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.
“There were a lot of bad accidents, but always this justification, a reason why it could never happen to anyone else”
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.
Collins on the grid ahead of the ’57 French Grand Prix
Grand Prix Photo
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.
“In my gratitude I threw my arms round him and kissed him, then got in the car, and continued on to second place…”
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.
Fangio with loyal team-mate Collins at the Nürburgring in ’56
Grand Prix Photo
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.”