The late King Hussein of Jordan was obsessive about cars, and his rare automobiles are now on display in a museum in Amman. Anthony Peacock takes a look

You would have felt distinctly inferior, though, if you went to school at Harrow and your classmate was the future King Hussein of Jordan. His first car was an Aston Martin DB2.

In fairness, this was the early 1950s and you would hardly expect a future king to drive around in an Austin A30. Or even an Austin Princess. But the Jordanian royal family has a passion for cars that no other monarchy comes close to emulating. King Hussein competed on rallies, races and hill-climbs, winning nearly half of the events he entered. He took part in (and won) his last race aged 61, only three years before he died of cancer in 1999. The people loved him - it must have been like having Nigel Mansell as king. Our own Queen - who has no shame in driving a Rover - could learn a thing or two.

When King Hussein died he had more than 70 cars - most of which have ended up in a museum he built in Jordan's capital, Amman. The DB2 is there, which he drove in England before he claimed the throne in 1953, aged 18. So is the Ford Popular he learnt to drive in, no doubt terrorising the gardeners of Amman's royal palace. To complete the story, the Mercedes G-Wagen that carried him to his grave is also there. It's a remarkable personal history, told through the medium of cars.

Like most rulers, King Hussein loved Mercs. His favourite was an ordinary-looking 1968 300 SEL 6.3, on the understandable grounds that it twice saved his life during assassination attempts. The mabrouka as he called it (roughly meaning "the lucky one") was not armour-plated - living proof that old Mercs really are built like tanks.

With Middle East security being what it is, bullet-proof Mercs were soon ordered as state cars. It was a shame, then, that King Hussein defeated the object by sitting on the roof of his car during motorcades. He always felt his view was hampered by an inch-thick layer of Perspex.

His favourites were, of course, the sports cars. There is a legendary Mercedes 300 SL "gullwing", of the sort that was changing hands at the height of the classic car boom in the late 1980s for close to £1m. It arrived in Jordan brand new in 1955, and predictably the King went racing in it. The same fate awaited a number of his cars, including a 1988 Mercedes 190E 2.3 16v in which he set a record on the fearsome Rumman hill climb event that stood for seven years.

But even kings cannot have everything. Hussein desperately wanted a Mercedes C111, but only six prototypes were produced. Conceived in 1970, the C111 was a radical departure from the usual Stuttgart taxi - with a knife-like sports car body painted virulent orange and a Wankel rotary engine capable of 190mph. King Hussein wanted one so much that he even made the trip to Germany to drive it. But he only got his wish after his death - 35 years after he drove it, the car Hussein tested now resides in his museum and is the only example to be found outside Germany.

Throughout his reign the King kept a house in Ascot, having gone to school at Harrow and completed his military training at Sandhurst. The UK stable of cars was returned to Jordan after his death, including his favourite British racing green Porsche 959, the fastest road car of its time. Only 200 of these saw the light of day, powered by a 450 horsepower twin-turbo 2,849cc leviathan of an engine. The last car King Hussein acquired was a Ferrari F50 (a gift from the Sultan of Oman), which he drove on about three occasions.

But amid all the exotica, there are one or two vehicles that are refreshingly and incongruously nasty. Take the Ford LTD police car - the Mondeo of its time - that the King used as incognito transport, despite the handicap of a siren and flashing lights. Then there's the Amphicar, the hideous love child of a Land-Rover and a bathtub.

But by far the most aesthetically offensive car is a white open-topped Range Rover that was commissioned for the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1984 - complete with white leather seats that would go down a storm in Chingford. In fact the whole car looks like David Beckham designed it, which may be why it was never used again. Watch out for a cameo appearance on Footballers' Wives.

The link between the Jordanian royal family and motor sport is stronger than ever. The current king (Abdullah, Hussein's son) is a former rally driver who was once co-driven by the Welshman Phil Mills - winner of the world rally championship with Petter Solberg and Subaru in 2003. Abdullah, married to the glamorous Queen Rania, won the Jordanian rally championship twice in a Ford Cosworth 4x4 that too can be found inside the museum.

The Jordanians are serious about hosting a world rally in 2007 and motor sport in the Middle East is on the up, following the successful running of a Formula One race in Bahrain this year. Backing Jordan's bid is the king's brother, Prince Faisal, who says that the top rally drivers will benefit from exercising their skills in the searing desert. The proposed route covers a wide variety of tracks, including picturesque roads alongside the Dead Sea. Most sporting events lay claim to record-breaking superlatives, but this would become the only race to be held below sea level.

The Dead Sea is now a busy resort, and it was a favourite of King Hussein's, who used to drive out there in his 1979 BMW M1 (3.5-litres, 160mph) in the company of the young Abdullah, no doubt practising a few skids on the way. Sometimes Hussein used to ride down there on his Harley instead, Queen Noor perched pillion with hair blowing, like a scene from Easy Rider. Monarchy has rarely been so rock 'n' roll.

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