Driven: Britt Ekland's Maserati Ghibli

We take a Sixties jet-set drive in the Maserati Ghibli Peter Sellers gave to
Britt Ekland – and spend the day with the petrolhead Bond girl

Words Quentin Willson Photography Laurens Parsons

Sitting in Soho House on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, it’s difficult to believe that the petite blonde next to me has driven so many legendary cars and still holds such fierce opinions. Britt Ekland spent four years married to Peter Sellers and was surrounded by an ever-changing tapestry of some of the world’s most covetable classics. Today she is charming, outspoken, witty and still gilded by the same gorgeous aura that made her one of Hollywood’s sexiest women. And she has a view on everything – not least
the scores of cars that passed through her husband’s hands.

‘Peter bought cars on a whim,’ she says. ‘Some he’d own for a single day, others – like his favourite Cary Grant Rolls Silver Cloud – for years. He was constantly looking for perfection and if he didn’t find it the car would be taken away immediately.’

A hand-written list containing the registration numbers of 83 of his cars was discovered after Sellers’ death in 1980. When I put this to Britt she thinks it’s a conservative estimate. ‘He told me that he bought his 71st car – a white Mercedes convertible – in 1962, which put him into the newspapers because the government had abolished purchase tax, saving him £700. He must have owned many more.’

It was sensationally beautiful but almost impossible to park. It was always getting dented on this narrow Italian streets

She’s right – during their short marriage he was pictured with a Ferrari Superfast 500, two Lotuses – an Elan Shapecraft and an S2 convertible – several Radford Minis, two Bentley convertibles, two Aston Martins – a DB4 Volante and a DB5 – a one-off Bristol 407 convertible, a Mulliner Park Ward Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow two-door and a Ferrari 275 GTB/4. Britt reckons the final tally must be closer to 150 cars. ‘Tony Crook at Bristol had to stop Peter buying cars because he was losing so much money. If he was depressed he’d buy another car – and he was often depressed.’

Britt remembers those golden years with warm affection. ‘Peter loved having silly photographs taken of himself with his cars, like bursting through a pretend window in his Mini, playing bagpipes in front of his Rolls-Royce or driving the Lotus he bought for me with the tonneau cover zipped up around him and looking like a midget.’

That wasn’t always the case, though. ‘Once we broke down in an Aston Martin convertible in Bank Holiday traffic and he was so embarrassed. He wasn’t at all amused when everybody crowded round. He never drove that car again.’ Poignantly she adds that she believed he was so obsessed with cars because he preferred them to people. ‘Peter had very few friends he could really trust,’ she says, ‘but his cars never argued back.’ 

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Britt continued her own personal car fixation after they divorced in 1968. She went on to own a Mercedes 280 SL, Aston Martin V8 Volante, Rolls-Royce Corniche, Jaguar E-type and various Minis. She was horrified when one of her Radford Minis was stolen from outside her Chelsea home in 1965 and later found stripped out.

But our story concerns the 1968 Maserati Ghibli Sellers reputedly gave to Britt as a wedding present in Rome. It missed the famous showbiz wedding at the Guildford Register Office by four years so it can’t have been part of the celebrations, but it might have been one final emotional gesture of affection in their stormy marriage.

The Italian registration document dated August 1968 lists the first owner as Sellers Britt Ekland – four months prior to their divorce. Maserati archives show that the car was actually built on July 19 so the order must have been placed several months before that, when the relationship perhaps still had a chance of survival. Whatever the truth it’s unlikely Britt would have chosen the long and sinewy Ghibli as an Italian runaround. She remembers, ‘It was sensationally beautiful but impossible to park. I could never get used to the long nose and not being able to see the rear end, so it was always getting dented on narrow Italian streets.’

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AM1 15-562 was a special order rushed through the Maserati factory – another sign of Sellers’ potential influence –  and subsequently spent many years in Australia before undergoing restoration in the Eighties and conversion to right-hand drive. It was later returned to left-hand drive and restored again – this time in Belgium – before ending up at DD Classics in London, which recently sold it. Heart-stoppingly beautiful on Borrani wheels and in its original factory Giallo paint, it’s a wonderful visual poem in steel.

Walking around this flamboyant sculpture is a special moment for me too because this piece of film star memorabilia reminds me of a ’67 Ghibli that I owned briefly in the late Seventies. I paid £5000 for it and had it painted – not very expertly – in a period shade of BMW Reseda Green. I bought it for the same reason Sellers likely bought this one – to tickle a pretty girl’s heart. I won’t go into the amorous details here but it had the desired effect until both petrol pumps packed up en route to a posh hotel. I ruined the heels of my little baggage’s elegant Bally court shoes by constantly thwacking the pumps with them to keep them running. Not surprisingly, the romance gradually slipped away.

It doesn’t look like chassis number 562 is going to need any hasty roadside repairs, however – the carb-fed 4.7-litre V8 starts on the button and smooths out to a rich burble. And the Ghibli never stops radiating a dazzling yellow sunshine even in the horizontal rain shrouding our test track. 

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Open the wide door, climb inside and the cockpit feels massive with yielding seats and lots of legroom. The period Italian switchgear seems surprisingly well organised with a dished Nardi woodrim steering wheel, dominant tachometer and speedometer plus other dials spaced along the centre of the dashboard. Being a ZF manual there’s the usual long-throw gearlever that’s become a Ghibli hallmark. It feels vague and floppy at first but slots through its gate strongly and firmly – even from cold – with deliberate, decisive shifts once you get used to the considerable travel.

With a flutter of her eyelids she adds, ‘A Ghibli would have suited you better. You never should have sold yours.’

And that general impression of solidity is another huge surprise. The Ghibli doesn’t feel as highly strung or Italianate as its two contemporary competitors, the Ferrari Daytona and Lamborghini Miura (both of which it outsold, by the way). It’s much more solid – transatlantic even. Dial in some revs, lift the clutch and there’s no popping, banging or hesitation – the Ghibli just ravels up speed and hunkers down to smooth and quietly even progress.

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It’s an amazingly refined driving experience completely bereft of histrionics with a solid chassis, pliant ride and decent steering. Try the same in a Daytona from cold and you’ll spend ages worrying about the hard gears, heavy steering and fuelling flat spots. There’s an honest, agricultural feel to the Ghibli – simple, uncomplicated and workmanlike. This isn’t a car bristling with technical innovation or cutting-edge technology – only the retractable headlamps, twin fuel tanks and magnesium alloy wheels add a touch of grand touring exotica – but this mechanical orthodoxy didn’t worry Henry Ford II. He ordered the first Ghibli imported into the US – at $19,000 it cost the same as eight new Mustangs –and was so impressed with it that he offered to buy the company. It’s a shame the Orsi family didn’t want to sell because with Ford’s mighty chequebook Maserati’s fortunes might have been very different from the disastrous Citroën era that followed.

The Ghibli was one of Giugiaro’s finest designs and the last car signed off by the Orsi dynasty. Order forms with cheques stapled to them poured into the Bologna factory and Maserati shifted 1150 coupés and 125 Spyders between ’67 and ’73, making it one of the best-selling Italian supercars of its day. By 1968 the Ghibli had garnered a reputation as the most beautiful and least demanding supercar on the market, bought not for driving but for the sheer theatre of arriving in one.

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My afternoon with Britt Ekland is one of those surreal moments where automotive celebrity history comes vividly alive. She is a delight and we chat endlessly about cars. When I mention that I have a Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible she smiles. ‘Peter had one of those too,’ she says, ‘but in Beverly Hills they’re driven by either mistresses or very old men.’ With a flutter of her eyelashes she adds, ‘A Ghibli would suit you better. You should never have sold yours.’

And with that she picks up her mink and steps out into the Los Angeles sunshine. Such a shame she didn’t then climb into her sunshine yellow Ghibli.

The Ghibli was one of Giugiaro’s finest designs and the last car signed off by the Orsi dynasty

1968 Maserati Ghibli specifications

Engine 4719cc, V8, dohc per bank, four twin-choke Weber 40 DCNL carburettors Power and torque 330bhp @ 5000rpm; 290lb ft @ 4000rpm Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Recirculating ball Suspension Front: independent, unequal length wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar, hydraulic coil-over dampers; Rear: Live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar, hydraulic coil-over dampers Brakes Servo-assisted discs front and rear Weight 1638kg Performance Top speed: 142mph; 0-60mph: 7.1sec Fuel consumption 13.4mpg Cost new £7732 Values now £64,000-£225,000

Thanks to: John Barlow, DD Classics (ddclassics.com)