Doug Nye – inside the world of the incredible Peter Collins

09th November 2016
doug_nye_headshot.jpg Doug Nye

Last week I had the rare experience of meeting for the first time a living link with our motor racing past. American former actress Louise Cordier was married to British racing driver Peter Collins from 1957 until his death while vying for the lead of the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in August, 1958.


Louise and Peter had enjoyed an incredibly gilded celebrity lifestyle together during the short time that fate allowed them. Today – aged 83 – Louise is every bit as vivacious and engaging as she must have been back in the 1950s, and she looks back very fondly indeed upon her, albeit fleeting, experience as a motor racing wife…

Although today he is less widely recalled and celebrated than his contemporary British counterparts, friends and rivals like Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks, Peter Collins was – make no mistake – another towering figure at the time. Today he would have been regarded by the sport’s media marketeers as being an incredibly incredibly promotable personality. He really did have the looks of a contemporary male lead film star. His smile could light up a room and he had a particularly easy and comfortable natural charm probably far exceeding that of the more evidently driven Moss, the often darker, more bluntly dismissive and sometimes unjustifiably rude Hawthorn and the naturally introspective, self-consciously modest and retiring Brooks. Compare the Collins persona of 1957-58 to that of current Grand Prix drivers – and you’d have a kind of more happy-go-lucky Nico Rosberg.

Peter Collins winning the 1956 French GP - for Ferrari

Peter Collins winning the 1956 French GP - for Ferrari

Louise recalled how she had become involved in the motor racing world, and how for the first time she met the charismatic Englishman, Peter Collins: “We met In Miami, Florida, on February 4, 1957, and got married on February 11 – seven days later. Crazy, eh?  Both sets of parents thought so. My father came down from New York to find out what on earth I was up to and who was this playboy English racing driver who was playing fast and loose with my affections.  Well it seemed just fine to us, and when my father met Peter he was just captivated in much the same way I had been. And it was fine. Later when Peter took me to meet his Mom and Dad in England they were at first equally suspicious – who was this American actress divorcee who was carrying off their beloved son? – but just as quickly they seemed to accept, and everything ended up being just lovely…”

Louise’s father Andrew Wellington Cordier was a career diplomat who as an international security advisor at the US State Department had been involved with the inception of the United Nations even before the organisation’s founding San Francisco Conference during the early summer of 1945. He served as Undersecretary responsible for the UN’s General Assembly and Related Affairs from 1945-61 and was assistant to UN Secretaries General Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold.

Peter Collins in Tony Vandervell’s Formula 1 ‘Vanwall Special’ - Goodwood, 1955

Peter Collins in Tony Vandervell’s Formula 1 ‘Vanwall Special’ - Goodwood, 1955

The Cordiers lived in some style in Great Neck, New York and daughter Louise became an accomplished actress. At 18 she had married actor John Michael King (“but that had been a mistake…”) and meanwhile had become involved with an amateur motorsports set, members of the flourishing Sports Car Club of America. “I owned an Austin-Healey, which I adored, and navigated for Louise McLuggage in the American Mountain Rally, in which we did so badly we won the Hard Luck Prize! It was Donald Healey who introduced me to Stirling Moss at the Nassau Speed Week in the Bahamas in December ’56, and when Peter came to Florida after the Argentine races at the start of ’57 Stirling had suggested he should give me a call.  Moss recalls: “She was a very beautiful girl and great fun” and how he told Peter he could find her in Miami.

At the time Louise was appearing in George Axelrod’s comedy ‘The Seven Year Itch’ at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Peter called her and arranged to meet in the Playhouse bar after the show. Louise: “I walked in and found Peter sitting at the bar with Bob Said, the American driver I already knew. He assumed Peter and I knew one another already and made no introduction. We had a drink and then Bob suggested we go to dinner but Peter said he couldn’t leave yet, he was waiting for somebody. I was puzzled, because I thought he was meeting me. So I asked ‘Who are you meeting?’.


“He said, ‘Louise King’.”

“And I said ‘You’re crazy – I’m Louise!’” – and everything then progressed from there…”

She recalls their 18-month marriage with obvious affection and a radiant joy hardly diminished by its tragic end in the Nurburgring crash. “Marrying Peter was absolutely right. It was a fabulous marriage and we had a fantastic year and a half together”. 

Peter was signed-up as a Ferrari works team driver in both Grand Prix and sportscar competition. He had already won the 1956 Belgian and French Grands Prix for the Prancing Horse and had famously handed-over his car to team leader Fangio to enable the Argentine to deny him – Collins – the Drivers’ World Championship. The nobility of such a gesture – if indeed genuine – built the Collins aura.

Mr Ferrari famously disapproved of the marriage, considering it deflected Collins from his prime focus and responsibility – to the cause of La Ferrari itself. Since the July 1956 death of his own son, Dino, The Old Man had developed an almost paternal regard for the personable, unfailingly cheery and capable Englishman. His reaction to the marriage was not just that of an objective employer and team principal… Through 1957 into ’58 ‘Pete’ would find Ferrari favours waning.

 Peter Collins - winner of the 1957 Naples Grand Prix - for Ferrari

Peter Collins - winner of the 1957 Naples Grand Prix - for Ferrari

He and Louise set up home afloat on two boats – one the chunky twin-masted 65-foot ‘Genie Maris’ which Peter kept at Dartmouth within sight of the great Naval College, and the other a brand-new 20-ton 43-foot Picchiotto-built diesel cruiser which they moored in Monte Carlo harbour, and named ‘Mipooka’.

Louise was with Peter as he won the 1958 BRDC International Trophy race for Ferrari at Silverstone, and followed up with a duplicate victory in the British Grand Prix there two months later. Then came the German Grand Prix – and darkness…

Goodwood had itself played a considerable role in Peter Collins’ career.  His father Pat was an aggressively dynamic and successful garagist, bus and haulage operator and subsequently Ford main-dealing motor trader from Kidderminster. Backed by Pat’s drive – and money – Peter had begun 500cc Formula 3 racing aged only 17 with a Cooper, followed by a JBS. John Wyer – director of the Aston Martin works racing team – was prompted by pre-war Brooklands star lady-driver Kay Petre to give the handsome boy a test drive. Peter shone. Aston works driver George Abecassis also ran his own Formula 2 team, HWM, and young Collins suddenly found himself driving works Astons in endurance events, and Formula 2 HWMs around Europe. At Goodwood he achieved a major success – winning the 1952 Nine Hours classic, co-driving a works Aston Martin DB2 with Pat Griffiths.

Louise Collins with Nigel Webb and Mike Hawthorn Jaguar ‘VDU881’ rebuild in  Nigel’s tribute Museum at Newdigate - November 2016

He was quick, and carefree, and for 1954 Tony Vandervell engaged him to drive his ‘ThinWall Special’ Ferrari and own-built emergent ‘Vanwall Special’ cars. The following year saw Collins swop allegiance to BRM – excelling in the V16 supercharged Libre cars, and giving the Formula 1 BRM Type 25 its racing debut.  Moss regarded Peter’s talents sufficient to warrant a Mercedes-Benz invitation to team up with Stirling for the 1955 Sports Car World Championship-deciding Targa Florio mountain race in northern Sicily. Driving the works 300SLR, they won.

Joining Ferrari for 1956 Peter Collins had a fine year with his first Grand Prix wins at Spa and Reims, and victory co-driving with Phil Hill in the Venezuelan 1,000km at Caracas to clinch a second consecutive Sportscar World Championship. Peter and Phil became very close – good mates – but of course it was Mike Hawthorn who was really Collins’ bosom pal – mon ami mate, as Hawthorn addressed him… with Louise becoming mon ami matess.

From this the legend has grown – since both died at the wheel of high-performance cars – of their inseparable friendship, but Louise counsels caution before one accepts that concept as gospel: “Peter and Mike were certainly great mates – but remember this really came about when they travelled and raced together within the Ferrari team. Once abroad they were really thrown together. Peter was very cosmopolitan and adapted with incredible ease to ‘foreign’ ways and ‘foreign’ food. He had a real talent for picking up languages, and within just three or four days you’d find him quite fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, as easily as in French or German. In contrast Mike often grumbled about ‘foreigners’, ‘foreign ways’, foreign languages – ‘What’s wrong with English?’ – he wasn’t comfortable with what he regarded as ‘foreign food’, and I think he didn’t really like the life without English pubs. And then when we were all in England – Mike and Peter hardly contacted one another, let alone spend more time together. They both had other friends to catch up with… all these things are relative.”

Photography courtesy of The GP Library.

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