Some guys have all the luck. Peter Sellers had even more. Britt Ekland – and a Ferrari Superfast. Peter Sellers’ Ferrari The comedian’s beloved 500 Superfast. Wild at heart. Words Bart Lenaerts Photography Lies De Mol.
PETER SELLERS’ FERRARI Driving his beloved 500 Superfast
Peter Sellers may have had a big heart, but he never fell in love. Instead, he became obsessed in the blink of an eye. He couldn’t stop singing Sophia Loren’s praises, once offered Ryan O’Neal a Ferrari in exchange for his wife, and proposed to Britt Ekland before even seeing her in the flesh. Yet his love for cars eclipsed them all, if only because they never stuck a knife in his back.
Sellers’ taste was pretty traditional for an ‘auto-erotic’, as he labelled himself: Bentleys, Astons, Rolls-Royces. Until he suffered another coup de foudre. As with his beloved Loren, the Ferrari 500 Superfast was Italian, gorgeous and possessed of a magnetic and aristocratic personality. The Superfast could trace its lineage back to Ferrari’s America and Superamerica from the 1950s: models created to support US importer Luigi Chinetti’s vision of courting society’s elite with luxurious automobiles. Whereas the first 340 America was still a raw animal, later Americas and Superamericas grew bigger, heavier and more baroque. The 500 Superfast was the grand finale, and a must-have for Sellers.
For once, though, the impetuous comic and movie star had to be patient. He bought the Superfast on 28 June 1965, but took delivery only after the Earls Court Motor Show in October. Although London’s Ferrari dealer, Maranello Concessionaires, had to remain discreet about its famous client, Sellers blatantly posed next to the Ferrari at Earls Court – one hand on its bodywork, Britt Ekland by his side. It was painted in nocciola, a slightly understated hazelnut brown that bordered on gold, and looked as stylish as the leather coat casually sported by Sellers.
A year later, Sellers steered his howling Superfast to Rome, where he was filming the movie After the Fox. He hadn’t wasted any money on outside mirrors for the car, and on his transcontinental journey there were few vehicles that could have overtaken him anyway. But in Rome, the world’s funniest man wasn’t so amusing when the cameras stopped. He threw a chair at Ekland’s head, costing her the edge of a tooth; his harsh criticism of her did more damage, though. It was on Sellers’ insistence that Ekland was cast in After the Fox, yet he openly mocked her poor performance and demanded that the director instantly replace her.
Matters got worse when the Ferrari suffered minor problems in Italy. Sellers’ secretary stopped sending pressing letters to Maranello Concessionaires only after £26 for a rear shock absorber was finally refunded months later. Meanwhile, Sellers ordered sausages to be flown to Rome from Harrods in London, by helicopter and plane. And he continued to negotiate over a Ferrari Dino 206S and a California as well.
The Superfast enticed kings and emperors much more successfully than the Bugatti Royale had ever managed. Dutch prince Bernhard van Oranje joined the exclusive club, as did the Shah of Iran, Prince Aga Khan, Ernst Wilhelm Sachs and Peter Livanos. The car’s client list read like a Who’s Who of the world’s wealthy in 1964. Sellers paid £11,518 for his Superfast – twice the price of the 275 GTB he acquired later, or the value of a nice house in London. ‘But he lost all interest in the Dino and the California when Ferrari kept missing deadlines,’ says Koen Poschet from Albion Motorcars in Temse, Belgium. Poschet takes care of this star-struck Ferrari for a loyal client, and possesses a stack of documents to illustrate Sellers’ capricious nature.
The Superfast was so exclusive there was never a successor to it, from Ferrari or anyone else. Only Aston Martin and Maserati occasionally came close. The segment more or less became extinct, mirroring the demise of true aristocracy and genuine glamour.
Eventually, only 36 Superfasts found a fortunate owner; all examples were hand-built out of steel by Pininfarina. Father Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina and his son Sergio didn’t wield pencils and pens, except to scrawl their signatures on yet another lucrative contract. The real mastermind behind the Superfast was Aldo Brovarone, whose tiny apartment was located so close to Pininfarina in Grugliasco that he cycled to the office. Not that he had an alternative: Brovarone didn’t own a car and never drove a Ferrari in his life. ‘But Leonardo Fioravanti once gave me a lift in a Dino; that was nice,’ says the man whose modesty prevents him from claiming too much responsibility for the 500 Superfast.
‘I did design the 400 Superfast, though, which later evolved into the 500 Superfast,’ continues the charming 91-year-old. ‘Its grille was inspired by a race car from Frank Costin, but Enzo Ferrari wanted it slightly more round. This remained a Ferrari feature for years. Not that we could ever talk to him, or to other clients; we got to speak only with Battista Farina, who briefed us. We were just designers who had to produce drawings. And there was another anonymous party involved: the guys in the model shop were very talented and often created their own stuff. Quite a few cars never really passed through our design office. The 500 Superfast was one of them.’
The 500 Superfast was the last of the series. Technically, the envelope couldn’t be pushed any further. And, designwise, they had tried every possible fold, wing, chrome ornament and twist – often clumsy attempts to pamper to American tastes. Instead of taking yet another flamboyant step, Pininfarina now opted for sensual shapes intertwining, like the naked bodies depicted in a Spencer Tunick picture.
This approach wasn’t flashy or especially innovative, but it was an expression of craftsmanship, art in its own right. There were some smart elements that emphasised the Superfast’s inherent class, such as the triptych of taillights; a flourish that works well on other Superfasts but looks especially brilliant on this almost golden example. And the exhaust tailpipes peek out from underneath the car’s voluptuous derrière like bejewelled stilettos from beneath an extravagant ballgown.
Sellers’ love affairs didn’t last. Ekland had to go after four hot summers: the Superfast went even sooner. Sellers sold it in 1968 for £6000, having driven it only 12,477 miles. Today this car has roughly 33,000 miles on the clock, although it has been resprayed twice. At some point Sellers decided to paint it red – as if it were any other ordinary Ferrari. A later owner brought it back to the original nocciola.
This colourful history adds to the desirability of an already desirable car. Who cares if others were owned by Prince Bernhard or the Shah of Iran? This one hosted Britt Ekland in its passenger seat and one of the world’s comic geniuses right beside her, in an age when the word ‘glamour’ still had positive connotations.
Inside Sellers’ Superfast, the ambiance is very Italian. Just a wooden steering-wheel rim, gorgeous Veglia clocks, the typical Pininfarina ashtray, a few Bakelite buttons hinting at modernity, electrically operated side windows, smooth leather and a touch of chrome. Although some Superfasts were equipped with a rear couch, Sellers chose a two-seat configuration. It epitomised pure luxury, like renting the entire Villa Borghese only to have a drink at the bar. Also, he wasn’t a man to carry his children around. He did buy a radio, however – but not even Dionne Warwick could top his Ferrari’s monumental V12.
Does the car live up to its name? Well, the Superfast is mighty rapid, granite stable at speed, and chews through the miles with a voracious appetite. And there’s more than enough torque available to allow you to take things easy if you’re in no great hurry.
The Dunlop brakes offer good bite, are easy to tickle when you just need to scrub away a bit of pace, yet are also sufficiently meaty to stop this quick, heavy machine from quite serious speeds. Even if the Superfast rolls a bit in fast corners, it’s never problematic. It’s not a genuine sports car, though. This grand tourer is sprung for comfort, not for cornering pace. Its steering is taut, yet slightly heavy at low speeds.
The four-speed gearbox with its electric overdrive feels nicely mechanical, with a tiny crackle if you don’t grant the dancing cogs enough time to mesh. Your hand automatically drops on top of the long, elegant gearlever, which smoothly travels through the slots. The tall pedals require some getting used to, however, if only because your foot can get stuck behind the lower facia. The clutch is not too heavy and feels just right. Only the 11 cars of the second series are equipped with a five-speed gearbox. However, as with each Ferrari, only one thing matters. Its heart. The Giacomo Colombo-designed V12 started its career in Formula 1 in the 1950s, and by the time it was installed beneath the 500 Superfast’s elegant bonnet it had evolved into a 5-litre unit. It features the typical mattblack crackle finish for the cam covers, while three gulping Weber carbs help push peak output to 360bhp.
The big powerplant vibrates less than a surgeon’s hand, yet can feel like an angry pit bull on the end of the throttle cable; that so much mechanical refinement can generate so much brute force is almost Jekyll and Hyde. There’s abundant torque in the mid-range, and it playfully nods to its GP ancestors above 6000rpm. It may sound like an asthmatic truck as it hiccups into life but, as soon as the spark plugs ignite the mixture, it sings a magical aria. As with the Ferrari, Sellers’ heart required only a single spark to kick it into a torrent of passion. He smooth-talked Britt Ekland and three other women into marriage, and he lured many others into his bed. Not too shabby for a clumsy police inspector.
But Sellers’ life of excess, including abuse of alcohol and pharmaceutical stimulants, took its toll on a heart that was already diseased. He died in a London hospital on 24 July 1980, aged just 54. His fourth wife Lynne Frederick, and second wife Britt Ekland, were at his bedside.
While some felt the sharp sting of Sellers’ tongue and erratic tantrums (in part caused by the comic’s bouts of depression), others remember him fondly. Today, Richard Williams is a respected Aston Martin specialist, but in the ’60s he was just an apprentice at Aston when Sellers hired him to look after his car collection. ‘Peter might have been ruthless to others,’ he says, ‘but never to me. After all, I took care of all that mattered. His cars made him happy.’ Williams continues: ‘He had more than 100, including an egg-yellow Maserati Ghibli for Britt, and a Lotus Elan that he mainly used himself. Most cars got sold again after a few weeks, except for the Superfast. He kept it for three long years. It wasn’t his all-time favourite, though. Weirdly, that was a 1930s Austin. Old Min, we called it.’
Even so, Sellers suddenly gave the Austin to his best friend Spike Milligan. That’s until he discovered that Milligan kept the car in the rain and replaced the radiator gauge with a coffee percolator. Raging with anger, Sellers immediately claimed the car back. Old Min is now under the best custody imaginable: Richard Williams owns it, the amiable man who once drove one of Sellers’ Ferraris to Geneva, when the actor decided to move there. ‘Sadly, I don’t recollect which Ferrari it was,’ Williams smiles.
It must have been the 275 GTB, though. Williams would certainly have remembered a blast with the mighty Superfast over Europe’s finest roads. Even without Britt Ekland in the passenger seat.
THANKS TO Koen Poschet, www.albionmotorcars.com.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Ferrari 500 Superfast
Engine 4962cc V12, SOHC per bank, three Weber 40 DCZ/6 carburettors
Power 394bhp @ 6500rpm DIN
Torque 351lb ft @ 4750rpm DIN
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and sector
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, radius arms, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Performance Top speed 170mph. 0-60mph 6.0sec
‘The big powerplant vibrates less than a surgeon’s hand, yet can feel like an angry pit bull on the end of the throttle cable’
Left and opposite 500 Superfast was grand finale in a line of luxury GTs, and at its heart lay a sublime V12. Yet Sellers’ relationship with this stunning car didn’t last even as long as his one with Ekland. Left Superfast was supposedly styled by Pinin Farina, but Aldo Brovarone is the artist who should take most of the credit. Above and right Sellers and wife Britt Ekland inspect the Superfast at Earls Court; the infamous comic treated his cars rather better than he treated his women.