Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who has died age 88, was the founder of a world famous motor museum, and spent eight years as chairman of English Heritage. But in my opinion he was first and foremost a brilliant marketing man. He was jailed in 1954 for homosexuality but the case was so sensational that on emerging from the court with his two fellow convicts they were cheered by the crowd while two RAF servicemen who’d turned Queen’s Evidence were roundly booed. Stuck in jail for seven months Montagu turned his mind to how to run the family estate in Hampshire he had inherited just three years before. He studied a raft of books on estate management and concluded that he must turn the estate into a profitable enterprise. He effectively invented the stately home business.
He was born Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu in 1926, a huge relief to his father who had five daughters, was now 61 and despaired of ever producing an heir. He was just two years old when he inherited the title and so the family seat, Palace House in Beaulieu, Hampshire was looked after by his mother, Alice and trustees until Edward was 25. He was evacuated to Canada during the war and returned to England aged 15. He went to Eton; served in the Grenadier Guards in Palestine and went up to my alma mater, New College, Oxford where he mixed with artistic and bohemian circles whilst also becoming a member of the Bullingdon Club. His rooms were wrecked by a bunch of drunken hearties and he was sent down as a result.
He joined PR firm Voice and Vision, rising from office boy to director in just four years. His greatest success was the launch of the Eagle comic in 1950, for which he hired a fleet of Daimlers mounted with enormous model eagles to tour the country. His inheritance brought an income of just £1500, nowhere near enough to maintain the estate. He threw his home open to the public but needed some additional feature to differentiate his middle-sized pile from some of the grander houses. His solution was the car museum and that is why I came to meet him some four decades later in 1993.
The museum was originally based on a single model – a 1903 De Dion Bouton- that had been owned by his father, a major campaigner for the car. The collection grew to 250 models, ensuring that Beaulieu became one of the most popular and financially successful tourist attractions in Britain. By the mid-1960s, Beaulieu was attracting over half a million visitors a year. Lord Montagu became known as the leader of the movement to celebrate and conserve vintage and classic cars while his advice was widely sought by stately home owners around the country.
I remember visiting the museum as a small boy on holiday in 1960 and did not return until the time when I was Managing Director of Sony UK Consumer Products Company. When I took over in 1988 the business was recovering from the Betamax debacle and my predecessor had paid little attention to a new source of business, In Car Entertainment, also known as Mobile Electronics (ME). He had assigned just one sales manager and an assistant and relied on a conventional me-too strategy competing with well-established Japanese brands in that space, Kenwood, Pioneer, Panasonic and others.
The business group In Tokyo was headed up by a charismatic engineer Hideo Nakamura who had been one of the engineers who developed the Compact Disc format. I used to go and see Mr. Nakamura and tell him how well we were doing in the UK in every other product group. He would get angry and say he didn’t care. Why were we doing so badly in ME? Finally, I persuaded him to send one of his best engineers, Joe Usui, to head up Marketing in the UK. Joe’s English was a little weak so we assigned to him a decent British marketing manager, John Anderson, (later to take charge of all audio marketing in Europe), and the two of them developed a new strategy, to supply Sony in-car products to car dealers as an option upgrade. This was extremely successful and sales grew fast. Mr. Nakamura came to visit us. We took him to Aston Martin to see the cars made with Sony products fitted as standard. We took him to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu where Lord Montagu allowed him to drive a vintage Jaguar and we took him to the Waterside Inn at Bray where he ordered a trout by humming the opening bars of Schubert’s Quintet. He became an Anglophile on that visit and went back to Japan and changed his BMW for a Jaguar. Our annual Mobile Electronics sales went from £1 million to £53 million and we became the leading market for Sony ME outside Japan.
In 1993 Sony launched a new audio format, Mini-Disc. The ME group developed an In-Car model and Mr. Nakamura asked me to deliver the first one in the UK to Lord Montagu as a thank you. I drove down there with my wife and then eight year old daughter at Lord Montagu’s invitation for lunch. His son and heir, Ralph also joined us. The lunch was delicious, with trout caught fresh from the Beaulieu river.
In conversation we discovered that we had both been to New College and compared notes. But I think his experience of Oxford with the Bullingdon Club and so on, was very different from mine as I had survived largely on coffee and cheese rolls.
We have some splendid photographs to help recall the occasion and some of Lord Montagu and me in one of his cars, showing off the Mini-Disc player were used in publicity releases.
He was one of the few hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords and headed numerous heritage organisations and charities, particularly English Heritage. When Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1986, she transferred the management of the capital’s historic buildings to English Heritage, “because Edward Montagu will know what to do with them.”