In the service of Her Majesty

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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, during the celebrations for the Queen's 90th birthday in 2016 : credit: © JLR
As we pay our final respects to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Gary Pusey reflects on her enduring relationship with another great British institution, Land Rover

Her Majesty the Queen was well-known for her admiration of Land Rovers, and there are countless photographs of the Royal Family with them, many of them showing the Queen herself behind the wheel.

Prince Philip’s liking for Land Rovers led to him designing in collaboration with the company two modified Land Rovers for use at his own funeral. They remained one of the best-kept secrets in Land Rover’s rich history before one of them appeared on millions of television screens around the world on 17 April 2021, during Prince Philip’s funeral.

The Royal Family’s connection with Land Rover began almost as soon as the 80-inch was launched in 1948, when Rover presented the Queen’s father, George VI, with one of the earliest built, chassis number R860101. I doubt that Rover’s directors at the time thought of it as an astute piece of marketing, but that is undoubtedly what it proved to be, because the Land Rover brand has benefitted immeasurably from its association with the House of Windsor.

The Queen in what might be the earliest ceremonial Land Rover conversion, possibly by Hoopers of London © Roger Crathorne Collection

The earliest photograph I know of featuring the then Princess Elizabeth in a Land Rover was taken in 1951, when she was standing in for her father to present the King’s Colours to the RAF in London. Ceremonial and parade Land Rovers quickly became a familiar feature on almost all of the Queen’s overseas tours, and the first vehicle was developed by Arthur Goddard, who also passed away this year.

During his visit to the UK in 2010, Arthur recalled his visits to Buckingham Palace with drawings and plans, and how he sent a photograph of the final version for the Queen to approve. “The instruction then came from her to build one,” he said, “which we did right away. We arrived at Edinburgh Castle during the annual Edinburgh Tattoo to deliver it and staff instructed us to get it parked-up on the lawn. Suddenly these big French doors opened and out came the Queen, followed by Prince Philip. ‘Oh, so you are Arthur Goddard. We loved the pictures and what you have done,’ said Philip, while chomping on a piece of toast. I think that she was very pleased to have somebody that was doing something especially for her.”

In 1970, one of the pre-production Range Rovers, press launch Velar NXC 234H, was loaned to the Royal Household. Roger Crathorne remembers escorting the Queen’s Equerry into the workshop at Solihull to inspect the vehicle prior to it being delivered. “He wasn’t too impressed with the fact that it was painted Masai Red,” says Roger, “and suggested that Lincoln Green would be a more appropriate colour. He also said that the exposed tools mounted on the right-hand inner wing were not very Corgi-friendly. We covered them with a curtain!”

The vehicle must have impressed, however, because very soon Range Rovers featured prominently in Royal use and have remained a regular feature in media coverage ever since, right the way through to the current fifth generation.

HRH Princess Elizabeth in MAC 908, a Solihull-registered 86in Series One © Roger Crathorne Collection

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Land Rovers fitted naturally with the things that the Queen and her family enjoyed – fishing, shooting, equestrian activities – and country life in general. Utility Land Rovers were, and still are, used extensively on the Royal Family’s estates, and there are examples of vehicles that were modified at the factory to meet the needs at Balmoral and Sandringham.

One was a Series III that had a ‘traffic light’ system installed that allowed the Queen to flash a light to the driver from buttons in the back to tell him if she wanted to stop or start. A One-Ten was delivered to Balmoral in the early 1980s that had external grab handles fitted to the door pillars so that ghillies could ride on the sidesteps as the Royals travelled across the grouse moors. Another example is the 2005 Defender 130 converted into a ‘Gunbus’ by Foley, for use as shoot transport.

One rather less positive experience was the Duke of Edinburgh’s accident outside the gates to Sandringham in January 2019, when he was at the wheel of a Freelander that collided with a passing vehicle. The Freelander overturned but there were no serious injuries other than perhaps to Prince Philip’s pride, and he gave up driving shortly afterwards.

The Queen Mother was also a Land Rover fan! © Roger Crathorne Collection

Land Rover gained its first Royal Warrants in 1951, and such was the importance to Land Rover of its association with the Royal Family that it had a senior executive responsible for it, and quite probably still does. I remember meeting the then-incumbent, George Hassall, in 2012, shortly before his retirement. His official title was Director, Royal and Diplomatic Affairs, and in 2014 he was appointed CVO (Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) by the Queen. The Royal Victorian Order was established in 1896 by Queen Victoria to recognise distinguished personal service to the British Monarch, and admission to it is solely at the discretion of the reigning monarch.

In 2007 Charles III, then Prince of Wales, was in Staffordshire at the launch of a new agricultural training initiative that provided a mobile training unit known as the ‘Dairy Wagon’ to help local dairy farmers learn new skills and become more competitive. In his speech, Prince Charles said, “The hero of the hour was the remarkable George Hassall of Land Rover. He fortunately immediately saw the point of what we were trying to do and generously donated a Land Rover to pull the Dairy Wagon.” George was obviously highly regarded by the Royal Family.

Watching history unfolding in front of me as the news broke of the death of HM The Queen at Balmoral, and everything that followed, really did make me feel like I was watching the end of an era. Over 80 per cent of the population of the UK today were born after Elizabeth became Queen in 1952. Nine out of ten human beings globally fall into that category. Perhaps that’s why so many people feel that her passing is a seismic event, and that as a result things will in some way be different in future. Perhaps they will, but I found it somehow reassuring that four Land Rover vehicles dutifully escorted our late Queen on her journey from Balmoral Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh…

 

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