Poirot's last chase
A car in disguise and a crash that never happened – time to send for the little Belgian detective
You've seen Bullitt; you've seen Ronin. But we all know that the best car chase ever filmed comes in an episode of ITV's Poirot, when the baddie's Vauxhall Light Six is pursued around seaside Bosham by Captain Hastings' Eliso Freccia'. As the YouTube label says, it has GEESE! And CROCKERY!
When your excitement has subsided you might rewind and decide that the 'Eliso Freccia' bears a remarkable resemblance to a short-chassis Alfa Romeo 2900A. Which, given the immense value of every 2.9 left, might cause a wince when it rams the cornered Vauxhall causing apparently more than skin-deep injuries to its Milanese nose.
There was only one of these sophisticated twin-supercharged eight-cylinder sports cars bearing that blue/grey livery, the car restored and owned for many years by that fount of 8C Alfa knowledge Simon Moore. After watching The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman again recently I asked Simon about the filming, and how it felt to see his precious charge being used as a battering ram.
This particular episode weaves the usual murder into a blackmail plot hinging on a beautiful Italian lady who is part of the sales team for an exciting sports car, the Eliso Freccia. Captain Hastings, who is considering buying one to replace his faithful Lagonda, goes to the showroom for a test drive and agrees to buy one, seduced as much by the lady's lingering glances as by the machinery.
"I think the art director may have had a soft spot for 2.9s"says Simon, "because he'd done two charcoal drawings of the cars, which you can see hanging on the walls of the showroom. And now they're hanging at home!" The smart Central London 1930s showrooms are actually an Avis depot behind Oxford St, opposite Selfridges. "They also borrowed Rodney Felton's 2.9 to dress the showroom scene," Simon adds.
Once Poirot has unwound the twisted threads of fraud and deceit, they lead to a south-coast port where the blackmailers plan to escape by boat, until thwarted by our heroes.
"Filming at Bosham was tricky," says Simon. "There's such a high tide range that continuity was a problem. When the tide was right and they'd got the car and the boat in shot, some guy with an iridescent green windsurfer would go sailing back and forwards behind...
"I'd agreed to loan them the car for filming, but made it clear that they could not drive it. So when you see Hastings driving, it's me dressed up, not Hugh Fraser, and when the Italian woman is driving, it's my wife Elly in the same outfit. The close-ups of Hastings grimacing at the wheel are done on the low-loader. But the director came to me and said 'when Hastings leaps off the boat into the car and sets off in pursuit we just can't do the continuity unless Hugh actually drives off in it. And after all he is used to a centre throttle on the Lagonda...' So I said okay.
"The engine's running, Fraser leaps off the boat and into the car, puts it into first successfully — first and third are different on a 2.9 'box. But he's used to this slow Lagonda, so he gives it a bit of welly and lets the clutch up, and the 2.9 takes off like a bat out of hell. There's a big wall opposite, but thankfully he remembered where the brake was, stamped on it and came to a halt. He got out a bit ashen and said 'I didn't know a pre-war car could accelerate like that!"
After a spirited chase in which the wheezing Vauxhall heels like a dinghy through corners at, oh, dozens of miles an hour, the brave captain rams the bad guy's car. "They parked both cars nose-to-nose, then reversed them apart. When they reversed the film it looked like a prang."
To show the resulting damage the film crew built a mule with nose, bonnet and front wings copied from Simon's car. "I think it was Williams 8e Pritchard who measured up the car and did the panelwork," he says, "and it was built on a Beetle chassis pan. It was driveable, just for moving it around. For the accident they set about it with hammers, then pushed it against the Vauxhall for the scene where Hastings hits the baddie and knocks him over the bridge into the water." Followed by a close-up of the rueful look on Hastings' face as he checks the damage and is told this was to have been his new vehicle...
"It all works pretty well," Simon thinks, "though there's one continuity fault where the Italian girl gets in the car wearing gloves but Elly is driving without gloves. But I can see why people work as extras. The food! It's nonstop!" For anyone who hasn't visited a film shoot, it's an eye-opener: the hub of the day is a double-decker bus whose sole duty is to continuously produce four times as much food as the entire crew can eat, from dawn to dusk. It's an occupational hazard of acting.
"They looked after us very well," Simon recalls. "Both the main actors, Hugh Fraser and David Suchet, were very nice guys. I actually missed the first showing of the episode, in February '93, but someone taped it for me. I still have the VHS! It's still on regularly, even in the States. I get phone calls from American friends asking, 'Is that your car?"
In fact it no longer is: a few years back Simon had to admit that a knee problem was stopping him making proper use of it, and it has now gone to a private collection in the USA. Meantime, having already published the definitive works on both 2.9 and 2.3 8Cs, he has occupied himself writing an equally impressive history of Alfa Romeo Grand Prix cars. It's due out shortly from Parkside. I can't wait.
For years Simon thought no more of the crash mule and its battered nose, until an e-mail arrived showing what later happened to it. Starting from those few panels, someone built up an entire car on a new chassis, using Jaguar XJ 3.4 running gear and a glassfibre rear end. It may not look quite like a 2.9, but it's a testament to one enthusiast's determination.