Gilded Youth

Driver profile: Effortlessly charming, loved by everyone and generous of character, Peter Collins was killed just as his career was in the ascendant. He was 26. Motor Sport offers two perspectives on the man: Mark Hughes considers his complex psyche, and Bill Boddy relates his promising career

There is still great warmth in the way Peter Collins is recalled, 48 years after his passing. It’s more than the fact that he was a successful driver, with three grande eprueve victories to his name. It’s more even than him surrendering his chances of becoming Britain’s first world champion by handing his Ferrari over to team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio at Monza in 1956. But that career-defining moment captures much of his personality. He had what Enzo Ferrari described as ‘a generosity of character’.

The Old Man’s assessment was without doubt coloured by Collins’s treatment of Enzo’s ailing son Dino, who was 24-years-old when Collins joined the team, and bed-ridden in his apartment near the factory. Collins would regularly visit him there to cajole and cheer him. The comfort this must have brought to an agonised father can only be imagined.

This was standard Peter Collins according to all who knew him. Being good-looking, talented and winning grands prix for Ferrari by the time he was 25 were factors that alone would have made him an inspirational figure to many. The fact that behind the facade lay a thoroughly decent man with a funny, easy disposition just completed the picture to perfection. 

The son of a Kidderminster garage proprietor and haulier, he was around cars from his infancy and at 17, indulged by his father, started a racing career in 500cc F3. His talent did the rest: his rise through the ranks was rapid, boosted also by the adoption of F2 for the world championship in 1952. Success in his chosen field apparently made no mark on his outward personality. “He was like a little boy in racing, full of fun and loving every minute of it,” recalled Phil Hill years later. In company with friend Mike Hawthorn there were many legendary high jinks away from the track. 

But behind the apparently carefree attitude was real focus. It was important that he achieved; it was how he defined himself. This is the feeling of Ken Gregory, Stirling Moss’s manager, and a friend of Collins who often shared hotel rooms with him at races. “Peter enjoyed every single moment of life,” he says. “But I do wonder if there was some struggle going on inside. Sometimes he’d scream out in his sleep.”

Collins had a good technical understanding and a clear, analytical mind when in the car. He had an unerring feel for winning when circumstances were right, but he was never the sort to transcend a car. Or at least he hadn’t been. Mid-1958, something happened. His win at the British GP was dynamite, scorching away from the start and beating team mate Hawthorn by half a minute. This sort of performance was not typical and came at a time when he was being openly goaded by Ferrari. 

He’d married American actress Louise King after a whirlwind romance early in 1957. She was older and divorced and his parents didn’t approve. Neither did Enzo Ferrari. Friends recall the pair being very much in love. Ferrari painted a different picture, one that probably said more about Enzo than Peter. 

After Dino’s passing in 1956, Ferrari’s paternal attitude towards Collins was stronger than ever. He even gave him Dino’s former apartment so he could live near the factory and would often visit him. Mrs Ferrari even used to do his laundry. When Collins married and the small apartment was no longer appropriate, the old man lent the couple one of his villas. He was displeased when they moved out to go and live on a yacht in Monte Carlo.    

Enzo’s take was as follows: “He still persevered with his old enthusiasm and skill, was still outstanding, but a change nevertheless became evident in his happy character. He became irritable. Friends whispered that America had robbed him of his sleep. My last memory of him is when I shook his hand before he left for the Nürburgring; looking at him, I was suddenly seized by a strange feeling of infinite sadness. As I went back to my office I could not help wondering if it was some sort of presentiment.”

At the ’Ring the 26-year-old made a fatal error while trying to stay in touch with Tony Brooks’s race-leading Vanwall. Was he pushing himself as he never used to do, determined to prove an old man wrong? MH