If you are unfamiliar with Peter Ustinov’s The Grand Prix of Gibraltar then best you get on YouTube and take a listen. Even better, find an original LP by scouring second-hand shops or purchase one online.
It is a laugh-a-minute look at motor racing. The comedic genius starts off with a tongue-in-cheek description of a fictitious Grand Prix of 1906, dropping entrants like ‘the 750 horsepower, 22.1-litre, three-cylinder Bolsan – hot favourite in the Voiturette class’ into the mix. He then gets down to the business of the GP at hand: a 1950s affair with interviews from drivers with names like Girling Foss, Bill Dill, Von Grips and Juan Julio Fandango, who are competing on the ‘Rock of Gibraltar Racetrack’ – of course it is impossible to put a track on this rocky outcrop. Interviews done, he heads into the drivers’ meeting, Governor’s speech, then commentates on the Le Mans start, arrival of the Duke and on through the race, generating all the backing sounds, race car noises, voices and accents himself. Besides showcasing his immense skill at impersonations and sound generation the comedy showcases Ustinov’s love and understanding of motorsport, as well as his ability to sum up (stereotype perhaps) cultures, people and the period brilliantly. The Grand Prix of Gibraltar is a must-have for any motoring collection.
Sir Peter Alexander Ustinov was born in London on 16 April 1921 to Jona von Ustinov (a press officer at the German Embassy, of Russian, Polish-Jewish, German and Ethiopian noble descent) and Nadezhda Leontievna Benois (a painter and ballet designer of French, German, Italian, and Russian descent).
While at Westminster School, Ustinov considered anglicising his name to Peter Austin but a fellow pupil convinced him to just drop the ‘von’. He trained as an actor in his late teens and made his stage début in 1938 at the Players’ Theatre. A troubled home life and clear dislike for school is said to have led him into the theatrical world and he later stated: “I was not irresistibly drawn to the drama. It was an escape road from the dismal rat race of school.”
Whatever the reason, he excelled and won plenty of awards over the years including two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, Emmy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards for acting, a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well as governmental honours from the UK, France and Germany.
At the time of his death, following diabetes related heart failure in 2004, Ustinov was the President of the World Federalist Movement, a position he’d held since 1991. The WFM is a global NGO with the intention of promoting the concept of global democratic institutions and lobbying those in powerful positions to establish a unified human government based on democracy and civil society. He was so well regarded as a goodwill ambassador that UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy spoke at his funeral and represented United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
He liked his cars too and owned so many that he couldn’t recount all, but highlights from an interview with Phil Llewellin for The Telegraph included a Fiat 500 Toppolino (his first car), a bunch of Lancias, a Mercedes 36/220, a pre-war Delage and a Hispano-Suiza (a gift from his second wife that wa stolen and then found, but due to French law inconsistency it was never returned to Ustinov).
In his autobiography he even went as far as to claim that he knew what car he was. “Psychiatry was in its infancy then, both expensive and centred on Vienna. There was no one yet qualified to exorcise an internal combustion engine from a small boy. I know to this day precisely what make of car it was: an Amilcar. At one period in my life, I switched on in the morning, and only stopped being a car at night when I reversed into bed, and cut the ignition.”