Hollywood Horsepower: These Were The Coolest Film Cars Behind The Camera
If there is one thing any car enthusiast loves outside of driving or working on their car, it is watching cars on film. While we marvel at smooth tracking shots, driver’s eye views, and drone footage we must remember that it wasn’t always this easy. Capturing the action was once almost as dangerous, if not more so, than the racing itself.
Nowadays, with the advent of the high performance SUV, high speed filming is a piece of cake. Simply bolt a gyro-stabilized IMAX camera to the roof of a matte black Porsche Cayenne Turbo and you can practically film anything up to 150mph. Or if you’re on a budget a few strategically placed Go-Pros can do the trick.
Back in the golden age of racing, the era we so desperately crave to see on film, directors recognized the intrigue and excitement generated by motor racing, and wanted to capture it and capitalize on it. The average movie-goer in the 1960s had likely never travelled faster than 50 or 60mph in real life, and yet through the magic of cinema they were strapped into a Ferrari, battling wheel to wheel with a Porsche on the Mulsanne Straight.
However there were a number of issues facing filmmakers of the day. Cameras were far bigger and bulkier than today’s, and the only thing that would keep up with a Formula 1 car was well… another Formula 1 car.
This image from the late 1950s of a camera man riding on the stern of Juan Manuel Fangio’s Maserati 250F shows the lengths that were gone to to show the public at the time what it took to race on the edge. Although they were filming for short newsreels, the resultant footage is spectacular: Fangio at Monaco and Fangio at Modena
However it was not long before these techniques were employed on the big screen. Most notably in 1966, when director John Frankenheimer released the film Grand Prix. Filmed on Super Panavision 70mm cameras, this picture provided a full color, widescreen, immersive experience of a season in early Formula 1 racing.
Delivering this beautiful vision was no mean feat. Using a combination of cumbersome car- mounted cameras, towed rigs, and even strapping human camera operators to the nose of cars, Frankenheimer went to exceptional lengths to convey the incredible speeds of these races.
The close up shots of the rig show a rare moment of cooperation between two rival manufacturers—the truncated Ferrari is coupled to the back of a stripped-back Ford GT40, allowing for close up views of the driver’s face. Frankenheimer was able to capture the expressions of human emotion as they wrestled the cars around the circuit. The view of the track ahead was obscured for the driver in shot, thus it made more sense for the camera car to pilot this unusual rig around the course. And what better driver to retrace the racing line than 1961 World Champion Phil Hill?
Directing Grand Prix was an experiment in conveying speed and danger on film to a viewer. It is no surprise then that John Frankenheimer went on to direct another firm favorite amongst car fans, the 1998 action blockbuster Ronin, which featured a number of seat-of-your-pants car chases, involving an eclectic mix of cars from a Peugeot 605 to an Audi S8. As the story goes, some of the film cars for Ronin were modified G-series Porsches, with the cameras mounted in the empty nose compartments.
Steve McQueen has always been synonymous with car culture, and for good reason. Who could forget the car chase in Bullitt (1968) when a Mustang ran from a Charger on the streets of San Francisco? The actor had a reputation for doing his own stunts and driving in his films, but a certain 1971 release saw McQueen sitting not only behind the wheel but behind the camera too.
In the early 1960s, McQueen and John Sturges had attempted to make film centered around Formula 1, but scheduling conflicts meant that Frankenheimer got the jump on them and Grand Prix became the definitive feature. Following a stint in a Porsche 908 at the 12 Hours of Sebring, McQueen became fascinated by endurance racing and decided he would make his great racing epic after all. McQueen began to ponder how best to recreate the feeling of participating in racing on the big screen.
He quickly recognized that choreographing a racing film would be immensely difficult and that a more organic approach was called for. Taking a sort of Gonzo journalism approach, Solar Productions, McQueen’s production company, entered a team in the 1970 24 Hours. Team Solar Productions fielded a Porsche 908, fitted with a camera mounted inside a custom fabricated aerodynamic cowling on the nose. The car was piloted by two racing legends, John Williams and Herbert Linge (of Porsche fire engine fame https://petrolicious.com/articles/vintage-friday-the-fire-engine-porsche-911-that-saved-niki-laudas-life), their aim being to complete as many laps as possible while capturing a first person view of raw racing as it happened, warts and all.
A number of other Porsche 908s and 917-lookalike Lolas were butchered in order to carry cameras on protruding outriggers, modifications that nowadays would be considered sacrilegious and punishable by death. These rigs produced the more choreographed pieces of cinematography that completed the film later on, on closed circuits away from the chaos of racing.
The crew also took their blowtorches to a GT40, creating somewhat of a crude spider-style car on which they could mount cameras to the shoulder line and in the nose in order to film side-on or overtaking shots since the GT40 was still able to keep pace with the Porsches.
Le Mans is McQueen’s magnum opus but his reputation was also sullied by the making of the film. His obsession had bled through into his work and a series of accidents, both on and off set, strained his relationships, the result being that many of the crew vowed never to work with him again.
Moving off the circuit and onto the street, C’etait un Rendez-vous, is the only street racing film we can really condone at Petrolicious. It was described by Alex Roy, as “A sort of automotive snuff film.” It features an unseen driver making a high speed run in a loud but unseen GT car, beginning at the Périphérique on the edge of Paris and finishing at Sacré-Cœur in the centre, where he is reunited with a female companion. The short film caused huge controversy upon it release due to the dangerous feats depicted.
It transpired that director Claude Lelouch bolted a cinema camera to the front of his Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 and later dubbed the footage with the carefully edited roar of a Ferrari 275GTB, convincing the viewer that he had made the dash across Paris in an Italian V12. The 6.9’s unique self-leveling hydropneumatic suspension ensured the camera remained steady, even while LeLouch was careening through the cobbled streets of Montmartre and hopping a few curbs. Lelouch’s approach is a little less nuanced than Frankenheimer’s or McQueen’s, but it is the rawness of the method that makes it such a special film, accurately conveying the danger and pace.
Another, lesser-known movie about cars (again, for good reason), is Elvis Presley’s Spinout (1966). The plot is crap, but the cars are fantastic, and Elvis was driving the the first car Bruce McLaren put his name on, the M1A built in collaboration with Elva. In this grainy photo, it looks like the film crew dismantled the back end of the car to mount a camera behind the King.