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Virgin Islands Culture: The Queen's Lincoln

queens lincoln

On the 26th of October 1977, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the British Virgin Islands. Her itinerary included a public motorcade through the island nation's capital city of Road Town. The idea of a motorcade, however, was the cause of a certain amount of apprehension for the planners of the event.

It seems that on the Queen's previous visit to Tortola in 1966, her motorcade did not proceed as smoothly as those involved would have liked. On that occasion, the Queen had taken part in a brief ceremony at the dock at Sopers Hole, after which she proceeded by motorcar to Road Town and then on to the eastern end of the island to dedicate the newly constructed bridge connecting Tortola with Beef Island and the airport.

In those days, when security was less of an issue than it is today, the Queen customarily would be carried in an open vehicle where she could be seen by, and wave to, the throngs of admirers lining the route of the procession. On her 1966 visit, the Queen was presented with an almost brand new, two-door Buick convertible coupe for the motorcade. Unfortunately, a two-door model is undesirable for the transportation of royal personages due to the inherent problems of entering and exiting the vehicle.

The Queen obviously does not drive the car, nor ride shotgun next to the driver. She sits in the back seat. In a two-door convertible this means that someone has to fold down the front seat allowing her to sit in the rear. This procedure cannot be done gracefully, and there was a moment when the posterior of Her Majesty's anatomy, which was fairly wide-beamed I might add, was presented to the public and, unfortunately, to certain photographers as well. As might be expected, the Queen was unhappy, to say the least, with the resulting scuttlebutt over photographs appearing in some unsympathetic publications.

What the motorcade planners really needed to find was a large and luxurious four-door convertible, a tall order anywhere, but especially in 1977 Tortola with its characteristic steep, rutted dirt roads and unostentatious culture.

queen's lincoln
Bob and Nell Deniston

As unlikely as may be imagined, there happened to be a vehicle on the island that would fill the bill. It belonged to an American expatriate named Bob Deniston, who had emigrated to Tortola in 1958 along with his wife Nell and their children.

Bob owned and drove a white 1966 Lincoln Continental four-door hardtop convertible, the same model that carried JFK on the fateful day of his assassination.

The Denistons were only the third white family to live on the island at the time, but were well-accepted by the friendly and tolerant native Tortolans, and being friendly and respectful themselves, they quickly made friends at all levels of island society. One of these friends was the chief of police. It was through this contact that Bob found out about the government's dilemma, after which he volunteered the use of his vehicle with the stipulation that he be the driver.

The chief of police was agreeable, but informed Bob that by the government rules of protocol the driver must be a uniformed constable. To satisfy this requirement, it was decided that Bob would be temporarily sworn in as a British Virgin Island constable and a uniform would be sent for him from England.

On the way home from the police station that day, Bob took a good look at the luxury Lincoln Continental that he had bought second hand from a doctor in Florida eight years ago. It was showing signs of the heavy wear and tear that cars receive in the Virgin Islands. In deference to the vehicle's newly elevated status as carriage for the Queen, Bob had it painted, so that it looked just like new, at least on the outside.

As the day of the Queen's visit drew near, Bob anxiously awaited the arrival of his uniform, inquiring almost daily at the police station as to the status of the delivery. Finally a call was made to England, and it became apparent that the uniform would not arrive on time. Bob could not be the one to drive the Queen. On Bob's recommendation, an officer, who was a good friend of the Denistons, was chosen to be Her Majesty's chauffeur. (That constable was later awarded a medal "for rendering personal service to the queen.")

A few days before the arrival of the Queen, agents of Scotland Yard visited the Denistons and discussed the procedure that was to be followed. The Lincoln was taken to the police station where it was gone over with a fine-tooth comb to check for bombs, booby traps and safety hazards. This being done, the fire truck that was normally kept in the police station garage was removed and parked on the street, with the Lincoln taking its place behind guarded and locked doors.

On the morning of October 26th, Bob's constable friend drove the Lincoln to the Road Town waterfront to collect the Queen of England. It was decided that the best course of action would be to leave the top down for the drive to the waterfront and open it just before the Queen got in, so that if by any chance there were an unexpected rain shower, the seat would not get wet. This was a somewhat risky decision.

The four-door Lincoln Continental Hardtop Convertible, manufactured by the Ford Motor Company from 1961 to 1966 utilized a complicated mechanism for lowering and raising the metal top. This consisted of 23 solenoids and a series of large steel screws that automatically screwed and unscrewed themselves, as well as levers, electrical connections, hinges, pulleys and belts, all of which had to function perfectly and in the right sequence in order to produce the desired result. Needless to say, things don't always work the way they're supposed to in the Virgin Islands, and Bob harbored a certain amount of anxiety concerning the smooth operation of the top lowering system and, for that matter, of the more mundane mechanical workings of his eleven-year old vehicle.

Virgin Islanders are known for their independence. This is also true of many of the foreigners who come to live here and Bob was no exception. He usually took personal charge of his beloved motor car in regards to its upkeep and repair, procedures that were required quite frequently. Consequently, he advised the chief of police and Scotland Yard that it would be a good idea for him to follow the procession with a box of tools and spare parts - just in case.

Everyone concerned was in agreement and consequently, Bob was present that morning at the Road Town waterfront. The area was already teaming with curious spectators, when his constable friend pushed the button that automatically lowered the gleaming white metal top of the Lincoln without one little problem.

Bob breathed a sigh of relief, just as the crowd, who had never witnessed a performance anything like this from an automobile, awarded the Lincoln a raucous and spontaneous applause. Bob remembers hearing a bystander remarking to his friend, "See. That car is American. The British could never make anything like that."

Almost everything ran smoothly that day. The Queen was able to make a graceful entry into the four-door convertible. There were no unforeseen mechanical problems and the motorcade proceeded under clear, squall-free Caribbean skies. Bob followed the procession throughout the route, his activities confined to taking photographs and chatting with spectators.

Only one small incident marred an otherwise perfect performance. At one intersection the Lincoln made a slightly abrupt stop causing a hitherto hidden empty bottle of beer to roll out from under the rear seat coming to rest right by Her Majesty's feet. The Queen discreetly kicked the offending Heineken back to its original location, but the event did not go completely unnoticed by others riding in the vehicle. As Tortolans have never been accused of being tight-lipped, the anecdote of the beer bottle soon became public knowledge.

That evening there was a gala reception aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, to which Bob and his wife, Nell, were invited. Royal Marines marched in close order drill around the pier and Bob remembers the historic 412-foot yacht as being "all teak and brass." When Bob and Nell were introduced to the Queen, it was, according to Bob, "the highlight of their social career."

Queen Elizabeth thanked the Denistons for allowing her the use of their automobile and congratulated Bob on his ability to keep such an old vehicle in its almost brand new condition. Bob said that he felt honored to be of service, but refrained from explaining that the car had recently repainted just for her.

Meanwhile Nell, who had heard about the Heineken bottle incident, told the Queen how sorry she was and explained that her son who had left the beer bottle under the seat. The Queen looked around and when she was sure no one else was listening she said, "don't feel bad, my children have done the same thing."

Today, the illustrious Lincoln Continental, looking quite a bit the worse for wear, can be found at Bob's beachfront honor bar at Smugglers Cove. There it joins other articles of Bob's memorabilia such as the stuffed shark that was used in the filming of the movie "The Old Man and the Sea" shot on location in Tortola. Bob's friend, Steve, cares for the once luxurious motorcar and miraculously manages to start it up once a week. Bob, who Steve describes as looking like "an anorexic Santa Claus wearing a pith helmet," only drives the car from the beach to a safer haven when there is a threat of a major storm.

By Gerald Singer