The Principality of Monaco measures just 0.75 square miles, and yet its Royal Family is one of the richest and most glamorous in Europe. The population of 30,000 pay no income tax, and yet, despite this extraordinary oversight, the ruling Grimaldi family has never wanted for a decent set of wheels. So when the Paris motor show promised a display of their more interesting exotica, I had to take a peek.
In today's terms, the Grimaldis could be described as early adopters, and the oldest carriage on display dated from 1880. This elaborate structure, with its solid tires, was possibly the world's first MPV. For official duties it could be decked out as a coach in full regalia, but for long journeys it could also double as a coupe-dourmeuse (sleeping car). Finally, for sporting occasions, it would be stripped down and used as a wagonette.
Two decades later, the royal household bought their first "horseless carriage." The 1903 de Dion Bouton featured a vertically aligned single-cylinder engine developing 6 hp. Driven by the Prince, it took part in the famous London to Brighton vintage car rally, which, each year, reunites 300 cars of the pre-1905 era.
As the First World War curtailed Europe's fun, the Royal family upgraded the De Dion for the rather more grandiose Napier T78 coupe chauffeur. A vast and elegant motorcar, it boasts an enclosed rear cabin and a four-cylinder 2684cc engine. Napier already had a rich motorsport heritage, having won the 1902 Gordon Bennett Trophy from Paris to Vienna. The "vert Napier" which adorned both the 1902 car and the T78, was later adopted as the official "British Racing Green."
Anyone of proper standing in this period, of course, owned a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The model was first shown at the London Motor Show of 1906, but Prince Albert I didn't receive his until 1921, the year before he died. Finished in an understated black with gold detailing, the huge hood hides a 7036cc six-cylinder engine developing up to 50 hp. Even in those days, Henry Royce designed his engines to achieve 300,000km (186,000 miles) without a rebuild. In the same year, the family's preoccupation with taxis began. Bellanger Freres built airplane engines from 1912-25, but as a sideline they produced a thousand taxis, which were predominantly used in Paris and London. Albert managed to lay his hands on the appropriately named Al version, and this was built on Bellanger's revolutionary new production line, which churned out cars at the extraordinary rate of...one per day.
By 1952, the family had swapped the Bellanger Freres for an Austin FX3 London TaxiCab, which filled Monaco's streets with its diesel fumes. Boasting such joys as a "pavement-side baggage platform" and a separate rear heater, it seated seven. It would later become popular with Miss Grace Patricia Kelly, who married Prince Rainier III in 1956 in the ultimate showbiz wedding.
Despite all their wealth and fame, the Monaco royals of the last century had a passion for ordinary cars. Sitting humbly near the Silver Ghost was a Citroen 2CV, whose 375cc engine actually produces the equivalent of nine horses. The brief for the car was to put "four wheels below an umbrella for four people that fears neither chaos nor bad weather." It was originally designed for French peasants, but such was its popularity with urbanites that five million were built and at one point the waiting list stretched to two years. But it seems unlikely that Prince Rainier III would have had to wait so long.
The other everyman car on display was an early Morris Minor, which belonged to Princess Charlotte and was delivered in 1952. Over a million examples of the English classic were built over a 22-year lifecycle, and it was first car to be touched by the genius of Alec Issigonis, who's best known for the Mini. Among the American cars on display was a 1928 Lincoln V8 Double Phaeton, which offered 90 hp and was the car of choice for the prohibition gangs. Another personal favorite was the Chrysler Berline Imperial of 1956, which with its 300-bhp 5.4-liter V8, was one of the first "muscle" cars. It was used to greet Grace Kelly on her first official visit to the Principality.
Picking a favorite among such a heady mix of metal was no easy task, until I sported the Fiat 600 Jolly Ghia, which the family owned from 1959. Styled by the Ghia design house, the Jolly has no doors, wicker chairs for four, and a fringe canopy to protect occupants from the sun. In a room packed with indulgence, the Jolly was a simple piece of hedonism. I loved it.