Peter Collins, Gilded Youth

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

Peter Collins with Ferrari on Rouen grid in 1957

Peter Collins in uncharacteristic smile-free pose at Rouen in 1957

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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.

Jack Brabham Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins

From left: Jack Brabham, Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins and Jean Behra at the Nürburgring in 1957

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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.

From the archive

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

Peter Collins Ferrari at the 1958 German Grand Prix

Collins at the Nurburgring for the 1958 German Grand Prix

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I remember the period when young British drivers would race go-karts or 500cc racing cars for fun, and some would become sufficiently proficient to be offered contracts with F1 teams. Such was the case with Peter Collins. He was a close friend of a similarly inspired and competent young man named Mike Hawthorn. The lively disposition of them both, and Mike’s pranks and practical jokes, certainly made a notable feature of racing in those days.

Both had the advantage of fathers who owned motor businesses, Collins’s in Kidderminster, Hawthorn’s in Mexborough until Leslie Hawthorn moved to Farnham in Surrey and opened the TT Garage there. It was then that I got to know them both, being allowed to drive the TT Alfa Romeo, and I persuaded my wife to present Mike with the Brooklands Memorial Trophy for his Goodwood results in his father’s Riley. Hence my special interest in the later race achievements of both these talented drivers.

Peter Collins came up the harder way, perhaps, in starting with a F3 500cc Cooper-Norton at the age of 17 in 1949. Mike Hawthorn began a year later, aged 21, with the two Rileys prepared at the TT Garage.

Peter Collins with Stirling Moss at Le Mans 1956

Collins shared an Aston with Moss at Le Mans, ’56, finishing second

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Peter scored immediate successes. He won at Goodwood and in a 100-mile Silverstone race in 1949, and was driving a Cooper-JAP in 1950 hillclimbs. Teaming up with Frank Aitken, Alf Bottoms and R Dryden, Collins then raced the JBS-Nortons, until 1951 when Bottoms and Dryden were killed. Peter then changed from 500cc-class to competing with John Heath’s F2 HWMs; Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin were also involved. Collins then bought a JTX Cadillac-Allard which he entered for the 1951 Dundrod TT, but the diff broke.

By 1952 Collins was the winner (with Pat Griffiths) of the News of the World BARC Goodwood Nine-Hours sports car race – the first British night race – having been signed up by John Wyer on Reg Parnell’s advice to drive for the official Aston Martin team. The two young drivers fully justified this, averaging 75.42mph, covering two and five laps more than the two Ferraris which were second and third.

In the 1952 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, Collins drove the No. 52 Alta-engined HWM but retired when a driveshaft broke. He finished sixth in the French GP at Rouen but in the British GP at Silverstone his HWM retired with engine trouble. In the German GP at the Nürburgring, the crankshaft broke before the race and he was a non-starter. In 1953 Collins’s only races for the HWM company were in the Belgian GP at Spa, where clutch failure resulted in retirement, and at the British GP at Silverstone when an accident eliminated him.

In 1953 Collins and Griffiths finished second to Reg Parnell and Eric Thompson in the next Goodwood Nine-Hour race, driving with the Aston Martin DB3S team, exuberant as ever. Then it was off to the Dundrod circuit near Belfast for the Tourist Trophy to win, which took the pair a total race-time of 9hr 37min 12sec, well ahead of Parnell and Thompson.

I described the circuit as narrow and highly exacting with no room for a single mistake to be made, and bad driving stood out noticeably. So a tough circuit, difficult for grand prix drivers, let alone novices. Indeed, in 1950, when Stirling Moss had won the TT brilliantly in a Jaguar XK120 in pouring rain, company principle Sir William Lyons wrote to me saying that Motor Sport’s report of the event was the only one he had seen which gave a realistic picture of it. But Dundrod, a true closed-public road venue, proved to be tragically dangerous in 1955, seven cars being involved in one crash which killed two drivers.

For the 1954 TT, Collins was again partnered by Griffiths in an improved Aston Martin, but Peter’s propeller shaft broke and Salvadori crashed, and the best the Peter Whitehead/Dennis Poore Aston could do was 13th. Before this Tony Vandervell had begun his valiant attempt to build cars that could win GP races for Great Britain, as he eventually did. In 1954 he took on Peter Collins to experimentally drive the Vanwall Special, which in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone retired with claimed cylinder-head gasket failure.

Next, Collins was second in class for Aston at Silverstone to Roy Salvadori’s sister car, and, driving the Thinwall Ferrari for Tony Vandervell, he beat Ron Flockhart in a V16 BRM by 15.4sec at Goodwood in the Whitsun Trophy, with a fastest lap of 93.30mph. At the opening of the Aintree circuit in this 4½-litre car he was second to Parnell’s Ferrari in Heat One of the Formula Libre event, with fastest lap of 79.88mph. In the final the Thinwall had a long lead until it stopped on lap 19 for a plugs change; the engine then refused to restart for six minutes. Collins retired on lap 28 of this 34-lap race. He then took the Snetterton Libre race at 91.32mph.

1958 German Grand prix starting grid

Collins on the front row (closest to camera) alongside Moss, Brooks and Hawthorn at the Nürburgring in 1958

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For the 1955 TT, still at Dundrod, Collins was paired with Tony Brooks in one of the 3-litre Aston Martins. There was great excitement because Mercedes-Benz had entered three of its 300SLRs, to be driven by Moss and Fitch, Fangio and Kling, and von Trips and Simon. They finished the 633-mile race in that 1-2-3 order, but before retiring Collins had passed both Trips and Kling.

Indeed, at Silverstone he was second in an Aston Martin DB3S in Heat 3 of the BRDC International Sportscar race. He then drove for Aston Martin in the Mille Miglia which Moss and Jenkinson won so convincingly for Mercedes-Benz, but he was unplaced. However, in the Daily Express International Trophy race meeting at Goodwood he was third in the sports car class and won the main Trophy after an intense duel with Salvadori. Both were in Maseratis, Peter passing inside on the corners to gain an impeccable victory  by 0.57sec, although with less effective brakes Salvadori made the fastest lap at 98.48mph. Bira’s Maserati was third.

Collins showed his all-round skill, now allied to endurance, by coming second in the Le Mans 24-hour race with Paul Frère in the 2.9-litre Aston Martin, beaten only by the 3.5-litre Jaguar D-type driven by Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb.

At Whitsun 1955 in the Essex CC’s Snetterton National meeting Collins was second to Archie Scott-Brown in the Lister-Bristol, the Aston Martin DB3S 9.3sec in arrears, but in a V16 BRM he spun off in the Formula Libre contest. However, at Crystal Palace, Collins came home with an easy win in a Maserati.

The sports car race on British GP day at Silverstone produced another second place for Peter in a disc-braked Aston Martin DB3S, when his friend Hawthorn was fifth behind the AMs in a works Jaguar D-type; the 1954 Aston Martins were outclassed. At Snetterton Peter was a non-starter as the Owen Maserati was still in pieces after Aintree; Peter missed an AMOC Silverstone day as he was flying to Milan to obtain a new gearbox for the car. This busy racer was back for the Goodwood Nine-Hours, taking third place with Tony Brooks for Aston Martin.

Peter Collins in Mercedes 300 SLR at the 1955 Targa Florio

Collins drive to victory in his crash-damaged 300SLR at the 1955 Targa Florio

Collins then entered grand prix racing. At Monza in 1955 he drove a Maserati 250F but retired after 23 laps. At Aintree he won a Libre race in a V16 BRM from Salvadori’s Maserati and Tony Brooks in a Connaught.

At Oulton Park the new four-cylinder BRM let Collins down after a meteoric drive in the 54-lap Gold Cup Daily Despatch race, with lack of oil pressure after 10 laps. It was significant of his abilities that after Stirling Moss had gone off the road in the Targa Florio in his 300SLR Mercedes, it was Peter who drove the somewhat bent M-B, and outclassed Kling’s Mercedes, Manzon’s Ferrari 750S and Fitch’s Mercedes in four laps, to bring the Moss car to victory in this hot 936km classic fixture.

Collins, in the smooth style now attributed to Jenson Button, opened his 1956 season with a fifth at the Mendoza GP in a works Ferrari. At the Monaco Grand Prix Collins was determined in the Lancia-Ferrari team and annoyed Fangio by holding him up, but after the great man had damaged a wheel in an ‘off’ and was having clutch slip, he let Collins take over his car for a dual second place behind Moss’s Maserati 250F.

Peter Collins with Juan Manuel Fangio in 1956

Collins with Fangio in 1956: he would hand over his Ferrari at Monza and give up his shot at the World Championship

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Next it was off to Silverstone for the Daily Express International Trophy race. A multiple crash – not his fault – put the Aston out of the sports car event, but in the 100-mile 60-lap F1 race, Peter was only 12sec behind Fangio when the Argentinian’s engine died. He took over Peter’s Lancia-Ferrari but the clutch gave out. However, in the Mille Miglia, after almost 12 hours driving with Louis Klemantaski as the intrepid passenger, he was second to Castellotti’s V12 Ferrari in a 3½-litre four-cylinder Ferrari and in front of Fangio’s V12 car.

Collins won the 1000km Giro de Sicilia in a 3.5-litre Ferrari, in spite of having to make his four pitstop restarts on the starter as the clutch was useless. At Syracuse he was third for Lancia-Ferrari in an ordinary D50, behind Fangio and Musso.

Collins’s true form was amply seen when he won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in a Lancia-Ferrari, ahead of Paul Frère in the other team Lancia-Ferrari and Moss’s Maserati. The Lancia-Ferraris were geared for 165mph at 8200rpm, but later the absolute limit was 9000rpm.

It was then off to the Nürburgring 1000Km race in which Collins was fifth in a DB3S shared with Tony Brooks. So to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in which Collins’s Lancia-Ferrari overheated and lost oil pressure when he was driving a steady race behind in third place. Amends were made in the French Grand Prix at Reims, when the young driver finished as the winner, with Eugenio Castellotti coming second in the V8 Lancia-Ferrari.

The Grand Prix of Rouen was a sports car race Aston Martin had hoped to win with a strong team of the new Le Mans cars. Moss changed his with that of Collins’s as he preferred drum brakes to discs; Moss was second to Castellotti’s Ferrari, but Collins’s engine gave up.

Collins had a 12-cylinder Ferrari for the Swedish Grand Prix at Kristianstad with ‘Taffy’ von Trips, and in spite of going off on an oil patch, they were second to Trintigant and Phil Hill in the other V12 Ferrari with fastest lap by Collins at 100mph. His cornering was truly professional…

For the Le Mans 24-hour race of 1956, Moss and Collins took the Aston Martin DB3S home in second place, a sure sign of top driver recognition. But a broken fuel pipe put Collins out of the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. He maintained top form in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, where Fangio’s and his Lancia-Ferrari was second to Moss’s Maserati 250F.

It was with Mike Hawthorn that Collins shared the Monza sports car race to win in a 2-litre Ferrari at over 122.5mph, with Moss/Pedosa second in a 2-litre Maserati, Peter having made fastest lap at approximately 125mph.

From the archive

During his last full racing season, in 1957, the good results continued in Lancia-Ferraris. Collins was third in the French and German GPs. He was second with Hill in the Swedish Grand Prix. He won at Syracuse and Naples in Lancia-Ferraris, while the Nürburgring 1000km sports car event with Gendebien gave them second place in a Ferrari. With Phil Hill as his team-mate at Venezuela, again driving a Ferrari, they won this 1000km race, and Peter was part of a three-driver team which managed third in another 1000km race in Buenos Aires and he was fourth in two minor events.

His ability was seen again during the 1958 season with a third in the Monaco GP and victory in the British GP, leading all the way with plenty of ‘full opposite lock’ in his old style, and first in the International Trophy race at Silverstone. He was first in Buenos Aires and the Sebring 12-hour race with Graham Hill driving a Ferrari, and second in a Formula 2 race at Reims.

Collins in his Ferrari was going hard attempting to catch Tony Brooks in the Vanwall at the Nürburgring when he lost control at one of the numerous corners and was fatally injured. Hawthorn was a lap behind when he retired with clutch trouble, also driving a Dino 246 Ferrari. If photographic evidence is reliable, it seems that Mike had changed out of racing attire and was smoking his pipe when the terrible news reached him. He too died two years later in a Jaguar in that road accident near Guildford.

The race in which Collins received well-deserved commendation was the 1956 Italian GP at Monza, when Fangio had retired and Collins, realising the Argentinian would gain his fourth world title if he could finish the race, came in and waved Fangio to take over his Lancia-Ferrari. Fangio came in second to Moss’s Maserati, the required points secure. Peter drove away in his Ford Zephyr. WB

Peter Collins with wife Louise at the Nurburgring in 1958

Peter and Louise Collins at the Nürburgring in 1958

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