Jordan's Royal Automobile Museum is history on wheels
It was a final journey for the king — and the car, a 1975 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Limousine, complete with custom footboards for his security detail.
The beloved King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan had been suffering from lymphatic cancer. A heavy smoker, he nonetheless spent five months at the Mayo Clinic in 1999 receiving chemotherapy.
That October, he returned home to a hero’s welcome. Frail and thin, Hussein proclaimed himself cured and climbed out of Royal Jordanian I and into his Mercedes Pullman, waving to a dense crowd of admirers as he began his last ride through the streets of Amman escorted by the Keffiyeh-clad Royal Guard Brigade in bright red Puma-era Land Rover Defenders replete with open tops, short windscreens, and swivel-mounted machine guns.
The king wouldn’t last much longer. But the cars did.
"While most of Jordan’s decades-old archaeology museums are antiquated themselves, the automobile museum gives a fresh perspective of Jordan and the Hashemite Dynasty’s modern history through more than 70 cars and motorcycles on display"
Less than four months from his triumphant motorcade, Hussein returned abruptly to the U.S. After receiving a bone marrow transplant, he slipped into a coma and was flown back to Jordan flanked by U.S., UK and Israeli fighter jets — one of a few times the King did not pilot himself.
A Royal Jordanian Air Force helicopter transported him to the medical centre that bore his name, while hundreds of thousands lined the street, chanted his name and openly wept. At 11:43 on 7 February 1999, Hussein, age 63, was pronounced dead of organ failure.
The next day, his Pan-Arab green, red and black flag-draped coffin made its way from Raghadan palace to the Royal Cemetery at Al-Maquar on a tan, flat-bed military Land Rover hearse.
“If you saw King Hussein in any of these cars, you realize how special he was. Whether driving a race car at Rumman Hill Climb, or when he sat on the roof of the armoured Mercedes coming back from his first Mayo Clinic treatment or driving himself through Amman traffic, cars were always special to him,” says Raja Gargour, the director of the Royal Automobile Museum in Amman, Hussein’s living tribute. And while Hussein had mixed reviews as a statesman, Middle East peace broker and heir to the Hashemite dynasty, no one could dispute his honorary title of “royal petrol-head” — a man who gained a reputation in his youth for his love of fast cars, nimble planes and just about everything else with an engine.
That passion is on full display at the Royal Automobile Museum dedicated by his son, King Abdullah II, in 2003. While most of Jordan’s decades-old archaeology museums are antiquated themselves, the automobile museum gives a fresh perspective of Jordan and the Hashemite Dynasty’s modern history through more than 70 cars and motorcycles on display — all flanked by historic photographs, English signage and multimedia presentations.
“When Abdullah asked me to do a museum, I had the idea of doing it, not from what we had seen of the cars, but what the cars had seen — the journey of the Royal Family from 1916,” Gargor says. “Other museums are Jordan’s history through art or stones. This is Jordan’s contemporary history through cars.”
Most of these wheels were not bought at auction but were acquired privately or gifted to the King and his sons. Many are still in working order, taken out on weekly spins around the park and used by the royal family, including Abdullah, who is known to zip around Amman’s streets in the 2003 Porsche Carerra GT. For his wedding to Saudi architect Princess Rahway Al Saif in June, Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah borrowed the 1984 white, “Sheer Rover” open-review car made especially for Queen Elizabeth’s visits to Jordan. Per usual, an armada of Puma Defender vehicles followed.
A walk through the museum begins with a collection of motorbikes, led off by a red Harley Davidson used by King Hussein and his last wife, Queen Noor, for a 1996 Condé Nast Traveller photoshoot about Wadi Rum. Aside from that bit of glam, Gargour suggests touring the museum “with an inquisitive eye on how the socio-political and cultural environment changed during King Hussein’s era and moved forward with King Abdullah.”
Hussein, who ascended the throne at age 17 and whose ability to operate and fix most motors helped him cope with the stresses of his early reign (as well as several assassination attempts), remained more practical in his tastes with a slight taste of whimsy.
After driving around a 1952 Steel Blue Rover P2-75 for a few years, as king, one of his first acquisitions was a 1955 Mercedes Benz 300 SL “Gullwing” which he raced at the Rumman Hill Climb — a three-round race over a 3,000-meter course that climbs 243-meters throughout Jerash. After that, Hussein settled on a number of Mercedes and Rolls Royces — sensible cars for a monarch in the middle of Middle East politics — and these open the museum: a 1987 Mercedes GE 280 4x4, a conservative 1979 Mercedes 450-SL, a regal 1961 white Phantom V and 1968 black Phantom V.
The King also had a few of the weird and wacky, such as the "amphicar'', a cross between a red tugboat and an old Volvo, which the king would take on jaunts to the Gulf of Aqaba. And then there's the Czech-built 1937 T97 Tatra, a war-green, Volkswagen look-alike designed by Hans Ledwinka and coveted by Hitler. “I think King Hussein loved cars since childhood. His first car is the Rover on exhibit. He got bored of it very quickly and went on to faster and more exciting models, such as the Bristol and the Aston Martin,” Gargour says. “As years progressed, he had a keen sense of everything mechanical… He loved German engineering, so all the official cars became Mercedes for a long time.”
The second half of the Royal Automobile Museum caters more to Abdullah’s fast and furious style: the DeLorean, the Ferraris, Porsches and BMW motorcycles. While, King Abdullah II, prefers motorbikes to cars, according to Gargour, he is still one of the best drivers in the country — a Jordanian champion in various desert rallies in 1986 and 1988, which he won in the Opel Mantra on exhibit.”
And while some may ask if it’s necessary for any King to have a $100 million car collection on display, especially in a country known for a large refugee population and other internal discord, Gargour has only this to say.
“The Royal Automobile Museum is constantly voted the best thing to see in Amman on Trip Advisor and other sites.” Could one car have made it better — the one that got away? “A Porsche 904 GTS that he had in 1966 and raced in it. It is now the 904 at the Porsche Museum. It was traded for a couple of 911 turbos in the 1970s,” Gargour says. “Couldn’t manage to keep and I couldn’t manage to get back.”
Adrian Brune is a journalist, freelance writer, and multimedia specialist. Her work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Air Mail, the New Yorker, The Guardian and OZY.com on a variety of topics, including global affairs, social justice, the United Nations, human rights and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @amargebrune