Why modern cars are bad for movie chase scenes

Hollywood Dream Machines: Vehicles of Science Fiction and Fantasy Petersen Automotive Museum panel

Though the movie-car business has remained unchanged in many ways throughout the decades, modern cars have posed a new challenge for film productions. Electronic stability control and driver assistance systems such as automatic emergency braking make today’s cars safer for the average driver, but cause a pile of trouble when a stunt team wants to film burnouts, slides, or hair-raising chase scenes. During a panel hosted by the Petersen Automotive Museum to celebrate the opening of its new exhibit, “Hollywood Dream Machines: Vehicles of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” picture car coordinator Dennis McCarthy explained that all movie cars have their quirks, but he called modern cars, “one of [his] bigger headaches.”

For Black Panther, Lexus provided the production with amazing cars—like the beautiful blue Lexus LC500 on display at the Petersen—but they’re made to do “everything that’s not a car stunt: no tire sliding, no burnouts,” McCarthy said. “You get a director who says, ‘I want the car to come in and slide in and do a 180,’ [but] the car doesn’t have a handbrake, it doesn’t have anything. The car is so smart, it won’t let you do that, the car just absolutely shuts down.” As it turns out, the safety features that are ideal for everyday driving and give us peace of mind on the road ultimately make these cars an absolute nightmare to deal with on a film set. They could potentially spell doom for jump-drifts and J-turns. McCarthy’s solution to his problem was to ask Lexus for a computer programmer, and that programmer went everywhere the Lexus went.

Marvel Black Panther bridge car chase
Marvel Studios

McCarthy explained that in his business, “We do horrible things to cars. We’re pulling out wiring, we’re pulling out seats to make room for a camera. With modern cars, you can pull a headlight bulb out of the car and it won’t run.” Entertainment automotive expert Josh Hancock noted that McCarthy has, “pulled more European motors out of cars and put Chevy crate engines in them than anybody in this business.” McCarthy admitted that this is his go-to fix: “If I get frustrated, we just throw an LS Chevy motor in and that solves the problem. I get a lot of hate mail over that stuff.”

Josh Hancock shared his own modern car horror story. While filming Baby Driver, the production crew had a Mercedes-Benz S-Class for the chase scene in the garage but, “they couldn’t disable all those systems, so somebody flew over from Germany because they just kept not working.” McCarthy added, “And that’s really what it takes. You’re not gonna get your mechanics to disable these features, you have to have someone from the factory...  It’s like you’re breaking into a military-grade computer nowadays.”

2006 Subaru WRX from Baby Driver is headed to auction
Mecum
2006 Subaru WRX from Baby Driver