Royals on the Road: Monarchy and the Automobile

The future Edward VIII in the back of a Pierce-Arrow open automobile, wearing a checked cap, during a 1913 visit to Germany

I completed my driving school course today at Young Drivers of Canada (which thankfully also accepts slightly older drivers). All the hours spent driving around in circles, searching for cars to practice parallel parking behind, inspired me to look at the long and interesting relationship between the history of the car and the history of European monarchy.

When automobiles became available to European elites in the first decades of the twentieth century, the monarchs of the period made their use – or rejection – of this new technology part of their public images. Although he succeeded to the throne at the age of 60, in 1901, Edward VII became the first British monarch to ride in an automobile, demonstrating his determination to be a more modern monarch than his late mother, Queen Victoria.

In contrast, his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany showed his devotion to the traditions of Prussian militarism by declaring, “I do believe in the horse, the automobile is nothing more than a transitory phenomenon.” The presence of the Kaiser’s roadster in the Stuttgart Mercedes-Benz museum, which I visited in 2009, demonstrates that he eventually changed his mind!

A 1936 Mercedes-Benz Spezial-Roadster, on display at the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, Germany. The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, broke the tradition that dictated members of the British royal family should only drive British made automobiles by buying one of these cars.

Immediately prior to the First and Second World Wars, the British monarch’s choice of automobile became a live political issue. Although continental European monarchs such as Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Nicholas II of Russia drove Mercedes-Benzes, George V made a point of only driving British made automobiles, emphasizing his British identity in the face of criticism of the royal family’s German ancestors during the First World War.

His son Edward VIII, who I discussed in an April, 2011 interview with the Kingston Whig-Standard, did not display the same political acumen. Immediately following his abdication in 1936, the newly created Duke of Windsor broke with tradition and bought a Mercedea-Benz Spezial-Roadster, contributing to suspicions concerning his patriotism prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Princess Elizabeth Serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during the Second World War.

In England, Edward’s niece, the future Elizabeth II served the United Kingdom during the Second World War though service in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, as an honorary Second Subaltern with the service number of 230873, serving as a driver and mechanic. Her familiarity with automobile mechanics is famously dramatized in the 2006 Helen Mirren film, The Queen

Today, Elizabeth II has use of the state fleet of British made Bentleys and Rolls-Royces . The integration of the car into all aspects of royal pageantry was completed by Kate Middleton’s arrival at Westminster Abbey in a limousine on her wedding day instead of the traditional carriage. Both cars and carriages are now integral aspects of British royal ceremonial occasions.

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