Farewell to a fast lady

It’s not really the place of the S&G to comment upon every personality who passes away.  Sadly, from the perspective of 2016, any interest in the first half of the 20th century means reflecting upon lives and achievements that reach their end on a regular basis. Obituaries for S&G luminaries such as John Coombs, Sir Jack Brabham and Les Munro have been well written and doubtless read by regulars here; there is no point repeating for the sake of it.

But the recent passing of Maria Teresa de Filippis has robbed our generation of a unique link with that rather wonderful world of Formula One in the 1950s. She was glamorous, she was brave and she could certainly drive a bit. Maserati encouraged her and she joined the glittering set alongside Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn, Collins, Brooks ,Musso and all the rest: the right girl in the right place at the right time.

She didn’t set the world on fire but she will remain forever associated with an unrepeatable era, as this rather nice recent advert by Maserati attests:

An epic fail from Lewis

This week saw one of the motor manufacturers competing in F1 roll out some of its heritage – in this case Mercedes-Benz, which took two of its all-conquering W196s to Monza. In one car quite rightly Sir Stirling Moss was to be found. In the other was Lewis Hamilton.

Stories like this are popular fodder to graft a little of the sport’s old grandeur onto its modern day successor. Usually it is quite fun, such as when Michael Schumacher took the wheel of Bernie Ecclestone’s Ferrari 375 at Silverstone to mark 50 years since the Scuderia’s first Formula One victory:

It is also a chance for Formula One drivers to endear themselves to fans by showing how much they value the sport’s heritage and appreciate their role in continuing the legacy. After all, if you’re one of the 18 men qualified by talent, marketability or financial backing to sit in one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth then it is entirely right and proper to celebrate such good fortune, is it not?

Apparently not in Lewis’s case. He buried this particular story in his BBC column beneath selfies taken at the recent boxing match, stating: “Mercedes took two versions of the 1955 F1 car, the W196, the open-wheeler and the ‘streamliner’, and Stirling and I drove them on the old Monza banking, which they used for grands prix until 1959.”

Erm, Lewis…

Monza banking in its final F1 appearance… in 1961, not 1959 Mr. Hamilton

Monza banking in its final F1 appearance… in 1961, not 1959 Mr. Hamilton

Having comprehensively shot himself in one foot, Lewis then took aim at the other when he turned his apparently limited attention to the W196 itself. “I think that might be my favourite car of all time,” he enthused. “I just love the sound of it, with its old V12 engine – I’d love to have a road car that sounded like that.”

The Mercedes-Benz W196 with its straight eight engine

The Mercedes-Benz W196 with its straight eight engine

The problem is, of course, that the W196 was famously powered by a straight-eight engine with desmodronic valve gear. I know that there are question marks about Lewis’s technical feedback but spotting that this was not a V12 engine should have been a fairly straightforward task. I’m sure that one of the gentlemen of Mercedes’ fantastic technical team who tend these priceless cars would have explained it to him as well – although perhaps Lewis was preoccupied with his selfies at the time.

Modern day racing drivers tend to do this sort of thing very well – even if driving old cars isn’t their cup of tea. Schumi was famously terrified when he drove one of Ferrari’s turbocharged cars from the 1980s and swore blind he would never again allow himself to be strapped into a machine that seemed intent on causing him actual bodily harm.

He was not alone. David Coulthard found the pre-war Mercedes W125 rather too much for comfort and Mika Häkkinen really never liked driving the W196 because by comparison with his carbon fibre machine it lacked any sense of there being a functional set of brakes included in the design.

And yet they did it with grace, good humour and the sense that they perhaps gained a little understanding of their privileged place in the world to be paid fortunes for driving cars that are a thousand times safer on circuits that are 60% run-off area and fenced in with soft barriers. Sentiments that do not come across from Hamilton’s exposure to the living legends of Moss, the W196 and the astonishing Monza banking.

Hamilton didn't seem to understand the significance of this moment - a shame, as they are getting fewer

Hamilton didn’t seem to understand the significance of this moment – a shame, as they are getting fewer

It was, as Lewis would no doubt say, an epic fail.

1956 and all that…

A lot is said and written about British leadership in motor sport. About its value. About its importance. We speak in terms intended to summon up the blood in a manner that would have delighted Henry V at Agincourt.

‘Twas not always thus. Brooklands may have been the world’s first permanent race track and a few pioneering marques such as Bentley, Napier and Sunbeam may have successfully raided the most prestigious races in Europe but, before World War 2, Britain was hardly smitten.

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Indeed, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was moved to prohibit the display of racing machinery within its annual Motor Show – stating that competition was ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

All that was changed by the Second World War. In its wake a tide of bright young engineers and hard charging drivers was unleashed. That tide grew in depth, strength and experience until Britain became the motor racing capital of the world.

The year of British ascendance was 1956. If the primary measuring stick of motor sport is Formula One, then this was the first year when the number of British teams outnumbered those from Italy or France. It is also the first year in which British drivers won more grands prix than any other nationality – with Stirling Moss and Peter Collins claiming two victories apiece.

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio close in 1956

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio (right) close in 1956

Of course this was also the year in which Collins famously missed out on the world championship after handing his car to his title rival and team-mate, Juan Manuel Fangio, in the final race of the year. Clearly the British still had to develop the killer instinct in these situations!

Neither Moss or Collins were driving British cars, but there was plenty of success outside Formula 1 for British manufacturers. Leading the way was Jaguar, which maintained its dominance at the Le Mans 24 Hours with a fourth victory in six years – with Aston Martin and Lotus winning class honours.

Jaguar's fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

Jaguar’s fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

In rallying, Jaguar also the Monte Carlo Rally with its vast Mk.VII saloon and Aston Martin won the RAC Rally with its rather more obviously sporty DB2/4.

Meanwhile, back on the tracks, the Owen Maddock-designed Cooper T41 dominated in Formula 2, establishing the template for rear-engined simplicity that would carry the Kingston firm to world championship glory by the end of the decade.

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

If that wasn’t sufficient to set the seal on British dominance then Stirling Moss – that man again! – set new class speed records at Monza in a streamlined Lotus Eleven.

It was a year that would define so much for so many people: the year in which the remarkable community of engineers and adventurers showed exactly what they were capable of. The achievements of 1956 set in place the foundations for a huge and vibrant industry.

This week the great and the good of that same industry gather for their annual jamboree – the Autosport International show in Birmingham. Doubtless there will be much bullish talk about the state of the nation… but how much of it is justified?

One thing is clear – the age of British leadership in motor sport that arrived with such a tour de force in 1956 has, in fact, passed.

At the end of last year Britain lost 25% of its F1 production in the space of a fortnight. If a quarter of the Premier League teams vanished there would be rioting on the streets – but the disappearance of more than 400 jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds owing to suppliers has merited barely a raised eyebrow.

This misfortune is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. For example British Formula 3 – the series that was the making of virtually every F1 driver from Stirling Moss to Jenson Button, including the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen – has ceased to exist, after drawing only half a dozen entries in recent seasons.

The Le Mans 24 Hours and World Endurance Championship are currently contested by Audi, Porsche and Toyota… all based in Germany. Both of the full works teams entered in the World Rally Championship – Hyundai and Volkswagen – are also based in Germany.

In terms of manufacturing there are now only three viable options when it comes to single-seater chassis supply: Mygale from France (Formula Ford/Formula 4), Dallara (GP2, GP3, Formula 3, Indycar, World Series, Formula E) and its Italian compatriot Tatuus (Formula Renault).

Across virtually every discipline of the sport, from rallycross to hillclimbs and truck racing to dragsters, British influence is increasingly on the margins. As well as car production, traditional bastions of the industry such as Dunlop and Shell have also moved their motor sport arms (and associated Research & Development of customer products) away from Britain.

In 2001 the Motorsport Industry Association, the self-appointed lobbying group in the UK, valued the industry at £5bn a year – which was quite punchy. These days the MIA puts that figure at £10bn – which is frankly ludicrous.

In the years since 2001 such prestigious engineering firms as Cosworth, Reynard, Lola, Van Diemen, TWR and Ralliart have hurtled into oblivion. On the domestic front, the British Touring Car Championship lost its manufacturer entries and star drivers but has battled on – and at least survived where the British Rally Championship has been consigned to history.

One by one the lion’s teeth have been pulled.

What took Britain to the top of the world in 1956 and kept it there for roughly half a century was a fraternity imbued with talent and inventiveness as well as the willingness to challenge tradition. As a community we urgently need to revive this same spirit if we are to have any chance of halting the decline.

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 - and fast

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 – and fast

The S&G is a place to look backwards but, at the start of a new year, it might also be a good time to look forwards – and worry. Context is really what this blog is about, and if by looking back we can find a way to fan the embers then so much the better.

The world’s most expensive Grand Prix car

Auction house Bonhams is cock-a-hoop after the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where it sold the ex-Juan Manuel Fangio Mercedes-Benz W196 that was originally gifted to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.

Bonhams auctioned the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 at Goodwood

Bonhams auctioned the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 at Goodwood

The headline figure stands at £19,601,500 (which is what the £17,500,000 hammer price comes to with commission), making this car the most expensive ever sold at auction, the most valuable Formula One car ever sold and the most valuable Mercedes ever sold to boot.

It is a mark of how special this car is that it attained such a sum. As a rule, single-seat racing cars go for relatively modest sums compared to their sports and GT brethren. The rationale is simple: if you can’t drive it to the pub or put your friends in it, it’s not going to make top dollar.

The social side of classic car ownership is a major selling point

The social side of classic car ownership adds enormous value

People buy classic cars as an investment but also to show them off: to get the buzz of being at the wheel and to bask in the awe, envy and admiration that their carriages inspire. That is why the Ferrari 250GTO remains the powerhouse of the classic era – its unique beauty and racing pedigree ensure that values continue to climb, yet this is also a car in which Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason used to take his daughter to school.

The Mercedes therefore falls short of the $35 million mark set by the ex-UDT Laystall team GTO last year… but not by much. Since that time the pale green Ferrari has been a regular attendee at historic events, but whether or not the Mercedes follows suit is open to question.

With a price of $35 million in 2012, the UDT Laystall 250 GTO is still king of the hill

Reaching $35 million in 2012, the UDT Laystall GTO is still king of the hill

A single-seat racing car can only be driven on a track, which means either competing with it or hiring a venue for a private track day. Otherwise it must either be kept hidden away in a private collection or loaned to a museum – neither of which fulfils the basic criteria of ownership.

The ultimate fate of the W196 00006/54 is unknown, but it seems likely to be leaving British shores. The vendor was the Emir of Qatar, who acquired it from the German industrialist Friedhelm Loh about eight years ago, and it was snapped up by an unnamed telephone bidder calling from overseas.

Presumably it will now go back into storage or private display. If money were no object then it might possibly be used in historic events alongside the many other 2.5-litre F1 cars such as the Ferrari 246 Dino, Maserati 250F, Cooper T53 and even the lesser spotted Vanwall.

Fifties Grand Prix cars like this Aston Martin sell tickets for historic races

’50s cars like this Aston Martin sell many tickets for historic races

Yet this is a car with some fairly unique engineering in it – desmodronic valve gear and fuel injection feature on its straight-eight engine, which was engineered to ensure power take-off from the centre of its crankshaft to minimize vibration. Ground-breaking technology is unreliable. Add the passage of 60 years and it becomes impossible to place great strain on the components.

It would doubtless require significant restoration work to make 00006 a full-blown runner – but this is not a problem in itself. Since the auction, much has been made of the car’s patina – but the peeling paint and scratches are not a legacy from its time with the Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung – in fact the damage is more modern than that.

The chips and dings have all occurred since 00006 retired from racing

The chips and dings have all occurred since 00006 retired from racing

Photos of the car at its first race at the Nürburgring show the slightly hurried and unfinished look of the open wheel body which was pressed in to service. Contemporary reporters were amazed by the difference between the carefully sculpted streamliner bodies with which the W196 debuted and labelled the open wheeler ‘unhandsome’.

Indeed, Mercedes had been forced to introduce the open wheel cars earlier than planned after a disastrous race at the British Grand Prix, meaning that the team arrived too late to take part in the opening practice session.

Fangio restored German pride at the 'Ring

00006 and Fangio restored German pride at the ‘Ring

When they did take to the track, however, Fangio and chassis 00006 recorded a time of 9m 50.1s – shaving two seconds off the 1939 lap record set by the supercharged 3.0-litre Mercedes of Hermann Lang.

The race was in many ways an all-Argentinean affair, dominated by Fangio’s Mercedes and a valiant challenge to its supremacy by Froilán González in the outclassed Ferrari 625. Both men were in no small part inspired by the death of their young compatriot Onofre Marimon in practice, whose fatal accident at the Wehrseifen bridge prompted the works Maserati team’s withdrawal.

Fangio's race pace was modest, but he triumphed in Germany

Fangio’s race pace was modest, but he and 00006 triumphed in Germany

González led at the start and then chased Fangio once the Maestro had got past – but was soon swallowed up by the other two Mercedes of junior driver Karl Kling and pre-war legend Lang in a one-off appearance. These two men indulged in a spirited battle for second place in which the ring-rusty Lang ultimately spun at the Hatzenbach and exited to a hero’s salute from the crowd.

Kling then set off after Fangio and began to reel him in – to the enormous and obvious displeasure of his team boss, Alfred Neubauer. Kling passed Fangio but during his furious drive he had clipped one of the banks and broken the transmission mounting, requiring a lengthy stop for repairs which let Fangio claim the first home victory for Mercedes in 15 years.

Fangio then won again with chassis 00006 at the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten, beating the Ferrari of González. The race was something of a non-event in which the margin of victory was almost a full minute after many of the fancied runners dropped out – but it did seal Fangio’s second world championship title.

Victory at Bremgarten ensured the 1954 title for Fangio

Victory at Bremgarten ensured the 1954 title for Fangio

The maestro then received a new chassis and 00006 was next seen at the season-ending Italian Grand Prix in the hands of Hans Herrmann. Fangio won by a lap from Hawthorn’s Ferrari, González and Umberto Maglioli sharing the third-placed Ferrari another lap behind and Hermann trailing home fourth a further lap in arrears.

00006 was then held back as a test hack through 1955, when the season was truncated by the catastrophic accident at Le Mans. It re-emerged for the final race of the ‘silver arrows’ in Formula One – the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. Team leader Fangio and his young apprentice Stirling Moss had use of the fully streamlined cars for the flat-out sweeps of the Villa Reale, but the open-wheel chassis 00006 was made available for Karl Kling.

Kling and 00006 are third in the W196 train behind Fangio and Moss

Kling and 00006 are third in the W196 train behind Fangio and Moss

It was another fiery and wayward performance by Kling, who ran a strong second behind Fangio’s Stromlinienwagen until the prop shaft let go, due to a rare error by Neubauer’s engineers. With that ‘Don Alfredo’ Neubauer tearfully drew a veil over the competition department at Unterturkheim and the 14 W196s went into retirement.

Fangio and Moss help Neubauer put the legendary 'silver arrows' to bed

Fangio and Moss help Neubauer put the legendary ‘silver arrows’ to bed

Chassis 00006 was delivered to the Daimler-Benz Exhibitions Department in December 1955, having been fully refettled. It stayed with them for more than a decade, being taken to exhibitions and public appearances around Europe and being used for tyre testing. A Daimler-Benz Museum archive document records that – as of November 5, 1969 – “Car should be available at any time for R. Uhlenhaut for testing purposes”.

On May 22nd, 1973 it was presented to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire, England.  It was then sold after many years in order to fund the museum’s John Montagu Building, being bought by historic racer and collector Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB Excavators in a deal brokered by Adrian Hamilton, son of Le Mans winner Duncan Hamilton.

Sir Anthony Bamford bought the W196 from Beaulieu

Sir Anthony Bamford bought the W196 from Beaulieu

Bamford sold the car to French collector Jacques Setton. It then passed to Herr Loh, who in 1999-2000 ran it in such events as the Monaco Historic Grand Prix and the Goodwood Festival of Speed with Willie Green at the wheel. The car was then re-sold  to Qatari ownership.

Now, in 2013, this old stager has set a new benchmark for cars at auction – but are there any more such valuable Grand Prix racing gems out there? It must be doubtful. There are certainly cars in existence that would trouble the Richter scale if they were to see the light of day – but they remain tucked up far away from the public gaze. Perhaps once again a car built at Unterturkheim has set the bar higher than any rivals can match.

Off to her new home - 00006 as she is today

Off to her new home – 00006 as she is today

Time for a Top 10

As we’re now 100 posts in to this little odyssey around the age of adventure, I thought I’d do a little stock take to see which subjects have been the most popular. After all it’s a fairly broad church here at the S&G, so one never really knows if it’s going in the right direction for people to enjoy.

Gratifyingly, all the subjects seem to be at about the same level of interest in terms of the number of people reading them – and that number’s going up all the time, so thank you! And if you’re interested then here’s the pick of the pops in your top 10 most popular posts so far – cue the music…

In at 10 it’s The Racing Driver’s Bride and the story of the beautiful Hollywood actress who married Ferrari’s 1950s ace Peter Collins.

At 9 it’s some classic pin-up action from Elvgren’s Skirt & Giggles.

In at number 8 it’s Airfix and its all-new Lancaster kit.

At 7 it’s time to hit the bar with Mike and the Members.

And at 6 we have the story of Tazio Nuvolari’s TT-winning Alfa.

In at number 5 it’s the bitter-sweet story of aviation heroine Jean Batten.

At four we’ve got Sir Stirling Moss falling foul of political correctness, and now it’s time to see where your mouse has been leading you most often here at the S&G

At number 3 it’s a mystery and a whodunit – and still we don’t know who tends Dick Seaman’s grave.

The runner-up spot is currently held by the Dornier Do17 that lay on the Goodwin Sands for more than 70 years before the RAF Museum pulled it up from beneath the English Channel. They got the whole thing up – not ‘arf!

Yet for all the many stories about cars and planes, it’s one of the few so far about boats which is holding sway. Yes, you style-conscious lot, you’ve put Brigitte Bardot at the top of the pile with the story of her love affair with Riva powerboats. So here’s a little something to keep you happy this summer, with BB on the quayside…

BB offers a little thank you to all the S&G's visitors - we hope to see you soon!

BB offers a little thank you to all the S&G’s visitors – we hope to see you soon!

Behind the scenes at the 1956 Monaco GP

Moss was magnificent but Ferrari left a tale or two

Monaco 1956: Moss was magnificent but Ferrari left a tale or two

Life magazine has a treasure trove of images including the following selection from a series taken in the period leading up to the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix. They give an insight into the world inhabited by teams taking part in the Formula One World Championship that absolutely none of today’s teams would recognise, sadly.

Despite achieving unprecedented dominance in the 1952-53 world championship seasons for Formula 2 machinery, Scuderia Ferrari had dropped off a cliff in 1954-55. After the glorious little 4-cylinder F2 500 had carried all before it in the hands of Alberto Ascari and Mike Hawthorn, the subsequent 2.5-litre Formula One cars such as the 625, 553 Squalo and 555 Supersqualo were dismal failures and the team was on the brink of going under before Lancia went bust and it took over the promising D50 cars at the end of 1955.

After the International Trophy at Silverstone the cars are rebuilt for Monaco

After the International Trophy at Silverstone the cars are rebuilt for Monaco

Not only did Lancia’s departure grant a lifeline to Ferrari, but also the departure of Mercedes-Benz after its two years of dominance meant that the greatest driver of the era, Juan Manuel Fangio, was available and keen to drive the D50. There was little love lost between Fangio and Enzo Ferrari, but both knew that the other gave the best chance of success in 1956.

The season began with Fangio’s home race in Argentina, which saw the Ferrari-entered D50s dominate qualifying. Fangio’s own car broke its fuel pump but team-mate Luigi Musso was running strongly and so was called in to the pits to hand over his car to the Maestro, who duly won by 25 seconds from the Maserati of Jean Behra.

Then came the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone, where the two cars entered for Fangio and Peter Collins both retired with clutch failure. After rushing back to Maranello to diagnose the ailment, a full squad of Fangio, Collins, Musso and Eugenio Castelotti was ready for the next world championship round in Monaco just a couple of days later.

The cars arrive in the Monaco pits ready to get practice underway

The cars arrive in the Monaco pits ready to get practice underway

Then as now, Monaco was an extremely crowded place for a Formula One event to take place, but the milling crowds were simply part of the ambiance. Today’s teams would run a mile at the prospect of living and working cheek-by-jowl with the ‘great unwashed’ – even if that meant well-heeled Monegasques. After all, they have social media campaigns for that sort of thing!

Fangio attempts to keep the fans happy - today teams use Twitter instead

Fangio keeps the fans happy – today teams use Twitter instead

Fangio stuck his car on pole position ahead of Moss’s works Maserati 250F. The young Englishman got the better start, however, and completed his first lap with a five second lead. Fangio was clearly rattled by the challenge to his authority and managed to spin his D50 at Ste. Devote, causing the sister car of Luigi Musso and the Vanwall of Harry Schell to crash out in avoidance.

Musso's D50 sits forlornly after avoiding Fangio's sister car

Musso’s D50 sits forlornly after avoiding Fangio’s sister car

Fangio set off unabashed, working his way back up to third place with some fairly lurid cornering before the remaining Ferrari of Peter Collins slowed up to let him past for second place. Fangio howled off after Moss but once again there was a lapse in concentration and he clobbered the nose of his car against a wall, allowing Collins to close up once more and sit dutifully on the Maestro’s tail rather than get past and press on after Moss.

By lap 40 this was becoming a bit of a farce and Fangio pulled in with his wounded machine and handed it over to Castelotti, whose own car had suffered a clutch failure. Now it was the turn of Peter Collins to get the summons to bring the last undamaged D50 in for Fangio to use. The young Englishman did what was expected of him and Fangio made his third bid to catch Moss, who had himself suffered a drama when lapping his team-mate Cesare Perdisa, getting a knock which loosened the engine cover and caused it to flap about.

Fangio's damaged D50 in the pits

Fangio’s damaged D50 in the pits

A nail-biting charge to the finish saw Fangio hauling in Moss’s advantage by two seconds per lap, but the Maserati team leader did not wilt under the pressure. He kept his head and took the flag six seconds clear of the charging Argentine star. So cool was Moss that he took time to wave to the crowds on the final lap as he savoured this, his first Monaco victory and the first time he had put one over the Maestro in a Grand Prix.

If Fangio was disappointed then doubly so was Peter Collins. The young star had driven faultlessly in the first half of the race and had been the only member of Scuderia Ferrari with a realistic shot at challenging Moss for the victory – only for the team to defer to Fangio’s wishes. Nevertheless, the cup was always half full for Collins, who could be relied upon to find something to enjoy – and someone to enjoy it with – in most situations.

Collins with his 'belle du jour' enjoys a glass of chilled refreshment

Collins in the pits with his ‘belle de jour’ and a glass of chilled refreshment

Life states that the lady photographed repeatedly in Collins’s company over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend was his future wife, Louise King. It’s not in fact the future Mrs. Collins – although the couple did both go to the same party that weekend without really noticing one another. Rather it is one of the many glamorous young ladies with whom the Ferrari ace enjoyed spending time before he tied the knot.

Almost 60 years later the world of Grand Prix racing looks rather different on many fronts…

The racing driver’s bride

The website of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota is not the first place one would think of looking at when seeking out members of the rip-roaring Grand Prix racing community of the 1950s.

And yet here is a profile of a trustee of the church who is in charge of Sunday Services; who rounds up ushers and greeters for duty every Sunday morning and hosts a monthly discussion group about movies. Not very F1, perhaps, but the photograph of a twinkly-eyed lady with an elfin haircut gives the game away… this is indeed the widow of that great British racer, Peter Collins.

Peter Collins and his wife Louise entertain ‘Fon’ de Portago (l) and ‘Taffy’ von Trips (r)

The story of Peter Collins is too rarely retold. This dashing young man with the carefree approach to life cut a swathe through the racing scene in the 1950s alongside such contemporaries as Sir Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Roy Salvadori – although he is best remembered for his symbiotic partnership with Mike Hawthorn in which each christened the other ‘mon ami mate’.

Born in Kidderminster in 1931, Collins’ father owned a garage and a haulage company, and to no great surprise young Peter developed an affinity for mechanical things very early on. As a teenager he thrived in the rough and tumble of 500cc racing on abandoned airfields alongside the likes of Moss and a certain Bernard Ecclestone.

The rakish young Collins gets ready for action

At a party hosted by the great pre-war lady racer Kay Petre in 1951, Collins managed to inveigle himself with the Aston Martin sports car team boss, John Wyer, and earned a test drive. On the appointed day at Silverstone not only was Aston present but also the HWM Formula 2 team – and by the time the teams were packing up to go home, Collins had a contract with both!

Throughout the first half of the 1950s Collins was a stalwart performer for the Aston Martin team in endurance racing and rallies.  He also kept trying to break into Formula One with the British teams BRM and Vanwall but without great success, while first Hawthorn then Moss took the Grand Prix world by storm.

Finally Collins got his big chance when Moss requested that his old 500cc sparring partner be drafted in by Mercedes-Benz to partner him in the 1955 Targa Florio. They won the race and Collins found himself signing a contract for 1956 with none other than Enzo Ferrari.

Formula One drivers were expected to compete elsewhere, which meant that Collins’ first landmark result with the Scuderia came not at a grand prix but with second place on the Mille Miglia. Nevertheless this was swiftly followed by victories in both the Belgian and French Grands Prix, and these early days earned him the unstinting admiration of the ‘Old Man’, devastated by the untimely death of his son, Dino, and who turned to Collins for solace, treating him as a member of the family.

Ferrari holds court with Collins (l), Musso (r) and Castelotti

Ferrari holds court with Collins (r), Musso (l) and Castelotti

Meanwhile those mid-season victories ensured that the championship boiled down to a two-way fight between Collins and his three-time world champion team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio. At the final round, the Italian Grand Prix, Fangio’s car suffered a steering failure and left Collins with a clear run to the title – only for the young Englishman to voluntarily pull in and give his car to the older man, whose second place finish sealed his fourth title.

“It’s too early for me to become world champion – I’m too young,” Collins said afterwards. “I want to go on enjoying life and racing, but if I become world champion now I would have all the obligations that go with it. And Fangio deserves it anyway!”

This was astonishing behaviour, even by the more sportsmanlike days of the 1950s. As even Fangio admitted later, if the position had been reversed, nothing on Earth would have persuaded him to get out of that car.

Yet Collins was happy and after the clamour of his first season at Ferrari came the enjoyment of some leisure time. Each winter the drivers kept themselves busy – and earning money – with off-season appearances in the Americas and at the Nassau Speed Week. They also pursued their other great interest in life – women. It was in January 1957 that Stirling Moss told Collins about a beautiful girl he knew in Miami who loved grand prix racing – an actress called Louise King – and gave his old pal her number if he was at a loose end while in the States.

As close off the track as on it: Collins leads Moss, Silverstone 1956

As close off the track as on it: Collins leads Moss at Silverstone, 1956

In fact Collins had met Louise at Monaco the previous year. Evidently this fact slipped his mind as he stood waiting for his ‘blind date’ at the Coconut Grove Playhouse bar and got talking to a bright young thing – who turned out to be the very girl he was waiting for all along. Not only did Collins get away with this gaffe, it was the start of something special.

As you can doubtless tell, Louise was no ordinary girl. The 24-year-old beauty was starring in the Broadway production of The Seven Year Itch alongside Tom Ewell, the star of the movie adaptation alongside Marilyn Monroe. The independent daughter of a distinguished diplomat, not only did the young divorcee willingly spurn Hollywood’s advances, but she was also an Austin-Healey driving member of the Sports Car Club of America with a passion for motor racing. It’s hardly surprising that Collins was besotted.

Collins and Louise relax by the pool between races

Two days after their first date, Louise lay next to Collins beside his hotel pool in Miami. It was at this moment that, whispering so that his friend, the American driver Masten Gregory, didn’t overhear, that Collins proposed – and Louise accepted. They were married the following Monday, to widespread disbelief.

Although Louise’s father was quickly won over by Collins’s natural charm, his own parents were appalled by the prospect of their beloved son marrying an actress, never mind that she was already once divorced and, as the last straw, an American.

His friends in the motor racing set however were astonished that Collins, a legendary swordsman, was seemingly going to turn down the pleasures of the many available – and occasionally unavailable – women with whom he had previously wiled away the hours. There was, by general consensus, more chance of Moss joining a monastery or Hawthorn going teetotal.

Few in the paddock believed Collins could adapt to domestic bliss

It was also widely expected that Enzo Ferrari would take this turn of events worst of all. He had lavished Collins with a paternal care in an era when drivers took lives in their hands on every lap and it was assumed that Ferrari would feel that a man with priorities off the track was never going to give him 100% commitment – but in fact the reverse was true.

The newlyweds were made welcome by Ferrari and his wife, Laura, who insisted on accompanying the glamorous new girl on every shopping trip and lunch date despite her complete lack of English and Louise’s equal lack of Italian. Initially they took a room in the old farmhouse above the Cavallino restaurant, but that summer they were gifted the use of an old villa on the factory grounds which had lain empty since the war.

For 1957 Fangio chose to rejoin his friends at Maserati and, when Eugenio Castelotti was killed in pre-season testing, Collins was the established star. He was teamed with the returning Mike Hawthorn, Italian driver Luigi Musso and Spanish nobleman Alfonso de Portago but it was to be a dismal season.

A publicity picture taken before the start of the fateful 1957 Mille Miglia

The greatest pall hung after the death of ‘Fon’ de Portago, together with his co-driver Ed Nelson and 10 spectators, in a crash on the Mille Miglia. The race continued, of course, with Collins leading for much of it until the transmission failed 130 miles from the finish. Recalling that night in Chris Nixon’s seminal book Mon Ami Mate, Louise said of Portago’s loss:

“…it was almost as though they expected it and although he was a very popular guy no-one could get upset about it. That night a group of us went out to to a restaurant and after dinner we danced the night away. We didn’t set out to go dancing. It was just a regular part of the evening at that restaurant and it provided a sense of release for us after the race.”

Death was an ever-present part of life as a racing driver, and therefore of life as a racing driver’s wife. The Collinses and the rest of the sport moved on, and in Formula One the most memorable grand prix of the season came in Germany, when Hawthorn and Collins, lapping together, managed to get beaten by Fangio, who put in the drive of his life to regain a 40 second deficit.

“I motioned Peter to come alongside and pointed behind us with thumb down to indicate that Fangio seemed to be in trouble,” Hawthorn later recounted in his book, Challenge Me The Race.

“He nodded, put his thumb up, then pointed to me with one finger and then back to himself with two. He wanted me to win and was prepared to come second himself, which I thought was a very sporting gesture…”

Fangio has passed Collins and tracks Hawthorn, 1957 German GP

Fangio has passed Collins and tracks Hawthorn, 1957 German GP

It was also a plan doomed to failure, brought about by Fangio’s last and most celebrated victory. Yet increasingly Collins’s attention was not on his sport. He was planning to build an ‘American-style’ home in England, to invest in the new Austin-Healey factory in Nassau and to opening a Ferrari dealership with his father. He also wanted children, and his aims for family life began to preoccupy him as the 1958 season loomed.

After the disappointing Lancia-derived 801 of 1957, the new Ferrari 246 Dino held plenty of promise. Yet in the opening rounds of 1958 Collins was off the pace next to Hawthorn and Musso. When, in April, he and Louise left Maranello to live instead on their yacht Mipooka, moored in Monaco, Enzo Ferrari was cut to the core by what he perceived to be treachery.

Louise at home aboard their yacht, the Mipooka, to Ferrari’s chagrin

At Le Mans for the 24 Hours, Collins shared a new Testarossa with Hawthorn, who joked that racing for so long was no fun and that they should break the car in time to be back in England for Sunday lunch. When the clutch overheated, Collins was forced to retire and Hawthorn’s prophecy came true – while the team was able to drive the ‘broken’ car back to the pits once the clutch had cooled sufficiently.

All this was fuel on the fires of intrigue at Maranello, and an enraged Enzo Ferrari turned to Musso as the stick with which to beat the ungrateful young Englishman.

Collins at speed in the British GP - his last victory

Collins at speed in the 1958 British GP – his last victory

Both Collins and Musso retired from the Belgian Grand Prix but in France it seemed that Musso was thoroughly wound-up to win at any cost. Ferrari initially forbade Collins from driving in the main race but later relented. Nevertheless Reims was a circuit on which the lionhearted Hawthorn thrived and he claimed victory for the Scuderia while the tragic Musso crashed fatally while trying to keep up.

The British Grand Prix saw the return of the old Peter Collins. Perhaps inspired by Ferrari’s attempt to drop him from in France, he was simply unbeatable despite the presence of both Hawthorn and the Vanwall of Stirling Moss… with much talk of the 1959 season, it seemed that Collins was now firmly back in the saddle at Ferrari.

To the victor, the spoils. Hawthorn and Collins celebrate Silverstone sucess

To the victor, the spoils: Hawthorn and Collins celebrate Silverstone success

The next stop was the Nürburgring one week later for the German Grand Prix. Initially Moss led but his Vanwall’s magneto broke, leaving Hawthorn and Collins out in front from a charging Tony Brooks in the second Vanwall, who duly caught and passed them.

Determined not to be caught napping twice at the ‘Ring, the two Ferraris fought back but at Pflanzgarten Collins ran wide, hit the earth bank and was catapulted from his car as it somersaulted through the air. He was thrown head-first into a tree and did not survive the journey to hospital.

Louise’s 18-month fairytale ended as abruptly as it started. The Collins family lost no time in getting her to sign over any claim to her late husband’s estate and, in the depths of mourning, her friend Peter Ustinov scooped her up and put her on tour with him in Romanoff and Juliet as a distraction while ‘mon ami mate’ Hawthorn raced on to claim the world championship.

Louise still delights that, in Marilyn’s arms, Tom Ewell’s eyes are on her!

By 1959 she was back in America and back in the spotlight, becoming a regular on TV staples What’s My Line and the Today show. Eventually she stepped away from showbiz, finding new avenues as a real estate broker in New York City and Connecticut before retiring to Florida almost 20 years ago.

It seems unfair that so rich and varied a life as that of Louise King can be so defined on this blog by 18 months spent as the wife of a racing driver. And yet perhaps not. For her part, Louise remains staunchly proud of the life she shared with Peter Collins, the man she still describes as ‘the great love of my life’.

This summer will mark the 55th anniversary of that fateful German Grand Prix, and doubtless there will be many heartfelt prayers said in a certain church in a corner of Florida. And we should raise a glass to the brief, bright lives of the two ‘mon ami mates’ and the ongoing good health of their ‘mon ami matess’, Louise King.

The former Mrs. Collins, today a pillar of the church in Sarasota

The former Mrs. Collins, today a pillar of the church in Sarasota