Hitting all the right notes

Nick Mason and Eric Clapton, photo: Jack English

Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer, talks for the Ferrari Magazine to rock legend Eric Clapton about his other great obsession: cars

Estimated reading time: 26 minutes

I still have some difficulty disentangling Eric Clapton, a fellow car bloke, from Eric Clapton, the iconic musician who is mainly responsible for me being in the music business at all. I do sometimes have to remind myself that it’s OK to be a fan and a friend.
My first contact with Eric was in 1966. Cream were appearing at the Regent Street Polytechnic, and although The Pink Floyd Sound were the in-house college band, and had supported The Beat Merchants some weeks earlier, we were not deemed worthy (probably correctly, it pains me to say) to support Eric, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Consequently we were in front of the stage as the curtain swept back to reveal a technician still nailing Ginger’s drum kit to the stage. It was a seminal moment. As the band kicked off, my already declining interest in architecture was replaced by a burning desire to add a second bass drum to my kit.
Over the next four decades we connected irregularly, more often at car events than music ones. We share the same enthusiasm for Ferrari, and both enjoy the fact that so many people at Maranello have a real passion for music. Several of them have become friends over the years.
Eric has owned nearly every decent model of Ferrari (as well as some of the less illustrious) and can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each car expertly. He has a passion for well-made mechanical objects, and would probably admit that he might even trade a car for a watch, but not the other way round. He has a great eye for detail, and if he weren’t so busy, he’d be my first choice to be in charge of the pre-delivery inspection department.

I also think Eric’s now a great role model for any musician dealing with the pressures of fame. His easy-going manner hides the ability to say ‘no’ so nicely to something he isn’t prepared to do, that one ends up thinking it was a rotten suggestion in the first place.
One other reason I like the man is that on more than one occasion he has turned up at the right place at the right time. In 1993 I was on my way back from the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. I stopped off to visit my daughter who was studying in New York. She had booked a rather smart restaurant and we arrived late. The maître d’ took one look at me in my post-four-day-race unshaven state and moved to exclude us. The kitchen was closed, the restaurant full etc. At that moment Eric appeared on his way out. He’d been dining with Bobby Colomby, the drummer with Blood, Sweat & Tears. An enthusiastic greeting, a brief chat and suddenly the kitchen was open and the best table available. Now that’s the best sort of friend to have…

Nick Mason: Cars are clearly a huge passion. When did it start?

Eric Clapton: : When I was at primary school in Ripley where I grew up, near Guildford. We had the Portsmouth Road coming though and the height of entertainment was to sit in the bus shelter on High Street and watch cars go by. And what you’d see was fantastic. It seemed to be a period when there was a lot of experimentation going on; ideas were flying around and every now and then you’d see something really exotic. The first thing I ever remember were two racing Aston Martins going through with the drivers all kitted out. I was about eight years old.

NM: On their way to Goodwood I should imagine.

We share the same enthusiasm for Ferrari, and both enjoy the fact that so many people at Maranello have a real passion for music

EC: The other thing I remember is that there was a Connaught garage just outside Ripley, and we’d often walk up there. Who were the Connaught drivers [pauses]? Archie Scott Brown!

NM: Yes. He only had one arm. He raced Lister-Jaguars as well as Connaughts.

Ferrari Magazine: With one arm?

NM: Yeah, changed gear and steered. An amazing character.

EC: I don’t know how he did it. They modified everything for him. Anyway, all of that was within walking distance. But all of this was really pre-empted by me listening to Grands Prix on the radio. And I would hear names like [Juan Manuel] Fangio, Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss; they were all racing when I was a kid. And Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, they were my thing, and then Vanwall a bit later. But I’ve always been sparked by things off the map, and was never actually that into British cars [pauses]. Ferrari was there from day one.

NM: So you didn’t go for the British look or style. I think with Ferrari it’s the engineering and the design that’s almost more appealing than the wish to necessarily even drive the car.

EC: Yeah. And I remember being at school when I was 13 and a guy used to ride to school on a Cinelli. That was the bike to have and it wasn’t just me, everybody wanted a Cinelli because it was handmade in Italy. Ferrari took it one step further by just being literally the best. And always has been.

FM: In pictures of you from the ’60s, you were always very fashionably dressed. Did you have, and do you still have, a highly developed aesthetic sense?

EC: Well I always intended to be a designer. I never really knew that I would be a musician. I was going to be a designer of one kind or another. I liked the idea of designing glass… [Pointing] I designed that grate in the fireplace over there. I love designing, it’s a mission for me. I tune into good design whenever I see it. Then I just think, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done that.’

NM: That absolutely ties in with the Italian thing – particularly in the post-war period. Design is much more international now, but back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Italians absolutely had the stranglehold.

FM: Were you aware of that at the time though?

EC: Yes, I think so. Maybe later for me, but when I owned my first Ferrari I was intrigued. Who were these other people who were named on the car? Scaglietti… Who or what the hell is Scaglietti? Who’s Pininfarina? Why are these people heralded on the car? So all of that became a research thing for me.

FM: This is a deep knowledge. There’s a kind of cliché about rock aristocracy having Ferraris but this is a passion that’s coming from somewhere else altogether. It’s the same with you Nick, isn’t it?

NM: Eric and I are the same in certain ways and different in others. What interests me is the fascination with watches, which absolutely ties in with engineering and design at the same time. With cars, well at the top end it’s not quite art, but it’s certainly great craft. It’s on that borderline.

FM: It’s how Ferrari fabricated things. The way they used to form the bodies, with the wooden bucks and so on…

His easy-going manner hides the ability to say ‘no’ so nicely to something he isn’t prepared to do

EC: Oh, unbelievable! I remember once, something occurred to me; I went out with a tape measure and measured the doors on a car, and it turned out that one door was an inch longer than the other [laughs].

NM: That’s what the English can’t get straight now.

EC: It’s not meant to be symmetrical!

NM: Take the Maserati Birdcage. No two are exactly the same. It’s not just minor details that differ, it’s quite major details.

EC: It was all done by hand; unbelievable craftsmanship [pause]. That’s what I got from it. I kind of pulled back from the racing ethic. When I first owned these cars I went to some owners’ meetings and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the idea of going round the circuit. I’ve never been competitive, so that side of me… There was a whole social side to racing that didn’t appeal to me, whereas the cars that were made for the road appealed to me, because it was an isolated thing. I could get in those cars and fantasise. You can’t fantasise on the racetrack about winning when you’re not.

FM: Are you an introspective sort of person?

EC: Very. I’ve got better. I’m past 60 now and I can actually talk to several people [laughs].

NM: He just makes very bad choices. People like Roger Waters…

FM: …said the drummer in Pink Floyd. Nick raced at Le Mans five times. And continues to race now. He’s not bad you know.

EC: Unbelievable. There’s a perfectionism in me where I wouldn’t want to do that unless I could take it to the maximum. I’d have to win everything. I’d have to get into Formula One. I’m 63 so I’d buy my way into that. But I just wouldn’t be able to do it for fun. It would be too compelling. I am a compelled kind of character.

FM: You’d need to drive like you were playing the guitar.

EC: Exactly. I have an addictive nature; I have to do everything to the nth degree.

NM: There’s an enthusiasm for the cars, but actually it’s quite a painful process really to get a ’50s or ’60s Ferrari right – the engineering and detailing, getting the car to run properly. Actually it’s a never-ending task to get them right.

EC: And when you get one bit right something else goes wrong.

FM: With modern cars, even Ferraris like the 599, you don’t need to worry about that so much.

EC: Oh don’t you [laughs]!

NM: That’s where I was going to go next. Because Eric will worry about it. And if there’s a squeak or something… He’s the customer from hell.

EC: I should be in their R&D department.

FM: And do you have to have the latest thing?

EC: I am a bit like that, yes.

FM: Again, if you have an addictive personality, you’d be like, ‘I’ve got to have it, now!’

EC: Yes. And time’s flying by too.

NM: That’s true.

FM: When did you get your first Ferrari?

EC: It’s a good story because my mate George Harrison came round to my house, Hurtwood Edge, not long after I’d moved in there. Around 1969 I guess. He was a man with a great sense of style and aesthetics, he was good to watch; you know, what’s he going to buy next? And up till then he’d been buying Mercedes Pullmans. And then he pulled up in this sports car and I’d never seen one in the flesh. It was a Ferrari 365 GTC. Dark blue, with a tan interior. And it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I loved it because it was very subtle and simple and chic, but had these huge wheels. And I ordered one. At that time I could only drive automatic cars, and Mike Salmon came over and delivered this thing to me and said, ‘Do you want to have a go?’ I didn’t have the nerve to say that I didn’t actually know how to drive it. I just lied and said, ‘I can’t right now, I’ve got something to attend to.’ So they left it there and I taught myself to drive with a manual gearbox in that car.

“I had the 365 GTC for a long time and I painted it metallic purple for a while”

FM: You learnt to drive a manual in a 365 GTC? Hell of a way to do it.

EC: I bought one again recently. The clutch was fierce; I thought, ‘I don’t remember it being this fierce.’ Because having had nothing to compare it to, it wasn’t fierce. It was just a clutch. And I remember someone tried to introduce me to a Porsche at that time, and I couldn’t drive the Porsche because the clutch came out of the floor. And the Ferrari’s was suspended and was much smoother. Although it was fierce, it was smooth.

FM: So that was the first one. Did that kick-start a life-long romance?

EC: Well I had that car for a long time and I painted it metallic purple for a while. That was in their colour chart, you could get Ferrari purple. Then I had a Daytona. To be honest with you, after that I lose the plot. I’ve owned probably 30 cars.

NM: How many cars did you have at any one time?

EC: I had a policy of never owning more than I could drive or look after, so I never had more than five at any one time.

NM: I have exactly the same policy…

EC: How many have you got?

FM: 42?

NM: Something like that.

EC: Has it always been that number?

NM: No, that’s actually a reduction on it. I had 50-plus at one point.

EC: What was your introduction?

NM: My Dad was mad about motor racing and he worked for Shell’s film unit. He made films documenting the history of motor racing.

EC: Fantastic. So he’s got footage of all those old Grands Prix?

NM: Lots of footage. But he raced a vintage Bentley. So the big treat for me was to go to Silverstone to race. I was brought up in the vintage sports car club; I’ve got pictures I took when I was a kid of cars that I’ve ended up owning. Almost inevitable really that I got locked into it… Those are the formative years when you’re more into the idea of heroes, Stirling Moss, Fangio and so on.

EC: Well the drivers were more important then, they’d often drive to the race in the car. When things went wrong, the driver would push the car, that sort of stuff was quite normal back then. They really were heroes.

NM: Presumably, at some point you must have got into Porsches?

EC: Well only recently. I was always freaked out by rear-engined cars. Mind you, I had several Ferrari Boxers.

FM: That was a car with a fearsome reputation.

EC: Well the last one was perfect and very easy to manage. Those cars have such an intimidating nature, you have to let them know who’s boss.

NM: The nice thing about the Daytona and the last of the front-engined cars, is that Ferrari got it absolutely right, whereas it took a while to make the Boxers really work.

FM: You mentioned George Harrison earlier. Were all you guys in the late ’60s and ’70s major car enthusiasts?

EC: No, there weren’t that many people into it really. I mean Hendrix, definitely not. I don’t think I ever saw him drive. He might not even have been able to drive, I don’t know. I didn’t know Nick then, although we’d met, but I didn’t know Nick.

NM: In terms of music business hierarchy in the late ’60s, Eric was Senior President and I was a mere Junior [Clapton laughs]. He’s actually part of the reason I’m here today. It was a gig you did at Central London Polytechnic [on 1 October 1966, when a then unknown Jimi Hendrix jammed onstage with Cream. It’s gone down in rock folklore as one of the legendary gigs of all time].

EC: Oh yeah, with Hendrix, when he came over.

NM: We were a student band at the time. We took one look at that and thought, ‘Now that looks like quite good fun.’

EC: The motoring industry, the sporting branch of it anyway, was snotty and people like me, or John [Lennon], or George [Harrison], we had to take them on in a way. I didn’t know how to do that, but John or George would, they were quite hostile to these people. It was because we were working class and those guys were the establishment. We were worlds apart at that time, worlds apart. And looked down on, really, and sniggered at. You know, pop stars buying these fast cars.

FM: It’s tempting to look back and imagine all you guys driving up and down the Kings Road in your Ferraris, Astons and Bristols.

NM: I think a lot of the time we were actually in Transit vans, going to work. There was a lot of touring, and touring in a rather basic way… Am I right?

EC: Cars were a luxury, for me anyway. I only started thinking consciously about collecting them in the late ’70s. It was interesting that I was just buying new cars until I bought my Lusso. When I bought my Lusso it was an old car, a ’64 car and I bought it in ’75, so it was the first time that I’d consciously bought a car from a collecting point of view. And up until then I’d been buying new cars, a Boxer, a Daytona and so on.

FM: Did you ever meet Enzo Ferrari?

EC: I never met him. I remember on my first visit to Maranello, which was a sort of pilgrimage, he was coming out, being driven in a Fiat through the main gates, and he had the glasses on. And I thought, ‘Bloody hell, there’s the man.’ But he looked extremely angry. I didn’t think there’d be any point trying to say ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m a big fan’; I don’t know where you even start with people like that.

FM: All part of the mythology…

EC: Absolutely. It goes back to when I was a kid listening to the radio. These were the magic cars: Maserati, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo. They were the magic cars for some reason. They changed the face of it all. I mean, when my music career took off, all of that went a little bit into the background. But each time I came back to it a lot of other marques had come and gone but the Ferraris were still there.

NM: I think the expression ‘magic cars’ is a really good one. That’s my take on it. I remember going to Goodwood and seeing a couple of GTOs and just thinking, ‘Who could possibly even have this car and drive it?’ It was so unattainable and so exotic. We’d already had the Jaguar E-Type by then, which was the first attainable exotic car. But the Ferraris were in a class beyond.

FM: Because they are like art.

NM: And because they were so rare. I don’t think we even knew.

EC: And meant to be rare.

FM: Is there anything you wish you could get your hands on now? Are you actively thinking, ‘I shall have that.’

EC: Oh yes.

FM: What if, say, Nick decided to sell his GTO?

“I drive all my cars, I do drive them”

EC: Well no. Because I’m not the proper person to own a car like that. That’s where my fascination is limited. I still look at road cars; I was looking at a Vignale-bodied car the other day, a beautiful pale blue car, but it’s got a competition history, so immediately I think, ‘I can’t own that. I’m not the proper person for it.’

NM: Except someone like Ralph Lauren owns a GTO…

EC: But what does he do with it?

NM: Hmm, not a lot.

EC: See, I drive all my cars, I do drive them.

NM: Although, having said that, and although I’m widely seen as, ‘Oh it’s always very important to use the cars and they mustn’t collect dust in museums,’ what you actually need is a really good mix of people, some of whom drive the cars, some of whom store them. What you really want are a number of people who really like all the correct detail and are fanatical about that side of things. And that makes the right sort of mix in terms of looking after old cars.

FM: What kind of driver are you Eric?

EC: Cautious. These days I’m much more cautious. I used to be a lunatic driver and I probably had what it took to compete. Except I’m much more happy seeing cars go the other way. I feel more comfortable with that. I don’t know what that’s all about; when we’re all going in the same direction I get a bit…

FM: That’s weird.

EC: It is odd, isn’t it [laughing]? If only you could set up racing with people going in two different directions.

FM: Any Ferraris you had, that you let go and wished you hadn’t?

EC: Well I bought a 275 GTB from Mike Salmon, and though I was aware I paid over the odds for it, I thought it was such an extraordinary car. Then I bought another one as a present for a road manager, for £3,000. It was a lot of money at the time, and he didn’t like it and I had to sell it, but I know from driving those two cars, they were completely different. They were both quad-cam cars yet completely different.

FM: You’ve still got a 250 GT SWB.

EC: Yes. I can’t remember the exact provenance of it, but it’s road legal with an alloy body. Very odd combination, right-hand drive, so very rare and it’s absolutely perfect: it never has a problem starting, handles really well, seating position is perfect. I had another one which was disastrous and you never felt like you were going in a straight line. The one I had the most fun in was the BB 512i. Once I’d mastered it and threw it around and wasn’t intimidated by it at all, I loved that car.

FM: Do you ever have a bit of fun around wet roundabouts?

EC: Took off on a roundabout once because of the camber, landed on the other side. And I did lose it once on a country road. Went all the way round and ended up facing the right way again. But my philosophy was, just let go, don’t do anything. Let the car sort itself out [pause]!

FM: You guys really have a well-developed understanding of Ferraris, don’t you?

EC: I don’t think there are too many of us that have the same approach.

NM: I agree.

EC: Jay Kay is one.

NM: Absolutely. Jay also has that great affection for the Lusso. When people start talking Ferraris, it tends to be the GTO, the SWB and the Lusso that people particularly go for. They all have slightly different qualities, and the Lusso is generally accepted to be the most elegant.

EC: Yeah, and very comfortable. It just glides over the road, it has a completely different feel to an SWB or a 275 or any other car of that period. A very sophisticated, very comfortable car.

NM: Do you remember when you established a relationship with Ferrari in Italy?

EC: It was well before Luca [di Montezemolo, Ferrari President]. I can’t remember who was running it then. I’d go to pick up a car or just visit, and there would be someone different in charge each time; it never seemed to be particularly consistent until Luca came along. Then I met Luca and he was just great and we became pals and he would issue invitations to come and stay with him in Capri, which I never took him up on because I was always on the road or something. But I liked Luca right away and I thought he had a much better overall grasp of what the company meant to the world; he could see it, and respected it. And I knew nothing about where he came from, then I found out a little bit about his track record and how successful he’d been. He’s a great organiser, has a brilliant mind, and I like him a lot. He’s also very funny.

NM: Ferrari was sort of dragged kicking and screaming into the next century by Luca, I suspect.

FM: Do you still have an Enzo, or did you sell that?

EC: I had an Enzo until late last year and I’d been in such a quandary about it. I talked to Nick about it in the end because I just didn’t know what to do. I had stopped driving it. At one time it was stationed in France and it was good for zipping up and down the A8 from Cannes to Aix en Provence. Great bit of road, but now it’s really heavily monitored. I used to be able to get from Calais to Aix in about eight hours. Quite a high average speed, stopping for a sandwich and refuel and that’s it.

FM: You could do that 20 years ago.

EC: Ten years ago. Less than that, in fact…

NM: I remember driving to Le Mans from the south of France when we were recording down there. And over to Spa, motorway the whole way with nothing on it. True grand touring.

EC: I picked up the Enzo in Maranello. And I was worried about that because it’s practically a Formula One car, and I’m going to get in and drive out of the factory in this Ferrari – me, in this thing, designed by Schumacher – and actually it was like driving a Morris Minor, it was fantastic. So easy and we cruised along at about 30mph [48km/h] until we got onto the autoroute and then bang, it went like a bat out of hell. By the time I got to the north of France, I’d completely mastered it. It was amazing being able to travel so quickly, so easily.

FM: You’re not allowed to have fun anywhere anymore, are you?

EC: It’s possible, but you’ve got to be so vigilant now, and watching for so many eventualities that it’s not possible to drive really well. You can’t focus properly.

FM: So on that basis you decided to let the Enzo go?

EC: Yeah. I talked to Nick and I said, ‘What do you think is the proper thing to do?’ And he said, ‘Well the proper thing to do is to buy another Ferrari, one that isn’t going to be in quite such demand.’ I felt guilty about the fact that the Enzo was just sitting there. I’m not a track man, I’m not a club man.

FM: You’ve sold yours Nick, haven’t you?

NM: No, no. Still got it.

EC: He told me he was going to do the same thing, and of course then didn’t do it [laughs].

NM: No, I actually have thought about it a little bit since and I don’t think there is a problem at all. I think the factory quite rightly get irritated if they have this new wonder car and sell it to someone and it’s immediately flogged off. In reality, these supercars have a limited life, unless you want to be a collector and collect the whole range.

EC: Part of me wanted to hold onto it for that reason, and I do regret it actually. It’s a one-off, the best of its kind.

NM: Of its period, certainly. I’ve still got the F40, which is now a 20-year-old car. What’s so interesting is that you get the F40 or you get the Enzo and a few years later you realise that whatever Ferrari are making as a standard car is just as fast. That certainly happened with the F40. The 599’s performance is close to the Enzo’s now.

FM: I’m not sure, I think we’re going to start going the other way now; we talked about this with Jay as well.

EC: In what respect?

FM: Well that we might have reached…

EC: …the top end?

FM: The apogee of it. Ferrari’s a technology leader and they want to address the environmental question. The next Enzo will almost certainly be smaller, lighter, perhaps even less powerful.

EC: You think they’ll abandon the 12-cylinder?

FM: I don’t think so.

EC: That’s a very important, significant part of their history, isn’t it?

FM: Well you’re both musicians so you’ll appreciate that there’s something about the harmonic balance and musicality of 12 cylinders…

EC: Absolutely. I had a very bad crash in one of the early Boxers. I had a head-on collision and was concussed and they had to cut me out. It was a drunken escapade, my fault, but the thing was… I’d just flown back from Australia, I’d been thinking about the car, and drove down the road and had a head-on collision with a laundry van. And I scared myself so much that I bought a 308 instead but it just wasn’t the same. Someone said, ‘You should try the Boxer again, they’ve really improved it.’ So I did and I thought, ‘This is fantastic, the difference a 12-cylinder makes, it’s the only way to go.’ And that was my favourite car for a long time.

FM: Just looking around here: the art, the guitar, the music system, the music… And some Ferrari memorabilia – the only other thing that’s permitted to share a space with your other passions. Which is very telling.

EC: Yes. [Ferrari] are number one really. [They] wander off the path every now and then but the pursuit of excellence has always been there.

FM: Have you seen the new California?

EC: Yes. Gorgeous looking thing. I’m two inches away from picking up the telephone and ordering one right now.

NM: Well I’ve put my name down for one.

EC: Have you? You bugger. You didn’t tell me! Why not?

NM: I was worried they might put you further up the list!

With the collaboration of Jason Barlow

Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 3, December 2008

To get more of The Official Ferrari Magazine mix of people, lifestyle, arts and culture: Subscribe now