The story of Michael Caine’s Car from the 1972 movie ‘Sleuth’

LLU 755K

by Julian Amos

There have been a few iconic MGB’s over the years.  Successful racers, cars with famous or regal owners and one or two film-star cars.  This story is about one of those MGBs that became a film star.

In opening scene of the fabulous 1972 psychological thriller ‘Sleuth’, a certain Mr Michael Caine, playing the character of Milo Tindal, is seen driving a beautiful, brand-new, flame red MGB Roadster along the gravel driveway leading to Cloak Manor, the home of author, Andrew Wyke, played by Sir Laurence Olivier.  The car’s paintwork and chrome gleams in the sunlight and the exhaust burbles with a slight blip of revs as Caine pulls up in the car and reverses to park near the elegant doorway to this magnificent country house.  He steps from the car, removing his driving gloves and cap, and tosses them into the passenger seat before walking off to search for Laurence Olivier’s character, who’s busy in the garden working on the writing of his next novel.

The whole scene must’ve been an advertisers dream for MG at that time.  What a setting, what a cast and what dreams must’ve been formed in the minds of would-be MG owners at this dreamy combination.  I know for sure that at least two young boys had their hearts and minds set on MG ownership whilst watching this unfold and though the backgrounds of these two impressionable young men could hardly have been more different, a strange twist of fate meant that they would both realise their dreams, and all because of Michael Caine in this rather special MGB Roadster.

The film, adapted from the renowned play by Anthony Shaffer was a huge success, not least in part because of the award-winning roles played by Caine and Olivier.  Sleuth was filmed partly at Athelhampton House in Dorset, which was the location and backdrop for Cloak Manor, home of mystery writer, Andrew Wyke and although the MG isn’t seen being driven again during the movie it does appear in many other scenes, not least where Milo Tindal attempts to escape in the MG from a deadly situation that he had suddenly found himself in.

 Athelhampton House was built in 1485 and is one of England’s finest Tudor Manor Houses.  After several changes in ownership through the centuries, the house was purchased by the Cooke family in 1957, whereupon the following three generations of the Cooke line carried out restoration work.

By 1972, when the house was used for the location filming in Sleuth, Athelhampton was owned by Robert Cooke MP, but as the filming was going on, Robert’s young son, Patrick, was watching the proceedings closely and, it seems, he fell for this lovely bright red sportscar himself, because once he’d inherited Athelhampton House from his father twenty years later in 1992, becoming the third generation of the Cooke family to own and live at Athelhampton, he began a search in an attempt to find the actual MG used by Michael Caine’s character in the film.

Patrick contacted the MG Owners Club to ask if they could help locate the car and the club began a nationwide search.  Unfortunately, it seemed that whoever the present owner was, they were not currently a member of the club, and nobody knew of the car’s whereabouts.  The search went on, but it wasn’t until quite a while later that completely through chance, the then owner of the car contacted Patrick to ask if he was interested in buying the MG!

Patrick accepted immediately, of course, and sent the MG to a specialist for a good check over and some light restoration, though the car had luckily been well looked after and had remained completely original in the intervening two decades since it had appeared in the movie.

Patrick and his wife used the MGB on local runs near their home, but also as part of a display at Athelhampton House, which Patric had now opened to the public and which included a display about the movie ‘Sleuth’.  The car was kept and enjoyed like this by the family for the next 20 years –   displaying the car during public visiting hours and as a local runabout during good weather, but in 2019 Patric decided to retire and move abroad.  Athelhampton House along with its entire contents were auctioned off.  This included the MG, which took a staring role in the auctioneers’ catalogue as the final lot – Lot 500.

A local car dealer snapped-up the MG, now affectionately known by everyone that knew the car as, Lulu.  He garaged the motor and it sat there idle for a couple of years until he decided to put it on the market where it received a lot of attention from the press, not least as a feature in a classic car newspaper, which is where I, the present owner of Lulu, come into the story.

As a young boy in the early 1970’s I sat and watched the movie ‘Sleuth’ with my parents.  The film remains one of my all-time favourites.  It’s one of those films you never forget for some reason, but what stood out to me the most at that impressionable young age was Michael Caine’s car…  That gloriously shiny bright red MGB crunching along the gravel driveway of Cloak Manor, the throttle blipping with that wonderful sporting burble and the image of the car being parked up outside that picturesque country manor house on a glorious summer’s day.  Overnight I became an MG ‘spotter’.  Every trip with my parents was an excuse to watch out for these little sportscars and I became a very young enthusiast.

Years later, at the age of 16, when I’d finally reached the point where I was about to take my driving test, I spotted a 1969 MG Midget for sale at a dealer for £350.  I was in my first job by this time earning just £25 per week, but I somehow managed to save the money to buy it, despite not yet having my driving licence.  It was tartan red, had rotted sills, the leather seats were becoming unstitched, there were big holes in the floor beneath the foot pedals, but I loved it.  It wasn’t exactly like Michael Caine’s MG in Sleuth, but it was close.  Unfortunately, during the lengthy restoration, my MG got stollen.  I was heartbroken, but after taking my driving test and working my way through a couple of more mundane motors I eventually managed to afford a 1966 MGB Roadster.  I was finally getting closer to that dream of owning a car like the one I’d seen in the movie all those years before.

This ’66 MGB in Old English White was my daily driver through the late 1980’s and early 90’s.  Wire wheels, overdrive and mid-60’s build, made it a very sought after model during the MG boom in the late 80’s and many people were surprised that I used it as my every-day vehicle.  I carried out all of the weekly maintenance to keep it tip top condition at the time, even driving it through Winters with the regular heavy snow we used to have in those days.

I eventually had to sell my beloved ‘66 MGB though due to money troubles but took a 1967 MGB GT in part exchange.  This lessoned the loss a great deal and this GT became one of my favourites.

Through the 2000’s I got lost in other marques for a while.  I’d worked myself into a good job and become a published author and as well as moving to live in the countryside I was able to own a few other sportscars cars I’d been keen on.  Amongst them, a 1972 Aston Martin DBS Vantage came my way, just like Brett Sinclare’s from The Persuaders and then, a bit later a mid-80’s model Morgan 4/4.  The owner’s clubs for these were a disappointment though.  My local group meets had lots of wealthy folks that bought the cars as investments or just to be flash and hunting for fellow ‘proper enthusiasts’ to discuss the history, development, and home mechanics with was sometimes nigh impossible – especially with the Aston crowd.

Image Source with permission: Classic Car Weekly May 2021

More and more my thoughts came back to MG’s and I found myself hunting the small ads for a ‘special’ car.  I found one, quite close to home as it happens, a very early model MGB, but just as I’d set my sights on buying it, I noticed a story in a classic car newspaper.  The headline read, ‘Film Star Car Comes to Market’, and low and behold, it was the very MGB Roadster that Michael Caine drove in the movie Sleuth that I’d watched as a kid and which had enthralled me so much when I was a mere 6 years old.  If it hadn’t been for this actual car, I might never have discovered the joy of MG ownership.  I moved quickly and went to view and drive the car the very next day.

As I arrived at the garage in Somerset, I spotted the MG immediately, sitting gleaming in the sunshine.  Hood down, chrome sparking and that flame red paintwork that hints at orange in certain lights, looking stunning.  The car was exactly as it had been in the 1972 movie, nothing changed or altered, and my heart skipped and my imagination instantly lept back 50 years to where I was sitting cross legged on the floor in front of the TV set watching Michael Caine take off his hat and gloves and toss them onto the passenger seat.  I test drove the car (whilst pinching myself!) and found it to be a really nice example, but to be honest, my mind was already made up before I’d even arrived at the garage.  The only mystery to me was why nobody else had jumped in and bought the car before I’d spotted it.  I like to think that fate lent a hand here, that perhaps it was just meant to be…

A week or so later Lulu was delivered to our home in Warwickshire.  Since then, we’ve been enjoying driving her around the countryside here and each journey is tinged with a slight air of ‘magic’ that goes beyond the usual air of ‘MG magic’ that we all know and love so much.   It’s something that is not wearing off!  Whenever I meet a fellow MG enthusiast, I regale them with this story (my wife says I bore them with the story, and I suppose that might be the case) and I’ve certainly had plenty of people who clearly don’t believe a word it, but this matters not one jot to me, because although I’d love a pre-war MG someday, as far as MGBs go, this particular car, – which for all intents and purposes is no more than just a bog-standard 1972 model in flame red with rostyle wheels, – is unique, irreplaceable and almost priceless to me personally.  Lulu is truly more than the sum of her parts.  An iconic age-defying co-star alongside Sir Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier, two of our most enduring and talented British actors in one of the most brilliant movies of the period.  Well, that’s what I think anyway, but I might be a bit biased…