Classic Cars on Film: Jaguar vs Jaguar in Robbery

Before Bullitt there was Robbery. Often overlooked but never bettered, we take a look at Peter Yates’ 1967 Jaguar vs Jaguar masterpiece

Peter Yates boasted one of the most varied CVs in cinematic history, from surreal comedy and gritty crime dramas to war films and episodes of cult TV serials.

His background encompassed RADA – and, as his obituary in The Telegraph pointed out upon his 2011 death at the age of 81, from 1949 to 1953 he was ‘assistant works manager at HW Motors in Surrey, which had a racing team led by Stirling Moss’. It’s a title no other cult film director could match.

For automotive enthusiasts around the world, his key film remains 1968 Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt – yet there is argument against this. Yates’ slightly less well known 1967 dramatisation of the Great Train Robbery – appropriately titled Robbery – creates raging debate after more than five decades since both films graced the silver screen. Which one features the most magnificent chase?

Indeed, it was Steve McQueen’s admiration of Robbery’s battle between the London Met’s Jaguar S-type black Area Car and the hoods’ 3.8 Mk2 that earned Yates a position at the helm of Bullitt.

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Upon re-watching the two movies, it’s quite apparent that Robbery has the more comprehensible plot. After many decades, the narrative of Bullitt still often appears a vague tale of fedora-wearing mobsters and Robert Vaughan in über-upperclass WASP villain mode.

Robbery, of course, was based on the events of August 8, 1963, although the media’s tendency to treat the Great Train Robbers as folk heroes is mercifully rather less prevalent than it was 50 years ago. The names of the actual felons could not be used for legal reasons, while the train heist was re-staged on the old Market Harborough-Rugby line, which had closed in 1966.

A second difference between the two Yates’ films is that the hero of Bullitt is an honest police officer, whereas in Robbery the main protagonist is Stanley Baker’s ‘Paul Clifton’, the story’s Bruce Reynolds figure.

The 1960s was a transitional decade for the British crime film. The last major black and white police stories, He Who Rides A Tiger and Bunny Lake is Missing were both released in 1965, and by the latter half of the decade the narrative emphasis was less on ‘the man from the Yard’ than on the criminals themselves.

Then there was the differing approach to the staging of these two respective chases. In Bullitt, the Mustang and Dodge eventually leave San Francisco for the sun-baked Guadalupe Canyon Parkway.

In contrast, the Jaguars in Robbery battle through a transitional London, from the concrete and glass buildings of Roehampton to bleak Victorians terraces of W11 and the gasometers near St Pancras Station.

There is a sense of narrow misses – that Vauxhall Viva HB, the Ford 100E Prefect making a right turn – and if the S-type’s driver seems familiar, it’s because he’s the great stunt professional Joe Wadham, who appeared in The Fast Lady, Carry On Cabby and Two-Way Stretch to name but a few films.

The public isn’t safe anymore

One trope that’s common to both productions remains how civilians can inadvertently suffer during a pursuit. With Bullitt, it’s a biker on a BSA Lightning (a nice touch is that McQueen stops to ensure that he’s not badly injured) but with Robbery the emotional ante is far higher.

The baddies are prepared to run over both a lollipop man and a class of primary-school children in a scene shot outside of George Eliot Primary School in NW8. We see getaway driver Clinton Greyn laughing, and when the police car’s R/T operator shouts to the driver ‘we’re going to hit them!’, there’s a distinct possibility a tragedy is about to occur.

And then there are the incidental details that combine to make Robbery such a fascinating period piece. The film is dominated by British Motor Holdings machinery – Inspector Langdon (James Booth) drives a Morris Mini Cooper Mk1, while the gang favours an Austin-Healey 3000 Mk3 alongside a Jaguar E-type 4.2 Series I, and employ an Austin A110 Westminster on back-up duties.

Mike Pratt’s lookout man drives a first-generation BMC Landcrab, while an unfortunate diamond merchant is chauffeured in a Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre R. Baker, whose company Oakhurst produced the film, pilots his own Bentley S3.

Another sign of how distant 1967 seems is that the football spectators are almost universally short haired and wearing collars and ties. Meanwhile, the capital seems rather less ‘swinging’ and more a city of Bakelite telephones and charcoal grey suits.

Some of the picture was shot in Ireland for tax reasons, and the prison-escape scene was staged at Arbour Hill in Dublin. The getaway involved a Mini driving up the tailboard of a Bedford SN – a plot device that would be used to great effect in a certain Italian-set Oakhurst feature…

So, is Robbery a greater film than Bullitt? All we can say is invest in the DVD – and judge for yourselves…

Buy this film!

Once available only on VHS, a crystal-clear version with superior picture quality is now available on DVD – buy it here.

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