Duke of hazard: speed-loving Prince Philip won’t slow down easily
He's long been a passionate fan of motoring, so it would be sad if he hung up his keys after his crash
On Thursday afternoon the Duke of Edinburgh, 97, was driving his Land Rover near the queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Pulling out from a side road on to the A149, he was involved in a collision with another vehicle.
The good news is that no one appears to have been seriously hurt. The bad news, from Prince Philip’s point of view at least, is that everyone – from his wife, to his insurers, to the Norfolk constabulary, to the tabloid press – will now be advising the old boy to hang up his car keys.
He can afford a chauffeur (the queen has several on the payroll), but knowing him a little, I can tell you that the duke is not likely to welcome advice to slow down. He’s only 97, after all: still walking without a stick, still living his life his way.
As we grow older our worlds tend to shrink and for many older people their car provides their last bit of independence. In your car you are your own master: free to go where and when you please, with no need to depend on others. The duke is a realist and a pragmatist. After the shock of Thursday’s accident, alongside his concern for those in the other vehicle involved, he will recognise that his motoring days may be done – on public roads, at least.
It’s another sign that, after retiring from royal duties in 2017, his world is diminishing and it can’t be easy, especially for someone who has been driving for 80 years and is used to living life in the fast lane.
Prince Philip has always enjoyed speed. Though he joined the Royal Navy just before his 18th birthday in 1939, he told me once that he did so because he was encouraged to follow in the family tradition. His grandfathers and uncles were all naval men; left to his own devices, he said, he would have joined the Royal Air Force “without a doubt”.
One of the perks of marrying into the British royal family was that he gained access to every kind of fast and furious flying machine. He made his first flight, from White Waltham, Berks, in a Chipmunk, on November 12 1952; his last, in a BAE 146, flying from Carlisle to Islay, on August 11 1997. Over 45 years he clocked up a total of 5,986 hours of flying in 59 types of aircraft, including nine helicopters (an RAF pilot might clock up 8,000 hours in a full career). Flying, then, was one of the great unremarked-on passions of his life.
He began driving in the 1930s. I am not sure if he took a driving test – he is of a similar generation to my late father and my friend Nicholas Parsons, the 95-year-old broadcaster, neither of whom took tests (compulsory examinations were only introduced in the mid-1930s and if you had learnt to drive in the forces during the war, in certain circumstances you could get a licence without a test). In any event, as the statistics will tell you, the safest driver is an older driver.
Nicholas took me for a spin not long ago and I felt in very safe hands, even when he did a nifty u-turn and then reversed out of a side road on to a main one. I have been in a car driven by Prince Philip. He, too, drives well – but he can drive fast. When I first met him in the 1970s, he did everything fast; he was a dynamo, though sometimes impatient. His cousin, Countess Mountbatten, told me that her father, Lord Mountbatten, was once driving with the queen and Philip through White Waltham, Berkshire. Philip was at the wheel and, according to Mountbatten, driving far too fast. The queen started drawing in her breath and flinching at the way her husband was driving. Philip turned to her and said: “If you do that once more I shall put you out of the car.”
When the hair-raising journey came to an end, Mountbatten asked the queen why she hadn’t protested. “But you heard what he said,” replied the queen, “and he meant it.”
In the mid-1940s, when he was in his 20s and courting the young Princess Elizabeth, Philip owned an MG sports car that was his pride and joy – and was involved in a couple of minor prangs. “Philip enjoys driving and does it fast,” the princess confided to a correspondent in 1947. “He has his own tiny MG which he is very proud of – he has taken me about in it, once up to London, which was great fun.”
Once he became the Duke of Edinburgh, Philip was able to graduate to an Aston Martin, which he “improved” to include an extra vanity mirror so that his wife could more easily adjust her hat. He equipped the car with a radio telephone which he used, so the story runs, to make prank calls to the young Prince Charles. In 1954, he acquired a Lagonda 3l Drophead coupé, made to order and finished in a shade of Edinburgh green with grey leather upholstery, earning Aston Martin its first royal warrant. The convertible served as his personal car for seven years: he loved it, and had it loaded on to the Royal Yacht Britannia so he could take it to the opening of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, along with a tour of the Commonwealth.
The duke has always loved fast cars and long been fascinated by how they work. He used to drive at speed but always with due care and attention and, as he has grown older, he has slowed down, and become more environmentally aware. Long before it was fashionable, he would travel about London in his own electric taxi cab.
He likes to be behind the wheel and in command. Memorably, when the Obamas visited the queen at Windsor in 2016, their helicopter having touched down in the castle grounds, the duke, then aged 95 and to the consternation of the presidential security team, drove the president around the royal estate in his Range Rover, with their two wives tucked up in the back.
Famously, the duke once remarked: “If ever you see a man opening the car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.”
Inevitably, with age, the duke’s life has become more circumscribed. He reads a lot (military history and biography in the main), maintains a variety of unexpected interests (we have recently learnt about his late-life success as a truffle farmer on the Sandringham estate), and visits old friends. He will be 98 in June and, though he seems remarkably robust, he keeps saying he’s falling to pieces. It frustrates him. If this week’s car crash means he can’t drive himself around anymore, that will frustrate him all the more.
At least he can still go carriage driving. I don’t think you need a licence for that.
– © The Daily Telegraph