At Full Chat: Summer 1996

Lensman Dave Gooley has found himself a significant other, Susan by name. Regular readers of this column probably know that Dave does most of the photography that illustrates my articles. What makes this Susan particularly significant is that she loves to travel. Last May, she spent nearly three weeks careening through France and Italy with us in a Range Rover. That 4,000 mile saga began with a one-day dash from Paris to Brescia, followed by several days spent chasing the Mille Miglia to Rome and back. Both the Range Rover and Susan endured quite satisfactorily.

Last November, Dave announced that he and Susan were going overseas again, this time to England, her call. The agenda was to be non-automotive; antique shops, B&Bs, and dog shows. (“Tweedy activities,” as I call them.) Skeptically, I opined that it seemed nigh impossible for Dave to give up his car addiction cold turkey; particularly in England, a veritable treasure trove of club events, car shows, and auto museums large and small.

“Take plenty of film,” I advised, adding that Susan should tape record as many impressions as possible. As it turned out, their odyssey included the Earls’ Court Motor Show, the start of the London to Brighton Run, and a day at the Morgan Factory…plus half a dozen auto museums with a few private collection thrown in for good measure. So much for kicking the habit!

They both agreed Beaulieu is a special place, one to which they might well have allocated several days. High praise from a man jaded by having photographed some four dozen auto museums in less than a decade! What follows are their impressions of the British National Motor Museum, nee Montagu Collection.

The estate grounds portray tradition, elegance, and the orderly symmetry of Britain at its best, establishing a link between the era of the horse-drawn carriage and the evolution of the motor car during its first century. Inside the museum buildings, virtually every exhibit reinforces the continuity between old and new. Also in sharp focus is the renowned British penchant for history. One building, the British Petroleum (BP) motoring library, houses a vast collection of books, manuals, brochures, and periodicals that track every facet of automotive history. There are few, if any, more extensive film or video libraries anywhere than the one at Beaulieu, and the same applies to the catalog of still photographs—an impressive 200,000-plus images!

Vehicles from the horseless carriage Edwardian eras demonstrate construction techniques, engineering innovation, and workmanship (licit are reflected in modern automobiles. What many think of today as recent discoveries, hemispheric combustion chambers, multiple valves, even electric propulsion, all can be traced back to the early days of the 20th century, and all are well documented In exhibits backed up by the museum’s archives.

In the real world, museums are judged by their amenities and their ability to entertain visitors as well as to educate. Even historians admit being influenced by museums that use theatrics in delivering their messages. Particularly effective are dioramas that place vehicles in contemporaneous settings that depict time, place, and social atmosphere. In that department, Beaulieu ranks among the best.

Never mind Beaulieu’s importance as a historical source, at least for the moment. A core collection comprised of more than 300 vehicles deserves a high ranking in both numbers and quality. Yet, at any one time, only 200 or so vehicles are on display, of which some are on loan from other public and private collections. Also cars from the collection often participate in shows, concours d’ elegance, and retrospective events around the world. Lord Montagu Beaulieu, the museum’s founder, whose personal collection of historic vehicles serves as the nucleus of what is now the National Motor Museum, is recognized us an authority as well as being an avid enthusiast. Even in America, he has a presence, being a fixture at the Pebble Beach concours d’ elegance, where he presents an annual trophy.

At Beaulieu, exhibits are determined by period and vehicle type, with motorcycle and truck sections as well. Pre-1919 vehicles are designated Veteran; those produced between 1919-1930 are considered Vintage; and the Post-Vintage group includes cars built during the period up to WWII. In Beaulieu parlance, Post-War cars are those manufactured since 1946.

Beaulieu’s most popular category is a grouping of land speed record cars, exemplars of excitement and individual daring more than any tangential contributions to the evolution of the automobile as a transportation medium. At Beaulieu, one sees large displacement 1920 Sunbeams producing as much as 1,000 horsepower! Behemoths that hurtled to speeds approaching 200 mph by drivers with ice water flowing through their veins. These brute machines gave way to aerodynamic marvels with names like Golden Arrow and Bluebird, which raised the ante to nearly double those speeds. Another section depicts single seat “monopostos” and sports racing cars right from the earliest days to today’s high-tech F1 machines.

“Moss Motoring” readers undoubtedly will be drawn to the sports car and racing sections. Many believe MG started the sports car movement, but Beaulieu visitors will find that a naive supposition. The genre has been around somewhat longer than MG, which made its debut in the mid-1920s. A visit to this museum establishes that several others, including Sunbeam and Vauxhall, have longer sporting histories. In fact, no matter what one’s primary interest, the entire museum offers valuable insights.

The museum pays homage to the automobiles and their creators, as well as the long list of British racing and rally drivers who dominated nearly every form of competition for several decades. The accomplishments of Stirling Moss, Paddy Hopkirk, Jim Clark, Mike Hawthorn, and their generation of heroic drivers are given due recognition. So too is the era of the late 1920s when Lord Howe, Tim Birkin, and the Bentley Boys were unbeatable, and when Captain George Eyston, Goldie Gardner, and Sir Malcolm Campbell re-wrote the speed record books time after time, year after year.

As a venue for club gatherings and concours d’ elegance Beaulieu is unparalleled, and it plays host to several major events each year, including car auctions, auto jumbles, and a wide variety of banquets, dances, and other social functions.

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