John Hughes was at the height of his teen-comedy powers by the time he created Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the greatest movie ever made about playing hooky. It opened June 11, 1986—the same weekend, ironically, as Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School—and starred Matthew Broderick as the titular character; Mia Sara as his girlfriend, Sloane; and Alan Ruck as his best friend, Cameron. In a bit of casting genius that is still bearing fruit three decades on, Hughes chose a Hollywood newcomer, the 1985 Modena Spyder, to star in the film’s most important role as the distinguished 1961 Ferrari 250GT California Spider.
These were the heady Testarossa days, mind you, when automotive decadence skewed toward wings, wedges, and deeply striated doors. Most of America was unfamiliar with the elegant restraint of Ferrari’s distant past, and even though it seems obvious today, no other car but the doppelgänger of a California Spider could have made that movie resonate across multiple generations in quite the same way.
With Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science under his directorial belt, plus writing credits for National Lampoon’s Vacation and European Vacation, Mr. Mom, and Pretty in Pink, all between 1983 and 1986, no baby boomer in America had a better grasp of the Gen X experience than Hughes. Perhaps that’s why Ferris came to him so easily; Hughes conceived the story, pitched it to Paramount execs, and wrote the script in a week. The plot initially featured a contemporary Mercedes as the freedom chariot for the misadventures of Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron. The shooting script still contains a reference, a third-act closeup of a Mercedes bumper as Cameron rests his loafered foot on it for half a beat—before the jack falls, the spinning rear tires drop, and the entire day off comes crashing down around them.
But no one rubs a new Mercedes with a diaper. No one loves a new Mercedes more than life itself. No one cares if your dad’s new Mercedes goes out the back of the garage and into the ravine in a spectacular shower of shattered glass. A new Mercedes, Hughes realized, just wasn’t priceless enough.
During pre-production, Hughes saw a magazine write-up on the new spyder from fledgling Modena Design & Development. He fell for it and the actual Ferrari it represented. We were still three years from the Ferrari market boom, when real Cal Spiders would soar to more than $2.5 million almost overnight. But even in the first half of the 1980s, they’d jumped from under $50,000 to $250,000. With a $5.8 million budget for Ferris, Hughes couldn’t splurge on the real thing, let alone several of them. So he called up the tiny firm to ask about their new replica.
Neil Glassmoyer and his partner Mark Goyette were at work in El Cajon, California, on their first cars when the phone rang. Glassmoyer hung up on Hughes. Twice. “I thought it was my friend playing a practical joke,” he says. But soon a registered letter from Paramount Studios arrived, and the men took their prototype to L.A. so Hughes could see it for himself. The studio ordered two of the $35,000 cars plus another to be assembled by the crew during filming.
The replicars (Fauxrraris, fakes, tributes, kit cars—choose your descriptor) had solid engineering on their side, with a tube frame designed by Bob Webb, who had previously done that job for Penske Racing’s Zerex Specials. A March 1986 Car and Driver road test of one of the 2580-pound movie cars revealed it to have “a good chassis and a competent suspension, and it offers the possibility of some truly hellacious go-fast motoring.” They were also rolling parts buffets: Windshields and interior door handles were Fiat 124, taillights were VW Type 3, front bumper and trunklid were MGB, rear bumper was VW Karmann-Ghia, front suspension was Chrysler and rear was VW, and a Ford V-8 put power to all of it. Such a collection of pieces, along with the fact that neither Glassmoyer nor Goyette had ever seen a real 250GT California Spider in person, could easily have amounted to a garbled death trap. That the Modena Spyders were actually sure-footed, fast, well-built machines speaks to the absolute attention to detail the men paid to each car they turned out for Ferris and friends.
For Hughes’s purposes, one car would serve as the “hero” car for all the shots of Ferris at the wheel around Chicago. One was used for stunts, including the nine suspension-breaking, exhaust-flattening, Star Wars–aping, 100-mph takes required to nail the famous slo-mo jump scene at the hands of the smarmy garage attendant. And one would make that dramatic exit out the back of Cameron’s garage—a garage, it should be noted, that in real life housed the small, impressive collection of textile designer Ben Rose, including a 1927 Bugatti Type 35, an Alfa Romeo 6C1750, an Alfa 8C2300, and a Cisitalia 202. A real Cal Spider was used for detail shots, although curiously not for close-ups of the gauges, which were shown as Smiths instead of Veglia.
Glassmoyer and Goyette delivered the cars as promised. Broderick couldn’t drive a manual transmission, so the hero car was converted to automatic and disguised as a four-speed. Watch the movie closely, and you’ll see both of Ferris’s hands firmly on the steering wheel during sound-effect gearshifts. Oh, that Hollywood magic.
After filming, the cars went their separate ways. One ended up on the wall of a Planet Hollywood in Minneapolis, then on another wall at another Planet Hollywood, in Cancun, before Glassmoyer bought it back. Glassmoyer also bought the stunt car, restored it and upgraded the engine, then sold it at Mecum Monterey in 2013 for $230,000. And the hero car? It became one couple’s daily driver for several years. They put 250,000 miles on its junkyard-sourced Torino V-8 before it made its way to the U.K. In 2010, Bonhams sold the hero car for $108,251 to American Bob Winegard, a longtime fan of the movie and its star car.
Late last year, the Historic Vehicle Association began the process of documenting Winegard’s now fully restored Spyder for the National Historic Vehicle Register, and in April, it was displayed in a glass box on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In a world where real Ferrari Cal Spiders are now eight-figure cars (the auction record is $18 million), what makes a low-volume fiberglass replica worth the HVA’s time and effort? Cultural significance, in short. When the HVA conducted a survey of millennials and asked if there was a car that especially resonated with them, Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari topped the list. No one seemed to care that it was fake.
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is such a multigenerational movie,” says HVA president Mark Gessler. “It’s the Great American ‘Let’s go screw off today’ movie. Everyone wants to do that.” The Modena Spyder’s timing on the National Mall couldn’t have been better, either, with thousands of kids on their annual rite-of-passage springtime field trips to Washington, many of whom were able to stop by the display in the midst of museum hopping. Gessler says you’d be pressed to find one kid who hadn’t seen the 32-year-old movie and didn’t know the car.
In discussing Ferris with ABC News in 2016, Ben Stein, the lawyer/writer/actor/political commentator who famously delivered a fantastic roll call and a droning economics lesson in the film, spoke to what made it resonate with viewers no matter their age: “It is about something very basic in human life, a wish to get away, escape responsibility, and have a day where your day is every fantasy you’ve ever had.”