Peter Collins

Peter Collins

Peter Collins.jpg (17821 bytes)Peter Collins was born in Kidderminster on the 6th November, 1931 to well known motor trader, Pat and wife Elaine. Young Collins got his first racing car, one of the new Cooper Mk IIs, in 1948, apparently a birthday present from his parents. Peter spent the latter half of the year practising on airfields. In fact his enthusiasm convinced his father’s friend Austen May to buy Stirling Moss’ old Mk II, and the pair would make their debuts early in 1949 at the Goodwood Easter Meeting.

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Peter leads at Goodwood, September 1949.

The Mk II wouldn’t last long, by June it had been sold to Bill Cox and replaced with a long chassis Mk III, initially fitted with JAP twin for hillclimbs but later, a Manx Norton. Early form was a bit variable, but that all changed in July with the very first 100 Mile Race at Silverstone. A huge increase in race length, it was obvious that even with enlarged fuel tanks the cars would still need at least one fuel stop. The Collins family had other ideas, and had Charlie Smith prepare a detuned Manx Norton engine to run on petrol-benzole, reckoning the greater efficiency of the fuel might avoid any stops. The car was fast anyway, and Collins battled with Don Parker for the lead. When Parker stopped for his first fuel stop (having not even fitted larger tanks), Peter romped to victory.

Peter in the Mk II at Shelsley, September '49. He finished third in the up to 750cc class, with Jeremy Fry's Parsenn ahead in the 500s.

Collins followed that with a win at the September Goodwood meeting, and more good results followed on both circuits and hills through 1950, including a second to Curly Dryden at Goodwood in May and, after moving to a lightweight Cooper Mk IV mid-season, a win at Castle Combe in October. For much of 1951, he used a JBS, which had looked set to genuinely challenge Cooper, but the project lost much of its momentum when Alf Bottoms was killed early in the season. Collins’ 500 career was almost over, having been spotted by the big teams. Peter won the SUNBAC race at Silverstone in September and his cup is still presented annually for the most meritorious drive of the season.

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On the recommendation of Reg Parnell, Collins had been taken on by John Wyer for the Aston Martin sports car team. He was a fine endurance racer, taking the Aston to victory in the 1952 Goodwood 9 Hours race, the 1953 TT, and second places at Le Mans in 1955 (with Paul Frere) and 1956 (with Moss). He would also appear in sports cars for Ferrari and Mercedes.

Collins was already a grand Prix driver, having made his debut at the age of just 20 (and only two seasons of racing) with the HWM-Alta. Spotted by HWM founders John Heath and George Abecassis (both also early Cooper customers), young Collins had partnered Moss and Lance Macklin through the 1951 European F2 season.

 Above, Peter makes a mess of it at Woodcote in May 1951 and the same incident, a few seconds later, below

When F2 was adopted as the World Championship category for 1952, he found himself a Grand Prix driver. The HWM was under funded, underpowered, and fragile, so results were rather thin. His best Championship finish was a sixth place in the 1952 French Grand Prix.

For 1954, he was recruited by Tony Vandervell to drive the Thinwall Special. This 4.5 litre, Ferrari-derived beast ran in the popular Formula Libre class, where Peter embarrassed the high profile BRMs.

That same year, he was also the first to drive the original Vanwall Special that was designed for Formula 1 (though for the record, it was another 500 man Alan Brown to first race this car). In one of those strange co-incidences, the chassis for this car was designed by Owen Maddock (through Cooper Cars), whilst the engine design was derived from the Norton double-knocker.

Collins was entered in three Grand Prix, but this original car was not a pacesetter until Colin Chapman reworked the chassis and Frank Costin clothed it in the aerodynamic bodywork to create the classic Vanwall. Peter would never drive this car, having been poached by BRM for 1955. This proved a mistake as he raced the V16, and was left kicking his heels waiting for the new Grand Prix Type 25. He made two World Championship appearances in the Owen Maserati and a works 250F drive in the Italian Grand Prix but this was good enough to land him the prize of a works Ferrari drive for 1956, partnering Fangio. Peter was, in fact, recommended by his great friend Mike Hawthorn, who wanted to return to Britain to support his recently widowed mother.

Under Fangio, Peter (still only 23) matured dramatically as a driver, though still fully capable of playing the high life and ‘impressing the birds’ with his mate Hawthorn. Collins won at both Spa-Francorchamps and Reims, and went to the Monza finale with a chance of taking the title. What followed has become legend (if not always accurately reported). When Fangio retired with steering failure, it was clear that taking the win and extra point for fastest lap could deliver Peter the Championship. By lap 30 of 50, he was into second place, and whilst Moss’ Maserati was some way ahead, it was not impossible. Indeed, on lap 45, Moss ran out of fuel, only for his team-mate Piotti to tuck in behind and shove him back to the pits. Fangio, meanwhile was expected to take over Luigi Musso’s car, to seek the one point that would retain him the title. But Musso ignored all instructions to hand over his car. When Collins came in on lap 35 for a tyre check, he spotted Fangio on the pit wall, and voluntarily offered his car, so giving up any chance of the title. A remarkable gesture of sportsmanship.

For 1957, Fangio was replaced by Mike Hawthorn. The Lancia-Ferrari was rather outclassed by Fangio’s Maserati, and the Vanwall, but whilst seeing no wins, Collins again played his part in history. At the German Grand Prix, Fangio delivered one of the greatest drives of all time as he fought back from a botched fuel stop, passing Collins and Hawthorn on the penultimate lap.

Also in February of that year, Peter married an American girl, Louise Cordier, an actress playing in the "Seven Year Itch" and daughter of the assistant to the United Nations Secretary General and they were the golden couple of the time, living on a yacht in Monaco harbour.


Peter and Mike at Moss' wedding to Katie Molson, 7th October 1957.

1958 brought the Ferrari Dino 246 and a titanic battle developed between the Ferraris of Peter and Mike on one side, and the Vanwalls of Moss and Tony Brooks on the other. Peter suffered reliability problems in the early races, but it all come together at the British Grand Prix, and he scored his third win.

Two weeks later, on the 3rd August 1958, Collins and Hawthorn were again leading at the Nürburgring, just as a year previously, this time being chased down by Tony Brooks. Brooks took the lead early on the eleventh lap, but Collins was fighting back. Peter's got the car loose through the twisty Pflanzgarten sequence, he tried repeatedly to collect the it, but clipped a ditch. The car somersaulted, throwing Peter out, head first into the one tree standing clear of the forest. Peter Collins died later that evening in hospital. Though just 27 years old, he had won three Grand Prix, and would undoubtedly have been a championship contender for many more years.

Mike Hawthorn, who had seen the accident unfold, was devastated at the loss of his friend. Although he completed the season to become the first British World Champion, he was ready to retire from the sport. Of course, just a few months later he was also killed, driving his road going Jaguar near his home in Farnham. The story of Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn is told in Chris Nixon's book “Mon Ami Mate”.

The 500 Owners Association awards annually the Peter Collins Cup for the most meritorious performance of the year. The cup itself, a small engraved silver tankard, was awarded to Peter for his win at Silverstone on 1st September 1951.

Peter looks relaxed in the cockpit of his Ferrari at Aintree.

Peter's eulogy by Bill Body, from Motor Sport, September 1958.