Fuel Runnings

In 1967, Shell created the most expensive TV advert ever shot at the time. With three GT40s. At Monza…
Words: Gordon Cruickshank Photography: Bernie Reeve

It’s scarcely credible, but here’s the call which begins this story: “Hallo, Monza circuit office here. You want to hire the track? Certainly. For how long? A month? That’s fine. Name? Shell Oil. OK, it’s all yours…”

It was in 1967 that Shell’s PR agency, the world-famous Ogilvie & Mather, booked Illustra Films to shoot some mileage tests on a new fuel. Doesn’t sound thrilling, does it? But the chosen test vehicle was a road-going Le Mans-winner, the GT40, and the venue the banked track at the Italian motorpark. With a huge crew, the latest filming technology and a helicopter for aerial shots, this would prove to be, at the time, the most expensive commercial ever shot.

Bernie Reeve was the art director for the shoot, and he compiled a stills record of events. “Yes, we had Monza exclusively for a month,” he recalls. “In September – not even in the winter! But of course it was also Ferrari’s test track. They didn’t have Fiorano then, so at one point a 246 Dino arrived for testing and just set off. This was Italy – they weren’t bothered about any exclusive booking…” Shell wasn’t frightfully popular in other quarters, either: “They canned some local racing because of us – there was some tension over that. Then we draped Shell banners over the Agip signs… There was a deputation sent about that, too.”

Shell wanted three 60-second commercials to show how its new ‘Platformate’ ingredient gave better mileage. Two or three GT40s would be filled with identical amounts of fuel and would be filmed in real time until one ran out – hopefully the one without Platformate. And, says, Bernie, it couldn’t be faked: “Shell were definite about that. Advertising laws forced us to be honest, though they were a bit nervous about whether the correct car would win!”

Ford arranged for JWA, which was by now running the GT40 race programme, to send across three cars, with engines specially prepared in Detroit to identical fuel consumption specification. Even getting them there was an adventure, says Bernie. “The cars technically had to be road-registered to get them into Italy, but we had a selection of plates with us, and my Coombes Mk2 Jaguar was packed with props. The Swiss border guard was deeply suspicious of this bunch, with a lorry-load of racing cars and false number plates. But when we got to the Italian border they waved us through. ‘Don’t stop – we’ve heard about you…’”

At Monza the team assembled: director Douglas Hickox, producer Bob Warhola, Bernie Reeve, a clutch of technical people from Shell, British and Italian film crews, a test driver each from Shell and Ford, a chopper pilot from the US, six cameras, three camera cars (one a Porsche 911), 14 radios (no mobile phones then)… Shell wasn’t stinting.

The scheme was to film a couple of two-car challenges until one Ford ran dry, leaving one hot driver to walk back to base. This was why Monza was ideal – around the banked oval the cars would never be far from a camera – or the driver far from a beer. Varying the plot, one commercial had a car bursting through a huge paper chequered flag, and to reinforce the honesty theme the Mayor of Monza took ‘The Three-Car Gamble’, in which by throwing dice he selected which car got which fuel. Amazingly (or is that cynical?), the Platformate car did always run further.

For close-up drama without being in danger, the team brought in a super-long lens – a 1000mm monster. “Ridley Scott was using very long lenses then; it was flavour of the month. But ours was the longest lens in existence at the time. We used it for a head-on of the car coming off the banking, the most dramatic point on the track. But with a car doing 100mph we wanted to be well out of the way!”

Car-to-car shots were either from the 911 – bonnet removed and cameraman crouching in the luggage space – or from a skeletal Citroën DS. “The perfect car,” says Bernie. “The hydropneumatic suspension was super-smooth, and we knew you could unbolt the DS panels, so we did – boot, rear window, even the roof. And afterwards we bolted it together and took it back to Hertz.”

Because every shoot had to be real and couldn’t be repeated, cameraman Stan Pavey used twin mounts for many shots – two cameras running in parallel to be sure of getting the goods. But with the bulky cine equipment of the era and no remote controls there was no easy way round the on-board driver angles: it meant a camera on the passenger seat and the operator perched on the GT40’s broad sill, door off, protruding into the airstream and held in by ropes. Bernie remembers asking him “Are you OK?” Came the emotive reply, “You bastards…” Luckily the cars were generally doing a steady speed – only 90-100mph.

“It was boring for the drivers, actually,” says Reeve.

And the final outcome of the £250,000 budget? Three one-minute ads. 180 seconds of film. About £1400 a second…

But if you try to remember seeing these ads on TV, you haven’t, unless you lived in the US. “Shell was very specific: Fords for the US, Jaguars for the UK.” That’s why not long afterwards Bernie Reeve found himself setting up a similar shoot at Montlhéry using E-types. You may remember that one.

What Bernie remembers most about his month at Monza is what the man from JWA said at the end. “Does anybody want to buy a GT40? It’s going to be more expensive to take them home. You can have them for £1500 each…” But there were no takers. As Bernie says, “Why would you pay that for a Ford engine and a few bits of glassfibre?”