My Life in Cars: Charles Gordon-Lennox, 11th Duke of Richmond

17 Sep 2018 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Jeremy Taylor

“Having that car accident when I was 16 really didn’t teach me anything”

The old kitchens behind Goodwood House haven’t seen much culinary activity for years. The buildings were once a working hub for the grand house – the ancestral seat of the Duke of Richmond since 1697. Charles Gordon-Lennox, the 11th Duke of Richmond, is the present incumbent – and perhaps best known for his love of cars. As the driving force behind the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed, he has access to a smorgasbord of the rarest, most exotic vehicles on the planet.

A double garage simply wouldn’t be large enough to house his collection, so the Duke, 63, uses the kitchens as the ultimate man cave – although he rarely likes to speak of it. “Honestly, there’s not much in there at all really,” he says. “If the house did go up in smoke, I would probably grab the keys to my Lancia Aurelia. It dates back to the mid-1950s and was very advanced for the era. I love the architecture – an absolutely fantastic piece of modernist design, so laid back and one of the most beautiful coupés ever made. It’s quite quick with very complicated suspension. The cost of building the Aurelia almost killed off Lancia for good.”

The Duke says he rarely gets to drive the Aurelia, which he bought at auction during the 20th anniversary of the Festival of Speed in 2013. His late grandfather also enjoyed a passion for Lancias, designing the world’s first production car featuring Art Deco aero styling. It was later incorporated into the 1934 Lancia Augusta. “My grandfather loved Lancias – they were the best machines of that era,” he explains. “My Aurelia is black with grey cloth and the first production car with a V6 engine. Perhaps another reason I love it is the Lancia is the same age as me.”

The Duke launched the Festival of Speed at Goodwood in 1993, partly to help keep the 12,000-acre estate afloat. Held right outside his bedroom window, it has grown to become one of the world’s most popular motoring events. It later spawned the Goodwood Revival – a retro fest of fancy dress and classic cars. “I wanted to bring motorsport back to Goodwood because this place is steeped in motor racing history,” he says. “My grandfather launched the Goodwood Motor Circuit in 1948 and I’ve grown up in or around cars.”

What else is parked out the back? Naturally, there’s a Rolls-Royce Ghost as the marque has been based on the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex since 2003. The 42-acre site employs more than 1,700 workers and around 20 cars are hand-built here every day. Designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw – who also created the Eden Project – the factory features a roof covered with sedum plants that hides the building from the road. “I’m lent a lot of Rolls-Royces,” the Duke says. “Obviously, they’re a very nice drive. My favourite is a Phantom coupé that was built especially for the Festival of Speed as a course car a few years back. It’s orange inside and has an orange line down the paintwork. It sounds horrible, but it’s dead cool.”

In 2010, the Duke visited the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in America to try his hand at speed driving. “I was there with my son, Charles, and we both fell in love with hot rods. I went off the idea of owning super-expensive cars. I liked the idea of creating my own individual vehicle instead. “In the end, I shipped a 1929 Model A Ford back home to England and still have it. That car looks like it has been dredged up from the bottom of a lake. If the devil was a car, that would be it.”

The Duke recently bought a Porsche 911 GT2 RS. The supercar was officially launched at the Festival of Speed in 2017 and produces 690 horsepower from a 3.8-litre twin turbo engine. With a lightweight magnesium roof and other body panels made of carbon, it will accelerate to 60mph in 2.7 seconds.

He mentions that he has a ‘modest’ fleet of more conventional cars in his garage too, among them an Audi RS6, several old Land Rovers and a Range Rover. He also has a Defender Works V8 70th Edition on order – the most powerful Defender ever built.

“I learnt to drive around Goodwood estate when I was a teenager. One day when my parents were out, a friend and I borrowed a Land Rover and tore around the fields. We were doing well until my friend accelerated through a gate and stuffed it straight in the side of a bloody horse box. It was totally annihilated but my parents took it very well.”

They weren’t so impressed when the 16-year-old Duke ‘borrowed’ his mother’s Morris 1100 and took to the famous Goodwood hill climb, now an integral part of the Festival of Speed. Heading downhill, he hit gravel and crashed into some trees. “It was one of the world’s worst cars and I did myself a lot of damage. I broke the top of my femur. Weirdly, I was so young they decided not to pin the bone, so I spent four months on my back with a leg in the air. It was cruelty to children.”

Undeterred, the Duke bought a Morgan three-wheeler: “My parents were dead against motorbikes but they agreed I could drive the Morgan on a motorcycle licence at 16. That was a big mistake. “The Morgan cost £200 in Littlehampton and was absolutely lethal. It was fitted with a horrid Ford 100E engine – not very nice at all. The back wheel also had a tendency to fall off.”

The Duke was “furious” when he failed his driving test at the first attempt: “I can’t actually remember what I failed on – it was something stupid like not checking the rear-view mirror. I was unbelievably angry because in those days, all teenagers wanted was the freedom to get around.”

He was even less happy when his father gave him a Datsun Cherry as his first road car. “It wasn’t my finest moment. I was working for the film director Stanley Kubrick at the time and travelling up and down to London.”Although the Datsun lacked street cred, the hatchback survived the Duke’s determination to destroy it: “I thrashed the hell out of it and revved to the red line for every gear change. Fortunately, the cook spilt a flagon of milk on the back seat. The smell was so bad it had to go.”

The Duke then indulged in a string of fast cars, including a stripped-out Mini Cooper S and an Austin Healey 3000. He took the latter on honeymoon to France when he married his first wife, Sally Clayton. “It dripped hot oil on her feet and then the bloody thing blew up.”

A career in advertising afforded him a Porsche 924 Carrera GT, which he kept for 13 years until the first Festival of Speed in 1993. “I should never have got rid of it but when the engine gave up it went,” he says. “Bad decision.”

Porsche became involved in the festival early on and the Duke owned or loaned many of its best cars, including a dark-blue 993 – the last of the air-cooled models – and then, later, a 5.7-litre Carrera GT. “That was a highlight, a quite phenomenal car.”

The 924 Carrera GT was also the car the Duke used to make a ‘record’ run from Goodwood House to Chelsea in just 54 minutes. “That was a bit naughty and you’d never get away with it now,” he says. “My grandfather wasn’t a fan of bureaucracy either. The day the 70mph national speed limit came in, he drove a Jensen flat out up the Edgware Road in London. He was promptly caught by the police and had to appear in front of Bow Street Magistrates Court. I have a photograph of him coming out of the building sticking up a V-sign to the camera!”

Nowadays the Duke claims he has become tired of expensive supercars and has turned his attention to bespoke, American vehicles: “I like the idea of building your own car, gathering all the pieces together and creating something unique. Having that accident when I was 16 really didn’t teach me anything. There probably is some oil running through my veins and over the years I’ve loved every minute behind the wheel.”