Prince Charles likes his outfits and interests to complement one another. Archive images from the 1960s onwards show him wearing, variously, a selection of immaculate safari suits in Kenya, yee-ha-ish western shirts and cowboy boots at a Native American reservation, and rugged equestrian duds for a game of polo. Today, His Royal Highness will be driving me in his beloved Aston Martin around the country lanes of Highgrove, Gloucestershire and, again, he is dressed accordingly, in a cream linen suit.
Prince Charles has owned the double-breasted ensemble, by Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row, for decades and it has suffered inevitable deterioration. “But I hate waste. So I got them to repair it,” he says, pointing to his tailor’s intricate work: tone-on-tone ribbons on the foxed lapels and barely perceptible reinforcing at the shoulders. Fundamentally, he says, the suit — an old, still stylish fabrication, but running on sartorial vapours — matches his wonderful Aston Martin DB6, which runs not on petrol or diesel, but on cheese by-product and old wine.
He bought the car back in 1970, but after decades of ownership he felt morally and environmentally obliged to modernise it. If he was going to keep it on the road it would have to be re-engineered for alternative fuel. No longer a gas-guzzling luxury, it would be a sustainable green machine in line with his myriad eco-friendly endeavours.
“It was difficult,” he admits. For years, he had been trying to convert his various cars to bio-diesel. “I even tried to get the Royal Train to run on old chip fat. It seemed that other countries were way ahead of us on alternative fuels, but we then discovered a splendid company near here that specialises in turning waste products into fuels.”
Gloucestershire-based Green Fuels, which has since earned a Royal Warrant of Appointment, informed the prince that it could supply waste-derived bio-ethanol produced from a combination of wine unsuitable for human consumption, and whey, a by-product of cheese manufacturing. The fuel is blended as “E85” by adding 15% unleaded petrol, its higher-octane levels (105 versus the more typical 87 of unleaded petrol) making the car more powerful.
Aston Martin specialist RS Williams carried out the DB6’s conversion. “At first, the engineers weren’t convinced that the conversion would work, but I insisted that it would,” Prince Charles says as we pass through Highgrove’s gates and head out on to the open road. “When the conversion was done, they had to admit that the car now performs better than ever.”
His cousin David Linley (furniture maker and honorary chairman of Christie’s) has a joke about the prince and his car: “How does Prince Charles drive his Aston Martin? Caerphilly.” It’s not a bad Prince of Wales gag, but in truth, Prince Charles is quite a sporty motorist. As if to demonstrate the Aston Martin’s eco grunt, he accelerates to a corner (we’re on private land now), deftly double declutches and executes a modest wheel spin on the exit. He allows himself a satisfied grin. “When I first bought the car it seemed incredibly fast and powerful so I asked [former Formula One world champion] Graham Hill to teach me how to drive it. He took me to the Thruxton circuit and showed how it could hold the road at speed. Lovely man. He gave me so much confidence.”
Now gently cruising around the wooded Gloucestershire lanes in summer sunshine, Prince Charles tells of a personal love affair with the great British marque that spans five decades and several bespoke iterations. A member of the Aston Martin Owners Club since 1973, between 1987 and 1995 Charles also owned a 5.3-litre V8 Vantage Volante, given to him by the Emir of Bahrain. It included an in-built jar to hold sugar cubes for polo ponies. Aston Martin subsequently built more than 20 Vantage Volantes to the “Prince of Wales Specification” for other customers. His third Aston Martin, a Virage Volante, was leased from 1994 to 2007. The marque has held a Royal Warrant since 1982.
When the conversion was done, the engineers had to admit that the car now performs better than ever
Prince Charles’ first car was actually an MGC GT, which he drove for a couple of years from January 1968. “Lovely car. I had it when I was up at Cambridge.” (The prince studied at Trinity College.) Fitted with wire wheels, a heated rear window, an electric aerial and — a novelty at the time — a car phone, the MGC went to the Royal Mews in Windsor in 1970 and later to the Sandringham museum. It was replaced by his Aston Martin DB6 — a MKII Volante, the cognoscenti’s choice.
Introduced at the 1965 London Motor Show, the DB6 was the first model to be engineered at the company’s Newport Pagnell factory. A lengthened wheelbase and a relocated rear axle gave it a top speed of 148mph and more stability than the DB5. A “Kammback tail” rear end paid tribute to the Ferrari 250. Prince Charles’ car, a rare convertible edition, is fitted with a big red button that reads “eject”. “Just a joke,” the Prince assures his nervous passenger.
Why Aston Martin? “It is one of the great cars,” says the Prince, his hands at a perfect “10 to two” on the polished wooden steering wheel. “I adore the design and the lines. They are special. I remember Lord Snowdon had a marvellous DB5 in a beautiful gunmetal colour. It was always the car to have.”
We pull into the Highgrove gates and proceed at a steady, gravel-crunching walking pace towards the house. A painted sign wryly cautions us “Beware! You are now entering an old-fashioned establishment”.
The Prince Charles way of doing things, however, merges aesthetic charm with a maverick sense of responsibility and is as much future-facing as it is “old fashioned”. The Home Farm at Highgrove operates on an organic, agro-ecological system, using homeopathic treatments for cattle and sheep as part of a drive to reduce the use of antibiotics. At the estate, 90% of the energy for office and domestic use comes from renewable sources and 60% of the power is produced on site. Solar panels have been installed at Highgrove and his London residence, Clarence House, while Highgrove, as well as properties in Scotland and Wales, uses biomass boilers; any wood chips used are sustainably managed. Such attention to sustainability certainly fits the description given by Prince Charles’ tailor, who once described him as a “very frugal” customer who used offcuts of suits to make coats for his dogs.
Prince Charles founded the International Sustainability Unit in 2010, seeking solutions to key environmental challenges, such as food security, the depletion of natural capital and ecosystem resilience, and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement at the 7th International Green Awards in 2012. The cheese-and-wine-powered DB6 is a little landmark victory. Green Fuels has patented a waste-derived sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and is now building a demonstration facility to produce SAF for commercial use.
The fact that cheese whey can make his car go faster is, although fascinating and exciting, also slightly baffling to the Prince. “Don’t ask me to explain how it all works. I am more of a tinkerer than an engineer,” he says, his driving hands now plunged into the pockets of his recycled linen suit in that inimitable Prince Charles manner. “A rags and patches man.”
As originally featured in the October 2018 issue of Wallpaper*