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The Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII when Queen Victoria died, bought this Daimler 56C in 1900. (Sandringham Museum)
The Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII when Queen Victoria died, bought this Daimler 56C in 1900. (Sandringham Museum)

Classic Cars

1900 Daimler: The first car fit for a king Add to ...

When Queen Elizabeth II is required to motor about during her Diamond Jubilee year, she can pop down to the Royal Mews and hop into her choice of Bentley, Rolls-Royce or Daimler limousines, or possibly borrow Prince Phillip’s propane-powered Metrocab, maintaining a tradition of interesting royal rides that began more than a century ago.

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The first motor car to make the horses move over in the Royal Mews – stables/carriage house and, with the arrival of the automobile, garage – was a 1900 model year Daimler purchased by the Prince of Wales.

Albert Edward – a.k.a. Bertie, Tum Tum (because of his considerable 48-inch belt-line) and later King Edward VII – was born in 1841, the first son of Queen Victoria and grew up to become a noted sportsman in the traditional sense; golf, horse racing, hunting, etc. But he also had a reputation for pursuing crinolined quarry in the corridors of England’s great houses, thus acquiring a reputation as “fast” before it had anything to do with driving motorized vehicles.

In fact, there’s no proof he ever learned to drive, and his Daimler couldn’t have reached speeds that would blow his top hat off anyway.

The future king was introduced to motoring by John Scott-Montagu, Second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, who took him for a spin in the 1898 Daimler he also employed to become the first MP to commute to his seat in parliament in a motorized vehicle.

The Daimler name strikes a familiar note in a German context, but what was it doing affixed to a British car?

German Gottlieb Daimler (who, with Karl Benz, would spark the creation of Mercedes-Benz) sold a licence to build engines under his name to Brit Frederick Simms in 1891. Simms established the Daimler Motor Syndicate Ltd. to build boat engines, but soon became interested in automobiles. A little later, after some financial shenanigans, Daimler Motor Co. was created and began producing a French Leon Bollee design under the Daimler name.

The first of these rolled out of the Coventry factory in 1897, allowing Daimler to claim the honour of being the first serial production British car. It was also the first car to make the John O’Groats to Lands End run.

The purchase of the 1900 model by Bertie began a tradition that has seen every monarch since ride in a Daimler vehicle – although a transmission failure in 1950 caused a fit of royal pique that saw Daimler displaced by Rolls-Royce as the royals’ primary vehicles of state.

But three Daimler DS420 state limos, recognized by their fluted grilles, retro-look swooping fender lines and bustle backs can still be found parked in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace and get the occasional airing. The other current royal conveyances include Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Jaguars, Land Rovers, an Aston-Martin and various Audis. And Prince Phillip really does own a London cab used to run local errands. The 91-year-old Duke of Edinburgh also has a minibike.

Daimler became a subsidiary of bike-builder BSA in 1910 and part of Jaguar Cars in 1960, which was acquired by Ford in the late 1980s and is now owned by India’s Tata. Tata is said to be considering relaunching the Daimler brand.

The 1900 Daimler Bertie bought was one of the company’s standard models and is powered by a 1,526-cc twin-cylinder aluminum engine with dual ignition – by then still somewhat chancy electric spark with reliable if not very efficient open flame heated hot-tubes in reserve. It had a four-speed transmission and chain drive.

Earlier models had tiller steering, but this one was equipped with a wheel and also incorporated a new innovation, a foot-operated accelerator pedal rather than a hand-throttle. It could reach a top speed of 24 mph.

The first royal Daimler was originally equipped with Mail Phaeton style four-seater bodywork with leather mudguards by coachbuilders Messrs. Hooper and Co. Ltd. of St. James Street in London, and finished in the royal colours of chocolate and black with red detailing and black leather upholstery. The only indication it’s a royal conveyance is His Royal Highness’s crest (he became king in 1901 and died in 1910), which is tucked in behind the lamp on the left side.

It was modified in 1902 by moving the radiator from the rear to the front to help combat overheating issues, solid rather than pneumatic tires were fitted, more substantial rear entry tonneau bodywork installed and a surrey style roof, complete with fringe, replaced the original leather cape cart contraption.

King Bertie soon acquired other Daimlers and this one knocked around the Sandringham Estate for a while before being stored and then returned to the Daimler company in 1930. King George VI, a keen motorist and motorcycle enthusiast, drove it on the test track there when he visited the Daimler factory in 1938.

It took part in the Daimler Jubilee Cavalcade in 1946 and its next outing was on a TV show in the late 1950s. It was returned to the Royal Mews in the late 1960s and, after some restoration work, took part in its first London to Brighton run in 1971.

The first royal Daimler currently resides in the museum at Sandringham, where Bertie built a home in 1870 that now serves as a country retreat for Queen Elizabeth II.

It is part of a collection of royal vehicles that includes the now-departed Queen Mother’s “racing buggy,” a tuned-up golf cart and the current Prince of Wales’ 1968 MGC GT.

First royal car owner Bertie didn’t turn out to be a particularly notable king, but he does get the nod for helping to kick-start the British auto industry by making motor cars fashionable with the “smart set” in what would become known as the Edwardian Era.

Back in 1900

Carrie Nation, a formidable six-footer and radical temperance movement warrior, makes the first of 30 hatchet attacks on bars – known as “hatchetations” – that she will be busted for over the next 10 years.

The first Zeppelin flight is conducted over Lake Constance in Europe, an electric bus buzzes around New York, which has just broken ground for its Rapid Transit Railroad, while the first Paris Metro line goes into service.

Three members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons are awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in covering a withdrawal of Canadian and British troops during the Battle of Leliefontein in the Second Boer War in southern Africa.

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