HE saved his country estate, founded the National Motor Museum and was a champion of British heritage.

Lord Montagu, who died on Monday aged 88, was also, in his younger days, a noted London socialite, and went to jail in a case which fuelled the campaign to legalise homosexuality.

Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu inherited his title at the age of two in 1929, following the death of his father John, a former New Forest MP and motoring pioneer.

Edward had been born in 1926, in his grandmother’s house in London, and was a sickly child who was later sent to South Africa to escape the British winter.

Aged 10, he was the youngest lord to attend the coronation of George VI. He was evacuated to Canada at the outbreak of World War II and returned two-and-a-half years later to belatedly take up a place at Eton.

In 1945, he joined the Grenadier Guards and was posted with a peacekeeping force in Palestine. Afterwards, he read modern history at New College Oxford.

However, he felt obliged to leave during his second year of university, after an altercation between the Bullingdon Club – of which he was a member – and the Oxford University Dramatic Society led to his room being wrecked.

Lord Montagu joined the public relations agency Voice and Vision, where his first job was to launch the classic comic Eagle. Two years later, he established Vintage Tyre Supplies, which became the largest supplier of original tyres for classic, vintage and veteran cars.

The country estate at Beaulieu was run by his mother, Alice, and trustees until Lord Montagu was 25 in 1951.

When he took over the running of Beaulieu, he faced huge costs, but became one of the first lords to open his home to the public.

“I would rather keep my home and surrender my privacy than have things the other way around,” he said when Palace House opened on April 6, 1952.

But Lord Montagu’s privacy was truly destroyed in 1954, when he was jailed for 12 months after being convicted, along with two other men, for homosexual offences.

The episode had started in August 1953, when he went to his beach house for a swim with friends and was joined by two Scouts who had been acting as guides at Palace House. One of the teenagers claimed Lord Montagu sexually assaulted him.

Those charges were dismissed, but the next month, Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were charged with conspiracy to incite two RAF men to commit serious offences. The airmen had turned Queen’s evidence and Lord Montagu denied the charge, but was found guilty.

Public opinion saw the case as a witch-hunt, and Lord Montagu was met with cries of support after the verdict.

Soon after his release, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell approached him in a restaurant to shake his hand.

The case led to the Wolfenden report which advocated legalising homosexuality and, after a 10-year delay, the law was changed. Lord Montagu remained silent in public about the case until 2000, when he published a memoir, Wheels Within Wheels, in which he was candid about his bisexuality and said the 1950s establishment had been "out to get him" as part of a conspiracy against homosexuals.

After his release from prison, Lord Montagu returned to manage Beaulieu. A small number of classic cars had stood in the hall of Palace House, in tribute to his father, since it opened to the public. In 1956, the first motor museum building opened, followed by a larger complex in 1959.

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The estate was also home to six jazz festivals which attracted the likes of Cleo Laine, Humphrey Lyttleton and George Melly.

But 1960 saw the ‘Battle of Beaulieu’, when a bottle-throwing riot broke out between gangs of modern and traditional jazz fans.

Lord Montagu recalled: “Humphrey Lyttleton’s trumpet was found abandoned in the car park and clothing attributed to George Melly halfway up a tree. It would have been a lot worse.”

The trouble did get worse, however, and the event was scrapped after the 1961 festival.

Lord Montagu created a maritime museum at the village of Bucklers Hard, which was opened in 1963 by Lord Mountbatten. The Beaulieu estate was also used as a location for the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, with the Beaulieu River doubling for the 16th century Thames.

By the mid-1960s, the Montagu Motor Museum was attracting hundreds of thousands of people a year, and in 1972 it became the National Motor Museum.

It attracted a succession of celebrity visitors – including, in 1981, Liberace and Michael Jackson, who were driven around the grounds in a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

Meanwhile, Lord Montagu had established the Historic Houses Association, and in 1984 he became the first chairman of English Heritage. When the government abolished the Greater London Council, prime minister Margaret Thatcher was said to have approved the transfer of its historic buildings to English Heritage because “Edward Montagu will know what to do with them”.

He founded the Countryside Education rust, which welcomes more than 5,000 children and adults a year to Beaulieu. He was president of a host of tourism bodies, chancellor of the Wine Guild of the UK and president of the UK Vineyards Association.

He leaves a widow, Fiona, daughter Mary and two sons – Ralph, who inherits his title, and Jonathan.