The bright cars of stage and screen
Ever wondered where celebrity cars go to die? Michael Booth discovers they are all alive and well, and living in Keswick
Sunday 03 November 1996
Nothing gets the passions of the television generation stirring like Lady Penelope's Rolls-Royce, not to mention James Bond's Aston Martin or the Batmobile. Peter Nelson has, somehow, come to own them all and many more equally emotive automotive icons, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Herbie, Simon Templar's Volvo and Del Boy's Reliant Robin van.
In 1982 while out in his MG TC, Peter was stopped by a props buyer who asked if he would lend them his car for filming. And thus the germ of an idea was implanted: where do all those celebrated star cars go to die? Are they destroyed straight after the wrap party, or do money-to-burn foreign collectors whisk them away to airtight vaults alongside their first-edition Superman comics and Warhol wigs? Peter was consumed by a need to know.
"It was as simple as that once I had the idea," says Peter, "the tricky part came in finding them." Unearthing these artefacts has taken this quietly spoken 42-year-old dentist (he still practises full-time) from the serenity of the Lakes to the US, Australia, and South Africa. He has scoured the planet in the seven years since the museum opened, fought off multi-million-dollar bids from collectors and museums, as well as the egomaniacal advances of Michael Jackson and Ralph Lauren, to bag his cars.
The first thing that struck me when I chanced upon the museum on my way to meet friends (I was three hours late), was how could one man afford one of these cars, let alone 60? "I do spend everything I've got on the museum, we're not wealthy by any means, it's a hobby really," Peter explains. "I have been known to go over the top a little if something crops up and I can't afford it. When Chitty came up for sale I'd already spent lots on the museum, so I took my wife to dinner, gave her plenty to drink and persuaded her to sell the house - we moved back above the surgery. Well, you can always get another house, but how often do you get the chance to buy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?"
As it turned out, twice. Peter now owns two of the four Ken Adams-designed cars, built on Ford Zodiac running gear, with three-litre engines and automatic gearboxes, for the 1968 movie. They each cost Peter in excess of pounds 150,000, a bargain when you learn that Michael Jackson was willing to cough up $1m (around pounds 650,000) for one. "The Chitties were really well built, not cheaply knocked up like film props," says Peter. He found the first in an Australian aluminium factory, the second was all that remained of a similar museum in New York; well almost all. "The owner said, `I've got something else you may be interested in', and showed me the Munsters' car he had hidden round the back. Of course I had to buy that too!" Such unbridled enthusiasm means there are already plans for a second museum, the current location houses less than half of Peter's collection.
Peter is especially proud of his Batmobile, as driven by Adam West in the Sixties television series. There were five made, the first began life in 1955 as the Lincoln Futura, a car-of-the-future styling exercise, but was transformed for the 1966 series by LA customiser, George Barris, who still owns it. Barris then made four others, based on `66 Ford Thunderbirds. Remarkably, Peter's (bought from a German Ferrari dealer who had bid for it on an alcohol-induced whim at an auction) still runs and drives "as sweet as a nut". He later snatched one of the outrageous Anton Furst-designed cars (from the Nineties feature films) from under the noses of Warner Brothers, and Batman himself. "I pestered Warner Brothers to sell me one of the cars, but was repeatedly told `absolutely no way'; Michael Keaton had wanted one as had Ralph Lauren and both had been turned down. I persisted until, one day, I phoned out of hours and got through to one of the producers, who said: `Yeh, I don't see why not.' When the other part of Warner Brothers found out they were furious."
Nelson's tenacity when he gets a whiff of his quarry is exemplified by the story of Lady Penelope's Rolls Royce from the puppet series Thunderbirds. A full-sized recreation of the model driven by Parker the butler, it's a monstrous 22ft-long by 8ft-wide, (a Bedford truck was used for the chassis), mainly because theoriginal had to be out of proportion to accommodate the large-headed puppets. It was built from scratch in 1966, again to a very high standard, by John Mitchell, a coach builder from Biggleswade and it cost Gerry Anderson (the show's creator) the equivalent today of pounds 120,000. Anderson used it to publicise Thunderbirds Are Go, the movie, but then auctioned it.
"It disappeared for over 20 years. Then someone gave me a tip-off that it was in a mansion in Heathfield." Peter tracked down the owners who initially claimed the car had been sold, but broke down under Peter's now finely-honed cross examination technique and admitted they still had it but would never sell.
"So I asked if I could at least come down and have a look. I ended up in this amazing place where the son of the man (since deceased) who had bought it showed me to a barn in the grounds; and there it was, FAB1, and it was in a terrible state." The barn's roof had collapsed onto the car but Peter made an offer which several weeks later was accepted. "No restorers would touch it except a coach-builders in Rochdale, they've been absolutely marvellous since and never pass on the true cost. They worked on the worst restortation job I have ever seen, the James Bond Toyota 2000GT convertible from You Only Live Twice, I found that in a scrapyard in South Africa."
Peter is reluctant to burden the cars with values not because he feels it is vulgar, or for fear of theft, but for him treating them as balance sheet assets would be in total contradiction of the ethos behind the museum. And anyway, he has absolutely no intention of selling, as the parvenu Noel Edmonds found out when he rang Peter out of the blue and asked him to name his price for the entire collection. Peter turned him down: he realises how pleasing it is for visitors to discover the collection for themselves, as I did, rather than have it marketed at them.
There are still cars Peter would love to own - a Bond BD5 (used in Goldfinger and Thunderball), The Avengers' Bentley, and, of course, Genevieve. He has been offered fakes but knows how to spot them, "People ring up and say they have Starsky and Hutch or Dukes of Hazard cars but I only buy with the documentation. You can make a fake for next to nothing, but I wouldn't be happy. It's easy to check the authenticity of British cars because of the log books - the [Lotus] Elan from The Avengers had Diana Rigg's name on the log. But American stuff is more difficult as they don't keep the same log. The only fake we have is the Mini Moke from The Prisoner, I've tried to find the real one but can't."
Peter wasn't surprised when I confessed how moved I was when I visited Cars of the Stars. "For people of a particular age these cars mean so much." For me each exhibit, placed in its own lovingly crafted filmic tableau, sparked a memory: as a toddler bouncing on the sofa to the music of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; the most moving moment in movie history (for me anyway) when, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service George Lazenby clutches his dying bride (Diana Rigg) as they sit in Bond's bullet-ridden 1969 DBS; jumpers for goal posts ... that kind of thing. Experiences, in fact, common to most males between the ages of 20 and 45.
The late Sixties and early Seventies, when much of Peter's collection was produced, were the halcyon days of the automobile when real cars were long-bonneted, gas-guzzling, two-seaters with pseudo-butch names like "Mangusta" and "Interceptor". Peter's hero, Lew Grade, (whose progeny included Danger Man, The Saint, and the unsurpassed Department `S'), instinctively realised that these swaggering wagons were essential to the contrived elegance and carefree vitality of his protagonists. And so Peter's collection is a vivid snapshot of that period, when the only two original art forms of the century - the moving picture and the motor car - combined while at the zenith of their abandonment.
Of course, they don't make `em like that any more - television shows or cars - can you imagine Robbie Coltrane in a Maserati? Or an X-Files title sequence with Mulder and Scully burning rubber a la Tony Curtis or Roger Moore in The Persuaders!? Not today Lew, outlandish cars just don't fit in with the puritanical Zeitgeist (Jason King wouldn't even know what a Zeitgeist was). "Children don't seem interested in cars anymore," sighs Peter, bewildered by such ephemeral tastes. "They only watch cartoons these days, it's the era of computers. Shame really, isn't it?"
! Cars of the Stars, Standish Street, Keswick, CA12 5LS. Open 10am to 4.45pm Mon to Sat until mid-November; then weekends until Christmas. Re- opens mid-April. Tel: museum, 017687 73757.
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