Classic Cars on Film: Monte Carlo or Bust!

Despite a paper-thin plot, with its all-star cast, blistering stunts and no CGI, Monte Carlo or Bust is a fabulous mix of Wacky Races and Cannonball Run

The story so far; Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage (cad and bounder) stages a private race within the Monte Carlo Rally against the all-American Chester Scofield for the ownership of his family firm of sports car manufacturers. Also taking part are pair of Italians who are obsessed with the opposite sex, German jewel thieves, a trio of French women lead by a doctor, and two young British army officers whose role in life is to reflect glory onto the Empire.

Until the mid-1960s, the traditional comedy was a staple diet of UK cinema – usually featuring Leslie Phillips in a hacking jacket, James Robertson Justice shouting ‘stupid nincompoop!’ and police Wolseley 6/99s. These were then succeeded by ‘International Pictures’, to further woo TV viewers back to their local picture house.

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Monte Carlo or Bust! was set in the 1920s, and serves as a form of sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines – in the States it was released with the not-very-catchy title Those Magnificent Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.

One reason for viewing Monte Carlo or Bust is that it boasts what can only be described as ‘automotive splendour’ in every reel. Chester (Tony Curtis, who was then coming to the end of his career as a major leading man) pilots a Ware-Armitage Triple Six-Cylinder Special, which has plastic wings and looks very Aston Martin 2-Litre from many angles. Mainly because that's what it was based upon.

The Teutonic criminal Willi Schickel (played, somewhat inevitably, by Gert Fröbe) drives what at first glance looks like a Mercedes-Benz SSK, but whose underpinnings hailed from Thames Ditton. A small ad in a 1970 edition of Motor Sport referred to the car as a ‘bogus Mercedes SSK that was constructed for and featured in Monte Carlo or Bust’ and said that its chassis was ‘normal late LWB AC Cobra’.

Meanwhile, Angelo and Marcello (the great Italian character actors Walter Chiari and Lando Buzzanca) favour a Lancia Lambada Torpedo, while the all-round rotter Sir Cuthbert drives a Nifty Nine Mk2 model Ware-Armitage, which looks suspiciously Austin derived.

Monte Carlo was created by much the same team who were responsible for Those Magnificent Men, and Terry-Thomas played the son of Sir Percy, whom he also portrayed in the previous film. Naturally, his valet (Perkins rather than Courtney) is played by Eric Sykes, and their double act help to sustain the viewer through the film’s longueurs:

Perkins: ‘But that’s, that’s stealing!’
Sir Cuthbert: ‘Is it? Oh, don’t be so technical!’

The other great double act is provided by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their best cinematic outing since Bedazzled. Major Dawlish (Cook) is tall, dim and ultra patriotic; Lieutenant Barrington (Moore) is short, eager and long suffering. As with Thomas and Sykes, they also have many of the script’s choicest lines:

Barrington: ‘I say, don’t look now, sir. But old sausage and sauerkraut is waving at us.’
Dawlish: ‘Is he? Well, ignore him. I’ve no intention of hobnobbing with Jerry.’

Their Dawlish Special is in reality a 1928 Lea Francis 12/40 P-Type fitted with every modern convenience:

More than one ‘Leaf’ was used for the picture, with one car now residing in the USA and another in the UK.

Monte Carlo or Bust! was released in the UK in June 1969, a month before the premiere of The Italian Job; the two features were sometimes re-released on a double-bill in the early 1970s. It is not a flawless production – despite the then-vast budget, there is a considerable amount of back projection and any number of automotive anachronisms.

Curtis, sporting a very 1968 hairstyle, gives an overacting performance of prime ham, but Susan Hampshire’s ingénue Betty is wonderfully played, while the supporting cast boasts such familiar faces as Jack Hawkins, Derren Nesbitt and Hattie Jacques.

The film was also one of the last comedies of its genre, the last to feature the French comic actor Bourvil, and the last major production to star the great Terry-Thomas before the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. It is also a reminder of how Cook and Moore could have been one of the great comedy teams of British cinema – and did I mention the motor cars…

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