Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who died this week at 88, was the one of the first car enthusiasts anywhere to introduce the public to the idea of paying to visit a car museum.
The small collection he established in the entrance hall of his family home at Beaulieu in 1952 is now the National Motor Museum, containing more than 400 vehicles and welcoming half a million visitors a year.
Edward Montagu succeeded his father, a prominent motoring pioneer who first brought motor cars to the notice of the future King Edward VII, in 1929. After returning from war service he took over the running of the Beaulieu estate, branding it “a white elephant” with typical forthrightness when he discovered its £1500 annual income was insufficient to run it. The wisest course would have been to sell it, he said, but neglecting his family’s heritage would have been “unthinkable”.
After a year he opened the house and grounds to the public as a way of boosting Beaulieu’s income, and soon found that five veteran cars, displayed in the house’s entrance hall to commemorate his father’s achievements, were a major drawcard. In later life Montagu was always candid about the way this simple move governed the course of his life – leading to the establishment of a car collection to tell the story of Britain’s motoring life, and establishing Montagu himself as pioneer of Britain’s historic houses movement.
As a young man, Lord Montagu fully embraced his father’s enthusiasm for cars and automotive artefacts. He became a well-known and oft-published author of car books and a vocal lobbyist in the causes of motoring. He also appeared regularly at motoring events, and especially loved the London to Brighton Run for pre-1905 veteran cars, the kind his father had done so much to bring to prominence. He drove them well, too, as I discovered during several trips as his passenger.
That original Palace House collection, called the Montagu Motor Museum, soon grew too large for the entrance hall and moved to a nearby group of wooden sheds. The National Motor Museum name was adopted in 1972 after the collection had expanded to 300 vehicles and moved again, to the much larger purpose-built hall it occupies today.
Until the end of his life, Montagu always cited the museum’s success as the reason he had been able to remain owner and occupier of his ancestral home. He recounts the story in fascinating detail in his autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels, published in 2002.