The National Motor Museum in the village of Beaulieu brings together around 280 antique cars in the unique setting of the New Forest in rural Hampshire. Founded in 1952 as the Montagu Motor Museum, it has become a world-famous visitor attraction dedicated to the pioneers of motoring.
© David Lauder / Wikipedia.org / CC BY-SA 3.0
The museum was launched by Edward Montagu-Scott, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, in tribute to his late father, who was a politician and pro-motoring legislator when cars were in their infancy.
Today, more than 70 years after its inception, the vintage car museum attracts around 650,000 visitors annually, ranging from classic car enthusiasts to families looking for an interesting day out.
Montagu family legacy
John Walter Edward Montagu-Scott, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, was a pioneer of the motor car in the early years of automobiles. Born in 1866, he was brought up on the family estate in Palace House, a historic country manor that was rebuilt and extended during the 1800s to become a renowned example of Victorian architecture.
Beaulieu Palace has been the Montagu family home since 1538 in its idyllic New Forest setting. The former gatehouse of the medieval Beaulieu Abbey has been a feature of the estate for 800 years.
Despite his privileged station in life, the 2nd Baron Montagu was a hands-on practical engineer in his youth, working in the sheds of the London and South Western Railway.
A Conservative MP for the New Forest from 1895 to 1905, when he entered the House of Lords; during World War I, he became adviser to the Indian government on Mechanical Transport Services and a member of the War Aircraft Committee.
On the voyage to India on 30th December 1915, he survived when his ship, the SS Persia, was hit by a torpedo fired by the German U-boat U-38. The founder and editor of the first motoring magazine The Car Illustrated, he was a member of the Road Board.
He was also instrumental in the creation of the iconic winged mascot, the Spirit of Ecstasy, that has adorned the bonnet of almost every Rolls-Royce car since 1911. Using Eleanor Thornton as the model; he commissioned the sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes to design a mascot for his own Rolls-Royce. As secretary of The Royal Automobile Club in London, she was in contact with many motoring pioneers.
Originally, the resulting mascot was called The Whisper, but it later became Spirit of Ecstasy. It is known all over the world.
Car museum’s foundation
Edward, the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, inherited his father’s love of motor vehicles. Following John’s death, Lord Edward Montagu was inspired to create a museum in his memory to display the vehicles.
He had inherited the Beaulieu estate when he was 25, but realised it wasn’t generating sufficient income to keep it in good condition, so he opened Palace House to the public to raise funds through admission fees. It was one of the first stately homes in England to join the public admission scheme.
Realising he needed a unique attraction; Edward commemorated his father’s lifetime achievements by opening Montagu Motor Museum in 1952. His massive collection of vintage cars had begun with a 1903 de Dion-Bouton owned by his father.
Initially, he borrowed classic cars from friends and motor industry contacts to display at Palace House. When the expanding collection outgrew the great hall, new buildings were constructed in the grounds to accommodate the vintage car exhibitions.
By the mid-1960s, more than 500,000 visitors went to Beaulieu annually. This resulted in a revised long-term management plan that included a new 40,000 sq. ft museum and ancillary buildings, which opened in 1972.
In 1974, Beaulieu received the National Heritage Museum of the Year award. A new Collections Centre was added in 1989, housing an ever-expanding motoring library and archives.
Lord Montagu, who had served as a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, took his seat in the House of Lords and used his position to support conservation matters, including the British motoring heritage that was so close to his heart.
In 1973, his campaigning led to the launch of the Historic Houses Association, with Lord Montagu as president. Today, the organisation represents 1,600 stately homes. He was also instrumental in establishing the Association of Independent Museums, later becoming its patron.
In 1983, he chaired the government’s new Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, renaming it English Heritage and working to make its ancient attractions more visitor friendly.
He also co-founded Vintage Tyre Supplies to make sure there was a reliable source of authentic tyres that could be used for classic car restoration. Today, it is the world’s largest supplier of original tyres.
Inspired by the “swap meets” he had experienced in the United States, he established the first Beaulieu Autojumble in 1967. It is now an annual event, attracting antique car enthusiasts from all over the world.
Lord Montagu was also President of the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs, an organisation that campaigns to ensure its 250,000 members will always be permitted to use their historic vehicles on public roads.
He received a lifetime achievement award in 2012, in recognition of his six decades of work to preserve the automotive industry’s history. Lord Montagu died in August 2015, at the age of 88, leaving his legacy of the National Motor Museum for future generations.
The National Motor Museum Trust, an independent charity, is responsible for the museum’s car collections today. It continues the work of the pioneering Montagu Motor Museum to preserve our national motoring heritage.