When Hollywood Needs Period-Correct Automobiles, They Come To This Car Lot In Louisiana
Photography by Cole Pennington
Ferris Bueller introduced an entire generation to the sexy curves of a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder (save the mourning, it was a replica); Doc Brown and Marty McFly gave us a glimpse of the stainless steel DeLorean DMC-12 before we were able to see one in person. It’s often movies and TV shows set the stage for a certain type of automotive nostalgia we Petrolistas tend to develop later in life after many hours sat in front of the set. Nothing pegs a movie scene to a certain time and place more than a classic car; one glimpse and our imagination fills in the rest of the details to build an entire world—and narrative—around a single automobile.
As the camera pans up from a small prancing pony adorning a shiny chrome grille to reveal a 1965 Ford Mustang with the top down speeding on desert highway dotted with buzzing neon gas station signs we’re immediately smacked with a sense of blind optimism. Expressions of freedom and open roads fill our heads; we’re inspired.
And all it took was a single shot of a car.
There’s an entire sub-industry of the entertainment world devoted to getting the cars in motion pictures and TV just right. Richard Brown does this every day. He’s a picture car coordinator, and if you’ve caught a few episodes of Netflix’s recent release Mindhunter or American Horror Story, then you’re already familiar with his work.
Driving along Route 10 in rural Louisiana, you might notice a massive lot filled with some of the most obscure European steel and American automotive iron gathered in one place. The uninitiated might even think it’s a junkyard—most of the cars are rusty and worn. They may not look like much, but these cars are given a second life, sometimes with full restorations; sometimes by slapping on a simple coat of paint before their big debut on the silver screen. Brown treats this parking lot like a palette, taking his proverbial brush and painting in movie scenes with classic cars that evoke emotion.
Cole Pennington: So you’re the founder of Wheels in Motion, and you focus on finding, restoring, and supplying classic cars to the entertainment industry. How did you get here?
Richard Brown: It all started because my father and I had a used car lot, and a lot of the times when we’d go to the used car auctions there would some sort of oddball car that nobody would buy because they knew they couldn’t sell it, but I would buy it; you know, weirdo European cars from the fifties and things like that, and we would put them out in front of our lot just to draw attention. A lot of times people would stop just to take a look at those because they’d never seen them before. And then one day I got a call; they were doing an Elvis film with a scene that was supposed to look like Germany in the late fifties and I had three cars that they wanted for that scene: a ‘59 Mini Cooper, a ‘59 Fiat Bianchini, and the other was a Ford Anglia. I told them they didn’t run, but they didn’t care. They were just going to park them on the street to sell the scene. They hired me to help push the cars around the set, and then asked me back to help out with some other cars. Word started spreading right around the time Louisiana had passed attractive tax legislation for the production industry. I had a dealer’s license and knew the right places to find pretty much any car they wanted.
CP: Can you tell me about some of the productions you’ve worked on since?
RB: One that I’m proud of is Dallas Buyers Club. It had a really small budget and I had to come up with a bunch of ‘80s cars on the cheap. It wasn’t easy working with that budget but then it went on to win a few academy awards!
The series Mindhunter is what I’ve been working on lately. They used about 32 vehicles from me. The director liked a lot of my inventory that was used for the first season, so I asked about the second season and he said that he wanted to incorporate more Japanese cars because there were some articles written about just the cars on Mindhunter that stated not enough attention was paid to foreign cars, especially Japanese. That got back to the director and he kind of took it to heart.
CP: They’re paying attention to the car guys at least!
RB: He is. There are some Japanese cars on the wish list for the next season. I’m finding Civics and Corollas now, so keep an eye out!
CP: So you buy all these cars for shows, but what do you buy for yourself?
RB: Well I’ve got a real goofy bad taste in cars. I collect George Barris Kustoms from the gaudy baroque era of the ‘70s, the kind of thing someone would consider a “pimp” car. I like those because they’re unloved and totally not recognized as an art movement that went on in the ‘70s. I also really like historical fiberglass dune buggies from the ‘60s that won races—Dean Jeffries Kyotes and Super Safaris, things like that.
I’ve also got a 1965 Jaguar Mark X that was built by George Barris for Yvonna De Carlo and the car was decorated in a Munsters motif to go with the show. I’ve always been a fan of the show; I’ve always been a fan of Barris, he’s the original picture car guy. He was providing cars for films as early as the ‘40s. He did it all the way up until the early ‘90s. He’s the king of movie cars, that’s why this car is special to me. They ordered it directly from England because it had to have a sunroof. When they wanted to promote the show Ms. De Carlo could actually sit on the roof and wave to people. There are coffin rails across the top of the car so she could hang on while she was paraded around. It’s black with spiderweb hubcaps and a wolf’s head hood ornament, casket handles to lift the trunk. It’s pretty macabre.
CP: What are directors asking for now? Are there any trends you’re noticing?
RB: As the new crop of directors are growing into their ‘40s and ‘50s I’m seeing more films that take place in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s the time period that these guys grew up in that they’re passionate about. There’s more and more demand for these ‘70s cars and early ‘80s stuff that was otherwise forgotten. It’s the stuff that no one even thinks about anymore like big four-door Dodge Monaco Sedans, Chrysler Imperials, Ford Gran Torinos…a lot of family cars. If you look around today at what’s on the road it’s a lot of boring sedans that don’t look like much. We forget that actually it was the same in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To make a scene realistic and believable, that’s the type of thing you need in the background to make it authentic.
For a show that I’m doing right now called The Dirt, which is the story of the band Mötley Crüe, I had to round up a 1972 Stutz Blackhawk, which is a totally fun car. Almost every job has something neat about it. I’m also in the middle of sourcing a WWII military tank that runs, rolls, and fires. That’s a bit of a challenge!
For the movie LBJ I had to come up with the exact same model 1962 presidential limousine that President Kennedy was assassinated in, and I had to come up with the matching Secret Service car that followed behind it. There were two that were built, and they were both bought by a private collector and they were in his personal museum in Phoenix Arizona. I reached out to him to see if he would rent them to the movie but he wouldn’t but he did say he was interested in selling them, so just in order to get the cars for the film I bought them myself. I worked on the movie Jackie a few years ago as well.
CP: This seems like a very detail-oriented business. I kind of thought that directors simply saw the cars as a storytelling device to set up the shot, but it looks like there’s a little more to it than that. It seems like they actually care about authenticity even if it’s not the prettiest piece of metal.
RB: If the director is a bit of an auteur and is super passionate about the story he will go down to the very hubcaps and the size of the whitewall on the tires and they’ll make sure the paint is a color the manufacturer actually offered in that year. There have been times when we’ve had to re-paint a car the color it’s supposed to be based on tons of research. When you buy the cars you don’t always know what’s original on them and what isn’t.
But other times, they’re just happy to get cars for the movie and aren’t too concerned with every detail.
CP: So you have a lot of these so-called funky European cars, what do they end up in?
RB: A lot of directors will try to sell a scene where they’re down in Colombia or Belgium or wherever else sometime in the past. That’s when I’ll get the phone call for the French cars and oddball makes and I’m really happy to do it because there aren’t many inventories in America that specialize in vintage European because they aren’t needed that often. I’m kind of the guy that’s known to have all the weird stuff, Unimogs and whatnot.
CP: I always pay attention to the cars in films, so now I’ll know who to thank when the silver screen actually gets it right in that regard. Thank you for taking the time to talk about your profession Richard.
RB: My pleasure!