This charming man

Fifty years on from his untimely death, Motor Sport looks back at the career of popular Englishman Peter Collins, who was more than just Hawthorn’s Mon Ami Mate
By Nigel Roebuck

Peter Collins was the debonair embodiment of the 1950s racing driver, a man of good looks and charm and wit. Born in 1931, he missed the war; with half a dozen years more behind him, he would surely have flown Spitfires.

As it was, Collins, the son of a Kidderminster motor dealer, raced cars, beginning with a Formula 3 Cooper-Norton in 1949. Immediately successful, he was into John Heath’s HWM team by 1952, alongside Stirling Moss, and made his Grand Prix debut at Berne. At the same time he joined Aston Martin, and John Wyer, never an easy man to please, thought very highly of him, both as man and driver. “He was,” said Wyer’s wife, Tottie, “an enchanting youth.”

In those free-wheeling days, it was the custom for the top drivers to participate in all manner of events, and Collins drove a great variety of cars, his Formule Libre performances in Tony Vandervell’s 4.5-litre Thinwall Special Ferrari (which regularly vanquished the foolish BRM V16) leaving no doubts about his ability to handle real power.

In 1955 he won the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone in the Owen Racing Organisation’s Maserati 250F, and later that year, on September 24, drove the company’s first 2.5-litre BRM on its debut at the Oulton Park Gold Cup, a race clear in my childhood memory.

The car didn’t last, of course, but I can still recall the excitement in the crowd at Old Hall in the early laps as Peter ran third, behind the factory 250Fs of Moss and Luigi Musso, but ahead of Mike Hawthorn and Eugenio Castellotti in the Ferrari-entered Lancia D50s.

In the paddock that morning I asked Collins to sign my programme, and as he did so Peter noticed my father’s camera. “I say! Is that a Voigtlander?” At once the two of them were into a conversation about photography, while I, scarcely believing, listened in. Eventually I asked him if he were going to stay with BRM the following year. “Well,” said Collins, “I’ve got my hopes of Ferrari…”

At nine I had a scoop, and didn’t realise it. After a one-off drive for Mercedes in the Targa Florio (where he shared the winning 300SLR with Moss), Peter duly had his meeting with Enzo, signed a contract, and thus began the most successful, if tragically brief, period of his career.

Ferrari, as we know, had many estimable qualities, but softness of heart was not among them, and Collins was in his employ at a particularly perilous time, its dangers amplified by the Old Man’s stark way with the men who drove for him.

Sir Peter Ustinov was a lover of motor racing all his life, and especially so in the 1950s, when he attended many a Grand Prix. A couple of years before his death in 2004, we spent most of an afternoon talking about the sport: “I was at Monaco in ’55, and actually saw Ascari fly into the harbour…”

Ustinov also remembered a story told to him by Collins, who was a good friend. “Peter was in Ferrari’s office one day in the spring of ’57, and the phone rang. The Old Man picked up the receiver: ‘Castellotti morto? No, no, no…’ A brief pause, then, ‘E la macchina?’”

Two months later, Collins was on course to emulate Stirling Moss in winning the Mille Miglia, but his car failed on the homeward run. Later that afternoon, another of his Ferrari team-mates, Alfonso de Portago, was killed.

That was how racing was then: if you chose to do it, you accepted the risks. “It’s odd what the mind can do, you know,” Louise, Collins’s widow, remembers. “There were a lot of bad accidents, but afterwards there was always this justification, a reason why it could never happen to anyone else. I remember one time Peter started to say something about, ‘If anything ever happens to me’, and I said, ‘Oh, shush…’

“I know it’s a cliche to talk about living for the moment, but that’s what we did. The world was a different place back then.”

In 1956, Collins’s first year with Ferrari, he truly made his mark, winning his first Grand Prix at Spa, his second at Reims. By the time of Monza he was in with a real shout at the World Championship, but if anything defines the man it was his selfless behaviour in this most crucial of races.

Before half-distance Fangio’s Lancia-Ferrari had retired with a broken steering-arm, and the maestro’s day seemed done, the title fight now apparently between Moss, leading in his Maserati, and Collins. When Musso came in for a routine stop, he declined a request that he hand over to Fangio.

Five laps later, though, in came Collins, and when he saw his idol sitting on the pitwall he immediately climbed out. “Without being asked,” Fangio said, “he offered me his car to finish in. In my gratitude I threw my arms round him and kissed him, then got in the car, and continued on to second place…”

That gave Juan Manuel the points he needed for his fourth championship, and when I interviewed him, more than 20 years later, his eyes filled with tears as he remembered his young English team-mate.

Collins, though, saw nothing exceptional in his self-sacrifice. “He never gave it a thought,” Louise says. “Maybe it was easier to be a sportsman in those days, because there wasn’t the money – that wasn’t why those boys raced. Peter revered Fangio, and he was only 24 years old – he didn’t feel there was much urgency about winning the World Championship. He cared more about winning races. Team spirit was very important to him – if he hadn’t enjoyed racing, it wouldn’t have been worth a damn to him. It was important, above all, that someone in a Ferrari won the championship. Probably that doesn’t even make sense to the drivers today…”

No, probably it doesn’t, but certainly it helps to explain the unusual degree of affection Ferrari felt for Collins. “He looked upon Peter as a surrogate son, and it was the same with Laura – Mrs Ferrari, that is. They had lost their only son, Dino, in the summer of ’56, and they kind of adopted Peter.

“Ferrari always seemed like a very tragic character to me, and Laura… my God, there was one powerful woman! She was kindly to me, but I never saw any humour in her – at all. She always wore black, very forbidding, and she and Ferrari went to the cemetery every day. I don’t mean to sound hard, but it struck me as very theatrical somehow.

“Eventually Peter went in to see Ferrari, and in effect told him to snap out of it. It made him angry that he was neglecting the company, spending so much time in this endless mourning. People couldn’t believe that anyone would have the guts to say something like that to Ferrari, but actually he accepted it, and was much lighter after that.”

In F1 terms, 1957 was a poor year for Ferrari, the team winning not a single Grand Prix, but for Collins it had its compensations: for one thing, his close friend Mike Hawthorn had rejoined Ferrari; for another, he married Louise, a Broadway actress, precisely one week after meeting her.

This did not please the Old Man, who fundamentally believed that contentment was the enemy of competitiveness. “He gave Peter a really hard time,” remembers Phil Hill, another Ferrari team member of the time. “Peter and Louise were living near Modena, but in the end they kind of fled to Monte Carlo, where they lived on a boat.”

By now it was 1958, and Collins’s season began well, with victories in the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone, and also – partnering Hill – in the Buenos Aires 1000 Kms and the Sebring 12 Hours.

The friendship with Hawthorn was perhaps as close as the sport has known, but Roy Salvadori has suggested that, to some degree, it compromised Ferrari’s competitiveness against the onslaught of a Vanwall team comprising Moss, Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis-Evans: such good mates were they that it didn’t really seem to matter which one won. Both Moss and Brooks think that a fair point.

“In fact, they were very different types,” says Louise, “and maybe that was why they got on so well. When the three of us were together, Michael was usually much calmer. If he was fed up with the outside world, maybe he found us a kind of refuge. He could be incredibly rude sometimes, but he never was to me, I must say. I liked him a great deal.

“We spent a lot of time together, but only at the races, really. Mike liked to get back to England as soon as possible, but Peter and I were on the boat in Monte Carlo – we didn’t really have a base, as such. I never really felt Mike was infringing in our lives.”

“Mike and Peter were both bloody good,” says Moss, “although I wouldn’t rate either with Tony (Brooks). Of the two, on his day Mike was definitely quicker, I think – but then Mike didn’t have that many days. Overall I’d put Pete ahead – about equal with Jean Behra. Put it this way: if I had to choose a co-driver for the ’Ring, Peter would be on a very short list. He was also very good company.”

Hill was close to both his English team-mates: “Peter was just a charming guy, whereas Mike was hard for anyone to get along with – although I was on to him quickly, and never had any problems with him.

“I wasn’t on the F1 squad at that time. Ferrari ran three cars for Mike, Peter and Luigi Musso, and I used to feel sorry for Musso, because they gave him a very tough time. I think they were still at the end of that ‘Brits-hate-the-Eyeties’ thing – went back to the war. Certainly they never passed up a chance to belittle Musso. They ripped him up one side, and down the other…”

As the ’58 F1 season progressed, Vanwall had the upper hand on Ferrari, and the Old Man was becoming unsettled. At Le Mans, a race neither of them liked, Collins and Hawthorn shared a car, and after Mike had driven the wheels off it in the early stages, battling with Behra’s Maserati 450S, it retired, in Peter’s hands, with a clutch problem.

“There was the suggestion,” says Hill, “that, between them, they deliberately wrecked the clutch, so they could go home early. I never believed it – I mean, Mike wouldn’t have had to agree to something like that, because he did that to a clutch automatically! But the Old Man got very angry – and Peter was punished for it. When he got to Reims, for the French Grand Prix, he found there was no car for him – instead they’d entered him for the Formula 2 car support race…”

Collins, not surprisingly, was distraught, but after Hawthorn stressed to team manager Romolo Tavoni that he had been responsible for the Le Mans debacle, Ferrari was persuaded to relent. In the French Grand Prix Hawthorn – at the top of his form – won, while Collins was a distant fifth, and the unfortunate Musso, trying to stay with Hawthorn, was killed on the 10th lap.

Highly emotional times at Maranello, then, and next on the schedule was Silverstone, where Hawthorn and Collins qualified only fourth and sixth respectively. As expected, Moss’s Vanwall led away, but Collins made a fantastic start, and by Becketts was through into a lead he never lost.

“It was,” Louise remembers, “a perfect day. The weather was great, and Silverstone had an English garden party atmosphere back then. Once Peter was in front, no one could challenge him. Wonderful…”

Once Moss had retired, Hawthorn made it a Ferrari 1-2, and Enzo Ferrari was somewhat soothed. Ahead lay the Nürburgring, where Mike and Peter had finished second and third in 1957, beaten by Fangio on his day of days.

At half-distance in the German Grand Prix the scenario was uncannily similar to that of the year before, with Hawthorn and Collins swapping the lead – and being caught by an inspired driver from another team. Brooks and his Vanwall were on a charge.

“My car was diabolical on full tanks,” Tony recalls, “and by the time it began to handle properly again, the Ferraris were more than half a minute ahead. Eventually I caught and passed them, but they had me on top speed, and could get by again on the long straight leading up to the finish. I knew my only hope was to snatch the lead very early in the lap, and pull out so much that they couldn’t slipstream past again at the end of it. Eventually that worked out, and the tragedy was that Peter, trying to stay with me, overdid it…”

Collins crashed at Pflanzgarten, which Hill, racing Ferrari’s F2 car that day, remembers as, “A really hairy place. If you didn’t get enough slowing down done before you went in there, you could really get into trouble, and that’s what happened with Peter. At Ferrari we had those darn Houdaille shock-absorbers, and on the bumps of the Nürburgring they went away so fast you couldn’t believe it. I was struggling by then, and I’m sure Peter and Mike were, too.”

When Collins’s Ferrari somersaulted, he was thrown out, against a tree. “Perhaps,” says Moss, “if he’d been wearing a seat belt, as they did in America, Peter might have got away with it, but we didn’t have roll-over bars or anything in those days, and usually your best hope was to be thrown out.”

“Obviously,” says Brooks, “I felt pretty bad about Peter’s accident at the time, although I didn’t feel responsible or anything like that. All that stuff about top racing drivers not making mistakes… we did, and sometimes we got away with it, and sometimes we didn’t. I think Peter made a simple mistake, went into the corner a little bit too quickly, perhaps a bit off line. And if you went off at the ’Ring, of course, you were in the hands of the gods, because it was all ditches and trees…”

Collins’s death, only two weeks after his brilliant Silverstone victory, only four after the loss of Musso at Reims, caused enormous grief in the racing community, and in the country as a whole, for Peter had personified all that was good about sport. “Like everyone else,” says Brooks, “I was very fond of him. Such a pleasant, friendly, character.”

For Louise Collins, married only a year, it was an unimaginably awful time. “After Peter died, Mike brought me back to England. I did well through the funeral, but at the memorial service I saw Mike at the door of the church, and it really got to me. I wept through the whole thing.

“We met again at Monza. Maybe it seems odd I went to a race again, two months after Peter’s death, but Ferrari begged me, and said he would go with me. In fact, I don’t believe he had any intention of going – and he didn’t! But in a way it was good he tricked me, because although it wasn’t a great weekend, it was important to see all my friends. When you lose someone, what’s really difficult is to do the things you did before, but without them.

“At Monza I recall having a long talk with Mike, way into the night. But everything was different, with Peter gone. Our friendship had been based so much on going racing together, but now I wasn’t a driver’s wife any more – I was going off to be an actress again. In fact, that same weekend Peter Ustinov called, asking me to do his play Romanoff and Juliet, and it was exactly what I needed.

“Racing was so different then. Much more dangerous, of course, and not highly-paid. But it seems to me there was much more joy in it, and I’m so glad I experienced it. There was etiquette, if you like, rules by which the boys played – a feeling that they were all doing something they loved, and weren’t they lucky? Peter and I weren’t together very long, but it was the happiest time of my life.”

Insight

DSJ on...

Collins’ day of days at Silverstone ’58

When the flag fell Hawthorn made a rather hesitant start and, though Moss led away, Collins shot through from the second row and took the lead on the opening lap. One has come to expect Collins not to bother to race too hard these days, but once out in the front he really motor-raced in a big way, and though Moss had the Vanwall in full-lock slides round many of the corners and was driving as hard as he knew how, he could make no impression on the leading Ferrari. Hawthorn was backing up his team-mate by lying third, so Moss was in a difficult position, trying to catch Collins and trying not to be caught by Hawthorn. It was very clear that the two Ferraris were handling fairly happily with a full load of fuel and both drivers were doing some pretty broad sliding through the bends. After the excitement of the opening two or three laps Collins was setting a hot pace, Moss was trying to hang on and Hawthorn was a bit perturbed to see oil occasionally squirting out of the left hand side of his bonnet…

…Collins and Hawthorn virtually toured home to a most resounding and very unexpected win for the Scuderia Ferrari, while Salvadori scraped in third with the Vanwall pressing hard right up to the chequered flag. Schell arrived fifth after an erratic drive, followed by Brabham, who had done mighty things with the 2-litre engine. A distinctly unhappy Brooks, who had been off form the whole race, was a lap behind, and the only other two finishers were Trintignant and Shelby. Collins had led for the entire 75 laps and done a real job of work, driving with that spirited air of full-opposite-lock that he enjoys so much, and which recently seemed to have gone from his driving.