Sometimes, Movie Cars Are Wrong For a Reason

It can be hard for car folk to sit through films in which the cars are wrong. Bullitt gets it right, but there is that one green Beetle that keeps reappearing... Solar Productions/Warner Bros.

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An old college friend stopped in a few weeks ago, and over beers, he started ranting about cars in movies. He had just watched a recent period pic called The Hill about a disabled boy who overcomes adversity to play baseball and, while he liked the film, he was put off by some apparently flagrant mismatches between the 1960s time period and the cars. His rant building steam, Jeff went on: “Somebody needs to tell these directors that if the scene is in 1965 and a guy who is supposed to be somebody pulls up in a shiny ’59 Cadillac, it’s wrong! Back then, nobody drove around in a six-year-old Cadillac if they could afford a new one!”

His point might be picayune and it may only matter to a small minority of the viewing audience—the ones married to spouses who are always shushing them to be quiet and stop going on about that one green Beetle that keeps reappearing in the Bullitt chase sequence—but he’s not wrong. Cars are important to film because they are the one prop that instantly dates a scene. If the cars have high roofs, wheel spats, and bustlebacks, you’re in the 1930s or ’40s; chrome swaddling and tailfins, the 1950s; straight edges, the 1960s; landau tops and pea green paint, the 1970s. Used correctly, old cars efficiently and effectively transport us as well as the characters back in celluloid time. Used badly, and it’s like watching Napoleon pull out an iPhone to find Waterloo. It takes you right out of the moment. People are still complaining about those kit Cobra replicas with the modern mag wheels that appeared in Ford v Ferrari.

I called Jamie Kitman, a man of seemingly a dozen careers, including writing for this magazine as well as running a business that procures cars for film shoots. I asked him why directors often seem to pick the wrong cars. Do they not care or do they just not know any better? A bit of both, was his answer, and money can dictate what four-wheelers get cast. A lot of people involved in production have very strong opinions, and, “some of them know what they’re talking about, some of them don’t,” he said. “And some are constrained budgetarily or logistically, or they’re shooting in a place that doesn’t have a wide supply of cars readily available.”

Pitt DiCaprio Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Cars
Set in ’60s Hollywood, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is loaded with eclectic classics. Allegedly, Quentin Tarantino originally wanted a ’59 Cadillac convertible for his protagonist Rick Dalton to roll around in but ultimately decided to curb costs, figuring a successful actor would’ve been in something more up-to-date like this ’66 DeVille anyway.Sony Pictures

The better productions can afford to be accurate where cars are concerned, he went on. “I worked on [The Marvelous] Mrs. Maisel, which was all about its cars, and they were pretty sensitive to the cars being right. The propmaster knew enough to know there was a right and a wrong.” However, Kitman often finds himself confronting blunt stereotyping about what a particular era was like (no, not everybody drove triple-tone pastel tailfin cruisers on whitewalls in the ’50s) or a simple lack of knowledge about cars. Once, a producer called Kitman wanting an MG TC for a scene, and Kitman was able to match her up with a car. “Then, three days before the shoot, she called and said, ‘Just checking; it’s an automatic, right?’ And we said no, and she said, ‘Can you find me an automatic one?’ And we said no, automatic MGs didn’t exist in 1948. And she said, ‘Well, can you make it an automatic?’” Of course, said Kitman, if you give me a month and $30,000. “So they said never mind. That’s the sort of thing that happens.”

Kitman can find himself immersed in the details of the characters. “Occasionally you’ll find yourself saying, ‘Based on what you’ve told me about the character, what you’re asking for is completely wrong.’ And they may or may not hear me.” A big challenge is scenes set in Europe but filmed in America. Since the 1970s, the cars imported into the U.S. have tended to be the larger models, not the small hatchbacks that carpet European roads, and “they often have really big bumpers, which is a dead giveaway to the cognoscenti.” So Kitman keeps a ready supply of small, plebeian Euro-gerbils for such scenes, though sourcing right-hand-drivers is always a challenge. “We’ve had double-decker buses towed from the Carolinas to be in TV shows,” he told me.

The takeaway: If car flubs happen on screen, don’t assume it’s just because the director doesn’t know a tailfin from a turbo. Sometimes they can’t afford or can’t find exactly what would be correct. And sometimes, as in the case of Bullitt, Smokey and the Bandit, and a few others, the cars deserve their own Academy Awards.


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    It is not the minor gaffs but the major ones that have plagued movies.

    Things like every car going off a cliff blows up in mid air.

    Too often movie begin to rely on special effects to cover for bad movies or stories. Let’s face Days of Thunder was way over the top. If they had just done a movie on Tim Richmond it would have been better.

    It is not just car movies but many others the effects are more of the movie than the story.

    The movie Grand Prix is still the best movie for racing as they got the story and effects right. Most people today still never notice the cars they used were 4 cylinders with engine covers. But they did get the Actors to drive and used state of the art cameras to catch shots never seen before. That is what makes things right.

    If you are picking a movie apart over the cars odds are the movie is lacking in other areas.

    Oh, they don’t ALWAYS blow up in mid-air: sometimes they wait until they hit the bottom of the gulch, and THEN they blow up (which also hardly ever happens in real life).
    Speaking of the “state of the art” cameras used in Grand Prix, sometimes “state of the art” consisted of strapping a cameraman to the hood of a car, holding a camera, pointing back into the cockpit or out over the nose in order to record things while the car was in motion. Considering that most “driving” shots up until that time had consisted of a static vehicle/actors sitting in front of a screen with back-projected scenery in motion, that WAS indeed state of the art then!
    Grand Prix indeed set the bar that almost no film has ever raised.

    As a lover of Pontiacs, one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever seen is at near the conclusion of the Shawshank Redemption, when main character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is seen driving a 1969 GTO convertible. Narrator Red (Morgan Freeman) reveals that Andy escaped from prison in 1966!

    One of my favorite movies Goodfellows shows Ray Liotta leaning on the trunk of 65 chevy impala and the caption reads Idlewood airport 1963. The Transformers movie with Moon in the title has a twin to my car in it. A 1969 Chevelle SS396 blue with a black vinyl top. Went to the GM Heritage museum and saw an identical car and one of the guides in the museum said it was used in that movie. She also said they sent someone with it when it was used in the movie and the actor that was supposed to drive it could not drive a stick so the person that accompanied it drove it in the film.

    The late, great, Bill Frick made Grand Prix what is was from a camera rig perspective. He invented and made all of the rigs that made that film special. I had the fortune of working with him on tire commercials, before he converted to his passion of aircraft.

    My wife and I went to see Days of Thunder on opening weekend. We were the only two people in the theater. The word was already out.

    While taking driving lessons in 1969, at Willow Springs Jim Russel Driving school, I drove the car that James Garner used in the movie Grand Prix! Took two pillows behind my back to reach the pedals! Yes it was a 4 cylinder car.

    Tommy Lee Jones’ Chevrolet Caprice police car in No Country For Old Men has always bothered me, for all the acclaim the movie gets, the clearly late 80’s-early 90’s composite headlight door mounted seatbelt Caprice police car is annoying, considering the Cohen brothers did a pretty good job with Fargo and its 1987 or so Oldsmobiles and Oldsmobile dealership.

    Another thing you typically see in movie with street scene set in an era is that all the cars are really nice convertibles because that is what mostly available from collectors.

    And you did not even mention the scene in Live and Let Die where Bond is going into the city from JFK and every car on the expressway was a 1973 Chevy Impala four door pillared sedan except for the white 1973 Eldorado Couoe with the poison dart gun in the left rear view mirror.

    The Eldorado wasn’t even and Eldorado, it was a Corvado made by Dunham Coach, they added Eldorado body work to a Corvette. There are actually a variety of Impalas in that scene, including a wagon and a hardtop coupe, there are also 2 1973 Eldorado convertibles too.

    Graffitti was one of the very best movies made about young people by young people. Most of the production was by and of unknowns. These folks went on to great levels in movies.That it revolved around cars was not a coincidence. The Wolfman gave us the music and Detroit added the muscle. Falfa and Milner were road warriors, before such characters existed. Anyone who survived ’62 knows this movie is our story. And, there was no sequel.

    Actually — and unfortunately — there was a sequel, made in 1979, called “More American Graffiti” Its daring and original title gives you a strong clue to how badly this film was made. Most of the original cast reprised their roles, except for Richard Dreyfus and Ron Howard, who had become far too famous — and expensive — to be involved with such derivative trash.

    Ron Howard (Steve) was there. Much of the film focused on his character finding that he was leading a boring life working in insurance and how his marriage with Lori (Cindy Williams) was suffering because of his discontent.

    I love American Graffiti, it’s one of my all time favorites, but I’d have to argue that they ALMOST got it right. The film was set in 1962 but the T-Bird that Suzanne Somers was driving had side marker lights added to the fenders, a JC Whitney type aftermarket item that didn’t come out till about 1969 or 1970.

    Personally I’m not as bothered by a 59 Caddy showing up in a movie set in 1965, as I an about a 1965 Caddy showing up in a movie about 1959. I forget if it was “Heart Like a Wheel” or “Snake and Mongoose” (or maybe both movies?), where half the drag cars were years newer than the era the film was set in. I think the trucks used for team transporters in one of them were a few years newer than they should have been too?

    Oh good lord so much ignorant hogwash. Maybe the wealthy could afford to swap out cars every 3rd year, but not the common man. A 59 cad in 65 would NOT be out of place!! As for movies with cars, go check out Bullitt” for real life ’68 backdrop, and then count how many pre 60’s cars you see on the road or parked on the streets.

    A 1959 Cadillac would be severely out of date style wise in 1969, especially for a celebrity, even the 1966 Cadillac was kind of out of date for a celebrity in 1969, it worked because the Rick Dalton character was semi-washed up at this point and only doing “bad guy of the week” roles.

    Did you watch the movie at all?

    We weren’t wealthy by any means and traded in a family car every 3 years. It just made sense for reliability and repair costs. Each trade-in went for a fancier new car, ending with a 67 Buick Riviera. In those days a 36 month car loan was standard.

    In Michigan, especially in the southeast areas around Detroit, a 3 year old daily driver was a rust bucket. Never see rust buckets in movies unless they are trying to make a point about it.

    Yes, three years was the expected life of the rocker panels of the Forward Look Chrysler products in the Detroit area.

    I was born in 1948. To get 100,000 miles out of ’40s or ’50s cars was a lifetime for the car. My ’90 Chevy 454SS went 300,000 plus before the timing chain failed. Also my ’95 454 Silverado had over 300,000. Both trucks worked hard while I owned them hauling construction materials and towing equipment. No rebuilds on either. Who knows the longevity of future designs?

    My wife and I went to see Days of Thunder on opening weekend. We were the only two people in the theater. The word was already out.

    I had a a 67 Caddy convertible pretty identical to Nolte’s car in 48 Hours. All the way down to the color, patina, missing hubcap, and the rear window that always stayed up. Seemed perfect for to me.

    My parents traded cars every 3 to 4 years in the 1960’s, and we were far from wealthy – we lived in a 720 square-foot house with a one-car garage.

    My dad was a Buick-GMC dealer from the mid 60s until 1980 when Carter’s 20% interest did a lot of folks in. Many people traded cars every 3 years. The well-to-do traded every 2 years and the rich always had the latest and greatest, especially the first year of a model change.

    You do realize it’s the Federal Reserve (under Paul Volker at that time) that sets interest rates, not the president. And just like today, inflation was a huge problem for all Western economies. The inflation surge was created by the second OPEC oil embargo in 1979, and it had a global impact, especially in the US, where the recovery from the ’73 OPEC embargo had been very shaky.

    Yes, the Fed makes interest rates, but Volcker had to raise them to curb rampant inflation, much of which was not Carter’s fault, but was a hangover from Vietnam and the two Oil Shocks. Volcker is generally viewed as a man who saved the US economy and the Fed.

    Has anybody else noticed that while the Mustang in Bullitt was a ’68, the one in the trailer was a ’67? I’m assuming the ’68’s were not available yet when they filmed the trailer.

    Kurt-you’re right about the hogwash:> only Tarantino gets the retro details right because he’s
    a fanatic about those things. as a 14yr old in 1969 “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was
    completely realistic.

    What seems far-fetched to me is the notion that filmmakers can’t afford to get the right cars. With budgets in the million$, and paying stars more than I’ll make in my lifetime, they’re forced to cheap out on vehicles? Maybe a bit less caviar in the dressing trailers and lease the right cars, guys…

    DUB6 you’d be surprised how cheap the Picture Cars budget is, relative to other budgets for “Crafty” (food), Onsite support trailers, film star salaries, etc.
    Having supplied Picture Cars to a couple of dozen productions near the DC area over the years, I got to see first-hand how the Directors and staff get hung up on nutty, even impossible details on the cars, and then want them right NOW, for $ peanuts. And then for the most part, have careless disregard for the inevitable scratches and dents which all of a sudden appear on the Picture Cars, as they are used in 100 degree weather for countless (pointless?) takes on tiny scene shots, many of which end up on the studio floor anyway.

    Spot on. I’ve always told people “if you love your car, don’t rent it to the studios”. The cars are working props, and treated as such. Expect damage, and don’t expect to get proper reimbursement.

    Sad, but true. The father of a friend of ours let his 1970 Karmann Ghia be used in the movie Zebrahead, and it got damaged during the shoot. They replaced part of the rear fender, but LAP welded the new section on! I own the car now, and it pains me knowing that I’ll have to get it done right if I get around to restoring it

    A New Jersey- based craft guy, Michael Leather, did me a solid when hiring my 1969 Pontiac Catalina wagon with contact paper wood siding in 1993 movie Carlito’s Way. He fixed an overheating problem and then got the wagon into one short clip for which Universal Studios paid me $600.00 ! Difficult job for sure, and he mentioned near-firings for small inaccuracies !

    It’s actually not hard to figure out at all. My guess is that 95% of the people couldn’t tell you what car was in what movie. Except for us guys that know, it’s not important. If it’s a Car Movie they try to get it right. If it’s a comedy or murder mystery the extra cost doesn’t pay off in the end. Just my opinion but my Lady Friend agrees.

    An early episode of Perry Mason has a guy who killed his wife, put her behind the wheel of a new, late 50’s Buick and pushed it over a cliff. The camera is now across from the cliff so you can see it go all the way down. It’s a late 30’s big sedan! I guess in 1957, on a 19 inch black and white TV, it didn’t matter.

    While I’ll notice certain inconsistencies and things of like kind I can’t say I really let them bother me too much. ‘ Willing suspension of belief ‘ is a commonly used device in books , theater and especially movies. Nit picking small inconsequential details seems kind of silly. I’m looking to be entertained not attending a history lecture. So the reappearing Beetle doesn’t ruin the chase in ‘Bullitt’ for me . I believe the Charger had a reappearing wheel cover as well. ‘My Darling Clementine’ is a great western. Of coarse it’s nothing near the true story of the gunfight at OK Corral. Doc Holiday was a dentist not a surgeon for example. Why not just let that slide and enjoy the film?

    For me the final shot of the Charger/Mustang chase kind of took the shine off the entire sequence. Everything seemed so real life until the Charger burnt up. That scene simply looked fake.

    Agreed! The Beetle does not ruin the chase. Multiple camera angles provided additional footage of the same section of the chase. I always felt like I was seeing the other driver’s or bystanders view. When the movie came out I was 5. I have probably watched it more than most and still enjoy it now.

    A couple of observations…
    At least here in the Midwest, where automotive sheet metal of the 50s-70s seemed to rot as quickly as melting snow, “…anybody who was somebody…” would indeed likely have been driving a two or three year old car, as much for physical appearance as for fashion.
    One variable not mentioned by Mr. Kitman is the manner in which the car would be used. Films in which the cars will be intentionally damaged or greatly abused will have difficulty finding the right car. Even with the best of intentions movie cars get damaged; few collectors will rent their prized vehicles knowing for certain that it will come back with scars.
    As far as suspension of belief, some people can only take it so far. Ask a cop about cop shows on that score…

    Yes . In lower budget filmd stock footage of planes in flihht might have a biplane morphing into a monoplane.

    Yep. And it’s not just the airplanes, it’s often the stereotypical male bovine feces portrayal of the characters that fly ’em. When some of the nonsense in Top Gun was pointed out to director Tony Scott, he commented that he didn’t make movies for pilots, he made ’em for the audience.

    If you grew up living the “Two Lane Blacktop” period of the late 60’s and early 70’s……………this movie got it right!

    Yes, the movie was long, dreary and pointless — which made it a perfect representation of the 1970’s.

    Yes! That 55 with the M 22 whining through the gears was awesome! ( or bitchin), James Taylor and Dennis Wilson pull it off pretty well. AND then they used the car in American Graffiti how bad ass is that!!!!!

    I get totally distracted in older movies with cars. They all bring back memories of cars that were once like the buffalo but now are gone. Or how perfect and shiny they were when new, like the 50’s t-bird convertible in the old parent trap movie. I do see the same cars over and over in some shows, but no one noticed when the movies were new- who would notice more than one white Camry in a movie today? But when I see a green Pinto three times it really stands out.

    how about not only the movie claiming a car to be of an impossible year but then in the dvd bonus features the automotive “Expert” the movie had helping them claiming the same thing. Example would be in one of the fast and furious movies Vin diesel gets what looks like a modified 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, but in not only the movie but also in the bonus features they claim it’s a 1970 Dodge Charger Daytona, which never existed the Dodge Charger Daytona was a 1 year run of just over 500 cars to meet NASCAR regulations to be allowed to race, there was never a 1970 Dodge Charger Daytona, though there was a 1970 Plymouth Superbird which can be easily mistaken for the Daytona.

    In movie serials of the late 30’s or 40’s the car looking ten years too old was sure to be the one to go over a cliff at the end of any chase scene. This after an exchange of gun fire from guns with unlimited amunition capacity.

    Lots of good car spotting in shows like Emergency, early 70’s LA. Also cool to see Perry Mason’s and Paul Drakes auto evolution .

    Love Perry Mason show! Yes on his cars, and I believe there is a website named ‘The Cars of Perry Mason’. They featured Ford products, Chevy products, and a run of Buicks for various seasons; even Lt. Tragg showed up (after Perry) at murder scenes in a Buick 4-door! But the funniest thing in PM is the very old (!) stock footage the director sometimes used for opening scenes; in a few, there is nothing post-war in the shot! Really!
    I love the ’55 Nomad that drives through many, and the ’55 210 post that is featured in some — usually as a ride for a down-and-out character. In “The Fan Dancer’s Horse” a pre-war Ford driven by Latinos is run off the road by a baddie, and later new Moostangs are featured often. Whatever CA prop man did the show, he was tuned in to our rides, anyhow! Well, in CA, you had to have transportation, and busses are featured more than trains. Paul Drake even hops into the cab of a Ford C-series semi in one show! Wonder if he had a Class 1 ?

    What was that odd sports car Paul Drake drove in a few episodes of Perry Mason. Sems like it was powered by an early Chrysler Hemi ???

    Not sure about odd car but in early episodes he is in a c1 Corvette, then goes to many iterations of Tbirds and then back to a C2 Corvette in some later episodes. Our cable system shows Perry on several channels several times a day!

    Agreed, watch for the frequent yellow ‘69 Camaro lurking in the background on Emergency for several years.

    Right on, Dan. I was going to mention that as well. It’s seen so often I figured it might have belonged to one of the cast or crew.

    Adam 12 is filled with old muscle cars in the back round. Part of the fun of watching is to see what cars are parked in the lots or on the street as 12 goes by……..

    All good observations. Troubling to me are vintage scenes with near correct vintage vehicles in the background. Too often they are bright and straight restorations. Real world cars of the period likely would have included new models but also older models with dents, fender tears, makeshift repairs, and missing hub caps, etc. plus they could have been dirty, not clean. A winter car scene in town from Yellowstone gave me a smile included a Ford Model A (or T, I don’t recall) where there rope was wrapped around the tires and between the spokes to provide traction in the street slush in place of tire chains.

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