by Chris Gill
Rock and roll songs about cars are as old as the genre itself. In fact, the very first rock and roll song—the 1951 single “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats—is about a V-8–powered Oldsmobile that was, allegedly, the fastest car on the road at the time.
From Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” to Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” cars played prominent roles in the lyrics of many classic rock and roll singles throughout the Fifties.
This automotive-inspired trend continued in the early Sixties thanks to American artists like Jan and Dean (“Drag City” and “Dead Man’s Curve”) and the Beach Boys (“Little Deuce Coupe” and “409,” among many others). But as the Beatles-led British Invasion started to dominate the American pop charts in 1964, the theme began to run out of gas. Excluding “Drive My Car,” the Beatles’ songs mentioned automobiles only in passing, as in “A Day in the Life” and “Don’t Pass Me By.”
But this doesn’t mean that the Beatles were any less obsessed with cars than their rock and roll predecessors. From 1965 until the band’s breakup in 1970, John, Paul, George, and Ringo acquired a stunning collection of exotic, rare, and just plain cool automobiles, proving that each man had an eye for the industry’s finest designs. Harrison, in particular, was a dedicated collector who continued to acquire highly desirable motor vehicles up until his death in 2001.
Several of the cars that the Beatles drove have become almost as iconic as the Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Fender, Gibson, and Höfner guitars they played. Yet, because fans were more likely to catch the Fab Four performing live after 1965 than they were to spot one of the Beatles behind the wheel, the stories of the cars they owned are mostly told by a handful of photos, registration slips, and sales receipts as well as a few brief quotes in the music press. While details are scare, the Beatles’ choices tell a fascinating story about each member’s personality and tastes.
I Got a Driver, and That’s a Start
The hot rods and high-powered, gas-guzzling sedans that American rock and roll musicians lionized in their songs were as foreign to English youths as eel pies and black pudding would have been to adolescent Yanks. During the late Fifties and early Sixties, cars were still prohibitively expensive luxury items for most working-class families in England, and many young adults relied on either public transportation or two-wheeled vehicles (motorcycles, scooters, bicycles).
In their early days, each of the Beatles chose utilitarian cars that provided an economical way to get around town and to gigs. Before joining the group, Ringo Starr purchased a used mid-Fifties Ford Zephyr Zodiac Mk II that had a trunk big enough to fit his drum kit. After Starr joined the band, Paul McCartney bought a rather modest Ford Consul Classic, and Harrison acquired an early Sixties Ford Anglia 150E. In 1963, he traded it in to purchase a Jaguar Mark 2—the first “posh” car that any Beatles member owned.
As the Beatles rocketed to fame and fortune in 1963, they were often chauffeured to destinations, including the studio, press conferences, and television appearances. On England’s streets, the band often rode in an Austin Princess limousine like the one shown in the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night.
In September 1966, Beatles Ltd. purchased a 1965 Austin Vanden Plas Princess long-wheelbase limousine previously owned by a mortuary. This particular Austin Princess appeared in the 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour, but registration records signed by manager Brian Epstein suggest that the limo wasn’t in the band’s possession much longer after that, as the car was sold to Capital & Suburban Investments Ltd. at an unknown date (most likely shortly after Magical Mystery Tour was filmed in September 1967) and sold again in July 1970.
Epstein also helped each of the Beatles make some of their early personal car purchases. He and his friend Terry Doran (the “man from the motor trade” mentioned in “She’s Leaving Home”) owned a car dealership in Hounslow called Brydor Cars, which was established mainly to help the Beatles and other celebrities purchase cars at cost. Apparently John, Paul, George, and Ringo bought Austin Mini Coopers from Brydor, including several Austin Mini Cooper S models modified by Harold Radford Coachbuilders with luxurious interiors and custom paint.
When John Lennon was photographed passing his first driver’s test on February 15, 1965, the Mini Cooper that he bought for his wife Cynthia was shown in the background. A few months later Lennon bought a black Radford Mini Cooper De Ville with tinted windows and black wheels, bumpers, and seats. Paul McCartney’s Radford Mini incorporated several Aston Martin features, including a California Sage Green Metallic paint job and Aston taillights. In an interview with England’s New Musical Express in May 1966, Ringo Starr mentioned that he owned two Minis: an “ordinary Mini” and a “Super Mini” (presumably his Radford Mini with a hatchback).
Of the many Mini Coopers associated with the Beatles, George Harrison’s Radford Mini De Ville GT remains the most famous and iconic. Painted metallic black when Harrison bought it in 1965, the Cooper was sprayed red before Dutch art collective The Fool gave it a custom “psychedelic” paint job that included images adopted from the book Tantra Art: Its Philosophy and Physics, in early 1967. This Mini was featured in the Magical Mystery Tour film. Distinctive Radford custom features include a full-length sunroof, horizontally mounted Volkswagen taillights, and hood-mounted rally fog lamps.
George Harrison’s Dark Horses
In addition to owning the most iconic Beatles-related vehicle, Harrison was the most fanatic automotive enthusiast in the band. He was attracted to automobile racing at an early age, and once claimed that his earliest memory was seeing a Jaguar XK120 racing a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. He was also a Formula 1 enthusiast who befriended many drivers, including Jackie Stewart, whom he met in 1969 at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Harrison was generally faithful to British marques. He purchased a 1964 Jaguar XKE and a platinum-silver 1965 Aston Martin DB5 similar to the one Sean Connery drove in James Bond films during the early years of Beatlemania. However, he later acquired several notable European cars, including a 1966 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman and a Ferrari 365 GTC that he purchased new in 1969. Harrison also bought a second Pullman from John Lennon when Lennon moved to the United States in 1971.
After the Beatles broke up, Harrison indulged in his passion for racing in a manner that was nearly impossible for him to enjoy while the Beatles were together. He often hosted parties for drivers at his estate in Henley-Upon-Thames after the British Grand Prix, and in 1979 he drove Stirling Moss’s Lotus 18 Formula 1 car in the Gunnar Nilsson Memorial Trophy race at Donington Park. Harrison’s love for British motor cars and Formula 1 was further demonstrated in the early Nineties when he purchased one of the first McLaren F1 supercars ever built and a Light Car Company Rocket built by Chris Craft and designed by Gordon Murray, who also designed the McLaren F1.
John Lennon—Watching the Wheels
When John Lennon passed his driving test, word spread almost immediately to car dealers around the London area, who drove out to Lennon’s home in Weybridge, Surrey, with a stunning mélange of exotic automobiles—Aston Martins, Ferraris, Jaguars, Maseratis, among them—in the hope of selling him a new car to celebrate his achievement. Lennon chose a beautiful 1965 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 coupe as his first personal car. He obviously appreciated exotic European sports cars, as a few months later, in August 1965, he also bought a 1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL convertible. At the 1967 Earls Court Motor Show he purchased a rare Italian Iso Rivolta Fidia S4 four-door sedan, which was the second of the 192 Fidias that were built.
But as Lennon had very poor eyesight, he wasn’t a very good driver, and he frequently got hopelessly lost or damaged his cars in fender benders. Because of this, he employed a round-the-clock chauffeur, which explains why most of his sports cars were equipped with back seats. Those vehicles generally saw little use, as he preferred the comfort and luxury of large limos. In addition to the Mercedes-Benz Pullman that he sold to Harrison, Lennon during his time with the Beatles owned a pair of 1965 Rolls-Royce Phantom V saloons: a white one purchased used and a Valentines Black model purchased new on June 3, 1965.
The latter Rolls was apparently Lennon’s favorite, as it received numerous modifications, including the installation of a television set, a refrigerator, a telephone, and a rear seat that converted into a double bed. In 1966 while filming How I Won the War, Lennon had the entire car painted matte black, similar to his Radford Mini, but a few months later, in April 1967, he went the opposite direction and had J.P. Fallon Limited Coachworks paint the Rolls with a colorful gypsy/psychedelic motif on a yellow base, featuring scroll and floral designs illustrated by Steve Weaver. This iconic Beatles vehicle set a then-record-breaking price of $2.3 million when it sold at auction in 1985.
Lennon allegedly also owned a 1956 Bentley S1 painted with a psychedelic motif on a purple base, but records suggest that the Beatles collectively owned this car through Apple Corps. The Bentley was usually seen parked in front of the Apple Tailoring boutique on London’s Kings Road and was probably driven more often by designer John Crittle than by Lennon himself.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—Band Members on the Run
Although McCartney and Starr didn’t go through quite as many cars as racing enthusiast Harrison and the driving-challenged Lennon, they both owned several rare and extremely impressive vehicles while they were with the Beatles. After Harrison purchased his Aston Martin DB5, McCartney followed his lead and bought a Goodwood Green 1966 Aston Martin DB6 in March of that year.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCartney’s DB6 was the reel-to-reel tape recorder built into the car’s dash, which he allegedly used to capture his initial ideas for “Hey Jude.” He also owned a stunning 1967 Lamborghini 400GT 2+2 that he acquired in February 1968. In his post-Beatles years, McCartney generally preferred utilitarian cars, like the Land Rover IIA that inspired the Wings single “Helen Wheels,” but in 1975 he purchased a second-hand 1972 Lamborghini Espada S2.
Starr, in addition to his two Mini Coopers, owned perhaps the rarest and most unusual car of all of the Beatles: a Facel Vega “Facel II.” Facel made only 180 of these glamorous French grand touring cars from 1962 until 1964, and it was extremely expensive, costing about the same price as a home in an exclusive London neighborhood at the time. Other Facel II owners included Princess Grace of Monaco, Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso, and Sir Stirling Moss, so Starr was in very good company indeed. In his post-Beatles years, Starr has remained primarily a Mercedes man, owning such fine examples as a 1960 190 SL, a 1984 190E AMG, and a 2000 CL55 AMG.
Surprisingly, the members of the Beatles recorded more songs about cars during their solo careers than they did together as the Beatles—among them, Harrison’s “Faster,” Starr’s “In My Car,” and McCartney’s “The Back Seat of My Car.” Considering the impressive stable of vehicles that passed through their hands from 1965 through 1970, perhaps they didn’t see any need to celebrate their automotive lust in song; they were already living out their four-wheel fantasies in real life.
For photos of all these cars, check out the Spring 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado, available on newsstands now.
[imagebrowser id="Guitar Collection: George Harrison"]