centenary royalty


Aston Martin has always enjoyed a close relationship with the British Royal Family, among others, writes Robert Hardman

Prince William and his new wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, leave Buckingham Palace in his father’s old DB6 MKII Vantage Volante

Take a look at the official Royal Channel on YouTube and you will find footage of everything from royal tours of Canada to restoration work on a priceless vase. But the most popular video is a short clip from the 2011 royal wedding. And it’s not the marriage vows or the balcony kiss. It is a brief glimpse of the happy couple leaving the Buckingham Palace reception in the Prince of Wales’ dearly beloved DB6 MKII Vantage Volante, now surely the most famous Aston Martin in the world (whatever James Bond might say).

Naturally, the Duke of Cambridge could have enjoyed the pick of the vehicles in Buckingham Palace’s Royal Mews, but he decided to drive his father’s favourite car. Aston Martin could proudly claim a third generation of royal devotees. During the company’s centenary celebrations, it is worth recalling that it is about to mark the 60th anniversary of its royal connection.

“The Duke of Cambridge could have enjoyed the pick of the vehicles in Buckingham Palace’s Royal Mews, but he decided to drive his father’s favourite Aston Martin”

It was in March 1954, just nine months after the Coronation, that the Duke of Edinburgh visited HW Motors of Walton-on-Thames to take delivery of a three-litre Lagonda. On formal occasions he would still have to sit in the back of one of the sedate old beasts from the Royal Mews. But for private journeys, and for downright fun, he would drive himself (and the Queen) in the Lagonda (registration OXR1), complete with the ultimate luxury—a car radio.

It was not long before other royal drivers took note. The following year, the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Kent, acquired a DB2/4 from the Aston Martin team that had won the 1955 Monte Carlo rally. Another DB2/4 of the 1955 vintage would later end up in the hands of King Baudouin of Belgium. The royal connection was sealed a decade later. In 1964, as Sean Connery’s James Bond took on the evil Goldfinger in a gadget-packed DB5, the entire world came to associate Aston Martin with style, speed and the best of British. The following April, the Queen formally recognised Newport Pagnell’s achievements with a visit to the Buckinghamshire factory. And another Aston Martin was soon in royal hands—six-year-old royal hands to be precise. To mark the Sovereign’s visit, 30 Aston Martin engineers had spent two-and-a-half months building a perfect miniature replica of the James Bond DB5 for Prince Andrew (it’s now in the Sandringham Museum). Powered by two 12-volt batteries, it had the registration JB 007 and a top speed of 10mph. But rather like Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle, the attention to detail extended far within.

There were concealed dummy machine guns, a bulletproof shield which could rise out of the boot, electrically operated water jets in the rear light reflectors, a smoke discharger and a two-way radio. The number plates could revolve electronically to display a British, French or Swiss registration and it even came equipped with a dummy Luger pistol. Prince Andrew, it is safe to say, was the envy of every schoolboy in the world. It was hardly surprising when, in later life, he upgraded to a full-size model. Today, his V8 Virage Volante may lack water jets and a smoke discharger but it can do more than 10mph.

Top Left: Prince Charles’s Jack Russell waiting for him in his V8 Volante during the Cartier International polo match. Right: the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh arrive at Buckingham Palace in a Lagonda in 1954. Bottom Left: the Duke and Duchess of York driving a DB7 Volante together with their daughters in 1996.

It is another member of the family, however, who has been most closely associated with the marque. Shortly after turning 21 in November 1969, the Prince of Wales received that Seychelles Blue DB6 MKII as a birthday present from his parents and has been a devoted Aston Martin fan ever since. The company, in turn, has been the proud holder of his Royal Warrant for more than 30 years.

In 1986, the Prince received the gift of a V8 Vantage Volante from the Emir of Bahrain during an official visit to Britain. Invited to choose his own specification, the Prince opted for a British Racing Green colour with “mushroom” trim. But he decided to dispense with some of the racier features which came as standard, notably the side skirts, flared wheel arches and front spoiler. Other Aston Martin aficionados were so impressed by this blend of contemporary and classic styles that 27 of them would order what became known as the “Prince of Wales spec” for their Vantage Volantes. It was the turn of Prince William and Prince Harry to be the proudest little boys in the land when their father visited the Aston Martin factory in 1987. In honour of the occasion, he was presented with a miniature version of his new car. Six years later, the Prince of Wales was invited to drive a new Virage Volante, converted to a 6.3-litre specification, and decided it was time to replace the V8. With the Emir’s permission, the Prince auctioned it for charity. But there was no question of parting with the dear old DB6.

In later years, however, some of the Prince’s critics would start to ask why such a passionate champion of the environment was running two Aston Martins. His response was to lead by example. While the new Virage Volante was returned to the company headquarters at Gaydon, the Prince asked the Aston Martin team if they could do anything to make the “old lady” environmentally sound. If not, his four-wheeled favourite would—with great sadness—have to come off the road.

“One of Aston Martin’s seven-strong crack team of elite mechanics—known as the ‘Flying Spanners’—was dispatched to investigate and restore the car to its original glory”

“We love the Prince and he loves his cars. So we were absolutely determined to do anything to find a solution,” says Kingsley Riding-Felce, Managing Director of Aston Martin Works. The answer was to rebuild the engine to run on E85 fuel made from English wine wastage. “Performance is even better than it was,” he adds.

Even so, it was a nervous moment as he watched the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge emerge from that 2011 wedding reception in the DB6 in front of a worldwide audience of up to a billion. “I was told about the plan a couple of days before the wedding but couldn’t tell anyone. So I made sure that we had two engineers down at the Palace on standby,” he recalls. “It was a slightly nervous occasion, of course: seeing the car that you and your team have been responsible for being tasked with such a high-profile journey brings with it a certain ‘excitement’. However, as the DB6 made its way from the reception back to Clarence House the overwhelming emotion for me was one of pride—pride in the team and pride that Aston Martin had been able to contribute in some small way to this most remarkable of wedding ceremonies.”

Left: King Hussein of Jordan behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB4. Bottom Right: the King (centre) with Sir Jackie Stewart (left) and Walter Hayes in front of the Newport Pagnell factory. Top Right: the King’s DB2, fully restored by Aston Martin Works in 1993

There are royal Aston Martins all around the world, of course. Many of them are one-off designs which make the House of Windsor’s collection look modest in the extreme. The company will not go into details, but among the special royal requests from overseas have been custom-built cocktail cabinets, gun boxes, champagne coolers and even the conversion of a two-door coupe into a four-door estate.

One of the greatest challenges was an old DB2 once owned by the late King Hussein of Jordan. It had been found abandoned in the Jordanian desert in the 1990s with a bullet hole in the bonnet and an old Volvo engine welded underneath. One of Aston Martin’s seven-strong crack team of elite go-anywhere mechanics—known as the “Flying Spanners”—was dispatched to investigate. In due course, the car came back to Britain and was fully restored to its original glory. Little wonder that royal drivers—and passengers—remain so attached to this proud and historic marque. An enduring image of the BBC documentary to mark the Queen’s 80th birthday was the sight of the Aston Martin Owners’ Club parading past the Monarch in the rain at Windsor Castle— 40 years after her visit to Newport Pagnell.

The royal connection remains as strong as ever. It is, perhaps, best summed up by the Prince of Wales himself. During his visit to the new Aston Martin production line at Gaydon in 2004, he made a speech to the entire workforce. “One of the reasons I have been a huge fan of Aston Martin for 34 years is because I have always recognised that it is a real work of art,” he told them. “I am devoted to my 34-year-old car, which I do love. It rattles a bit, like I do, but otherwise it has done nothing but give real pleasure and enjoyment all these years.”