I have just watched “The Italian Job,” the 1969 original. At the time of writing, the remake has not hit Britain, but it makes the movie topical.
When the remake was first mooted, the retro Beetle was pencilled in to take the starring role originally created by the Mini Cooper. This was plain daft, even by Hollywood standards. It would have been as daft as using original Beetles in the 1969 movie. A Beetle was fine for a Disney comedy, but was not an action hero. The retro Beetle should be a Fisher Price product since it is all soft lines and big eyes.
The Mini Cooper won major rallies, the European Touring Car Championship and was bought by film stars, royalty and even Enzo Ferrari. Every “Jack the Lad” aspired to one because it was the only cheap car guaranteed to attract quality skirt. The irony is that when the movie came out—and it was the best free advertisement ever—the Mini Cooper had already been axed.
A large part of the British motor industry had become one group (lump, more like) under the direction of Sir Donald Stokes, who was the only person on the planet who did not think that the name “Cooper” sold cars…perhaps more importantly Stokes resented the £2-per-unit royalty he had to pay John Cooper. Ask BMW about having “Cooper” on the car—they have sold considerably more Mini Coopers in two years than BMC managed in seven.
Stokes also did not think that the name “Healey” sold cars either. Remember the Austin Sprite? Not many people do. An Austin Healey Sprite was one thing, an Austin Sprite was nothing. Only 1,022 Austin Sprites were sold though the virtually identical MG Midget had customers for another eight years.
Want to know why the British motor industry went down the tubes? Look no further than the chopping of the Mini Cooper.
Two things informed “The Italian Job” in 1969 and one was the fact that, in 1966, England had won the World Cup. (Note to American readers: the World Cup is a football competition involving the entire world, unlike the World Series. Football is a game played with the feet and a ball—accept no inferior substitute.) That is why when news of the heist reaches the prison all the lags break into the England football chant. The other strand was the Great Train Robbery of 1963.
This had entailed stopping a train bringing old banknotes from Scotland to be destroyed at the Royal Mint. The gang took off with at least £2.5 million in used notes. By today’s value that is more than 50 million dollars, which is very long green. They took it to a nearby farmhouse, divided the loot and went their separate ways, but the team which came in to clean the house missed some fingerprints.
However, come the Tourist Trophy meeting a couple of weeks later and Goodwood teemed with Sussex’s finest, but missing was one of the leading drivers in the Formula Junior event, Roy James.
James had turned up at the Brabham factory over the winter and paid for a car in cash. In November 1962 there had been a wages snatch at Heathrow Airport, which had depended for its success on the getaway drivers. Two Mk II Jaguars were used, naturally. If you were a kid and your dad was a bank robber and he stole anything other than a Jag, you’d be picked on at school. Incidentally, James always preferred the 3.4-liter version because he reckoned that it was more harmonious than the 3.8.
In the complex of roads around Heathrow, the Jags were able to lose the police, who were in Fords. Never be guided by what the police drive, always look at what the robbers steal: their freedom depends on making the right choice.
One of the getaway cars was driven by Roy James and you will not credit the names associated with the other. Who is better equipped to drive a getaway car, your grannie or a racing driver? In “The Italian Job,” all the Mini Coopers are driven by racing drivers and that is not movie maker’s fiction. Several racing drivers who had been careless in their choice of parents made their money to go racing by getaway driving.
The police at Goodwood went away empty handed, though there were reports of people being seen at the circuit at night with spades and torches. Little of the loot was ever recovered.
Roy James, who was the transport manager on the Great Train Robbery, was caught and, as one of the leading members of the gang, he received 30 years and served 12. On his release he tried to return to racing, helped by his friend, Bernie Ecclestone. He crashed his car during a test, broke a leg, and called it a day.
The robbery itself has passed into folklore. Phil Collins starred in the movie, “Buster”, based on the life of “Buster” Edwards, one of the robbers, who used to sell flowers outside of London’s Waterloo Station until he topped himself. The 1967 movie, “Robbery”, which starred Sir Stanley Baker and Cherie Blair’s dad, was based on the heist.
It is part of folklore that the robbery financed a lot of racing. Some believe that the brains was someone not unknown to motor racing. At the time there was someone who planned robberies, who passed on the plans for a cut of the take and who was elsewhere when they took place. This naughty, naughty person was never convicted.
In his first, curtailed, season of racing Roy James had shown enormous potential. To the time of his arrest, he was the most successful privateer in British national racing and he had received encouragement and praise from Jack Brabham, something that sustained him during his long break.
Number two in 1963 was a chap called Stewart who went on to make more money than the Great Train Robbery took, and who never felt a heavy hand on his collar.