Located in the beautiful New Forest in South England, the British National Motor Museum has a heritage dating back much further than the automobile itself. The museum was founded in 1952 by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (pronounced Bewley) on his family's Beaulieu estate. The first years the cars were displayed in the front hall of the Palace House, which was constructed in 1204 and had been the ancestral home of the Montagu family since 1538. In 1956 the ever growing collection was moved to two sheds in the estate's garden. Originally known as the Montagu Motor Museum, the museum received its current name in 1972 when the Duke of Kent opened a new purpose-built museum building. Two years earlier the nature of the collection changed from privately owned to a charitable trust. Today the museum houses a permanent selection of the 300+ historic cars and motorcycles in the collection as well as a library of historic books, journals, photographs and automobilia.
One of the main reasons for Lord Montagu to create his museum was to honor his father who was one of Britain's automotive pioneers. In 1899 he was the first person to drive a car into the House of Commons Yard. Not much later he used that same Daimler to introduce the automobile to the Prince of Wales, the later King Edward VII. That very Daimler 12hp is one of the star attractions of the museum. In addition to its pioneering work on the British Isles, it was also the very first British entry in a foreign race; the Paris-Ostend road race where it finished third. Beautifully restored by the museum workshop, the 1899 Daimler is one of many very cars on display. Among them is a Bugatti Type 15 built in 1910. It was originally owned by Ettore Bugatti's wife and today ranks as the second oldest Bugatti in existence. Another contribution of Lord Montagu's father to the world of motoring is the 'Spirit of Ecstasy' mascot. He had sculptor Charles S. Sykes design a mascot for his new Rolls-Royce. Styled after his mistress, Eleanor Thornton, the mascot was originally known as 'The Whisper.' With very few changes, Rolls-Royce adopted the design as the 'Spirit of Ecstasy,' which has graced the radiator of almost every Rolls-Royce built since 1911.
Almost every aspect of Britain's rich racing heritage is also celebrated. Prominently displayed are some of the most iconic Land Speed record racers built in the 1920s and 1930s. Included are Sir Malcolm Campbell's 1925 Sunbeam 350HP, the 1927 Sunbeam 1000HP and 1929 Golden Arrow raced by Henry Segrave, and the Bluebird used by Donald Campbell to break the 400 mph barrier in 1964. The collection also features many more conventional racing cars. Among them are several examples that had a defining influence on motor racing. The 1903 Napier built for the Gordon Bennett race was, for example, the first car to wear the now legendary British Racing Green colors. Also legendary but for all the wrong reasons, is the BRM V16. It was Britain's first Formula 1 car, which failed miserably. The supercharged V16 engine did make one of the most spectacular sounds ever produced by a racing car. Influential and also highly successful is the Lotus 49 first raced in 1967. It was the first Formula 1 car to use the Cosworth DFV engine and enabled Graham Hill to win the 1968 World Championship. The example owned by the museum is the only one of the four cars built in 1967 that has survived in a relatively original condition.
In addition to the many racing cars, there are also numerous road cars on display. They represent an interesting cross-section of motoring over the decades. The Edwardian age is represented by the likes of Rolls-Royce and Hispano. The roaring twenties and thirties saw the steady development of the classic horse-less carriage into what we consider a modern car. One of the most ground-breaking cars of the era is the Cord 810, which combines front-wheel drive with styling that looks 20 years ahead of its time. Small family cars of the 1950s like the Mini and the Volkswagen Beetle are among the few non-sports or luxury cars on display. Also on show are examples of the archetypical British sports cars in the form of a Jaguar XK150, Lotus Europa and MGC. Rounding off the road car section are supercars like the Ferrari F40 and Enzo as well as the very rare Ford GT40 Mk III. A completely different type of vehicle also takes center stage; the delivery van. The colorful collection consists of a Ford Model T van and an electrically powered Harrods delivery truck built in 1939.
When the museum moved from the front hall of the Palace House to the sheds, motorcycles were added to the collection, effectively creating the world's first motorcycle collection. The motorcycle actually came about much earlier than the car; the first steam-powered examples dat back to the late 1860s. The motorcycles in the National Motor Museum don't date back quite that far but much like the cars on display, they do provide a cross-section of the evolution of the road and racing motorcycles through the decades. One of the more unusual designs on display is the 1899 Perks & Birch Autowheel, which features a single cylinder engine mounted inside the rear wheel. The many racing bikes vary from the latest Grand Prix machines and Superbikes to glorious MV Agustas and one of Mike Hailwood's old Hondas.
Although the museum is now housed in a purpose-built building, the Palace House on the other end of the estate can still be visited. The beautifully preserved rooms provide an insight into medieval life. Also well worth a visit are the Victorian Flower and Kitchen gardens and the Secret Army Exhibition. The latter gives an account of the period in the Second World War when the Beaulieu estate was used to train secret army officers. The estate can be toured in an open double-decker bus and on the monorail-train that also runs through the museum. Throughout the year the National Motor Museum also hosts a variety of events. The most famous is the annual international autojumble in September. With over 2000 stands and 200 cars for sale it is the largest autojumble in Europe. Further entertainment is provided by the James Bond Experience and the Playstation – 'The Grid' & Simulator Ride located next to the museum.
The National Motor Museum is rightly considered one of the premier automotive museums in the world. The cars and motorcycles are well displayed and all feature an information plaque. Lord Montagu should be especially commended for not only preserving the actual cars and motorcycles but also their rich history in the unrivaled library. The museum has an educational officer, who educates thousands of students every year. There is also a fully equipped workshop where the vehicles are restored and maintained. Throughout the year many of them are shown and demonstrated at various events like the two nearby Goodwood meetings. An account of our visit in September of 2008 can be found in the 80-shot gallery
. For more information about the museum and the opening hours, we would like to refer to the official website.