From the early 1960s through to the mid-’70s a style revolution swept London. It was not restricted to fashion and the boutiques of the King’s Road – places like Mary Quant’s seminal shop ‘Bazaar’ – but also the tarmac itself. The automobile became a talisman of freedom, style and rebellion. And it was not limited to British cars – Ferrari also played a key role. Words: Adam Hay-Nicholls
Sixties mod icon Mary Quant – inventor of the miniskirt and hot pants, among other culture-shifting designs – is currently being celebrated in a large retrospective at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Quant was the first to stick a Union Jack in the ground and declare London the world capital of fashion, overturning the dominance of Parisian couture, but the significance took a while to register. “We didn’t necessarily realise that what we were creating was pioneering,” she said, marking the start of the new exhibition. “We were simply too busy relishing all the opportunities and embracing the results before rushing on to the next challenge.”
London, at that time, was experiencing unprecedented confidence, driven by a fearless determination to go faster and further and accelerate change. The cars were a metaphor for this. A new generation were making their mark in fashion, music, film and art, and class lines were blurring. Prestige motors had been the preserve of aristocrats and business titans, but now young bohemians, with outrageous clothes and long hair, were getting their hands on the gearstick. They were demystifying sports cars and creating a new mythology.
The symbolism was also of sex and sophistication. In 1965, as (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction played on the airwaves, Britain’s cultural revolution was on the boil. The Avengers was on television; female spies were throwing men over their shoulders. “It wasn’t just about peace and love,” the Avengers’ creator Brian Clemens once told me, “people were discovering champagne, and realizing you could have a brandy after dinner.”
The Beatles loved their cars. Ringo had a customised Mini – the car that inspired Quant’s iconic short skirt – which was designed to take his drum kit. Paul had an Aston Martin DB6, in which he is said to have written Hey Jude. John Lennon might be most closely associated with his gypsy caravan-painted Rolls-Royce Phantom V, but his first car was a Ferrari. Imagine that. He didn’t pass his test till he was 24 and, once the news of this event broke, every luxury car maker descended upon his home to proffer their wares. The Beatle was most taken with the Ferrari 330GT in cheeky Azzuro blue. His son, Julian, was two at the time and Lennon was able to convince wife Cynthia that the 2+2 exotic was a serviceable family car. It was his main mode of self-driven transport throughout the recording sessions of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s.
The biggest car nut of the four was George Harrison, who owned several Maranello-born steeds. In some ways, it’s surprising that he and John loved loud Italian roadsters given their commitment to transcendental meditation. “Racing cars pollute, kill, cripple, make noise,” considered George. “Being a good racing driver, however, requires a high level of awareness. Pilots must be very capable of concentration, and the few who are at the top come to a sort of expansion of their consciousness.”
It was Harrison who inspired Eric Clapton to become a lifelong Tifosi. The ex-Yardbird respected the other guitarist’s taste (perhaps best illustrated by him marrying George’s ex-wife Pattie Boyd), and when one day in 1969 Harrison bowled up to the gates of Slowhand’s mansion in his 365 GTC, Clapton was hooked. “I’d never seen one in the flesh. Dark blue, with a tan interior. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
The most stirring garage in celebritydom belonged to Pink Panther star Peter Sellers. Fellow Goon Show comic Spike Milligan referred to automobiles as Sellers’ “metal underwear” because they were changed with such frequency. One time, Sellers pointed to the boot of his 500 Superfast and instructed Spike to climb in and identify where a mysterious squeak was coming from. The noise was non-existent; Peter slammed the boot shut and made off, howling with laughter.
Often, Sellers would give his cars roles in his movies, such as 1963 crime caper The Wrong Arm of the Law, which featured his 250 GTE. But the speediest film of the decade was John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, featuring real-life Formula 1 drivers among actors and Lotuses pitted against Ferraris. In the 1966 movie, French singer Françiose Hardy played the girlfriend of an arrogant young Ferrari-racing Italian, and established a beatnik look that suddenly made F1 hip. This star turn ushered pit-inspired pinafore and jumpsuit designs, led by Mary Quant, while the film inspired others to take a more hands-on approach to racing. Jeff Beck’s peripatetic drummer, Cozy Powell, briefly quit the music business to pursue a career in Formula 3. “I play drums like I drive – crazy”. It was session work, rather than prize money, which paid for his road-going Ferraris.
Prior to the mid-70s, cars had natural romance due to their curves being unsullied by regulations and safety features. The designer’s imagination was allowed to run free. For many Londoners, the Mini was their first ticket to ride. Relatively cheap thrills came in the form of Triumphs and MGs, and then there was the E-Type Jaguar, the car Enzo Ferrari described (one assumes through gritted teeth) as the most beautiful in the world. These cars all said you were going somewhere, but to prove you’d arrived you had to have either a Spirit of Ecstasy or a Prancing Horse on the hood.
For other arrivistes, a Ferrari was a symbol of passion rather than status. Miles Davis, who spent months at a time in Soho playing Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, said his Ferraris sang to him, and that his 275 GTB/4 was like a finely-tuned instrument. “That’s the way you judge a car, man, when you start it up. I drive a Ferrari not to be cute, but because I dig it”. For Keith Richards, his silver 1972 Dino 246GT was a plaything, a means of escape, and a business tool all-in-one. He put 25,000 miles on the car touring Europe while the rest of the Rolling Stones flew between concerts, possibly because he wanted time away from Mick Jagger, or he didn’t want Customs discovering his stash.
Motors played a big role on the small screen too, often as shorthand for characters in glamorous action shows. The Avengers’ Emma Peel drove a kittenish yet capable Lotus Elan, while The Persuaders raised macho car chases to a new level. The split-screen opening credits set the scene, scored by John Barry. Roger Moore in a Bahama yellow Aston Martin DBS, Tony Curtis in a rosso corsa Ferrari Dino; the pair screaming around Côte d’Azur switchbacks. The casting was obvious; the Aston and Moore’s character, Old Harrovian Lord Brett Sinclair, were tough, classy and establishment; the Ferrari and Curtis’s rough diamond Danny Wilde were more fragile, brash and sexy.
London was brimming with larger than life personalities during this period, and the cars were characters in their own right.