The coolest car club in the world dates to 1897, and its grand building on the fashionable Pall Mall — just down the broad thoroughfare from St. James Palace — first opened its doors in 1911. Here in the center of London, the RAC offers lodging, restaurants, and recreation as well as meeting rooms to its 16,500 members. “Exhibiting cars in the RAC goes back to the 1960s when the Aston Martin DB5 for the James Bond movie ‘Goldfinger’ was first shown,” says Tony Worsfold, manager of the RAC’s heritage fleet. “Members love to see the automobiles in a motoring club.”
Over the past five years, the job of your obedient servant has been to photograph the cars on display here in the “Palace of Pall Mall.” The cars might have historical significance, offer technically advanced features, or simply promote an event that is taking place within this vast building of the Edwardian era.
To photograph the automobiles as they are brought into the RAC’s rotunda at dawn, I force myself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to ride my scooter through London’s deserted streets. First Worsfold and his dedicated crew must dismantle the revolving doors that mark the pedestrian entrance, then put together a series of aluminium ramps across the sidewalk steps, into the building, and then up into the rotunda. This long ramp is very special, as it was first employed in 2005 in order to allow entry to the 2005 Rolls-Royce Phantom, as the previous ones were not up to the weight of Goodwood’s finest.
It takes only about 5 minutes for the car to be driven or winched to the level of the rotunda, an elevation of about 9 feet from the sidewalk. The RAC crew chief tells me that some cars are a tight fit between the pillars of the staircase. In order to accommodate a Ford Galaxie 500 from the great age of American muscle cars, they had to lean on the bodywork panels!
Placing a car in such a surreal location is perfectly (and eccentrically) British, yet it also provides a topic for comment and even debate for members and their guests en route to the dining room. Here I’ve provided pictures of my own favorites, each of which has that special “wow” factor that makes a memorable car.
This car was intended to be raced by Stirling Moss, and it’s painted in the distinctive apple green of the British Racing Partnership (BRP), a privateer team founded by Moss’s father and his business manager. The plan unravelled after Moss crashed an F1 car at Goodwood in early 1962, ending his career. Later in 1962, Innes Ireland drove the Ferrari to win the RAC Tourist Trophy. When sold at auction in 2012 for about $50 million, this GTO was the most valuable automobile in the world.
This is the largest and fastest of the Edwardian-era racing cars meant to set record speeds. Its 286-hp four-cylinder engine displaces a monstrous 28.4 liters. In 1913 the car set a land-speed record for a mile run with a flying start at 116.9 mph, making it what AUTOCAR magazine then described as the “fastest car on the planet.” Videos of its recent (and infernally noisy) restoration became a sensation on YouTube.
Often described as the most famous car in the world thanks to its connection to James Bond, the DB5 combines a classic, 4.0-liter, inline-six British engine and Italian-styled bodywork by Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera. Though this model famously appeared with James Bond in “Goldfinger” (1964), this particular car was prepared for “GoldenEye” (1995). Of course this example also features the tools of Bond’s trade.
This sports-prototype ushered in a new era for racing cars by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013. It combines a turbocharged 3.7-liter diesel V-8, a flywheel-charged battery with an electric motor, and all-wheel drive. The combination of all this hardware represented the leading edge of technology not just for racing cars but also for street cars, as subsequent supercars have shown.
The second of two short-wheelbase (SWB) Ferrari 250 GTs raced by Stirling Moss, it carries the blue-and-white Scottish colors of Moss’s long-time patron, Rob Walker. This car appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1961 and won overall at the 1961 RAC Tourist Trophy. More important, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB continues to represent the ideal sports car to many — beautiful, tractable, and also fast.
This vast automobile is one of the oldest surviving examples of the Silver Ghost. A very original chassis and engine has been combined with beautifully restored coachwork by P&A Wood that includes gleaming paint and nickel-plated brightwork. The model acquired the “Ghost” moniker because of its quietness, while the overall quality led to the first description of Rolls-Royce as the maker of the best car in the world.
An example of the new sports car from Ford that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT’s sweep of the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Its dramatic style has found many enthusiasts in Britain, since Ford is considered here to be a very British brand, while the original Ford GT40 is also remembered as an Anglo-American enterprise.
The famous collaboration between tractor-maker Ferruccio Lamborghini, chassis designer Gian Paolo Dallara, powertrain engineer Paolo Stanzani, Bertone stylist Marcello Gandini, and test driver Bob Wallace, the beautiful Miura with its transverse-mounted V-12 popularized the mid-engine concept. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Miura’s introduction at the Geneva auto show
A truly revolutionary racing automobile, the quasi three-wheeler is the work of British engineer Ben Bowlby, who was awarded the RAC’s Simms Medal to honor “a brilliant realization of ground-breaking race technology.” The car appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013, and a version continues to compete in IMSA sports car racing in the U.S.
Often overlooked today, this car combined a simple space-frame chassis and a reliable, all-aluminum Oldsmobile-derived V-8, very much in the practical spirit of Australian designer Ron Tauranac and Australian driver Jack Brabham. It won the F1 driver championship for New Zealander Denny Hulme in 1967 and earned the manufacturer title for the second year in a row for Tauranac and three-time driving champion Brabham.