Where horsepower meets hedgehog power
The ethereal architecture of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire may belong firmly in the eighteenth century rather than the modern automotive landscape – more Jane Austen than Austin Rover – but there’s always been something to link the stately homes of England with the most beautiful cars in the world.
It’s probably because both symbolise the pinnacle of elite living: the very finest things in life, which go hand in hand with the landed gentry that quite literally ruled the roost. The Spencer-Churchill dynasty in England – related to Winston Churchill and Princess Diana – is no exception. The current Duke of Marlborough is famously passionate about his cars, which is why he has played host to Salon Privé – the world’s most aristocratic car show, sponsored by Pirelli – for the last five years. The Duke is not your average aristocrat though. As well as cars, of all types, he’s into speedboats, rock and roll – and hedgehogs: creatures that have traditionally enjoyed an uneasy relationship with cars.
Yet Charles James Spencer-Churchill (the Duke of Marlborough’s real name) is busily engaged in a programme to populate the grounds of Blenheim palace with hedgehogs, one of the many things about him that you wouldn’t expect. As long as they dodge the occasional supercar, the spiky little creatures should be fine. The biggest enemy of hedgehogs is actually badgers, and according to palace sources (every society journalist’s favourite disclaimer) you’re far more likely to spot a vintage Hispano-Suiza at Blenheim – one of the most sought-after marques in the world – than one of those.
Rallying to the cause
Blenheim, of course, has hosted all sorts of other car-based gatherings over the years as well as Salon Privé. And it’s certainly not all about fusty nostalgia in the style of Downton Abbey, as there have also been electric hypercars launched at Blenheim, not to mention modern supercar meetings.
In 1989, Blenheim even hosted a special stage of the RAC Rally, with legends Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen jointly winning the test at an average speed of 120.59kph. That made it, by some margin, the fastest of all 55 special stages run that year.
So the relationship between Blenheim and speed has always been a close one. Formula 1 has also come to Blenheim Palace – in passing, at least. Jenson Button, Britain’s 2009 F1 World Champion, completed the 2011 Blenheim Triathlon in just over an hour: another event the Oxfordshire palace is synonymous with.
The Duke himself is a big Formula 1 fan: the much-missed writer A.A. Gill once spent some time at the Monaco Grand Prix with him several years back. “A weekend of hideous noise, sitting on a yacht in that ghastly ashtray of a harbour,” was how Gill described the most famous scene in motorsport. “He loved it.”
A man for all seasons
The Duke of Marlborough actually worked in motorsport himself, long before Salon Privé was even thought of. He was previously marketing director for Brodie Brittain Racing (founded by Frank Williams’ lifelong pal David Brodie, who is Clare Williams’ godfather) and was famously also organiser of hospitality for the Benetton Formula 1 team in 1996, creating events that people still talk about now.
So the Duke’s own motorsport pedigree is second to none, and his taste in cars goes way beyond the conventional gentleman’s express favoured by most Dukes. One of his favourites was the outlandish Nissan Skyline: a lot more fun than the doggy Land Rovers that tend to be the transport of choice for most English aristocrats (although there are probably a few of those tucked away at Blenheim as well).
Salon Privé is already confirmed there for next year, from 3-6 September 2020. But there will be all sorts of other motoring events during the year as well, ranging from the All Morgans day (for classic Morgans) to the Twin Towns charity banger rally, where competitors drive cars worth no more than £500 from Blenheim Palace to Le Touquet in France. Winston Churchill – born in Blenheim Palace in 1874, who always loved to holiday in Le Touquet – would surely have approved.