Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the afternoon of September 8, 2022, when it was announced that Queen Elizabeth II had died. Today, we’re revisiting this piece on the occasion of the Queen’s state funeral at Windsor Castle, which will be followed by her burial at St. George’s Chapel.
Her Majesty always had a thing for driving. At the age of 18, when she was Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen joined the British military, serving in the womens’ Auxiliary Territory Services. She was the first woman from the Royal Family to serve in the military, driving army ambulances and learning to repair heavy trucks on the battlefield. Despite some initial reluctance from her father, King George, the Princess’s military service was very well received by the British public. Newspapers dubbed her Princess Auto Mechanic.
The Queen’s eagerness to serve in the war effort seemed to have kicked off a lifetime of driving enthusiasm. Throughout her 70-year reign, the Queen was known to drive a stick-shift Land Rover around her 20,000-acre estate, occasionally scaring off poachers who probably never expected the actual Queen of England to come roaring around a bend.
She was also, it seems, a bit of a speed demon. In a hilarious account from Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, we learn of a time when then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz visited the Queen at her estate and got the ride of his life:
… in September 1998, Abdullah had been invited up to Balmoral, for lunch with the Queen. Following his brother King Fahd’s stroke in 1995, Abdullah was already the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. After lunch, the Queen had asked her royal guest whether he would like a tour of the estate. Prompted by his Foreign Minister, the urbane Prince Saud, an initially hesitant Abdullah had agreed. The royal Land Rovers were drawn up in front of the castle. As instructed, the Crown Prince climbed into the front seat of the Land Rover, with his interpreter in the seat behind. To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off. Women are not – yet – allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen. His nervousness only increased as the queen, an Army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time. Through his interpreter, the Crown Prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.
Even as she entered old age, Her Majesty was frequently photographed at the wheel of one of her many custom Royal Land Rovers, all of which were outfitted with her signature Labrador hood ornament. A Queen driving herself around was a notable departure from the standard decorum surrounding British Royals, who for the most part choose to be driven around by chauffeurs.
Here she is in 1991, ripping around her estate in a stick-shift Rover and enjoying every minute of it:
Queen Elizabeth’s reign coincided with massive and ongoing changes in the way societies work. In recent years, many people have rightly begun to re-examine the role of the British Monarchy in the United Kingdom and around the world. There will be plenty of discussion around those topics as the world reacts to the Queen’s passing.
For us, though, we’ll always remember Queen Elizabeth as the ambulance-driving, truck-fixing speed demon of the Royal Family. In that way, she was one of us.