The Royal McLaughlins

On December 10, 1936, a mysterious black limousine pulled up at No. 10 Downing Street in London, the official residence of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. A man exited the limousine and entered No. 10 for a short meeting. After the gathering, the man left in the dark car with blinds drawn in the rear passenger compartment.

What was this car, so unusual for its time and place? And who was that man?

The man, who turned out to be the owner of the car, was King Edward VIII. And the car? It was a one-of-a-kind limousine ordered from the London showrooms of Lendrum & Hartman to the King’s personal specifications. Its custom body was Canadian, designed and built by the McLaughlin Motor Car Company of Oshawa, Ont. It rode on a stretched 1936 Buick Series 90 chassis, supplied by General Motors of Canada, and was powered by a 5.2-liter Buick straight-eight engine.

The king’s visit to the prime minister was to abdicate the throne, a move that shocked the nation when it was announced the next day. After the announcement, the ex-king, then the Duke of Windsor, left in the car, bound for France. There, he would later marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and they took the car on their honeymoon, which is where the car earned the nickname of the “Most Romantic Car in the World.”

The car has been variously described as a McLaughlin, a McLaughlin-Buick and simply as a Buick (which, technically speaking, it is not).

What, then, is a McLaughlin? Canadians know it well, as does the English royal family, which has admired and owned them, off and on, for more than 90 years. The sumptuous custom models became known as the Royal McLaughlins.

McLaughlin’s story began in 1869 when the company founder, Robert McLaughlin, built his first carriages. His company would become one of the world’s largest carriage-makers before switching to automobiles in 1907. In a stock swap, McLaughlin contracted with William C. Durant, General Motors’ founder, to be supplied with Buick engines and chassis to power McLaughlin automobiles. In 1915, McLaughlin started manufacturing Chevrolets in Canada, and by ‘18 it formed the basis for General Motors of Canada. In 1923, the McLaughlin vehicle became the McLaughlin-Buick; it would continue building vehicles under that name until 1942, when the McLaughlin name was dropped and only Buick remained.

The McLaughlin’s royal connection actually began in 1924, when the Prince of Wales – Edward VIII’s title as a youth – ordered nine McLaughlins for a royal tour of Canada. It was said to be the first time the royal family had used anything other than British automobiles. McLaughlins were again used for a 1927 royal tour of Canada. A daughter of Queen Victoria ordered one in 1934. The Prince of Wales ordered his soon-to-be-famous limousine in 1935, and it was delivered to him shortly before he became king. He ordered at least two more while living in France in 1938 and 1939. Even Mrs. Simpson had one of her own – a gift from her third husband, Ernest, whom she divorced for Edward.

Edward’s brother, who would become King George VI, ordered McLaughlin to build two special phaetons for his Royal Tour of Canada in 1939. And, in fact, one of these vehicles was still in service in 1986, when it carried Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their tour of Canada.

Although prewar McLaughlins are scarce, and sometimes misidentified as merely Buicks, the McLaughlin name still has cachet among discerning collectors.

In fact, the so-called “Most Romantic Car in the World” still exists; it changed hands in 2007, when it was sold at a Bonhams auction for £100,500 (about $124,000). Mrs. Simpson’s similar car was sold to another collector the same year.

The auction catalog noted the ex-king had personally required that it be “designed giving two passengers luxury and privacy, specifications to include drinks cabinets, vanity mirrors, reading lights, correspondence facilities, radio, smoker’s cabinet, jewelry cabinet, compartments for canteen and luncheon trays, and a drawer to accommodate London telephone directories.”

Accompanying documents included the original logbook stating the first owner to be H M The King, St. James’s Palace, SW1.

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