Vintage cars for an alternative America
Imagine that the United States and its allies had lost World War II, that the Axis powers carved up the globe. Picture California, Oregon and Washington in the early 1960s as territories in the Japanese Pacific States.
Such is the premise of The Man in the High Castle, a popular television series on Amazon now in its second season, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name.
For fans of dystopian fiction who also happen to be car enthusiasts, one of the first things you notice in this altered world are the cars. Although it’s the early 1960s, the striking auto designs of the 1950s, as we know them, never happened. The cars in this reality are smaller than we remember and noticeably more austere than the flamboyant designs of the tailfin era, which in this setting makes sense. Because America did not win the war, there was no exuberance and unbridled optimism to be celebrated in the post-war era.
Much of the show’s filming takes place in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington. Jovan Vujatovic, of 396 Movie Cars, based just outside of Vancouver, is responsible for procuring the classic cars that set the tone for the production. According to Vujatovic, “The theory we had was simple: If the Germans had won, would they let U.S. manufacturers continue building American cars? They would bring the former U.S. car manufacturing plants under Nazi control. In that scenario, the market forces would not have influenced car designs in the same way, and certainly the advanced consumer revolution of the late 1950s would never have occurred—so styles would have been more pragmatic and less fanciful. Hence the choice not to use large tailfins, or elaborate paneling and fretwork.” In this world, the likes of Harley Earl would probably have been fired or relegated to designing sedate little sedans.
There are about 30 vintage vehicles used in each episode, and Vujatovic sources them from private collections all over B.C., while many of the trucks come from the B.C. Vintage Truck Museum. The end credits, however, give a specific thank you to the Toyota USA Automobile Museum. The museum, located in Torrance, Calif., celebrates the decades-long heritage of the Toyota brand in America. Their first sales office was established in Hollywood in 1957, and the following year consumers got their first look at the Toyopet Crown and Land Cruiser. The museum displays around a dozen vehicles, starting with a 1959 Toyopet Crown Custom. The diminutive four-door sedan is reminiscent of a Nash Metropolitan.
It was Vujatovic who approached the Toyota Museum before filming began. “In very early prep for the show, I had to find early 1960s Japanese cars,” he says. In Canada, this is close to impossible. “I was almost at wit’s end when I Googled ‘Japanese car museum.’ That’s how I found the Toyota USA Automobile Museum. I contacted Susan Sanborn, the director and curator, who was very supportive.”
The museum shipped five vehicles to Vujatovic: a 1961 Toyopet Crown, a pair of 1965 Tiaras, a 1965 Land Cruiser FJ45 Truck and a 1967 Stout Truck, all of which are stored in a secure facility at 396’s studio.
Although some of these cars were produced after the year in which the show is set, their retro styling fits well with the era. The cars in the show are small, utilitarian, and functional—quite different from what Detroit produced in real life—as if the accounting department completely overruled the designers. And they are versatile enough to be dressed up according to the show’s needs. In season one, for example, the Toyopet Crown was repurposed to appear as a taxi. In the next season, one of the Tiaras filled that role.
According to Sanborn, loaning the vintage Toyotas has been a positive experience. “We are very happy to hear that the show won several Emmys and has been renewed for a third season. Our vehicles will continue to be on location in 2017.”
As for Vujatovic, he is excited about continuing to provide correct cars for a period piece like The Man in the High Castle. “I do really enjoy the challenge of it all. Some of my days are very creative in selecting cars, colors, and placements on sets. I have the best production designer to work alongside and a wonderful team of mechanics. We have tapped into some of the best car collections, met some amazing people, and get to play with some very rare cars. We are always looking for new finds, so if anyone out there has a car that would work for the show, feel free to contact me.”
Michael Milne is the author of the Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums & Attractions. If you have a vehicle to lend for shooting, contact Jovan Vujatovic at HighCastleCars@gmail.com