Why Peter Sellers loved his cars
Even more so than his love of women, the British acting colossus had one over-riding passion: cars. We trace Sellers’ career on four wheels
There’s a photograph dating from 1963 of a Morris Cooper. Yet it was no ordinary Morris Cooper. This one had been converted by Hooper Motor Services Ltd to create the ultimate swinging 1960s icon; £2600 worth of chic and decidedly elegant motoring. Exuding luxury and injected with decadent excess, this was not just a car – it was one of the first-ever automotive fashion statements.
Stood beside the vehicle, embodying the spirit of late Macmillan-era consumerism, was a dapper, modest-looking man with the horn-rimmed spectacles of an up-and-coming chartered accountant. It was Peter Sellers. By the mid-1960s he was an acting colossus, a powerhouse of British cinema. Yet fame didn’t seem to interest him. Sellers was instead obsessed with something else: cars.
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Of course, it was far from unusual for a film actor to be associated with cars. In the 1950s, the PR for Diana Dors and Laurence Harvey made much of these stars’ respective taste for exotic vehicles. The Rank Organisation press office would issue handouts of Stanley Baker with a Ford Thunderbird or Jack Hawkins with a Jaguar Mk7, while James Robertson Justice and Jack Warner had raced at Brooklands before World War Two.
However, Peter Sellers acquired cars in a one-man quest to find ‘the best’. By 1951, he was already a radio star with The Goon Show, and in 1955 he received stellar billing in cult classic The Ladykillers. It seemed wholly appropriate that ‘Harry the Teddy Boy’ should drive a Packard Super Eight sedan, which in reality was the property of the head of Ealing Studios, Michael Balcon; the car was part of the severance package from MGM.
As Sellers’ cinematic profile rose, his taste in cars became more elaborate. The Jowett Javelins, MG Magnettes, Rileys and Rover P4s from the early years of his fame were succeeded by a Jaguar XK140, Bentley S1 Continental and Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
In 1962 he starred in The Wrong Arm of the Law, which we recently reviewed here, and it is indeed notable for the cars. Six decades ago, a cinemagoer might have reasonably expected a London underworld lynchpin such as ‘Pearly’ Gates to drive a Jaguar Mk10; however, his vehicular taste ran to even more exotic machinery.
There was the Aston Martin DB4 GT that’s to be auctioned at RM Sotheby’s forthcoming London sale, and an RHD Ferrari 250 GTE. The latter was sourced for the actor by Tony Crook, and cost a then-stupendous £6272. It was originally finished in white; it’s now painted red.
When the Ferrari arrives at Battersea Fun Fair, it was another indication that Sellers was on the verge of leaving black and white cinematography, Wolseley police cars and sharp-suited wide-boys behind. Peter was now on the cusp of achieving worldwide fame, and Crook frequently served as his vehicle ‘scout’. A 2014 obituary in The Daily Telegraph drily referred to Sellers’ ‘buying habits’ that were ‘often augmented by peculiar, not to say unreasonable demands’.
One day Sellers turned up with a Buick Rivera, and requested handling modifications to be made. Upon being informed that little could be done regarding this issue, he replied: ‘Well, I’m going to leave it here.’ The American cruiser was eventually replaced by a Bristol 407, and the actor subsequently acquired the convertible made by Carrozzeria Viotti and displayed at the 1962 Turin Motor Show.
On another memorable day, Sellers ordered his friend to put a Scout armoured car engine into a Lagonda, despite the lack of room under the bonnet. Around this time Sellers also announced that – unbeknownst to them – he was going to marry his already-married female co-stars; his behaviour could indeed be erratic.
Sellers also owned a ‘clap-door’ Continental convertible, but ironically he turned down the role of Arthur Simpson, an Anglo-Egyptian confidence trickster hired to drive a Lincoln full of explosives across Turkey in Topkapi, in favour of playing Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther.
He was actually the second choice for the role, but Peter Ustinov (who, equally ironically went on to play Simpson) turned down the part, and although Sellers was second-billed to David Niven, he made the picture his own. In the wake of its success, the stage farce A Shot in the Dark was turned into a Clouseau vehicle, and although the Radford de Ville driven by the Inspector was actually to be owned by the director Blake Edwards, it reflected Sellers’ image as an ‘international’ star.
Off-screen, Sellers drove a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 when in Geneva, and he had a Lotus Elan S2 and an Aston Martin DB6 Volante Vantage in the UK. The latter was later sold at a loss to Lord Snowden as part of the actor’s studied attempts at social climbing; interviews from the late 1960s revealed how his off-duty accent had now changed from ‘professional living in Putney’ to ‘Mayfair lounge lizard’.
In 1965 alone Sellers acquired a Ferrari 500 Superfast and a Mulliner Park Ward-bodied Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud Coupé, and in that same year the producer Charles Feldman gave Peter a Silver Cloud III as an inducement to play the lead in Casino Royale.
The film maker may just as well have saved his money, as the resulting cinematic debacle was most notable for its music from Herb Alpert and Dusty Springfield, employing six (!) directors, an ITC style car chase, plus total and utter incoherence of narrative.
Stories of Sellers’ awful on-set behaviour were legion, and by the late 1960s there was a rule of thumb that the more elaborate the car, the worst the Sellers film vehicle. The Bobo, concerning a singing matador, at least boasted an appearance from a Maserati Mistral Spider.
There’s A Girl in My Soup features the star’s Silver Cloud III Park Ward drophead, which had previously appeared at the 1965 Earl’s Court Motor Show. Sellers acquired it in 1967. The movie is now very hard to sit through, besides Goldie Hawn’s performance.
Sellers’ post-1970 CV was not a promising one, and when he returned to the role of Clouseau in The Return of the Pink Panther it was actually intended as a pilot for a television series, so far had his critical stock fallen. He died in 1980 shortly after Being There had demonstrated a talent that was frequently wayward and often astounding.
Some of the best films in Peter Sellers’ career featured motor cars – one thinks of the Mercury Park Lane Convertible of Only Two Can Play…
Or the Oldsmobile 88-driving psychopath of Never Let Go.
But these were adjuncts to his performances rather than their central element, and some of his finest work as seen in I’m All Right Jack, Heaven’s Above!, The Dock Brief or The Optimists have little or no motoring connection.
Away from the studio, the one car that remained a constant throughout much of Sellers’ adult life was the 1930 Austin Heavy Twelve Open Road tourer deluxe nick-named ‘Old Min’. It was but another element in the life of this driven, very probably autistic and profoundly gifted actor. A man whom, when he was placing the order for the ‘Hooper Cooper’, was creating performances such as this…