Classic stories on Film

Classic stories on Film

It is said you should never put your daughter on the stage, but the same might be said of your cherished vehicle. Renting it out to a film or TV production company sounds glamorous and can be lucrative, but it is worth remembering that your pride and joy will be a ‘Prop’ and that is a pretty lowly status in the world of film production. Jay Leno tells the story of a friend of his who loaned his Citroen SM out to a movie and when it was returned the owner found a huge chunk of the dash had been cut out with a Sawzall to make room for a camera. When he called the production company they said “no problem, send us the bill to fix it” to which he replied “Bill? You don’t understand, where do I even begin to find another dashboard?!”

However, if the film or TV series becomes a hit, then that lowly Prop becomes a valuable icon with an almost mythical status, way beyond the value of the base vehicle. Never mind if its a wreck because it was hammered within an inch of its life by stuntmen, or badly finished because the production team had five minutes to make it, the camera will never pick up the detail. If it had screen time and especially if the star touched it, then it becomes a thing of awe.

Eddie Paul is a well known inventor and movie car maker. In the 1970’s his lease on his garage was about to expire when a guy walked in the door desperately looking for someone to supply 48 classic cars (including customs) for a film to be called ‘Grease’. Paul assumed it must be a cooking show. “How long do I have?” he asked and was told two weeks. He was about to show the gentleman the door, just as every other garage had, when the production assistant said “I have money”, and opened his briefcase to reveal it was stuffed with $100 bills. “How much is in there?” Paul asked and the reply was “I’m not really sure, I just said fill it”.

Two intense weeks followed, with Paul often working through the night. As the deadline approached he just had to finish the white customised 1948 Ford De Luxe that was to be ‘Greased Lightning’ which John Travolta would drive in the film. The evening before delivery he just had to paint it and with it prepped for topcoat he picked up his spraygun, only to find his compressor gave up the ghost. It was way past closing for any store where he could buy a replacement, so with the deadline just hours away, in desperation he picked up a paint roller and rollered the white paint on.

It dried with a surface resembling sandpaper and almost completely matt. After the intense two weeks Paul was totally dejected. The studio collected the car in the morning and he waited for the call to tell him he was fired and would never work for Hollywood again. When the phone finally rang, he reluctantly picked it up and listened as he was thanked for doing a great job and how the lighting crew were really impressed that he had the foresight to finish the feature car in matt white so that it didn’t reflect the studio lights…

Eddie Paul went on to produce many film cars and was a stunt driver on ‘The Dukes of Hazard’. The series featured the ‘General Lee’ a modified 1968/69 Dodge Charger created by the studio in bright orange with a Rebel flag on the roof. It was  originally going to be Confederate grey but it didn’t stand out enough. It was only when they started writing off almost one car per episode that replica ‘Lees’ were commissioned from outside sources, which led to inconsistencies in appearance. Fan uproar (and mounting costs) led to the studio bringing production back in house, but Dodge Chargers were at the bottom of their depreciation scale and being scrapped by private owners, so the studio writing off an additional estimated 255 to 325 (sources vary) Chargers in crashes and jumps meant they became thin on the ground. They resorted to commissioning spotters in light aircraft to fly around California, hunting down suitable cars. In later episodes and to everyones horror (including the crew) they used models and repeated old footage for the infamous jumps.

People now flinch at the thought of these classics being destroyed in such abundance, but at the time they were just ‘old cars’. It is also worth considering that the General Lee made Chargers cool again and helped them become a car people wanted to save. One of the most memorable features of the General Lee was that the doors were welded shut, ‘Nascar style’ and the stars, Bo and Luke Duke slid into the car through the open windows. This came about because during filming of the first episode the passenger side door handle was damaged during a chase scene. Tom Wopat who played Luke Duke, slid in through the window and the Director liked it so much it became an ongoing feature.

The main rival show to The Dukes of Hazard was ‘Knight Rider’ and KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was the AI equipped, black 1982 (later ’83 and ’84) Pontiac Trans Am that the main character, Michael Knght, drove. Knight was  played by David Hasselhoff and the star has often been teased that the car out acted him. It's self driving, self navigating, and talking capabilities were possibly the inspiration for the techies that would develop the voice synthesisers, SatNavs  and now autonomous cars currently in the pipeline. Stuntman Jack Gill had worked on the Dukes of Hazzard and the competition for ratings with that show was so intense that in one episode KITT was seen to jump over a bright orange Dodge Charger, strikingly reminiscent of the General Lee, to prove he was superior. The rate of attrition of vehicles was miniscule in comparison to the Mopars on that show and using a current model (albeit modified) meant a constant supply was available from Pontiac who enjoyed the publicity.

To reflect the 'virtually indestructible' nature of KITT, the special effects team built a rubber outer shell that slipped over the Pontiacs bodywork. When another car collided with KITT he seemed to have no damage, but in fact the rubber had sprung out and the car would be damaged underneath. If you look carefully in many shots you will see the screen pillars look thicker than normal and this is when the  car is wearing its protective rubber jacket. There were several core cars used, each with one part of the features with which KITT was equipped. When the show wrapped, the best condition car had the KITT interior added (it was an external shot car) from the sound stage and ended up in Universal studios, where it was a visitor feature. An operator was able to hide a few feet away and talk to children visiting through the cars sound system, as though they were in the ‘real’ KITT. After the car was retired some twenty years later, a Knight Rider enthusiast purchased it and set about sympathetically restoring it whilst retaining the patina of its life on film. Underneath he was surprised to find a grid of holes drilled in the car floor under the drivers seat. For some time he was mystified by these as they didn’t correlate to any equipment or camera kit that was used. Finally he came across someone who had worked on the Universal ride and they revealed that kiddies were so excited to be sitting in KITT that when he spoke to them by name they often wet themselves and the holes were to assist drainage. In an odd coincidence, David Hasselhoffs wife would divorce him in 1989 and marry an actor whose real name was Michael Knight.

Michael Scheffe designed and co-ordinated the production of the car with assistance from Jay Orhberg, who still sells components so you can build your own replica. Features on KITT started to appear on production cars, so he was boosted in later series by a ’Super pursuit mode’ with active aerodynamics, which were created by the famous Customiser George Barris.  Barris created many iconic TV and Film vehicles (and, it appears, claimed many he didn’t) but his most iconic was the Batmobile from the wonderfully camp 1960’s TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The studio called with the usual ridiculously short deadline and Barris knew he didn’t have enough time to create something from scratch. What he did have was a concept car, the 1955 Lincoln Futura which back in the day Lincoln claimed to have cost $250,000 (a massive sum back then) to have coach built by Ghia in Italy. It was Lincolns ‘Car of the Future’ and did the rounds of exhibitions to promote the brand and gain back market share from its rival, Cadillac who had crept ahead technologically. It even became a film star in it’s own right in the movie ‘It Started with a Kiss’. Ford (who owned Lincoln) had eventually retired the car and put it into storage at Barris facility. After considerable time had passed, Ford owed Barris a significant sum for storage and the car was ‘old hat’ so they sold it to him in exchange for the rental bill, plus the 'peppercorn' sum of $1.

Barris transformed the car into the 1966 Batmobile using sketches from production artist Eddie Graves. When he delivered the car for a test shoot it was a matt black primer all over and it didn’t film too well, so it was given white highlights but these didn’t help much either.  So, it was refinished in black gloss and the synonymous red edge highlighting was added, which made it ‘pop’ on screen. The series was a hit and Barris was contracted to build 3 replicas which were made in fibreglass from moulds taken from the original. These copies were used as a potential back-up to Batmobile 1, but mainly for exhibition tours around the US because the car had become so famous that there were more requests for appearances than could be achieved with one vehicle. Batmobile 4 was fitted with a High Performance Holman & Moody 427 (there lays another story in itself, look up their story) and a kerosene powered flame thrower to emit an afterburner effect from the jet exhaust at the rear. It gave demonstration runs at drag strips driven by well known racer ‘Wild Bill’ Shrewsberry, where it could achieve a 12 second quarter mile. At one raceway, it was used to give raffle winning children rides, can you imagine that happening in todays Health and Safety utopia? Bill became the worlds coolest dad on one particular occasion, when he gave his kids a lift to school in the car...

There were also two privately built replica cars created by fans, one in the USA and one in the UK, so Barris decided to protect his intellectual property and managed to obtain a US Patent on the Batmobile. A legal battle with the US privateer ensued and he ended up owning it. Barris always retained ownership of the original Futura based Batmobile 1 until 2013 when he and his family decided to sell. It set a new auction record for a TV or Film car prop at $4.2million.

Batman was played by Adam West, who was considered for the part of James Bond when George Lazenby didn’t reprise the role. West turned it down because he felt Bond should be played by a British actor and in the end Sean Connery returned for the next film, Diamonds are Forever, for a then unprecedented fee of $1.25m. That fee limited the special effects and continuity budget, which becomes apparent when you watch the movie. This film featured Bond driving the heroines Mustang Mach 1, which he tips onto two wheels to drive down a narrow alley and evade his pursuers. The story goes that the stunt team wrecked all but one of the matching Mustangs Ford had supplied trying to do the stunt, so with one car left the production office called the legendary stunt driver, Bill Hickman*. The story goes that he drove for hours to get to the set, got in the car and did the stunt first time. The alley entrance was filmed in one location, whilst the exit scene was filmed in another, with different driver. No-one realised that the car enters the alley balanced on its right wheels, but exits on its left wheels. A corny shot of Connery and Bond girl Jill St John in the car was montaged in between showing the car supposedly rotating midway through to keep the stunt in the film.

One of the more unusual Bond cars was in this movie, a Moon Buggy which Bond steals from what appears to be a soundstage faking the moon landings. The buggy was styled by production designer Ken Adam and built by famed custom fabricator, Dean Jeffries** (who had actually started on the Batmobile before relinquishing the project to Barris when he felt there was insufficient time). The buggy was built on a Corvair chassis but had no suspension as the script had it smashing through a wall and driving off down the smooth highway so none was needed. The storyline changed after the buggy was built and a chase scene was filmed in a Gypsum quarry outside Las Vegas. The lack of suspension put the axles under extreme load on the rough terain and the wheels literally and regularly, fell off. In fact, if you watch the film there is a scene where one of the chasing security cars rolls down a bank and a Moon Buggy wheel rolls past, having fallen off out of shot. The Buggy came to England for interior shots at Pinewood, then did a promotional tour for the film where I got to sit in it as an excited 12 year old. I recall the disappointment in finding no space age cockpit as in the film, just a chain and cog steering mechanism... oh, the glamour of movies. The buggy ended up decaying in a field in Kent for years, before being rescued by the editor of 007 magazine and restored with the help of the James Bond International Fan Club. It was subsequently purchased by Planet Hollywood and placed in their Las Vegas location.


 

*Hickman was a friend and mentor to James Dean in race driving. Dean called him “Big Bastard” and Hickman called Dean “Little Bastard” which was what studio owner Jack Warner apparently nicknamed him. Hickman was following several minutes behind in a support Station Wagon on September 30th 1955, when Deans Porsche collided heavily with another car. Hickman arrived and helped extract Dean from the wreckage but he never recovered consciousness and Dean took his last breath in his friends arms.
**Jeffries was famed for his pin-striping and James Dean asked him to paint the racing numbers and ‘Little Bastard’ on his Porsche 550 Spyder.

Particular thanks to Eric Seltzer at 1966Batmobile.com for the use of the Futura and Batmobile photos.

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