Small, crowded, and a royal pain in the trunk lid to drive into during rush hour, Monaco sounds like an improbable location for a huge car museum. And yet, this tiny city-state has been closely linked to car culture for over a century. It hosts two major racing events every year, many of its residents would qualify for a frequent shopper card if Rolls-Royce issued one, and Prince Rainier III began assembling a collection of cars in the late 1950s. He opened his collection to the public in 1993 and the museum quickly turned into a popular tourist attraction. The collection continued to grow after his death in April 2005; it moved to a new facility located right on Hercules Port in July 2022.
Monaco being Monaco, you’d expect to walk into a room full of the latest, shiniest, and most powerful supercars ever to shred a tire. That’s not the case: while there is no shortage of high-horsepower machines, the first cars you see after paying €10 (approximately $11) to get in are pre-war models. In that era, the template for the car as we know it in 2023 hadn’t been created, so an eclectic assortment of expensive and dauntingly experimental machines roamed whatever roads were available to them. One is the Leyat Hélica, which was built in France in 1921 with a 1.2-liter air-cooled flat-twin sourced from the world of aviation. Fittingly, the two-cylinder spun a massive, plane-like propeller.
Government vehicles get a special spot in the museum. They range from a Cadillac Series 6700 with an amusing blend of period-correct French-market yellow headlights and massive fins to a 2011 Lexus LS 600h with a custom-made transparent roof panel that was built by Belgian coachbuilder Carat Duchatelet for Prince Albert II’s wedding. Here’s where it all gets a little weird: you’ve got a 1952 Austin FX3, a Ghia-bodied 1959 Fiat 500 Jolly, a 1960 BMW Isetta, and a 1971 Lotus Seven. That has to be someone’s idea of a perfect four-car garage.
One of the most significant cars in the collection lurks in the far corner of the main hall, which is located a level below the entrance. At first glance, it’s a kitted-out Renault 4CV with auxiliary lights, a racing number on the front end, and a period-correct registration number issued in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of France. It doesn’t look all that different than the later, unmodified 4CV parked right next to it. Here’s what’s special about it: this is one of the small handful of Type 1063 models built by Renault for competition. It notably won first in its class in the 1951 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and its success reportedly convinced Renault to launch an in-house racing department (which later became Renault Sport). On a secondary level, it’s one of the first hot-rodded economy cars — it’s a bit like a hot hatch without a hatch.
Back upstairs, the museum highlights Monaco’s link with racing. The principality is best know as the home of a Formula One Grand Prix, but it has also historically been the finish line of the World Rally Championship’s Monte-Carlo Rally. Several classic rally cars are on display, including Group B-spec monsters such as the Peugeot 205 T16 and newer models like the Toyota Yaris WRC. If you didn’t order your fast car with a side of dirt, the museum has over half a dozen Formula One cars including models raced by Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. There’s a bit of everything — where else can you find a Mitsubishi Pajero that raced in the Paris-Dakar parked next to a Ferrari 365 GTB4 Competizione?
Oddly, the least powerful post-war car isn’t the tiny Isetta with a motorcycle-derived, 298-cubic-centimeter single-cylinder engine rated at 13 horsepower. It’s the 1957 Citroën 2CV, whose 425-cubic-centimeter air-cooled flat-twin develops 12 horsepower at a screaming 4,000 rpm.
I don’t have royal blood, but it turns out I’ve got at least one thing in common with the Prince of Monaco: we both own a 2CV.