The Duke’s Lagonda This handsome 3-litre was Prince Philip’s personal transport during the 1950s, explains Martin Buckley as he puts on his most convincing airs and graces Photography James Mann/REX Features/TOPFOTO/GETTY
Tickford Lagonda 3-litre Buckley drives a ’50s drophead that was the Duke of Edinburgh’s own car.
Although I wouldn’t lose any sleep over the plight of today’s royals, they probably did have an easier time of it in the more deferential 1950s. The then-dashing young Prince Philip was free to drive this Lagonda 3-litre wherever he pleased – often without the inhibition of burly security staff – and probably at whatever speed he pleased, with his now-infamous gaffes and non-PC misdemeanours going unreported. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid when he took the newly minted Lagonda – and several of his friends – on a four-and-a-half-month tour of the furthest outposts of the Commonwealth, including Australia and the Falkland Islands. They travelled in style on the newly commissioned Royal Yacht Britannia, complete with 275-man crew, all paid for out of the public purse. Can you imagine him getting away with that today?
This dark Edinburgh Green drophead became inextricably linked in the public mind with the Duke, featuring in a variety of press reports and newsreel clips – perhaps most famously when he dropped off the young Prince Charles at his Hampshire prep school, Cheam. It was in this car that the Queen and Prince Philip first tried out the new M1 motorway in 1959. Then registered OXR 1, it was, in effect, the private family car of the Windsors and the vehicle in which the Duke drove himself and the Queen on non-official occasions. There was some disquiet that he had chosen such a fast, 100mph-plus model as his personal transport.
In fact, he is thought to have been a quick but safe driver, although he had a minor collision with an undisclosed pre-war saloon in OXR 1, circa 1957. The prang – which happened with the Queen on board, somewhere near Windsor Castle – dented a wing and broke a driving light on the Lagonda. Interestingly, the Americans heard all about the incident but it went unreported in the British newspapers, most probably because HRH had, that very evening, given a talk on Safer Driving Standards to the assembled great and good of the AA…
Delivered new in March 1954 (nine months after the Coronation), the 3-litre Lagonda was supplied to the Royal Mews by HWM of Waltonon- Thames, and earned Aston Martin the coveted Royal Warrant. A factory engineer was kept on 24-hour call-out should the car give trouble, and the firm even sent a minder to accompany it on the Prince’s Commonwealth jolly.
More routine maintenance was entrusted to the Duke’s official driver, Walter Bennett, who also joined the Lagonda and his boss on the tour. The bulging history file features Buckingham Palace memos (‘Destroy after reading’) addressed to Bennett stating that every Dunlop agency in Australia was to be supplied with a set of tyres for the car, just in case it got a puncture.
The David Brown Organisation newsletter eagerly reported that the Duke had ordered the Lagonda with an Aston-type floor change (not a feature of the 3-litre until the MkII of 1956), a power hood and, most impressive of all, a Pye radiophone. This was almost unheard-of luxury in the early ’50s, so much so that the car required a special Admiralty radio frequency and a relay station on Hampstead Heath, permitting direct calls to Buckingham Palace.
Powered by a bulky box of valves in the boot, the white handset was mounted between the front seats and had a cord long enough so that back-seat passengers could use it. Today, the phone is long gone, although the antenna on the rear deck remains in place. You can also still see the dark green leather specified by the Duke for the dashboard and door cappings (instead of walnut) and the grey leather of the big armchair seats to match the roof, its supple originality testimony to the car’s 47,000 recorded miles.
In the metal, the 3-litre is an unostentatiously handsome vehicle with a touch of post-war Touring- bodied Alfa about it. There are twin fuel fillers in the rear wings for the 19-gallon tank, and the tiny rear lights in the sweeping wings are augmented by trafficators (now sadly disconnected) but there are few other visual distractions. Under the long bonnet, WO Bentley’s fourbearing, wet-liner, twin-cam straight-six – low slung and slightly lost in the deep bay – is fed by a pair of 1¾in SU carburettors. There is a big grey casing for the workings of the pushbutton radio – and two six-volt batteries either side of the bulkhead for the 12-volt system – but not much else to spoil the thoroughbred layout.
The long, rear-hinged ‘suicide’ front doors were an anachronism even in the ’50s, but do add to the sense of occasion as you reverse yourself in. It feels long and narrow from behind the wheel, the slithery expanses of the split front bench not promising much cornering security until you discover that, once deployed, the dual armrests (two each for driver and passenger, in fact) hold you nicely in place around the hips.
Pulling the knob under the dash marked ‘power head’ reveals that the hood still works perfectly (and very quietly), disappearing neatly into the space behind the back seats where it can be covered with a tonneau to give Tickford’s 16-gauge alloy body a clean profile. The 120mph speedometer and 6000rpm rev counter are ranged behind the man-sized, black-rimmed, metal sprung wheel with its pleasing ridged grip.
A switch box houses five unidentified controls including the starter button; below it is the high/ low power switch for the famous radiophone. The medium/long wave HMV radio was part of the standard 3-litre specification, as was the ‘Jackall’ hydraulic system that could raise the car on four built-in jacks. There is a trapdoor in the huge boot where you attach the lever and start pumping to get all four wheels off the deck.
People are so wet these days about changing wheels, you’re left wondering why they don’t reintroduce something similar on modern cars. All the pedals are floor-hinged, while the floor itself is nearly flat and thickly carpeted in best Wilton. The throttle is a hefty-feeling chromed loop that gives accurate control of the feisty 140bhp engine, which has an urgent and willing character plus a healthy timbre of sportiness that is slightly out of kilter with the Lagonda’s luxury aspirations. Certainly, you need liberal quantities of revs to get the 3-litre moving briskly. It takes two gearchanges (and 12.9 secs, according to The Motor) to get to 60mph, but this is no chore because the shift is probably the nicest thing about the whole car: smooth, accurate and positive.
The lever is topped by a perfectly sized ball and, going up through the gears, you can move it as quickly as you like through the nicely defined gate – achieving 40mph in second and 70mph in third (both ratios being quiet, too). The in-gear limits are marked by red lines on the speedo.
The current owner has put an overdrive on top, so it cruises just fine, dropping a useful 700rpm once you realise what the anonymous pull-switch in the centre of the fascia is for. The Lagonda would probably still sit at 85mph, but we didn’t go over 65 or so in deference to the tyres. It wanders somewhat on these hard and aged 16in Avon Turbospeeds, which is a shame because the rack-and-pinion mechanism is high geared and the 3-litre steers accurately. Having said that, the weight at low speeds – and the poor lock – mean it is no fun to manoeuvre in a tight space.
The Lagonda was unique among large British cars of the 1950s in its use of independent rear suspension. An odd concoction of tubular arms pivoting off the chassis in ball-jointed rubber mountings and sprung on 54in torsion bars, it was supported by a variety of levers and short jointed links running parallel to the chassis side members. The brake drums are inboard, next to the diff.
Inherited from the 2.6-litre model, the set-up was officially a kind of swing axle but with a lot less tilt as the wheels rise and fall than on, say, a Mercedes. The Feltham engineers claimed that it had a better ride and more grip than an equivalent live axle, but it’s hard to see where the expense and complication really paid off. The ride is on the firm side of comfy and the balance of the handling is firmly towards oversteer if driven with the sort of haste that the lusty engine and (relative) lack of body roll encourage. It is also easy to get the scuttle shaking and doors rattling on bumpy roads – a particularly worrying trait on a car with no seatbelts and ‘suicide’ doors. And the brakes? With twin leading shoes at the front, they are adequate rather than inspiring.
The Duke finally sold the Lagonda in 1961, transferring his OXR 1 plate onto a Series 1 Alvis TD21 drophead with a distinctive (and very ugly) extra-deep windscreen. The 3-litre, meanwhile, was sold to its second owner through Car Mart, the favoured regal motor dealer. That very few private cars used by high-profile royals ever escape the Buckingham Palace Mews is reflected in the humungous £350-450,000 estimate that H&H has put on the Lagonda when it comes up for auction at Duxford on 19-20 April.
But, even putting the royal connection to one side, 3-litre Lagondas are uncommon (261 built from 1953-’1958) and even rarer in drophead form: the Duke of Edinburgh car is one of only 54. They rarely change hands on the open market these days and usually draw in excess of £100k in open form, although the saloons are much less.
Having traded up from the MG TC of his carefree bachelor days, the £3200, 100mph Lagonda must have quietly impressed Philip in 1954, and represented something of a private sanctuary from the pressures of being the Queen’s consort. It is a firm, crisp and masculine machine, with a well-matched but not unpleasant heft to its controls and a responsiveness that demands attention; a sort of quality vintage car built for the 1950s. If you had to ascribe a human personality to it, then the nearest I can come up with is Jack Hawkins – slightly dated, even in the context of the time, but rugged, refined, characterful and commanding in equal measure.
Thanks to Damian Jones at H&H auctions: 08458 334455; www.classic-auctions.com
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS LAGONDA 3-LITRE
Sold/number built 1953-’1958/261 (including 54 Tickford dropheads)
Construction steel cruciform chassis, aluminium body (Tickford)
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 2922cc straight-six with twin 13/4in SU carbs
Max power 140bhp @ 5000rpm / DIN
Max torque 164lb ft @ 2000rpm / DIN
Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs rear swing axles, torsion bars, parallel links
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes Lockheed drums all round (12in at front, 11in at rear), with servo
Length 16ft 4in (4978mm)
Width 5ft 9 ½ in (1765mm)
Height 5ft 2in (1575mm)
Wheelbase 9ft 5 ½ in (2883mm)
Weight 3527lb (1600kg)
0-60mph 12.9 secs
Top speed 104mph
Price new £3202
Price now £85-100,000+ (without royal provenance)
‘THERE WAS DISQUIET THAT HE HAD CHOSEN SUCH A FAST MODEL AS PERSONAL TRANSPORT’
‘THE £3200, 100MPH LAGONDA MUST HAVE QUIETLY IMPRESSED PRINCE PHILIP IN 1954’