More than a mere prop. Peter Sellers drove his own Aston Martin DB4 GT in a 1963 police comedy. We take that same car back to where it all happened. Words Stephen Archer. Photography Alex Tapley.
EXGLUSIVE! PETER SELLERS’ ASTON MARTIN DB4 GT Driving the Aston that starred with a star
There are movie cars and movie stars, but rarely do they have a connection such as this 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT, chassis number 0157/R, has with Peter Sellers. Two years before that ‘other’ Aston met Sean Connery, this one was being filmed for the Galton and Simpson comedy caper The Wrong Arm of the Law. Peter Sellers was the big star playing opposite Lionel Jeffries, one of Britain’s great character actors.
‘This car has the only factory- fitted 4,0-litre DB4 GT engine, a capacity it retains to this day’
The pair had also starred in 1960s Two Way Stretch, in which a DB2/4 convertible appeared, that was a typical film of the time: charming, innocent, not always politically correct by today’s standards, filmed in black-and-white and featuring multiple cameos for comedy actors such as John le Mesurier and Bernard Cribbins. These British comedies were intended as light entertainment for Saturday afternoon cinema, a world away from films such as Lawrence of Arabia which were setting new standards of epic film-making.
Nonetheless, Sellers was riding high by 1963. He had a string of successful films behind him, plus television work and his many voices in The Goon Show on the BBC. That was the year he first appeared as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, a year later came the satirical Stanley Kubrick film Dr Strangelove, in which Sellers acted three characters.
‘Most of the fast driving was done by ear dealer Ken Rudd, who also appeared as a gang-member extra’
In The Wrong Arm of the Law he plays the underworld mastermind Pearly Gates, who by day and as cover runs an haute couture boutique as a very smooth Frenchman, The plot is simple enough. A gang of Australian crooks are impersonating the police, and through various forms of subterfuge are muscling in on other criminals’ efforts and making off with the loot, This upsets both the ‘conventional criminal fraternity’ and the real police. So the criminals and the police decide to join forces, meeting at Battersea funfair to hatch a plan whereby they can collaborate to nab the imposters. In the film, Sellers arrives at Battersea in another of his cars, a Ferrari 250 GTE.
Apian is agreed and Pearly Gates tells his accomplices that, for the job, ‘I will be using the Aston Martin.’ The imposters are set up to steal the money that has been given to Sellers’ mob with the purpose of luring those imposters. It all then goes comically awry, with Sellers trying to make off with the loot after the sting is complete, This leads to a chase, with numerous villains and police pursuing the DB4 GT.
The Aston was soundly thrashed in the film and at some point during filming the engine was reported to have blown up, an event recorded in the Aston Martin Owners Club register 30 years ago. Not all the chase scenes were filmed in sequence and luckily the car was intact at the start and finish of its appearance. Even so, another DB4 GT, chassis 0167/R registered 40 MT, replaced it for some of the high-speed shots.
The engine of 0157/R was not the only filming casualty, The first Aston shot, just four seconds long, shows it flying over a bridge. An unknown DB4 stood in for this, and you wonder if they meant to gain quite so much height in a stunt that is reported to have done the front suspension and sump no good at all.
Sellers drove 0157/R during filming, but most of the fast driving was done by Ken Rudd, who also appeared as a gang-member extra. Rudd ran KN Rudd Ltd in Worthing, then Aston Martin’s largest dealer. It had taken delivery of 0157/R, finished in Dubonnet with a black interior, on 1 March 1961. It was, according to Aston Martin’s records, to be used as a demonstrator.
Peter Sellers bought it in late 1961 or early 1962 to add to his collection of exotic cars. Richard Williams, of the eponymous Aston Martin restoration business, was an apprentice at Aston Martin at Feltham, where Sellers was a regular visitor with a DB4 and the GT. Later on, Sellers owned a DB5 convertible and a DB6.
He struck up a friendship with Williams, so, when the Feltham service department was being wound down ready for the move to Newport Pagnell, Sellers hired him in 1964 and built a flat for him over one of the garages at his home. Williams worked on Sellers’ cars in London and later in Geneva; he remembers the GT and, especially, the sale of it.
‘Peter rang me one day and said, “Please collect the Aston and sell it.’” Williams was surprised. ‘But you love that car’ he told Sellers, The response was telling. ‘Dick, cars are like women. In the end they disappoint.’
Hattie Proudfoot, Sellers’ PA from 1961 to 1969, revealed more of Sellers’ insecurity in a 2018 conversation. ‘I remember the car,’ she said, ‘but not much about it. He had so many cars. But I do remember that he was upset about the film. He felt that Lionel Jeffries had upstaged him.’
The film was released on 13 March 1963. Some of the scenes with 41 DPX were probably shot before June 1962, based on the evidence of the tax disc visible on the car. They were filmed mostly in Uxbridge, apart from the final one at Denham airfield. Our mission is to find out where.
Two street names in the film help us to track down their locations, and helped by Google Earth and Street View we find the other chase locations and the famous bridge. It helps greatly that most of the buildings are still standing and some have not changed at all.
Our first stop is the venue of the fake heist, just by the bridge where the DB4 became airborne, The corner shop is still there and luckily the road layout is unchanged. Traffic is much heavier 56 years on, but the traffic light phasing gives us a break – as does the fact that drivers slow down to get a good look at the Aston.
The second bridge, where the car is again getting a move-on in the film, precedes a pub that’s still just as it was. The pub’s owners know all about the film and are delighted to see the car return to the scene. We do a number of drive-pasts, during which quite a crowd gathers to watch.
The roads to Denham airfield are also much as they were and, although some buildings have changed, the airfield still has a similar look and the same ‘clubby’ feel. Here, too, the DB4 GTs film fame precedes it and the airfield staff are intrigued by its return.
At this point, it’s worth revisiting exactly what the DB4 GT is and how it differed from a regular DB4.
Back in 1958 the DB4 was probably the world’s most advanced GT car. At its launch in Paris, the local distributor urged Aston Martin technical director and racing mastermind, John Wyer, to build a racing version. Wyer could happily oblige because he, Harold Beach and Ted Cutting were already six months into a project to do exactly that.
Wyer had told Ted ‘to cut five inches out of a DB4 and produce a cheap and cheerful GT car’, with the length taken out of the doors. Cutting, who also designed the Le Mans-winning DBR1, considered the DB4 GT to be a return to the concept of the DB2: ‘a long-distance, very fast, two-seater touring car’.
The doors were lightweight aluminium, while the boot was occupied by a 30-gallon fuel tank with the spare wheel on top. The engine gained a twin-plug head and triple 45 DCOE Webers. A front oil-cooler scoop was added, the Borrani wires had light-alloy rims and there were twin-circuit Girling brakes, The changes to Touring’s DB4 design were done at Feltham apart from the enclosed headlights, which were shaped at Newport Pagnell by one of Tickfords designers.
A higher compression ratio (9:1), larger valves and uprated camshafts helped towards a claimed 302bhp at 6000rpm. The DB4 GT could reach 60mph in just over six seconds, cover the standing quarter-mile in 14 seconds and power onwards to just over 150mph.
The prototype, DP199/1, first ran in March 1959.
Its public debut was at Silverstone in May; Stirling Moss put it on pole position, won the race and set a lap record. For the car to be accepted into the race, John Wyer had to sign an undertaking that the prototype would go into production. DP199 was also, in 1959, the only DB4 GT ever to appear at Le Mans. In 1960 it was tested at the Motor Industry Research Associations track by Reg Parnell, who famously hurled it from a standstill to 100mph and back to rest in 20 seconds.
Press reports were very positive. Dennis May drove DP199 and wrote in Car and Driver: ‘It does our English ego good to doubt whether this “Englishman’s car” is in much danger of having its feat eclipsed by foreign rivals of comparable rating. Or any rating.’
The DB4 GTs star had scarcely dimmed when 0157/R was delivered to Ken Rudd’s dealership in 1961. It was fitted from new with DB4 seats rather than the lighter GT chairs, but these gave better access to this car’s other unique feature: factory-fitted ‘occasional’ rear seats, These, in the style of the DB MkIII’s items, proved useful when Lionel Jeffries had to sit in the back for the getaway with the loot. Sellers’ daughter Sarah, very young at the time, can just remember being squeezed into these seats, embarrassed at being taken to school in any car that seemed a bit ‘flash’.
In April 1961 0157/R had the first of two replacement back axles, a common issue with Salisbury diffs at the time being excessive noise. In June 1961 the engine was rebuilt to rectify issues that included a leaking head gasket and a vibration. Perhaps this was not one of Aston Martin’s best engines, but failures of varying severity were not uncommon at the time.
The Aston Martin service records then state, enigmatically, that the car had ‘Repairs carried out following fire’, completed on 29 March 1963. Records also show that in March 1963 the engine block was changed, The nature of the fire is not known, but in DB4 GTs most such incidents were engine-related.
The upshot was that Aston Martin fitted a new block, of the Lagonda 4.0-litre type, and stamped it as a 4.0-litre GT engine, This was four months before the first DB5 engine (also of four litres) was built, This car therefore has the only factory-fitted 4.0-litre DB4 GT engine, a capacity it retains to this day. With Sellers a good and high-profile customer, and given 0157/R’s film fame, the block may have been fitted under ‘goodwill’ – especially as the engine had already been rebuilt in 1961, and the car probably still had only around 400 miles on it at the time.
The DB4 GT went on to lead a life in the hands of numerous enthusiasts, including about 15 years in New Zealand with Stephen Grey, the vintage aircraft collector. It was also owned for a time by a former chairman of the AMOC. In 2002 it was totally rebuilt, but in factory Goodwood Green rather than the original Dubonnet, not that you’d know the original colour from a black-and-white film, The GT has been seen many times during the current owner’s tenure at events such as those at Goodwood, and now Octane is driving it. Peter Sellers’ own DB4 GT.
As we do this, those exploits captured on celluloid are never far away, The expression ‘drive it like you stole it’ crosses the mind, the tyres protesting mildly during our shoot as we recreate some of the movie’s getaway scenes. It’s not often you can legitimately pretend that a police car is in pursuit, and, should the boys in blue take an interest in our activity, then I can ask if they are the real thing or imposters, The car looked terrific in the film and was clearly being driven hard. Sellers and the film-makers were having fun with it, and it’s easy to see why. It’s amazing just how different the GT is from the standard DB4 given the relatively minor changes. Astons have a reputation for weightiness, but this one feels light and nimble. It’s a proper GT and a sports car at the same time.
Everything is set for the driver to achieve rapid journeys in restrained luxury, unfettered back then by traffic and speed limits, The dashboard’s purity of purpose gives it great style, a character that pervades the whole car. The extra engine capacity feels very obvious, the gains in power and torque making the DB4 GT effortlessly easy to drive.
Try harder, and you’ll discover how the heavy nose demands that you always drive with the throttle once settled in a bend. With that mastered, the power will point the nose with an easy, rewarding poise, The brawny twin-circuit brakes never seem to fade, all the while providing a level of feel that most manufacturers today would do well to emulate, The fine view out past slender pillars, the precise gearchange and controls, the compactness, that muscular engine, all of these make this car as much a natural for the track as for a romp across a continent. And even on a baking summer’s day it protested at nothing demanded of it.
Aston Martin built only 75 DB4 GTs (plus 20 DB4 Zagato versions), eight of them at Feltham to lightweight specification. Today the model is acquiring increasingly legendary status as one of the most important and impressive post-war Aston Martins, and it’s climbing towards Ferrari 250 SWB values, That’s not a bad outcome for a car born of John Wyer’s almost throwaway instruction to shorten a DB4.
If the DB4 GT is still impressive today, then in 1962 it must have been other-worldly. Certainly the Wolseley police cars favoured back then would have been no match at all for the pace of the Aston, as The Wrong Arm of the Law demonstrates. So here is a last word from one of the policemen chasing the Aston, who is being urged to ‘get a move on. ‘Listen, mate,’ he replies, ‘I am skinning this cat. You’re just holding its tail.’ At which point, the Aston gets away…
THANKS TO RM Sotheby’s (rmsothebys.com)) which will sell this car at its London auction on 5 September.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT
Engine (originally) 3670cc straight-six, DOHC, triple Weber 45 DCOE carburettors
Max Power 302bhp @ 6000rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 270lb ft @ 5000rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle with radius arms and Watt’s linkage, coil springs, lever-arm dampers
Brakes All Discs
Top speed 152mph
Top. Author Archer, on left, gets a guided tour from Aston specialist Richard Williams of the unique 4.0-litre engine this DB4 GT gained after the original expired, for the second time, in 1963. Williams was Sellers’ live-in mechanic in the 1960s.
Above and opposite. The DB4 GT’s continent- shrinking, track-conquering abilities can’t be enjoyed in urban Uxbridge, but at least there’s no loot in the boot this time; cabin is much like regular DB4’s apart from rear accommodation.
Above, opposite and bottom right. Bridge and corner shop, now an estate agent, are still there; Sellers (on left) felt that Jeffries (on right) upstaged him in the movie’s final cut.