PMC Journal: Peter Sellers’ metal underwear

Peter Sellers had the most envied car history in celebritydom. Such was his propensity for constantly upgrading his motors, fellow Goon comic Spike Milligan referred to them as Peter’s “metal underwear” because he changed them with such frequency.

A connoisseur of Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Ferraris, Lotuses and Mini Coopers in particular, it is estimated he owned over 120 cars – sometimes for as little as a day.

Often these exotic purchases came with gags attached. One time, Sellers pointed to the boot of his Ferrari 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.

In the early 1960s, as Sellers established himself as an A-list movie star, Britain was experiencing unprecedented confidence, driven by a fearless determination to go faster and further and accelerate change. Cars were a metaphor for this, and one the ambitious actor embraced. He had no intention of hanging around.

Born in Portsmouth in 1925, above what is now a Chinese takeaway, Sellers made his stage debut aged just two weeks. His parents were a vaudeville act who toured provincial theatres. In wartime, the teenage Peter joined the RAF where he entertained the troops before performing with The Goon Show on BBC radio throughout the 1950s to great acclaim. He was soon talked of as being Britain’s greatest comic actor since Charlie Chaplin.

Sellers’ first marquee billing came in 1955 with The Ladykillers, and as his profile rose his taste in cars became notably grander. Jowett Javelins, MG Magnettes and Rover P4s made way for a Jaguar XK140, a Mulliner Park Ward-bodied Bentley S1 Continental and several Rolls-Royce Silver Clouds, the first being ex-Cary Grant. Sellers later advertised that one for sale in The Times under the heading ‘TITLED CAR WISHES TO DISPOSE OF OWNER.’

Indicative of the decade that lay ahead, Sellers’ life became illuminated from black and white to Technicolor. He’d slimmed down, become fashionably attired and was seen at all the most glamorous parties with the jet-set elite. By the time The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night had hit the radio waves, in 1964, Sellers’ Hollywood career had peaked with Lolita, The Pink Panther and Dr Strangelove and he was earning $1million a film. From then until his death in 1980 (from the last of several heart attacks, aged 54), the four-times married actor’s fortune was blown on two things: automobiles and alimony.

A manic depressive who would at times indulge heavily in drugs and alcohol, Peter treated his wives and children (and often film directors) notoriously shoddily, but always looked after his garage with great care. He once gave Milligan his treasured 1930 Austin Heavy Twelve Open Road Tourer, known as ‘Old Min’, but took it back a week later once he saw his friend had left it out in the rain and replaced the temperature gauge, which was mounted atop the radiator, with a coffee percolator. He gave his son Michael an absolute thrashing when the small boy naively daubed paint on the side of the S1 Continental.

He employed Richard Williams – who later founded the Aston Martin workshop RS Williams – straight out of his apprenticeship at Newport Pagnell to look after the Sellers collection. Williams noted the screen star’s buying habits were often augmented by peculiar, not to say unreasonable demands. Previously, Peter had taken a Buick Riviera back to its dealer with the request that handling modifications be made. Told little could be done regarding the issue, Sellers replied “Well, I’m going to leave this here”, and never returned for it. On another memorable day, Peter ordered Williams to put a Scout armoured car engine into a Lagonda, despite the bonnet being unable to contain it.

His behaviour was, in short, erratic. He was trying to marry already-betrothed co-stars, such as Sophia Loren with whom he worked on 1960’s The Millionairess, even though Sellers was hitched himself and Ms Loren hadn’t reciprocated any romantic interest. He struggled to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Following this debacle, he left his first wife Anne and, after a whirlwind courtship that was encouraged by his clairvoyant, wed 21-year-old Swedish starlet Britt Ekland in February 1964. A few days earlier, Sellers had visited the London Motor Show to look for an engagement gift. A red Shapecraft-modified fastback Lotus Elan coupé turned his head. Even by Peter’s standards, ownership of this Elan was fleeting. The car arrived at his Surrey mansion direct from the Earls Court stand. The drivers’ door had been damaged by hundreds of tyre kickers leaping in and out of the cockpit. Britt hadn’t so much as turned a wheel before Sellers sent the car back, replacing it with a handsome Viotti-bodied convertible Bristol 407. He was, says Britt, “constantly looking for perfection, and if he didn’t find it the car would be taken away immediately. If he was depressed, he’d buy another car – and he was often depressed”. Their marriage lasted four turbulent years. In 1968, with their union well and truly on the skids during a shoot in Rome, Peter made one final gesture of affection by buying her a sunshine yellow Maserati Ghibli. Four months later they were divorced, after which Ekland fell in love with a blue Elan instead.

Peter’s Park Ward Rollers and Bentleys outlasted all of his relationships. He bought them throughout the decade in both fixed-head and drop-head form, and particularly adored his two ‘Chinese eye’ S3s. One of these – the silver grey one with a black hood – appeared in his 1970 comedy There’s a Girl in My Soup in which he plays the role of Charles Danvers, a super-smooth “good taste expert” and a parody of his own self-manufactured playboy image.

Sellers gave his cars roles in other movies too, such as 1963 crime caper The Wrong Arm of the Law, which featured both his white Ferrari 250 GTE and green Aston DB4 GT (he later developed a superstitious loathing of the colours green and purple). The latter was sold by RM Sotheby’s in 2018 for £2.65million. And, just as Elizabeth Taylor would insist on gifts from Tiffany’s before she’d leave her trailer, Sellers sometimes received four-wheel inducements from producers. On top of his $1million fee for the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, he received a Silver Cloud III as a sweetener. Yet it wasn’t enough to stop him quitting the movie before it had wrapped following an on-set feud with co-star Orson Welles.

By the late-Sixties Peter was living largely in Switzerland, his daily drive being a light blue Ferrari 275 GTB/4. He loved his powerful status symbols, but was equally proud of his Minis. He had pretty much kicked off the cult of customised Minis, along with Ringo Starr and his Mini which could fit a drum kit (incidentally, the pair starred together in 1969’s The Magic Christian). Peter went the luxury route and gave Hooper an eyebrow-raising £2,600 – four-times the cost of the standard car in 1963 – to build the most high-spec Mini ever to hit the road. The list of requirements and instructions for the coachbuilder concluded with the line “and anything else you can think of”. The windows and radio aerial were electric, the interior was trimmed with the finest Connolly hide, and the body was finished in ‘ICI Royal Purple’ with wicker decoration on the side panels by the chap who took care of the royal family’s landaus.

Speaking of the royal family, Sellers sold his ravishingly beautiful 1964 Caribbean pearl Aston Martin DB5 Convertible at a loss to Lord Snowdon as part of the actor’s studied attempts at social climbing. In turn he, Snowdon and Princess Margaret became firm friends, with the actor and photographer bonding over their shared passions for cars, photography, fine wine and pretty girls. Sellers’ off-duty accent had already shifted from what has been described as ‘professional living in Putney’ to ‘Mayfair lounge lizard’.

After his death, handwritten notes were found in Sellers’ possession detailing the registration numbers of every single car he’d owned over and over again, supporting the suggestion he may have been autistic to a degree, as well as bipolar.

Steven Bach, the head of production for United Artists who worked with Peter on 1978’s Revenge of the Pink Panther, considered that Sellers was “deeply unbalanced, if not committable: that was the source of his genius and his truly quite terrifying aspects as manipulator and hysteric”. He refused to seek help, and claimed that he had no personality of his own, which explained his need to inhabit other characters. On a 1978 guest appearance on The Muppet Show, when Kermit the Frog told Sellers he could relax and be himself, Sellers responded: “But my dear Kermit, [that] would be altogether impossible. You see, there is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”

Cars, like characters and costumes, represented different personalities he could wear. His addiction to car-buying may also have been a manifestation of his complex insecurities. Cars are easier to deal with than people, and Britt Ekland has said he simply preferred them to his fellow humans. “Peter had very few friends he could really trust”, she observed, “but his cars never argued back.”

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