The man behind the vintage cars of HBO’s The Deuce
Over the spring and summer, if you walked up Amsterdam Avenue near 160th street in Manhattan, you may have noted a change. Some seven miles north of Times Square, the neighborhood—which normally consists of modest bodegas, fried chicken joints, and the odd latino community center—had been dressed up in a late-1970s-vintage shade of Times Square sleeze for the second season of the HBO drugs-and-porn drama, The Deuce. The street was lined with XXX theater and peep show facades, Kodak-branded camera shops, and newsstands that looked as if they could have been lifted from the set of Serpico. Vintage newspapers and trash littered the ground, taking the place of the bits of crumpled-up plastic endemic to modern-day New York.
To passersby, the first noticeable feature of the time-warp, though, was the cars. For several blocks in either direction of this throwback Times Square, the streets were lined with cars of the era. Not the cool muscle cars everyone likes to remember, but the mundane Ford Pintos, Pontiac Phoenixes, and Toyota Celicas most people had long ago discarded and forgotten. But while many producers may have asked for a bunch of old cars from X year and called it good, George Pelecanos—who created the series with David Simon, his co-conspirator on the HBO series The Wire—was very particular about which cars were selected and which characters would be matched with each one.
“Because I come out of the era of The Deuce, and because I’m a car guy, I remember what certain people drove and didn’t drive,” Pelecanos said, explaining that there were cars specifically marketed to women. “The Pinto and the Vega might look like cool cars today, but most guys back in the day would rather walk than be seen driving them.”
For the “hero” cars, or the ones main characters will drive, there’s a pecking order that roughly follows the socioeconomic stratification of the era. High-level mobsters drive a Lincoln or a Cadillac. Lower-level mafia guys get cars like the Pontiac Grand Prix or the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Female characters will get cars that women drove at the time—the aforementioned Pinto, the Pontiac Firebird Esprit, or the Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet.
“I’m very particular,” Pelecanos said. “On days when there are many period cars in the scene, I go down the line and inspect every car to make sure there are no ringers in there or aftermarket details that don’t ring true. My son Nick often runs background on set, and he tends to know what I want and what I’m not going to like.”
Larry Amanuel, the production’s picture car coordinator, said Pelecanos’ deep knowledge of cars added to the quality of the show.
“It was a pleasure to work with somebody who was that focused on something that’s usually a minor aspect, but that flavors what the show is going to be like,” Amanuel said, adding that Pelecanos had him dig through sales records to find out, percentage wise, what the major car manufacturers sold in New York in the late ’70s. “What was surprising to me was that more than 20 percent of the cars on the road here at that time were foreign.”
Naturally, there were challenges in maintaining complete distributional accuracy where cars were concerned. Pelecanos pointed out that while Volkswagen Beetles were everywhere at the time—“Everyone I knew at one time owned a VW Bug in the ’70s”—using them in accurate proportion to all the other vehicles on set would be visually problematic. With their instantly recognizable rounded bodies, they stick out like a sore thumb, so Pelecanos made sure they were used sparingly.
Then there was the Japanese car issue. Paul Brozen, owner of New York Picture Cars, which supplied Amanuel with many of the cars used on set, said that because the Toyotas, Hondas, and Datsuns of the day were generally regarded as throwaway economy cars and because they were especially rust-prone, not many still exist today.
“Japanese imports from that era are few and far between,” he said. “They didn’t survive well, and the ones that did are very pricey.”
Amauel said that, based on the show’s budget, they were unable to lay hands on as many Japanese cars as they needed to reflect accurate proportions on set. Brozen chalked it up to a general mentality toward the ubiquitous, workaday vehicles people buy to get from point A to point B.
“Try finding an original Chrysler minivan,” he said, using as an example the once-common family hauler that debuted the decade after season two of The Deuce takes place. “No one saved them and most of them have been crushed.”
Despite, or perhaps because of Pelecanos’ exacting vehicular preferences, both Amanuel and Brozen were jazzed to have someone so high up in the production’s hierarchy take an interest in their area of specialty. It’s not something either of them usually sees.
“It was exciting to have somebody that high up on the food chain involved in what we were doing,” Amanuel said. “A lot of times, we’re a secondary consideration, but on this one, we were a primary consideration.”
Being a self-proclaimed car guy—and a Mopar aficionado in particular—Pelecanos likely can’t help himself. He grew up in a working class neighborhood outside Washington, D.C., where people were really into cars. When he was very young, his father bought a 1964 1/2 Mustang, one of the first off the line. It was blue with a white interior, and he remembers going to Tops Drive-In in it. His father also owned a ’66 Dodge Monaco and Pelecanos drove a ’67 Dodge Polara with cat eye taillights for a while. Growing up, Pelecanos worked in his dad’s diner in northwest D.C., saving his tips in anticipation of turning 16 and getting his driver’s license. In 1973, he was able to afford a three-year-old Camaro, which he tricked out with reverse mag wheels and H-jackers.
“It was a 307 and not particularly fast, but it was nice,” he said. “A pretty nice ride to have right out of the gate.” On Friday nights, he and his friends would race on University Boulevard, in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was stupid and dangerous, but that’s what we did,” he said.
TV and movie cars—and the now-famous chase scenes in which they were featured—left their mark on Pelecanos. One year, his grandmother loaned him her 1973 Pontiac Ventura for a few months. I was the same 350-cubic-inch V-8 model that Roy Schneider drove in the New York City cop movie The Seven-Ups. Pelecanos “drove the hell out of it” all summer, conjuring images from his favorite car chase scene. Much later in life, he bought a Bullitt edition Mustang (which he still owns), thanks to his love for the Steven McQueen movie of the same name, which also features one of film’s all-time great chase scenes between a Highland Green ’68 Mustang fastback and a sinister black ’68 Dodge Charger.
“I know it’s corny but there it is,” he said.
There are a handful of productions Pelecanos keeps in mind when he thinks of the types of cars that should be featured on camera, and how they should be used. There’s Mr. Majestyk, in which Charles Bronson’s character wields his Ford F100 as a weapon, destroying a pair of big, villain-piloted Plymouth sedans. Or White Lightning, which features a young Burt Reynolds tear-assing around in a souped-up, four-on-the-floor-equipped Ford LTD sedan. And there’s Walking Tall—the 1973 version, with Joe Don Baker—another film that spotlights run-of-the-mill cars in extraordinary situations.
Pelecanos says he has noticed a lot of mistakes where vintage cars are concerned on other period productions, and has resolved to be more exacting in his own work. He loves early Mustangs and Camaros and Pontiac GTOs, but thinks they’re overused in films and television. He wants to see more cars like the 1966–67 Dodge Coronet 500 or the Plymouth GTX. So he goes for the now nearly forgotten cars he saw on screen as a young man. He’s working on a film right now that features characters driving a Plymouth Road Runner and a Plymouth Fury Sport.
“Did I mention that I like Mopars?” he asked.
Even as a younger generation grapples with its own relationship with cars, the popularity of car-based films–Drive, Mad Max, Cars, Fast and Furious–has persisted. Besides, says Pelecanos, who got his start writing detective fiction, every private investigator needs a car to bolster the character’s personality. “There’s no Jim Rockford without his car.”