By Craig Leask
As mentioned in my article on Famous Television Cars a vehicle in movies, when properly used and presented, can be iconic and an integral component of the main character’s persona. Often great lengths are taken by a production team to research and identify the perfect car for their film, and when done right (and sometimes through incredible luck), the car becomes the movies identifier and ultimately iconic.
This is the second in the series, following the Famous Television Cars article previously posted, now focusing on movies.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – Customized 1910 Paragon Panther
It seems appropriate that Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond and his tricked-out cars, would be the author of another story featuring a rather special car. This would be the 1964 children’s novel “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car.” In the book, Fleming describes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as having originally been a famous Paragon Panther race car, taking his inspiration from racing cars built and raced by Count Louis Zborowski and his engineer Clive Gallop in early 1920’s Britain.
The original racing cars were informally christened Chitty Bang Bang, the name deriving apparently from the idling sound coming from the Zeppelin dirigible engine. There were four versions of the racing “Chitty” with the original version most resembling the car in the 1968 movie. She was a completely customized automobile containing 4 passenger seats and a 23-litre 6-cylinder Maybach aero-engine (known best for its use in Zeppelins), concealed under a classic Mercedes chassis. The car was capable of reaching a top speed of 100.75 miles per hour.
The movie car was designed and constructed by film production designers Ken Adam and cartoonist and sculptor Frederick Rowland Emett, who also created Caractacus Potts’ (Dick Van Dyke) inventions in the film. All mechanics provided by the Ford racing team. The original vehicle was 17 feet in length and weighed in at two tons with the designers insisting that no detail was overlooked or skimped in its construction. The details were exacting and yet the car was sturdy enough to meet all the needs of the script: driving in sand; driving on cobbled streets, and down staircases. The custom wheels and spokes were alloy molded to replicate period timber wheels. The wooden boat stern was constructed by boat builders using red and white cedar using traditional construction methods. The alloy dashboard plate and gages were from a British World War I fighter plane and the brass fittings were obtained from Edwardian shipwrecks. Under this façade was a modern Ford V6 engine with Automatic transmission.
Because of the importance of the vehicle to the movie, various back up and purpose-built vehicles were also constructed for the film: a near-identical vehicle was constructed as a primary backup due to the rough terrain the car would be subjected to as well as for in studio production; a stripped out version (i.e., fewer details and no engine) was designed for filming within salt water; a somewhat altered version was built for trailer work designed to accommodate camera shots; a final lightweight fiberglass version was mounted on two concealed motorboats for filming at sea.
The original and most detailed car was auctioned off on 22 May 2011, selling for $805,000 to film director Sir Peter Jackson, who uses it as a charity fund-raising vehicle. The second road version presently resides at the Dezer Car Museum in Miami, Florida. The final road version is on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, UK. The hover-car fiberglass version was destroyed after filming. The flying version built with wings and fiberglass pieces was displayed at a Chicago restaurant before being sold in 2007 for $505,000 to a Florida resident who restored the vehicle and placed it on temporary display at a Mulch-Production facility in 2018.
A final version of the car was constructed in 2002 for the stage production of the story for its debut at The London Palladium. The highly detailed prop car was equipped with all the elements required to replicate the movie car for the stage including computer activated retractable wings, inflating hydrofoil inflatable extensions and rotating 45-degree tilt tires. At a cost of £750,000 to design and construct, the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang prop car is recognized by the Guinness World Records as the most expensive stage prop ever.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977) – 1977 Pontiac Trans Am – T-top, CB Radio – complete with “Flaming Chicken” decals
In the history of movie making, the car chase developed into a staple of action movies – hero’s fighting the good fight, being chased by villains or the law who may or may not be in support of the end goal. THAT is the great premise that formed the base of many movies. Although there are many examples in movies of car/horse/bus/train chases throughout the history of film, it is often acknowledged that the first true car chase movie, and the one which really set up the genre, was Bullitt (1968). In Bullitt, there is one car chase which continues for some 10-minutes, exceeding all chases previously filmed and to get the most out of the scene, director Peter Yates positioned cameras throughout the route, placing the audience inside the cars for the full experience.
The 1970’s took the car chase and made it a staple in action movies for the next decade which is a feature that continues in films being produced today. Directors capitalized on the car chase in The French Connection (1971) and its famous chase under the New York elevated highway, What’s Up Doc (1972) with it’s hilarious chase throughout San Francisco in everything from a stolen VW Bug to a Chinese parade dragon, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) and the climactic attempt to outrun a train to cross state lines in a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, and pretty much every James Bond movie made. But no film exemplifies the genre better than Smokey and the Bandit (1977).
The basic plot of Smokey and the Bandit surrounds an effort to transport Coors beer across county lines by the Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Cledus (Jerry Reed) while being pursued by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleeson). Capitalizing on the Citizens Band (CB) Radio craze at the time, the film also featured Sally Field (playing runaway bride, Carrie) and a soon to be iconic Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.
Burt Reynolds plays his reckless handsome self and with Sally Field riding shotgun in a beautiful muscle car, men wanted to be exactly like the Bandit, and the fastest way to be like him was to get a Pontiac Trans Am. Smokey and the Bandit was basically an hour and a half commercial for the car and, as a result, Pontiac went on to sell 68,745 Trans Ams that year, with sales continuing on into 1978 where they marked their highest sales ever. Additionally, after Smokey and the Bandit, Pontiac stock rose a staggering 70 percent in value.
The Trans Am was used again in Smokey and The Bandit II (1980) with Burt driving a 1980 Turbo model Pontiac Trans Am, and Smokey and The Bandit Part 3 (1983) featured the 1982 model, with Burt’s role reduced to a cameo at the film’s end.
At the Barrett-Jackson auction in March 2016, one of the original Smokey and the Bandit Pontiac Trans Ams sold for $550,000 and is now on display at the Cars of Dreams Museum in Palm Beach, Florida.
Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989) – The Ectomobile, or ECTO-1 and ECTO-1A – 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor
One cannot think of Ghostbusters or hear their “Who you gonna call?” theme, without thinking about the team screaming around New York in the Ectomobile. The 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Hearse, customized to include flashing lights, sirens and an assortment of unidentified equipment, hoses and tanks was the brainchild of actor and co-writer Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd envisioned the Ghostbusters team driving a vehicle that had been originally designed and used to deliver dead bodies to their final resting place. This, he argued, would tie in beautifully with the Ghostbusters brand and the movie’s humor.
The original design for the vehicle was to be much more menacing, sporting a black paint scheme with white and purple lighting designed to make the car “glow”. The design was altered considerably to its present look as the script was developed and it was determined many of the scenes would be shot after dark, making a black vehicle difficult to film. The final design and development of the Ectomobile was led by Art Director Stephen Dane, who also designed many of the props for the film (the Proton Pack, Particle Thrower, Spirit Trap, Slime Blower, etc.). Unfortunately, Dane’s first name was misspelled in the credits (Steven Dane) and for some reason hi is listed as “Hardware Consultant.”
Two of the cars were sourced and secured and converted for use in the movie, dubbed ECTO-1 and ECTO-1A. Upon release of the movies, ECTO-1 was used for promotions throughout New York City, often causing car accidents by drivers distracted by the sight. Following completion of filming both movies, both vehicles were retired to the Sony backlot where they were left to the deteriorating effects of weather and time. In 2009, to promote the release of the Ghostbusters video game, ECTO-1 was refurbished and utilized to assist in publicity events. ECTO-1A was rescued by a group of hard-core fans purchased the car from Sony and restored it themselves.
The 2016 all-female reboot of Ghostbusters did not use the original Ectomobile, choosing instead to ferret the team around in a 1980 Cadillac Fleetwood hearse.
Ghostbusters 3, whose teaser trailer identifies it as “Untitled Ghostbusters Project”, is planned for release in July 2020 and is being directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the original Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. The trailer hints at a return of the Ectomobile which is again being restored by Sony.
Back to the Future (1985) (Back to the Future Part II (1989), Back to the Future Part III (1990) – 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 (customized for time travel)
The unlikely plot of Back to The Future was based on some very real conversations between writer/ producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. Gale had just returned from a visit with his parents in St. Louis, Missouri where he has come across his father’s high school yearbook. Connecting with Zemeckis, he discussed a scenario where a child has the opportunity to meet his father at the same age to see if they could have been friends. Zemeckis suggested the addition of the boy’s prudish mother, having been somewhat promiscuous when the son also meets her. Gale and Zemeckis built up the concept and approached Columbia Pictures who loved the idea and, in September 1980, gave the pair the green light to proceed with a script. Eventually Universal Pictures and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment produced the film.
The original “time machine” proposed was to have been a refrigerator but concerns about children mimicking the movie and locking themselves in a Frigidaire helped nixed the idea. With a new belief that a mobile time machine would have less limitations in the scripting, slightly mad scientist “Doc” Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) would thus convert an automobile. At this point the DeLorean was chosen, mainly due to its futuristic, stainless steel body and gull wing doors – the DeLorean’s styling was as far as one could get from those in 1955, making the vehicle that much more unique, and aptly supporting the movie’s farmers belief the car was in fact a flying saucer. Interesting side note, Spielberg later used the Frigidaire idea, (which included using the 1951 Nevada nuclear test to launch the appliance and its inhabitants back to the future) in the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).
Doc’s time machine was designed by artist Andrew Probert and production designer Ron Cobb with the base understanding that it was to look as if it had been built in a garage using parts found in local hardware and electronics stores. The production design team then enhanced the vehicles interior with gadgets which would appear to support the Flux Capacitor propulsion system. In total, five authentic DeLorean’s were used in filming the trilogy, in addition to one specifically constructed car for interior shots and a DeLorean fiberglass model fitted over a VW Beetle frame for off-road scenes.
At no point did the movie attempt to disguise the fact that under the plutonium-powered Flux Capacitor, exterior gadgetry, hoses and lights, was a classic DeLorean DMC-12 as stated in the following quote from the movie:
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) “Wait a minute. Wait a minute Doc, uh, are you telling me you built a time machine … out of a DeLorean?”
Doc (Christopher Lloyd) “The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”
The car, one of only 9,000 produced, was developed by the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). The fledgling automobile manufacturer had been the brainchild of John DeLorean, who started the company in 1975. The stainless-steel vehicle was designed by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, widely known as the world’s most influential modern automotive designer. Unfortunately, DMC went into receivership and then finally bankruptcy in 1982, prior to the production and release of Back to the Future.
One of the apparent three remaining DeLorean time machines was sold in December 2011 at the Hemmings Collector Car Marketplace for $541,000 with the proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Thelma and Louise (1991) – 1966 Ford Thunderbird
Thelma and Louise is a female road movie based on the buddy film genre which had historically been centered on male bonding. The genre is based upon following a relationship as it develops between two people (usually male) as they grow and experience life’s trials and tribulations. Although the two leads often have different or clashing personalities, their journey builds a stronger friendship and ultimately, mutual respect. These characteristics are particularly evident in: Easy Rider (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Blues Brothers (1980), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and even Paper Moon (1973). Adding feministic based solidarity, director Ridley Scott took the buddy road movie in a different direction with Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon respectively). While simply looking for a short break from the uneventful routine of their lives and relationships, the title characters quickly find they have become on-the-lam partners in the murder of a would-be rapist. The story cumulates in a climactic ending which celebrates female empowerment and freedom from oppression.
And what would a road film be without a classic ride? For Thelma and Louise, director Scott knew the importance for the girls to have an iconic vehicle as that would be a staple screen character throughout the film as well as a representation of Louise’s renegade personality.
The classic 1966 Ford Thunderbird was selected as Louise’s chosen vehicle as much for its representation of the rebellious journey of the two leads, as it was for its practical design, allowing for unobstructed camera angles in shooting the actors when the convertible top was down. A total of five cars were used in the movie: one car used exclusively for exterior shots, one camera car, two cars dedicated to stunts and one backup should mechanical difficulties occur with any of the other four. The cars were used in their original form – that is, there were no modifications made to the vehicles as is the norm for a movie car. In 2008, the main Thunderbird was sold at the Barrett Jackson auction in 2008 for $71,500, which included MGM documentation of authenticity and Brad Pitt’s signature on the rear seat arm rest and Gena Davis’s signature on the passenger side sun visor.
Although the route the women follow from Arkansas to The Grand Canyon is fictitious, the movie was filmed predominantly on back roads in rural California and Utah. The final climactic scene at the Grand Canyon, was actually filmed in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah and, due to the requirement to film the termination of the girl’s Thunderbird, the climactic scene was the last to be filmed. A special (unseen) ramp was constructed at the valley’s ridge to launch the car and much of the vehicle’s weight was removed to ensure the car maintained a level trajectory for the shoot. Dummy replicas of Thelma and Louise were included in the car for this final scene.
In 2016, the United States Library of Congress selected Thelma and Louise to be included in the National Film Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and thus worthy of protection for perpetuity.
James Bond’s Cars
What article on Famous Movie Cars would be complete without a nod towards the fantastic cars of the James Bond franchise? Although Bond cars post 1990 veered towards product placement, namely BMW’s, the previous cars were often mesmerizing with the most famous being the 1963 Aston Martin DB5. This was the Bond car that started it all, and is as associated with James Bond as “shaken, not stirred” martinis and his gun of choice, the 1958 Walther PPK. What made the Aston iconic was the rarity of it, predominantly for North American audiences in 1964, when the car made its debut in Goldfinger. The Aston was not available in North America, making it unfamiliar to audiences, which further added to its mystic. Add to that the kick ass gadgets (hidden machine guns, rear oil slick jets, smoke screen, retractable bullet deflector screen, revolving license plates and those neat ejector seats) and you had something very enviable.
The car was such a success in Goldfinger that it was brought back as part of the Bond persona: Sean Connery drove the car again in Thunderball (1965); Pierce Brosnan drove a similar model in Goldeneye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); and Daniel Craig drove one in Casino Royale (2006) and again in Skyfall (2012). And, as a spoof on himself, Roger Moore appears in the Aston The Cannonball Run (1981). There were two cars used for filming – a late-series DB4 was used for close-ups and a DB5 was used for the chase scenes. Both cars were rented to EON Productions to be used in the movies. The original 1964 DB5 sold at auction in 2010 for $4,608,500.
As you can imagine, the above selection is merely scratching the surface as there are so many additional famous movie cars to discuss so keep watch here for Famous Movie Cars- Part Two.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.