Prince Charles’ driving passion

Peter Hall
·7-min read
The Prince of Wales with his Aston Martin DB6 at his Highgrove home in Gloucestershire - ©️2018 Sir Don McCullin
The Prince of Wales with his Aston Martin DB6 at his Highgrove home in Gloucestershire - ©️2018 Sir Don McCullin

His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, turned 72 on Saturday, November 14.

Being a car enthusiast, it’s tempting to wonder what motoring-related birthday presents he might receive. What does one give a man who has almost everything?

For inspiration, one could look back at his motoring history, which started early. A 1950 Austin J40 pedal car in aquamarine blue – the second example built by disabled miners in Bargoed, Wales – is said to have been a favourite, and is now kept by the Royal Collection Trust in such pristine condition that it appears not to have been driven very far. 

Even in those days the Prince had a choice of wheels, including a Triang Centurion “Sunbeam Coupé” with electric lights, horn and radio, a Triang Major tractor and trailer and even a 1955 “Rollalong” caravan, a gift from The Caravan Club to Charles and his sister, Anne. Weighing half a ton thanks to its water, gas and electricity supplies, kitchen, tea-set and collection of Beatrix Potter books, it might have caused the ultimate pedal-car traffic jam had it not been fitted with a tow-hitch so that the Duke of Edinburgh could drag it along behind an old Hillman Husky. 

28th September 1952: Queen Elizabeth watching her son Prince Charles playing in his toy car while at Balmoral - Lisa Sheridan/Hulton Royals Collection
28th September 1952: Queen Elizabeth watching her son Prince Charles playing in his toy car while at Balmoral - Lisa Sheridan/Hulton Royals Collection

The young Prince even had a vintage option in his garage, a battery-powered 1920s Citroën C4, formerly the plaything of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, which was refurbished and fitted with a Daimler grille in 1953. From America he also received a miniature 1955 Imperial I Midget Racer, a two-stroke powered single seater. The Sandringham Museum quotes an “ungoverned” top speed of 40mph but again it shows no signs of wear and tear. 

A decade on, as teenagers Charles and Anne had access to a couple of mid-1960s karts; they were photographed in May 1969 driving around in front of the Queen, with five-year-old Edward sitting on his brother’s lap. Anne’s machine had visible crash damage but safety gear – other than riding boots and breeches – was evidently considered unnecessary.

April 1969: Charles, Prince of Wales and Prince Edward riding together in go-kart whilst Princess Anne drives behind them - Hulton Archive
April 1969: Charles, Prince of Wales and Prince Edward riding together in go-kart whilst Princess Anne drives behind them - Hulton Archive

Charles’ first “proper” car was a Mineral Blue MGC GT with wire wheels, heated rear screen, electric aerial and car phone, which he acquired in January 1968 while at Cambridge. However, this was soon overshadowed by a 21st birthday present from his parents – a 1969 Aston Martin DB6 Volante Mk2.

This 4.0-litre, 282bhp thoroughbred was in a different performance league, so he engaged F1 champion Graham Hill for a confidence-boosting track day at Thruxton. The Seychelles Blue convertible has remained in his possession ever since (unless it was being serviced, when Aston provided a maroon 1969 DB6 Vantage courtesy car). 

Prince of Wales steps out of his own blue MGC car after driving himself to the University College of Wales to begin his nine-week course. 21-04-1969 - PA
Prince of Wales steps out of his own blue MGC car after driving himself to the University College of Wales to begin his nine-week course. 21-04-1969 - PA

Of course Charles could also drive other vehicles on the Royal fleet, including several Range Rovers; an olive green 1975 model often appeared in the papers during his courtship with Diana Spencer (later privately owned and restored, it sold at auction for £101,150). In 1981 he also bought a Ford Escort, as an engagement present for Diana; she subsequently replaced it with an Audi 80 Cabriolet, transforming the marque’s image and doubling its UK sales. 

A second Aston Martin arrived in 1986, when the Emir of Bahrain offered the Prince a V8 Vantage Volante in any specification he desired. Charles chose British racing green paint and mushroom leather trim but eschewed the usual bodykit, a modest combination that came to be known as “Prince of Wales spec” and was much copied. 

Prince Charles gets into his 1986 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante after playing polo at Windsor - Tim Graham
Prince Charles gets into his 1986 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante after playing polo at Windsor - Tim Graham

Special features included a police radio, Nardi wood-rimmed steering wheel and matching gear knob, recessed switchgear, a sunglasses compartment instead of an ashtray and a central armrest containing a colour-matched jar of sugar cubes for polo ponies. Maintaining its tradition of building playthings for princes (in 1966 Andrew had a replica of James Bond’s DB5), Aston also created a miniature Vantage for William and Harry, since inherited by George.

Two years after separating from Diana, in 1994 Charles acquired two more cars. A 300bhp Bentley Turbo RL was specified with easily removable front headrests, lowered rear seat cushions and reading lights, but was used for only two years prior to the 1996 divorce. 

Bentley Turbo R (1990)
Bentley Turbo R (1990)

He also took delivery of another Aston Martin, a Virage Volante, leased from the manufacturer, and sold the Vantage, raising £100,000 for The Prince’s Trust. In addition to bespoke features such as the sugar-cube pot, the Virage received Aston’s Works Service Conversion, with a 500bhp 6.3-litre V8 rather than the usual 5.3-litre unit, but again Charles insisted on standard bodywork. 

Given this history, the media feigned surprise when in 1999, at his first public appearance with Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles turned up in a humble Vauxhall Omega saloon (he also had an Omega estate for load-lugging). Barely four years later, as Omega production ended, Charles drew more criticism; ignoring the fact that the Vauxhalls were rebadged Opels, or indeed that the Windsors were rebadged Saxe-Coburg and Gothas, the Prince was attacked for buying German-built Audis. 

Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles - first public appearance together, 1999 - Nikos Vinieratos/Shutterstock
Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles - first public appearance together, 1999 - Nikos Vinieratos/Shutterstock

The marque’s UK PR boss, never one to shun celebrity endorsements (and later a guest at William and Kate’s wedding), had offered a whole fleet of silver cars: an A8 Limousine, two A6 Allroads (one for Camilla) and a couple of A4s for the staff. Although propriety demanded that they be paid for, they reportedly cost less than half of the list price. 

Concerns were then raised about the Prince’s commitment to the environment. A classic may be greener than a series of new cars, but it seemed odd that Charles should own two “gas guzzlers”. Accordingly, in 2008 the Virage was returned to Aston Martin (it subsequently sold at auction for £119,100). 

Prince Charles at Cirencester Polo with silver Audi A6 Allroad - Tim Graham
Prince Charles at Cirencester Polo with silver Audi A6 Allroad - Tim Graham

As for the beloved DB6, it was converted to run on 105-octane E85, a blend of petrol and ethanol derived from wine and whey by Green Fuels of Gloucestershire. The engineers at Aston specialist RS Williams were initially sceptical but the modified car works well; it carried William and Kate back from their wedding reception to Clarence House in 2011, smelling delicious. 

Prince William drives his wife, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge in Prince Charles' Aston Martin DB6 Volante after their wedding - Jonathan Short/AP
Prince William drives his wife, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge in Prince Charles' Aston Martin DB6 Volante after their wedding - Jonathan Short/AP

The Prince has since returned to his battery-electric roots with a 2018 Jaguar i-Pace. Distinguished by its bespoke Loire Blue paintwork, the 394bhp SUV is rather more powerful than the electric Citroën Charles drove as a child, and could whisk him from Clarence House to Highgrove on a single charge, should the classic Aston ever run short of wine and cheese. 

Where the electricity comes from is another matter, of course. If he hasn’t already got one, perhaps he’d like a wind turbine for his birthday?

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