The Self Preservation Society


Words Matthew Field
Opening Image Tony Baker

50 years after The Italian Job made its debut, Octane is witness to an exclusive gathering of the surviving star cars – and tells the tale of those that didn’t make it

 

One of the most revered British movies of all time celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. With its cocktail of one-liners and cameo performances, The Italian Job captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s – and that’s not to mention the cars. Troy Kennedy Martin wrote the screenplay specifically for Michael Caine. As Cockney charmer Charlie Croker, he and a band of lovable rogues set out to pull off a bullion heist in Turin and escape in three Mini-Coopers. A British job well done. Well… kind of. However immortal Sir Michael is, here he was over-shadowed by the real showstoppers. He co-starred with a host of British and Italian classics, right from the title sequence in which a Lamborghini Miura P400 weaves dreamily through the Italian Alps.

These days, as soon as a production wraps, significant vehicles are catalogued, archived and often form part of the marketing campaign. Not in 1969. The cars from The Italian Job were sold off, the film-makers glad to have recouped something for them. During the research for my new book, The Self Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job, I set out to discover the stories behind the vehicles used in the film.

Apart from the Lamborghini, all were sourced and prepped by David Salamone of Blenheim Motors in North London: ‘I went to all sorts of strange places to find cars. I got cars off friends, cars out of papers. I got the cheapest Aston Martin DB4 Convertible I could find. I got the two cheapest E-type Jaguars available.’ Then it was all hands on deck to get them to location: every vehicle in the film was driven to Italy. ‘There were no transporters. One of the E-types was driven by my mum and one of my school chums drove a Mini down. It was the same after production was complete. Only, some of them never came back…’ Here’s what happened to them.

 

Lamborghini Miura P400

 

The film begins with an Italian gentleman crossing the Great St Bernard Pass in an orange Miura to the strains of Matt Monro crooning On Days Like These. The car enters a tunnel – then follows a savage squeal and an explosion. A snowplough reverses into shot and, impaled on the front of it, are the remains of the supercar. Standing like a Greek chorus across the mountainside are the Mafia, who watch coldly as the plough pushes the wreck into the ravine below.

As producer Michael Deeley recalls, the budget didn’t stretch to destroying a real Miura: ‘We borrowed a car from Lamborghini for two days to shoot the driving sequences.’ Damaged Miuras were often returned to Lamborghini and at the factory in Sant’Agata the filmmakers were shown a write-off in Arancio. Enzo Moruzzi, who worked in Lamborghini’s sales department at the time, recalls: ‘We sold Paramount this wreck and I went to look at what cars we had on the production line. By chance there was an orange car.’ Moruzzi delivered the brand new Miura to location and also drove the car in the movie, doubling for actor Rossano Brazzi.

The identity of that Miura had never been confirmed – until, in Octane 143, Mark Dixon reported evidence that chassis #3586 was the one. At the time, Lamborghini was not prepared to authenticate it, but it has since been sold to Fritz Kaiser, founder of The Classic Car Trust, and the dates on the car’s build sheet fit perfectly with the shooting schedule. On 13 March 2019, a letter from Federico Foschini and Paolo Gabrielli, respectively Lamborghini’s chief commercial officer and head of aftersales, confirmed as follows: ‘On the basis of the documents stored at Polo Storico Lamborghini archive, it can be stated that the Miura P400 VIN 3586 is the car used to shoot the opening scene in the 1969 film The Italian Job.’

 

Jaguar E-Types

 

Having arrived in Italy, Croker leads the two Jaguars and the Aston Martin over the mountains towards Turin. In this scene the E-types have their moment of screen glory. To the strains of a saxophone instrumental of Quincy Jones’ On Days Like These, the convoy begins to wind through the foothills of the Alps. As they enter a shallow incline, the gang is suddenly confronted by the Mafia. ‘You just lost him his insurance bonus,’ shouts Croker as the Mafia’s bulldozer crumples the roof of the dark blue fixed-head before menacingly turning its attention to the red roadster.

David Salamone purchased four cheap, disposable Jaguars – two fixed-heads and two roadsters – from across London. For continuity, the production used the registration numbers from two of these cars, 619 DXX and 848 CRY.

 

‘it was all hands on deck to get them to location: every vehicle in the film was driven to Italy’

 

One of the E-types still exists, as does a second in a different form. The surviving 1961 red roadster 848 CRY began life as 2 BBC. It belonged to Walter E Sturgess & Sons, Jaguar’s Leicestershire dealership, where it served as a demonstrator during the week and was raced by manager Robin Sturgess at the weekend: ‘The E-type caused massive interest when it arrived and was displayed at our dealership. It is extraordinary to think that it was a normal road car earning its keep during the week and then one could go racing – and win – with it at well-known racetracks at the weekend.’ 2 BBC became one of the most active racing E-types in 1961. At the end of the year, Sturgess re-registered it as 848 CRY.

Salamone purchased this car from actor Richard Essame, who played Tony, the driver of the blue Mini in the film. In July 1977 it was acquired by E-type expert and motoring historian Philip Porter: ‘When I purchased 848 CRY, I simply knew it was a very early car, but knew nothing of its race history or that it had appeared in The Italian Job. I found out only in the late 1970s when chatting with the original owner, Robin Sturgess, who had just seen the film on television and recognised the registration number! I completed a total restoration in about 1991 and took it on The Italian Job charity run to Turin.’ The surviving blue fixed-head 619 DXX was later painted green and has reportedly been converted to a roadster.

 

Mini-Cooper Ss

 

The film builds to a 15-minute getaway, in which the three Mini-Coopers escape through the palazzos, gallerias and rooftops of Turin. They are chased by a fleet of Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti police cars, through shopping arcades, down staircases, across a weir and through sewer pipes. By the time the trio have begun their escape, the Lamborghini Miura gliding through the Italian Alps is a distant memory.

Until recently it was not clear how many Minis were used. In a wine cellar in France I discovered a box of paperwork and notebooks, belonging to a crew member and untouched since 1969. The information revealed that six hero Minis (two sets) were used for the stunts. All were supplied by BMC and returned at the end of filming. Producer Deeley had wanted more cars, but the British car giant failed to grasp the power of product placement at that time: ‘The Italian Job was a project tailor-made to make a movie star of the Mini. Astonishingly, BMC could not have cared less.’

By 1968 the Mini-Cooper Mk2 was in full swing but the production was supplied end-of-line Mk1s. All six were delivered to Blenheim Motors for Salamone to prep for filming. The red-and-white cars were Austin Minis, while the two blue ones were Morris versions but re-badged so all six cars matched. The six hero Minis arrived on the following licence plates – NOC 72F, NOC 73F, NOC 74F, NOC 75F, NOC 76F, MON 795F. For continuity they needed identical plates so the fictitious numbers HMP 729G, LGW 809G and GPF 146G were assigned. Using ‘G’ plates made them contemporaneous with the film’s summer 1969 release.

Stunt driver Rémy Julienne visited Blenheim to suggest some modifications. Salamone remembers: ‘Rémy wanted the interiors stripped, including the carpets. He didn’t want anything that could come loose and hit the drivers.’ Once Salamone knew what stunts the Minis would be involved in, he fitted huge sump guards: ‘They never would have survived without them.’ The Coopers arrived at Blenheim in two-tone paintwork, but two were re-finished in Tartan Red, two in Old English White and two in Island Blue. The film-makers asked Salamone to add accessories such as leather bonnet straps to give them a bit more of an aggressive look. Salamone’s school friend, Robin Whale, ran a leather shop on Marylebone Lane: ‘It was like going back to Dickens’ time. We literally went down into the basement and pulled out these big hides of thick leather and made these bloody straps for the cars until 3 o’clock in the morning.’ The wheels and lamps were what Salamone could source for free: ‘A friend of my father was the importer for Cibié and a customer at Blenheim Motors. I approached him and he gave us all the lamps, to which we then added mesh guards in order to make them look a little more tough.’ Salamone also sourced alloy wheels: ‘I had worked with Tech-Del, which manufactured Minilite wheels. They gave us at least two sets for each Mini.’

Salamone recalls the effects of filming: ‘At least three of them had kinks in their roofs. The chassis had bent. The three cars used for the rooftop jump sustained serious damage, the bodies had kinked. You could still drive them, but BMC would never have been allowed to sell them. So they must have been destroyed. The second set was OK and there was talk of a promotional tour with them. It didn’t happen, and I never saw the Minis again.’

NOC 74F can be seen fleetingly in Dunlop’s promo film, Vive Le Sport (1969), but there is no trace of any of the other hero Minis after. A check with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency revealed that the cars are no longer in their system. However, the DVLA’s records go back only to 1978. The British Motor Museum archive at Gaydon, which holds BMC’s papers, does not allow access to the Mini Cooper Mk I register – to avoid cloning, which has happened with Coopers in the past. However, it confirmed that there are no dispatch records for these six cars on the ledger.

There are also a further ten Mk1 Coopers in red, white and blue (close in sequence to the six hero cars) without BMC dispatch records. Could these cars have also been used in The Italian Job? Before now the identities of the six Minis were unknown. Is it possible that the most famous Minis of all time are still out there somewhere?

 

Aston Martin DB4

 

The clatter of an industrial cage door reveals a well-dressed Charlie Croker entering an underground car park. Fresh from prison, he’s here to collect his Aston Martin DB4 Convertible from a rather camp, ritzy car manager who greedily broaches the subject of payment. Claiming that he’s been abroad tiger-hunting, Croker peels back a wad of bank notes as the manager quips: ‘You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir.’ Croker replies: ‘Yes, I used a machine gun’ – before roaring off into the streets of London. Audiences would later hide their faces in horror as Mafia chief Altabani orders a bulldozer to destroy the Aston and the two Jags in front of the horrified Brits.

Two Aston Martin DB4 Convertibles were used for the film. The script detailed a dark blue DB4, but Salamone instead sourced a car in Snow Shadow Grey. 163 ELT, chassis DB4C/1073/R, became the hero car and was used for all the London scenes. It can be identified on screen by a small dent on the driver’s side rear wing, an Everflex roof, 16in wire wheels and the absence of sunvisors. Salamone purchased it from Gold Seal Sports Cars, a Lotus dealer in south-east London, and a lot of mechanical work was carried out on the car before filming began. As one of only 70 DB4 Convertibles (and only 30 series 4s), it is now highly collectable.

A year later, 163 ELT was seen on-screen again in The Benny Hill Show. Today it is privately owned and has been restored. In 2017, Michael Caine was reunited with it for My Generation (2017) – a feature-length documentary about the actor’s memories and a journey through the 1960s.

A second DB4 was used (and destroyed) for the scenes in Italy. This second car was a Series 5, with larger indicators, sunvisors, a tow bar mounting, overriders and 15-inch wire wheels. The aerial and the wing mirrors were in different positions, and the wipers parked higher on the windscreen. It had a tatty mohair hood, a damaged sill and front grille, and a misaligned front badge. Deeley recalls that this car was prematurely destroyed by a special effect that went wrong: ‘After the two E-types were crushed by the big digger, it proceeded to pick up the Aston Martin to throw it over the cliff. Unfortunately, before it was even thrown over, there was an explosion.’ To complete this sequence, the team used a Lancia Flaminia disguised as a DB4.

No notes survive to identify this second DB4. However, since 68 of the 70 DB4 Convertibles built exist to this day, it can only be one of two cars. Chassis number DB4C/1088/R – an early Series 5 car – was used for experimental work by the Aston Martin factory and had the same red Vaumol leather interior as 163 ELT. The build sheet for that car reveals that originally it was finished in California Sage. Close examination of the film footage suggests that the car was rather roughly re-sprayed in Snow Shadow Grey, and paint can clearly be seen on the rubber and chrome. By 1968, all traces of DB4C/1088/R had disappeared. It’s highly likely that it was scrapped immediately due to the fire damage. Its registration number, NMK 5, has been on different cars for many years.

 

Land Rover Series IIa 109 Safari

 

The gang’s bronze green Land Rover, BKO 656C, was registered in January 1965. Salamone is unclear where the vehicle came from, but his notes indicate that he paid £850 for it and it required work to get it screen-ready. This vehicle was at the heart of the robbery, and director Peter Collinson wanted it to look like an armoured assault weapon, requesting a ramming device for the front bumper, all side windows to be replaced with steel panels, mesh grilles fitted to the windows, and a chunkier-than-standard spare tyre mounted to the bonnet. In later life, the Land Rover was sprayed blue and, after April 1992, either scrapped or exported.

 

Alfa Romeo police cars

 

Six Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti police cars were required, of which only one reportedly survived. The Italian police got tetchy over the way in which the Minis continually escaped the Alfas – most embarrassingly on the roof of the Palavela indoor arena – and remarked that it would never happen in real life!

 

Fiat Dino Coupé

 

Fiat supported the film-makers’ every need. Three black Fiat Dinos were at their disposal, which were used on screen by Altabani and the Mafia, and, when not required, served as unit production vehicles. Peter Collinson, who directed The Italian Job, was reportedly given one of these Dinos as a gift at the end of production. Collinson’s son Tara recalled: ‘He later wrapped it around a lamp-post.’

 

Harrington Legionnaire

 

Once the Minis escape the gridlocked city they race along a deserted autostrada, catching up with the final vehicle in Croker’s convoy: a Harrington Legionnaire coach. In formation, the Coopers straddle the road as the back doors are propped open and two hinged treads trail from the floor to the road. One by one, the Minis precariously enter its belly. Before long, beer bottles are opened and the party is in full swing. The coach sways around the mountains as Quincy Jones’ Self Preservation Society kicks in. The driver, Big William, takes his eye off the road for a split second – and the coach spins and ends up hanging over a precipice. The coach was built on a Bedford VAL14 six-wheeled, twin-steer chassis manufactured between 1963 and 1965. Only 58 were produced, of which four are known to exist. One was used in the movie, which Salamone sourced from a coach dealer in Potters Bar: ‘The filmmakers were not specific. It was literally what we could find for the money – as long as it was big enough to take the Minis.’

ALR 453B was first registered on 3 June 1964 and purchased in London by Grey-Green, the parent company of Battens Coaches. After filming was complete it was converted back to a passenger vehicle and owned by a number of different transport operators throughout the 1970s. In 1979, ALR 453B was purchased by racing driver Archie Cromar in Anstruther, Scotland: ‘I needed a vehicle to transport my Formula Ford race car. I bought the coach from Meffans Coaches in Kirriemuir. They did school runs and all that kind of stuff. The coach was in really bad shape. There were no brakes! We gutted it and removed all 36 seats. You could tell that the back had once been cut out of the bus, as you could see where it had been riveted back together.’ One of Cromar’s racing sponsors was the Craw’s Nest Hotel, a local business belonging to the family of TV and radio presenter Edith Bowman. Edith’s mother Eleanor recalls: ‘When my sister got married, we used the bus to transport everybody to the wedding. We decked the back of the bus out with couches and white sheets.’

In 1983, Cromar sold ALR 453B to another Anstruther resident, Raymond Gatherum, who used it as a horsebox. From 1985 it was owned by sidecar racing champion Bill Davie: ‘I thought owning this bus was going to be great, but it turned out to be a pile of shit. I took it to the Isle of Man on the ferry a few times for the Sidecar TT, but it just kept breaking down. I sold it to a local lad who did stock car racing, for £350. He didn’t even register it.’

ALR 453B was taken off the road on 17 March 1987 and scrapped around 1990 by Burnside Motors in Leven, Scotland. Davie recalls: ‘I saw the remains of the coach in the scrapyard. The body was sitting there without a chassis and all the glass had been removed. It’s a vision that will live with me. The owner told me that he had put a blowtorch to it.’ Unbelievably, its association with The Italian Job was well-known when it was broken up. There had even been a story about the Harrington’s heritage in the local newspaper. Today it seems strange that, with this knowledge, nobody had the foresight to preserve it.

In June, BMW’s Mini factory in Oxford hosted a charity screening of The Italian Job and the official launch of my book. For the first – and probably last – time since the film, the surviving Miura, DB4 and E-type roadster were displayed together. After Octane’s exclusive photo shoot, they returned to their individual owners, and the Lamborghini made its way to California’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Paying homage to the original Minis, there are at least three replica sets, and a number of individual The Italian Job lookalike Minis, in the UK. There is even a tribute coach and bullion van doing the rounds, which have been spotted at The Italian Job themed displays this year. But if you want the real thing, all that’s left is here.