Driving the royals

Friday, 11 June 2021

The royal tours of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in the 1950s and early 1960s are still fondly remembered for their grace and scale. Making sure they arrived on time at every destination was a fleet of Commonwealth cars and their drivers.

In scenes repeated in cities and towns across Australia, huge crowds would gather by the roadside in eager anticipation of seeing the royal couple. The excitement would build as the royal car slowly came into view, then a wave of euphoria would sweep the crowd as the vehicle glided by majestically, with the royal couple waving from the back seat. Most people only ever got a fleeting glimpse of the Queen but for many it was a moment they never forgot and often cemented a lifelong affection for the monarchy. To quote Sir Robert Menzies: ‘I did but see her passing by, yet I shall love her till I die.’

Those precious, personal memories of the Queen and Prince Philip passing by in the back of stately Rolls Royces, Bentleys or open top Land Rovers live on in historic photographs preserved at the National Archives in Melbourne. These photographs were originally collected by the former Comcar Museum and later used in the official COMCAR centenary history.

These blockbuster royal tours were tightly scheduled and carefully choreographed – down to the speed of the vehicles during the royal progress and the distance required between the cars. Only the most experienced and skilled drivers were appointed to drive the royals. They were chosen not only on the basis of their driving skills, but also for their initiative, appearance and ability to master the royal protocols and etiquette. The best drivers served on multiple tours and received medals for their service.

While there was stiff competition amongst the drivers to be selected to drive the Queen, many looked forward to driving the Duke of Edinburgh. He was popular because he would take a personal interest in his journeys, even asking for maps so that he could follow the route. The Duke was also much less formal when travelling solo. On one visit to Melbourne, he even asked to take the wheel and drove the official Rolls to Essendon Airport, with his official driver Gerry Guilfoyle getting the opportunity to enjoy the journey from the backseat for a change.

A photograph of Prince Philip driving the Rolls is yet come to light in the Comcar collection. However, there is a photograph from the 1981 Royal Visit of Prince Charles driving the official white Ford LTD from RAAF Richmond. As Prince Charles’ Comcar driver Mick Broadbridge later recalled:

He [Prince Charles] had just flown in at Richmond RAAF Base and was on his way to a polo game at Warwick Farm ... He met a lot of the RAAF officers and their wives and then came over to the car. He said hello to me and then said he would like to drive and asked if there would be any problem. He said he didn’t want to cause me any industrial trouble. I said I didn’t mind and that I’d never ridden in the back of an LTD, let alone being driven by royalty. Prince Charles said ‘Let’s do it.’ There was a photo taken and there’s Charlie in the front and Mick in the back.

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