Royal Treatment - The Hearse of Winsor

By: Gregg D. Merksamer
Wednesday, April 12, 2023

When the seven-decade reign of Queen Elizabeth II ended at Balmoral Castle on September 8th, 2022 - how fitting since her mother’s ancestry made Her Majesty the most-Scottish British monarch since James I! - It set in motion an epic funeral plan that had been worked on and continually revised since the 1960s. The dividend of Operation London Bridge’s to-theminute focus on even the smallest details was a tenday spectacle of such scale, symbolism and solemnity surely none of us will see it surpassed even if we’re lucky enough to live 96 years ourselves.  

Great Britain’s first State Funeral since Winston Churchill’s 1965 send-off would, to start with, draw so many foreign dignitaries (more than 500 representing 168 countries counting 18 monarchs, 25 prime ministers and 55 presidents) one security official interviewed by the BBC compared it to “having a hundred state visits in one go.” No wonder most of them excepting Joe Biden were brought to Westminster Abbey by bus instead of “Beast” and a nationwide mobilization saw 10,000 London Metropolitan Police augmented by officers from all over the UK to guard against terrorists, pickpockets and anti-monarchist protesters who more likely needed protection from the Loyalist majority. The funeral’s other statistical superlatives included a Royal Air Force Boeing C17 tracked on Flightradar24’s website and mobile app by a record 4.79 million people as it flew The Queen’s body 325 miles from Edinburgh to RAF Northolt near Heathrow; 5,000 participating armed forces personnel for the funeral’s London and Windsor portions that came from places as far-off as Canada and New Zealand; 24,000 vehicle attack barriers; TV coverage by 100-plus cameras including a “God’s Eye” 101 feet above Westminster Abbey’s altar; and a “Queue of all Queues” that ran almost five miles along the Thames’ South Bank from Lambeth Bridge to Southwark Park. A thousand Red Cross monitors and myriad other Samaritans like the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby helped make sure this line safely and smoothly conveyed over a quarter-million people to Westminster Hall where Her Majesty’s coffin (reportedly made three decades in advance by the specialist firm Henry Smith out of oak from the Royal Family’s beloved Sandringham Estate in Norfolk) laid in State beneath the Royal Standard and the Imperial State Crown. Numbered yellow wristbands allowed people to get food or use a Port-A-Loo without losing their place in line - a warmly-dressed Sri Lankan woman from Harrow named Vanessa Nathakumaran camped out 50 hours to score band #1 - while British soccer celebrity David Beckham democratically regarded his overnight queue wait as an experience “meant to be shared together.” 

Bookending all this were two special hearses that would become history’’s most scrutinized and saluted funeral cars since the Daimler DS420 that took Princess Diana to her final resting place on her family’s Althorp estate a quarter-century ago. Professional Car Society “hearse-torians” who roused themselves awake by 5 am EST Sunday, September 11th to watch live coverage of The Queen’s final departure from Balmoral were certainly surprised (like many patriotic Britons tuning in at 10 am locally) to see her coffin inside a German-made Mercedes bearing window nameplates from the Edinburgh funeral concern William Purves. 

Curiosity - and viral criticism of the free advertising this firm was getting as its glass-topped, “WP 4597” vanity-plated Benz traveled to Edinburgh via the River Dee Valley, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth and the awe-inspiring Queensferry Crossing Bridge (notably touting the UK’s tallest bridge towers) opened to traffic by The Queen in 2017 - would crash the company’s website and compel its Chairman Tim Purves to post a statement excusing the nameplates as “part of the standard livery on all our funeral vehicles” while also insisting “we have never sought to gain any PR from our involvement with the Palace.” Whether the logos were intentionally or inadvertently placed they were, inevitably, removed well before WP 4597 brought Her Majesty’s remains up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to their overnight respite at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Despite this gaffe the Queen’s six-hour, 180-mile journey down the eastbound A93 and southwesterly M90 motorway corridors per “Operation Unicorn” (the contingency plan for her passing in Scotland) would be best-remembered for moving tableaus of Aberdeenshire farmers arranging their tractors into roadside honor guards and EVERYONE turning out in quaint Deeside villages like Ballater and Banchory. Tim Purves’ online message also detailed, intriguingly, his company was “required to change the colour (sic) of our signature silver Mercedes hearse to black in line with Royal protocol.” 

European pro-car cognoscenti like Your Correspondent were immediately aware the builder of WP 4597 was Binz Automotive GmbH of Lorch, Germany, which was originally founded by Michael Binz as Lorcher Karosseriefabrik Binz & Co. in 1936 and remains notable as the world’s number one builder of Mercedes hearses, limousines, ambulances and incident command “authority vehicles.” Wikipedia and myriad car enthusiast websites monitoring the funeral further detailed this four-door “H4” Binz Mercedes (H2 designates the company’s two-door hearses) was based on a mid-sized, 2009-16 “S212” generation E-Class station wagon sporting the platform’s 2013-16 styling revisions, whose wheelbase and rear quarter panels were stretched slightly more than 1.1 meters (43.5 inches) combined to create a 2800 mm long (110.2-inch) rear floor. Airborne cameras viewing the Queen’s coffin and its Scottish Royal Standard through the car’s glass roof - her funeral could well make this a common fitment on future British hearses - also established WP 4597 had two small second row seats flanking the coffin deck’s frontal corners to accommodate pallbearers. 

Lingering objections about the use of a German Mercedes in Scotland surely dissipated when the Royal Air Force’s Boeing C17 Globemaster “KITTYHAWK01R” (whose tail number ZZ177 cleverly read “LLIZZ” upside down) finished its one hour, 12 minute flight from Edinburgh Airport to RAF Northolt at 17:42 London time on Tuesday, September 13th and the Queen’s coffin was placed inside a never previously-seen Jaguar State Hearse built by Wilcox Limousines/Eagle Specialist Vehicles Ltd. in the Manchester area town of Wigan. This bespoke creation - reportedly co-designed by Jaguar Land Rover and the Royal Household with personal input from The Queen - was specially-finished with a transparent roof, powerful interior spotlights, rear-hinged #2 side doors, crowntopped “E” quarter panel monograms and (like the Rolls-Royce and Bentley State Limousines I’ll soon discuss in detail) black-over-Royal Claret two-tone  paintwork; no provision for exterior license plates; and a statuesque, silver-plated bronze “bonnet” mascot depicting St. George slaying the dragon (all recalling how The Queen’s spouse Prince Philip similarly oversaw the design of a pickup-style, military bronzegreen Land Rover Defender hearse for his own April, 2021 funeral). This Jaguar’s first public duty would be the conveyance of Her Majesty’s coffin 14 miles southeast to London starting on the A40, where scores of motorists defied encroaching darkness and damp “Wellie weather” to stop their cars and pay their respects before the cortege picked up Bayswater Road and progressed through tremendous crowds (many clapping or crying “hip, hip, hooray”) at Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner and Constitution Hill before circling Queen Victoria’s statue and entering Buckingham Palace where the Royal Family was afforded private time with their beloved matriarch in the Bow Room.

As the State Hearse is based on the final-generation “X351” XJ platform Jaguar discontinued in 2019, it was obviously commissioned and completed (despite Wilcox executives “keeping mum” when questioned) well in advance of Her Majesty’s passing in common with so many other elements of Operation London Bridge. The X351’s “alumininum” structure surely posed no special conversion challenges since Wilcox bodied its first hearses using this metal back in 2003 and this three-generation family firm’s experience as a coachbuilder dates all the way back to the Austin Princess hearses it debuted in 1948. Wilcox’s website further recalls the firm got its start in 1945 when William Wilcox won a contract from Ealing Studios to chauffeur film crews and actors and decided he’d do better selling limousines versus renting them. Though Jaguar no longer makes a sedan suitable for Wilcox’s handiwork, its current portfolio features a Bentley Flying Spur hearse and all-electric Nissan Leaf Tekna and Citroën e-Berlingo offerings for funeral firms serving UK cities with “low emission zones” subjecting older petrol and diesel cars to hefty entry fees or even outright bans. 

The precisely-timed, 38-minute procession that left Buckingham Palace at 2:22 pm London time on Wednesday, September 14th to ensure the 3 pm sharp arrival of The Queen’s coffin at Westminster Hall for its lying-in-State also saw the first official use of the Royal Navy State Funeral Gun Carriage since Lord Louis Mountbatten’s post-assassination services on September 5th, 1979. Wikipedia details this conveyance - also used to carry the coffins of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, King George VI in 1952, King George V in 1936, King Edward VII in 1910 and Queen Victoria in 1901 - was originally built by Vickers, Sons and Maxim in 1896 and modified for funeral duty three years later through the fitment of rubber tires and a catafalque. While its September 14th trip up The Mall and on through Horseguards, Whitehall and Parliament Square involved an all-black, uniformly-sized six-horse team unperturbed by crowds and the once-per-minute thunder of Hyde Park cannons and Big Ben’s tolling, the September 19th procession from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey would see it pulled by 98 naval ratings (cadets) with 40 more braking from behind as the drumbeats of Beethoven’s Funeral March furnished a “metronome of grief ” in the words of one BBC commentator (the cadet count would be 137 for the afternoon march from the Abbey to Wellington Arch after one sailor fell ill). This visually stunning tradition got its start in 1901 when the unexercised Gun Carriage horses that met Queen Victoria’s funeral train at Windsor proved so skittish they nearly toppled her coffin. Victoria’s grandson-in-law Prince Louis of Battenberg (also Lord Louis Mountbatten’s father) accordingly asked if the Royal Navy sailors present would pull the carriage to Windsor Castle instead, which they did after drag ropes were improvised from the horses’ harnesses and the royal train’s communication cord. 

With 22 miles separating central London from The Queen’s final resting place beside her parents, sister and husband beneath St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, the Wilcox Jaguar State Hearse again took responsibility for her coffin at Wellington Arch around 1:30 pm local time on the 19th. Melbourne, Australia PCS member Roger Thiedeman was able to confirm for us through MAJESTY Magazine’s Managing Editor that Elizabeth II’s Head Chauffeur Andy Fitzgerald was at the Jaguar’s wheel for its westward drive past grateful subjects gathered along Hyde Park’s south edge where the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall heralded subsequent roadside crowds in Hammersmith and Chiswick. As accumulating flowers on the hearse’s roof, hood and windshield evoked Princess Diana’s 1997 funeral, aerial coverage of The Queen’s cortege (followed by a discreet second convoy containing a back-up Jaguar hearse from the Royal Household’s undertakers Leverton & Sons) revealed most of the A30’s side roads were barricaded by busses or police vans for security’s sake and the parallel M4 motorway was as empty as the skies above Heathrow Airport. The State Hearse also passed Runnymede (where King John famously signed the Magna Carta in 1215) before entering the grounds of Windsor Castle through the Shaw Farm Gate to join a final procession up the Long Walk to the George IV Gate and the traditionally private Quadrangle beyond where The King and other Royal Family members escorted it through the Engine Court and the Norman Arch as The Sevastopol Bell - rung only when a British monarch has passed away - tolled for the first time since George VI’s death 70 years ago While the Jaguar State Hearse’s service to Queen Elizabeth II concluded once her coffin was carried up the west steps of St. George’s Chapel for a final Committal service where Grand Prix racing champion Jackie Stewart and assorted past and present servants of the Royal Household were among the 800 guests, it is certain we will see it tend to many future Windsor Family funerals as a permanent addition to a Royal Mews fleet that also kept a pair of 20-year-old Bentley State Limousines and a 44-year-old Rolls-Royce Phantom VI busy during the 2022 State Funeral as detailed here … - While the Bentley State Limousine that entered service during Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002 first came to funeral watchers’ notice when Princess Anne used it to follow her mother’s Mercedes hearse 180 miles from Balmoral to Edinburgh on September 11th, it was the ending of the September 19th Committal service at Windsor Castle that delivered exciting confirmation two of these entirely bespoke cars were actually built. These first-ever Bentley State Limousines also broke a half-century of Rolls-Royce dominance at the Royal Mews and were the first cars serving in this role to employ unitized versus body-on-frame construction. Bentley was actually able to build them in-house thanks to 34 craftsmen employed at its Crewe, Cheshire works who proudly signed commemorative plates affixed inside the cars’ body shells. 

- An extra-tall Perspex “bubbletop” ensured the Phantom VI State Limousine stood out as the 2022 State Funeral’s most-distinctive Rolls-Royce. This truly-regal, Royal Claret-and-black parade car was constructed on chassis # PGH101 to be The Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee gift from the British Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, but labor troubles at H.J. Mulliner, Park Ward Ltd.’s Willesden works in northwest London ultimately delayed its delivery until March, 1978. The Royal Standard, per-protocol, flew above its windshield when King Charles III rode in it before and after his mother’s September 12th service at Edinburgh’s St. Giles’ Cathedral, but was removed before his Queen Consort Camilla, The Princess of Wales Kate Middleton, 9-year-old Prince George and 7-year-old Princess Charlotte (now third in line to the throne after her father and brother) used it to ride directly behind the State Gun Carriage during the September 19th procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch.

- The oldest Rolls-Royce limousine in action during Queen Elizabeth’s funeral (and the only one touting dual sidemount spare tires) was the 1950 Phantom IV used most-memorably by Harry & Meghan to leave St. George’s Chapel after the September 19th Committal service at Windsor Castle concluded (Meghan also rode in it with her mother on her way to marry Harry on May 19th, 2018). This H.J. Mulliner-bodied beauty was the first of just 18 Phantom IVs made exclusively for heads-of-state through 1956 (the Shah of Iran and Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain had theirs armored), which also stood out as the only “straight 8” Rolls-Royces ever offered on the thinking this engine type was thought optimal for extended running at parade speeds. 





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