitement. It was our annual pilgrimage, and it’s so lovely it is being used again.” Even though HRH is often an official guest at such events, his own enthusiasm takes him there, too. I’ve bumped into him in paddocks at Silverstone and Goodwood, inspecting cars with no functionaries guiding his elbow. And you have to be keen to sleep three-up in an Austin Maxi. That was on the 1970 London-Mexico, which he clearly enjoyed. “A modest length for my first event, but great fun.”

Inevitably, the car was late. “As we had to sleep in it we thought we’d better see how well we got on. It wasn’t ready until the last minute, so in the end the three of us went to Cumbria and spent the night in – I don’t know if you’ve ever been there? – the goods yard at Carlisle station.” A twinkle appears in the Princely eye, a contrast with his generally stately mien.

In South America their Maxi went out after clipping a kerb, but he and co-driver Nigel Clarkson (“he is always talking about your magazine”) went on to do other events including three RAC Rallies in Ford Escorts. “A very reliable car, the Escort. And tough – I rolled two of them. But we continued.”

Did the TT visits make him want to race?

“I never found going round a track terribly edifying. I much preferred rallying where you end up in a different place. There’s more to think about, more unknowns, different surfaces. It appealed to me enormously.”

A crossover event was the Tour of Britain, which he entered in a 3-litre Capri the year James Hunt won in a Camaro. “That must be the least suitable rally car ever – it’s about 100 yards long. But I beat Graham Hill.” This is a competitive man – he rowed for Sandhurst, represented the UK helming a bobsleigh, flies aeroplanes and helicopters, loved doing the Mille Miglia retro in an Aston DBR2, “in the days when you went as fast as you liked and the policemen exhorted you to further efforts”. Bentleys figure large in his story – a keen member of Benjafield’s, the exclusive vintage club, he also led two Bentley rallies from Brooklands – he’s their patron too – to Moscow, raising money for the Children’s Burns Trust.

As well as sport, the Prince is very involved with road safety; 25 years ago he started his own award scheme, recognising those who promote motoring safety, and recently became head of the Global Commission for Road Safety with the ambitious target of halving road deaths across the world by 2020. Among many organisations with his name on their letterhead he is also President of the RAC and the MSA, taking a great interest in the RAC Foundation which lobbies Parliament “when motorists are being got at”. He chuckles in his deep voice.

I ask about the TT today, awarded for Britain’s World Endurance Championship round. “It is amazing,” he responds. “They came to the palace before the Silverstone 6 Hours with a Toyota, an Audi and an Aston Martin. Tom Kristensen was there – what an extraordinary record he has.” The hybrid technology in the prototypes and the new F1 fascinates him. “I’m very happy with the smaller engine and energy recovery. I don’t think the noise is an issue. It’s exciting to see Williams coming forward.”

While confessing that he prefers historic events and regretting he no longer has his E-type and DB5 drophead, he does want to talk about Formula E. “I’m a great protagonist of alternative energy,” he says, “and I hope Formula E will do a great deal to promote electric power. At first I didn’t think town races were realistic, but we see now there’s no pollution and no noise. Whether it will attract the same sort of crowd as Formula 1 is another matter, but I’m very comfortable with using racing as a platform to develop electric cars.”

We fall to more general car talk, when the Prince confesses to enjoying driving tractors – “very exacting!” – and this title. “I love your magazine, though I never met Bill Boddy.”

He’s not sure if he will be at Battersea for London’s first electric race, but other motoring rendezvous await. Meanwhile, he looks forward to September 6/7 and the Hampton Court display, and finding out which of the 60 exhibits he’ll be lucky enough to drive. As the list includes a 1908 Mercedes GP car, the rare Triumph Dolomite 8C and the 1966 Le Mans-winning Ford, there’s unlikely to be a dull option.