Lord Montagu had been in New Zealand for only a matter of minutes before he was happily behind the wheel of a 30-year-old classic British roadster. Accompanied by Lady Montagu, he flew into Whenuapai air force base, then Auckland’s international airport, in March 1964 to open part of the newly formed Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) at Western Springs.
Not surprisingly, Montagu was greeted at Whenuapai’s modest terminal by several vintage and veteran enthusiasts together with their old cars.
Fifty years ago, the man was already something of a legend with his wonderful National Motor Museum in southern England. A budding young reporter, this was my first (and maybe onl
Lord Montagu told me it didn’t mean anything just to collect cars — they had to have a special place in their period. That was why he had recently added a 1951 Volkswagen Beetle to his museum. When I asked him about the prospects for a then-new BMC Mini appearing in the collection, he predicted that would likely happen within a few years. Sure enough, on visiting the museum a decade later, I saw an immaculate blue Mini Minor among the more recent arrivals.
When Lord Montagu passed away at the age of 88 on August 31 this year, the world lost one of the great preservers of motoring heritage — yet he became a legendary motorist almost by chance.
While studying at Oxford just after the war, Montagu drove a Hillman Minx that was nothing like as grand or sporting as the cars driven by his contemporaries. Indeed, at that point, he just wasn’t that interested in cars — unlike his father, John Montagu, a pioneer motorist who raced an 1899 Daimler and was the first Member of Parliament to drive a car into the yard of the House of Commons.
Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu, the third Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, had little chance of sharing his dad’s enthusiasm for cars, since he was only three when his father died in 1929. In 1951, at the age of 25, he assumed responsibility for the Beaulieu estate, which had been the family seat for 400 years. The place needed a lot of money spent on it, and its annual income was minimal. Montagu had been working in a London advertising agency — “to keep the wolf from the door”, to use his own words — but realized that, to remain viable, the house needed to be opened to the public.
Lord Montagu remembered his father’s early motoring connections and reasoned that a display of early or special cars might be an added attraction for paying visitors. Thus, together with helpers, he knocked a hole in a wall and winched the family’s five veteran and Edwardian cars into the front hall of Palace House at Beaulieu. Some of the cars were so tall that the tyres had to be let down so they would fit under the door jamb. It was a small but impressive collection — a 1903 De Dion Bouton, an 1896 Leon Bollee tracer, an 1898 Benz, a 1904 Vauxhall, and an 1898 Daimler.
The Montagu family had run Daimlers since 1898 and introduced the marque to royalty. By the early ’60s, Lord Montagu was using a Jaguar Mk10 and a Mini as personal transport but shed the Jaguar for a Daimler Sovereign and a Ford Sierra 4×4 station wagon in the ’80s. His father’s first Daimler was tracked down in Gloucestershire, where it was being used to pull a lawnmower.
The world’s first known motor museum was founded in London’s Oxford Street in 1912 by Edmund Dangerfield of Motor magazine but failed largely due to World War I. However, Dangerfield’s concept was sound and, when Montagu officially opened his estate in April 1952, most visitors headed immediately for the hall and the cars. On opening day, Edward promised friends that if 100 visitors had arrived by 6pm there would be champagne at dinner. By midday, more than 100 people had paid the entrance fee and the peer cracked open the first bottle of bubbly for lunch!
In the first week, 8000 people paid two shillings and sixpence to visit a collection that would soon have a big growth spurt. An adjoining woodshed was quickly filled with cars so another had to be built and His Lordship quickly realized he either had to establish proper buildings or stop collecting cars. There was also the matter of the main house smelling permanently of motor oil and petrol.
By the mid 1960s, Beaulieu was attracting more than half a million visitors a year. I first visited the museum in 1968 and returned no fewer than four times during the next two decades — it’s that sort of place. In 1969, plans were drawn up for the present museum complex, which would be sited a few hundred metres away from the magnificent historic house and abbey at Beaulieu, not far from Southampton in Hampshire. It opened in 1972.
With such an incredible array of machinery on display, highlighting Beaulieu’s exhibits is no easy task. Sir Henry Segrave’s recordbreaking Golden Arrow is a chief attraction — a 930-horsepower car that achieved 231mph at Daytona Beach in 1929 — while the late Jumbo Goddard’s 1954 D-Type Jaguar is the same car that Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt drove into second place at Le Mans 61 years ago.
In later years, grants allowed the museum to buy really important cars, such as the 1903 Napier, Britain’s oldest racing car; the 1950 BRM V16 racing car; and a Lotus 49 Formula 1 car once driven by Graham Hill. The BRM was acquired with the help of a grant equivalent to more than NZ$200K from the British Government’s technology preservation fund.
The 1920 Sunbeam 350HP, with its 18.3-litre V12 engine, broke the Brooklands lap record at 123.3mph in 1922 in the hands of Kenelm Lee Guinness, and, three years later, Malcolm Campbell took the car to 150.87mph on Pendine Sands. This monster was unearthed in Lancashire years later and sold to the museum in 1958.
Two other British record-breakers are must-see exhibits. The first of these is the 1927 1000hp Sunbeam with its simple chain-driven layout. It has two Sunbeam aero engines, one in front of the driver and the other behind. The Sunbeam was driven to 203.79mph at Daytona Beach and driven once at Brooklands in a slow demonstration lap with just one of the engines operating. The other vehicle is Sir Donald Campbell’s 1961 Bluebird, rumoured to have cost more than £100K (well north of NZ$2 million) and, of course, crashed heavily at Utah. Rebuilt for the 1964 record attempt at Lake Eyre in South Australia, Bluebird eventually clocked up a record-breaking speed of 403.1mph.
Also on display is a 1907 Itala with its 14-litre 120hp engine. This car won the Coppa Della Velocita race at Brescia the same year it was built and was reputed to have a top speed of 100mph. Other racing giants include a 1907 Métallurgique Maybach, a luxury Edwardian machine that was a contemporary rival of Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz cars and was updated by the owner in 1920 to accommodate a huge 1910-era Maybach engine as used in Zeppelin airships. The 12.4-litre Grand Prix Benz from 1908 weighs 1000kg, is chain driven, and lacks front-wheel brakes — factors said to make driving this beast at 100mph ‘lively’
There really is something for everyone at Beaulieu, with more modern metal, including cars such as the 1965 Lotus Cortina that won Sir John Whitmore the European saloon car title, a 1966 Ford GT40 MkIII, a 1955 Ford Consul Mk1 convertible, and a 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing.
Alongside the rejuvenation of exhibits is the task of keeping the collection in working order. Tyres are kept at running pressure, cooling systems are topped, and every engine is turned or operated at least once a month. As an example, the museum’s 1906 20/30hp Renault has clocked up several thousand kilometres since it arrived at Beaulieu.
In 1962, Montagu co-founded Vintage Tyre Supplies, a company that is still the world’s largest supplier of original-equipment tyres for veteran, vintage, and classic cars. The worldfamous Beaulieu Autojumble began in 1967, inspired by the swap meets that Montagu saw in the US.
The written word
The museum’s library service includes more than 4000 books and bound volumes of specialist magazines dating back 120 years and at least 30,000 catalogues and manuals. Reference staff answer queries from all over the world, and say that, apart from the UK, the bulk of requests originate from Australia and New Zealand — the nations that boast more vintage cars per capita than anywhere else in the world.
Journalism runs through the family. John Montagu was founder and editor of an early motoring magazine, Car Illustrated, which was launched in 1902. In the ’80s, his son wrote a veteran and vintage column labelled ‘Lordly Progress’ in the British Autocar weekly. He also wrote a book on the history of Jaguar, one of 21 books he wrote covering motoring and heritage topics.
Author and historian Nick Baldwin once countered any criticism that, with all its side attractions, Beaulieu is a fun fair. He claimed that, although run very much as a commercial venture, it had a deadly serious side. “The ready-to-drive condition of the cars, the historical importance of the collection, and the enormous archive that backs them all compare very favourably with the best in Europe,” he said.
According to Baldwin, the Montagu cars are a great advertisement for working museums instead of dead collections, of which there are too many. He believes that, when cars do not work anymore, the life just bleeds out of them. “You only have to look at them to see it’s gone,” he said.
New Zealand visit
In Auckland in 1964, Lord Montagu told me he believed all museum cars should be used. As many as possible of the Beaulieu collection, he said, were raced, hill-climbed, and run in other speed events. He believed the car had come of age as an historical antique and people recognized its impact on modern society and were starting to make serious collections.
He added that Beaulieu had a policy of avoiding replicas, and he would not want to do what the Schlumpf museum did in displaying as many as 170 Bugattis.
“We are the only museum that has four land-speed record cars, and all have a strong British connection,” he said.
While pointing out that there were “an awful lot of collections” around the world, Lord Montagu commented that there were few motor museums and they were different: “Most of what you see and hear about are collections. Museums are different. They attempt to tell the story of the cars, and to surround them with the artefacts and relics of the time.”
Montagu believed collections do not tell a story; rather, they tell the story of the person who did the collecting.
Lord Montagu’s main reason for visiting New Zealand was to spread “the international side of the movement”, and he thought that there was no reason for clubs here to feel remote. In addition to visiting Western Springs, he gave lectures in the main centres and attended vintage and veteran rallies in Palmerston North and Taumarunui.
He brought with him to Auckland — I am unsure why — a series of Rex Hays models that traced in miniature the development of Grand Prix cars from 1906. Made to one-20th scale, these superb models were perfectly detailed and included a Type 59 Bugatti with complex piano-wire wheels.
Lord Montagu was highly enthusiastic about the “virtually empty” — apart from wandering flocks of sheep — South Island roads, which he said were so good for veteran car motoring. When the Haast Pass opened in 1965, Lord Montagu won his class in the veteran and vintage rally driving a Prince Henry Vauxhall.
A wonderful legacy
Today, the Beaulieu collection has more than 250 vehicles. The museum is offered as many as 20 cars a week to add to that number, although just one a month is considered for purchase. Lord Montagu suggested that 100 vehicles is about enough for most visitors to view in one sitting, so there was little point in a museum displaying too many exhibits. Initially, he had no collecting policy, accepting whatever came along. Early exhibits included a Prince Henry Vauxhall bought for the equivalent of NZ$900, a veteran Renault for NZ$800, and the chassis of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost for a mere NZ$200.
Each time I visited Beaulieu, I found new treasures to examine, probably because of having missed them on previous visits — treasures such as Count Louis Zborowski’s 19-litre, 230bhp Benz aero-powered Brooklands racer and the superb 1912 Hispano-Suiza Alfonso with its 3.6-litre fourcylinder engine. A close look at the Suiza can reveal to the viewer the nick in the steering wheel that deflected a bullet fired during the Irish Rebellion of 1916; alas, it killed the driver. The awkward-looking Pennington Autocar from 1896 — a two-seater with a 1.9-litre twin-cylinder motor — could seat five and cruise at 70kph but only five examples saw light of day. And visitors might not appreciate the significance of the 1903 60hp Mercedes — noteworthy not because of its 9.2-litre engine or 120kph top speed but for pioneering what would become the conventional layout for car controls.
Lord Montagu has left behind a wonderful legacy in the National Motor Museum, surely one of the finest and more comprehensive motor museums in the world. The museum stands today as not only a memorial to the achievements of the pioneers of the past but also a national gallery of motoring and a treasure chest for lovers of fine cars. This is the stately home of motoring and a tribute to the inspiration and dedication of the third Baron Montagu of Beaulieu.