‘ The cars are driven by the first owners you read of in auction catalogues’
Simon makes a few calls to trace the first owner of a Gullwing and receives a surprise visit from the man in question: Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan…
It’s the most wonderful time of the year', and what could be more evocative than a sleek sports car far from its natural habitat in a crisp white winter landscape? If you’ve ever thumbed through one of society photographer Slim Aarons’ books on ‘ beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places’, you’ll know what I mean. From Gstaad to St Moritz, Aspen to Vermont, the newly emerging post-war Jet Set were ready to play and unashamed to be spotted.
The toy box overflowed with goodies: Bell bubble canopy helicopters make frequent appearances in Aarons’ shots, usually on the stern of champagne-fuelled yachts or in the middle of alpine picnics. Riva motor launches are de rigueur, helmed by slick Latinos as long-legged beauties soak up the sun astern. The cars? They’re driven by owners you read about in auction catalogues: captains of industry, film stars, Euro-aristos with no obvious income.
The membership of this nomadic, charmed club read like a Who’s Who of society figures: Gianni Agnelli, Gunther Sachs, Count Giovanni Volpi… names to conjure with, but none more glamourous than Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan – cosmopolitan, multilingual, educated at Harvard, half-brother of oft-married Prince Aly Khan and, like his elder sibling, a legendary connoisseur of beauty. Motoring credentials? Impeccable. Before most people had heard of a small sports car constructor from Modena, the debonair Prince Sadruddin had already taken delivery of a string of its finest machinery, destined not for the tough Mille Miglia but the leafy Routes Napoleon between various homes and the horse racing tracks where he followed his runners.
No idle playboy, Sadruddin was a leading mover in the nascent United Nations High Commission for Refugees. And when he wasn’t involved in the plight of the less fortunate, he could be found sailing, skiing and entertaining at his estate on Lake Geneva, so it’s unsurprising that he caught the attention of a dazzling young lady, Nina Dyer. The Anglo-indian heiress and model had recently divorced the wealthiest man in Europe, Baron ‘Heini’ von Thyssen, and by 1957 Sadruddin and she were married. Gifts included a Caribbean island, a Jaguar E-type roadster (discovered in a Jamaican scrapyard last year) and a green Ferrari 250GT SWB California Spider.
If you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because I was once entrusted with a plain silver Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing to sell. Curious as to who had enough clout to receive only the eighth car built, I delved into the factory archive and you can guess whose name came up. His address? Harvard University – you can imagine what other students must have thought.
A few telephone calls later and I was explaining this to his assistant. Two days later I was informed there was a black chauffeur- driven Audi RS2 outside and a gentleman asking for me. ’ Hello, I’m Sadruddin Aga Khan.’ He drove my wife around the exhibition hall where we were holding the sale, enjoying his old Gullwing for the first time in half a century. ’I bet you were popular with the girls in this car,’ she laughed. ’ My dear,’ he smiled, ’I didn’t need the car.’ They don’t make cars or playboys like that any more.
Simon Kidston is a classic car consultant, concours judge and event presenter. His own classics include a Lamborghini Miura SV and Porsche 911 RS 2.7.
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan slumming it at Gstaad with his 300SL Gullwing in the Fifties