Who can forget the Jaguar E-Type driven by James Bond in Goldfinger? I can think of one person: Sir William Lyons, the founder and head of Jaguar, who refused to lend three E-Types to Cubby Broccoli’s production staff. As short-sighted as that seems today, it was in perfect accordance with Sir William’s character; he understood better than anyone else that Jaguar’s edge on its contemporary British rivals was largely based on price and value, so he therefore watched every penny closely. His corner-cutting habits have caused many a Jag owner immense misery down the road; they also cost his brand what would turn out to be the most iconic pairing of car and character in film history. Goldfinger’s DB5 didn’t just turn heads; it has brought customers and investors to Aston Martin over and over again in the decades since.
The art and the business of automotive casting has come a long way since then, to put it mildly. Today’s “car stars” are usually the product of extensive and expensive product-placement efforts. Such was certainly the case when Mr. Bond became a BMW driver during the ’90s. The franchise then went to Ford, which had purchased both the Aston Martin and Jaguar brands from their sleepy English owners and was anxious to showcase its newest iron (Vanquish and XK8, respectively), in Die Another Day.
It’s not always that complicated. Cars can be chosen almost at random by producers who have no idea whether the character they’re putting behind the wheel could reasonably afford (or operate) the vehicle involved, they can be supplied by a member of the cast, or they can appear on the silver screen thanks to a happy accident. Here are a few examples of when it went right — and when it didn’t.
Steve McQueen and the Mustang, Bullitt
Few casting choices have been as adept as the dark Highland green, four-speed Mustang GT driven by Frank Bullitt. It’s a car that a police officer could afford and would reasonably choose. It looked respectably dirty and worn in the film. Most of all, it was lowbrow cool, just like McQueen’s disagreeably dogged San Francisco police inspector.
James Garner and the Firebirds, The Rockford Files
We’re not too far off the Bullitt mark here: Jim Rockford is a hard-bitten, brilliant fellow who occasionally needs to chase down a bad guy, so he bought a 400-cubic-inch V-8 Firebird. The choice of the lower-priced, less aggressive Esprit model was pure brilliance because the Trans Am and Formula of that era were significantly more expensive than the Esprit model. They were also a bit more showy and garish, something that wouldn’t work for a private eye. Somewhat ironically, the cars used in the show had to be mechanically upgraded to Formula spec so they could perform the stunt driving. It’s all make-believe in the end.
Skipp Sudduth and the Audi S8, Ronin
“Something very fast, Audi S8. Something that can shove a bit.” With those words, the crew of rootless mercenaries led by Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno set up a true star turn for an unlikely hero of a 340-horsepower, all-wheel-drive autobahn stormer. Driven by Larry, the cheerful and ultimately doomed professional wheelman, the Audi was more than capable of handling the Citroens and Peugeots driven by the opposition. And while Ronin is often cited for having the nerve to run a BMW M5 through the tunnel that killed Princess Di, most viewers came away remembering that suave black Audi above all the other great cars in the film.
Val Kilmer and the Volvo S70, The Saint
British television’s The Saint featured Roger Moore in the prime of his career behind the wheel of a dreamy Volvo P1800 coupe. When it came to the big screen with a painfully miscast Val Kilmer, Volvo was anxious to place its new S70 coupe in the shoes previously worn by the P1800. Just one problem: While the P1800 was a rolling work of ’60s art, the C70 was a front-wheel-drive blob that resembled nothing in particular. The real-life owners of C70 coupes, who were mostly retirees and women of a certain age, probably never saw the awkward way in which the movie shoehorned a few forgettable Volvo scenes between the… does anybody actually remember what happened in The Saint? Me neither.
Tom Cruise and the 1963 Impala, A Few Good Men
He’s a callous, lazy Naval officer who cares about nothing, so why is Tom Cruise’s character driving a beat-up, 28-year-old Impala sedan? Where is he getting the parts? Is he fixing it himself? Why is the front of the car in perfect shape but the rest of it so beat up? This is a great example of a common car-casting error: giving the protagonist a “quirky old car” that in real life wouldn’t be up to the tasks demanded of it. Visit a Naval base some time and see what the young officers are driving: It’s usually a very late-model Dodge Charger with go-fast parts, not a heap that needs regular chassis lubrication to stay on the road.
Ben Affleck and the Jeep Renegade, Batman vs. Superman
He’s a billionaire, a crime-fighting vigilante, a man tortured by his inner demons of violent behavior and unfathomable guilt. So it’s only natural that Bruce Wayne drives… a Jeep Renegade? The cheapest little Jeep, based on a front-wheel-drive Fiat, built in Italy, and most often spotted in high school parking lots? This was pay-to-play casting at its most unpleasant, and just to drive the point home, Jeep offered a “Dawn Of Justice” edition based on the movie. Thanks, I hate it!
Paul Walker, Tyrese, and those two Mitsubishis, 2 Fast 2 Furious
The first Fast and Furious movie was a bona fide surprise hit, and it eventually made fourth-generation Toyota Supras worth more than the Ferrari that also appeared in the film. For the second one, however, Mitsubishi got involved in a big way. The Evolution sedan driven by rogue police officer Brian O’Connor is a great choice and very similar to what people were using in real street racing. The purple Eclipse convertible used by his best friend Roman, featuring a rental-car powertrain and a series of body modifications that made it look even more like a clown car? As Tyrese might say, “I ain’t havin’ it, cuz.”
Mark Hamill and the Corvette, Corvette Summer
Back in high school, did any of your friends rescue a nearly new Corvette from an inexplicable date with the car-crusher machine, rebuild it into a highly customized supercar with new body panels and zillion-dollar paint, and then leave it out on the streets of Van Nuys? Probably not because, in real life, teenagers don’t do that sort of thing. That didn’t stop the people who made Corvette Summer. The car is bizarre-looking, the plot is incomprehensible, and Mark Hamill looks like he’s lost in space in most of the scenes. At least we got a half-decent song out of it: Beck’s Corvette Bummer.
Lindsay Lohan and the Beetle, Herbie: Fully Loaded
The original Herbie movies were good fun, and they capitalized on the emotional appeal that the diminutive Volkswagen had for Americans in the ’60s. (That’s very much a stateside thing, by the way; Germans associate the Type 1 “people’s car” with poverty and tough times, so the “New Beetle” was not a success in the Fatherland.) The 2005 remake? Oh, it’s bad. Herbie does some street racing before competing in NASCAR. Naturally, he and Ms. Lohan take the top step on the podium.
There’s no particular “car star” in Spielberg’s dark and troubling film about an Israeli revenge mission, but rarely has a film set in the past been this diligent about creating an automotive ecosystem. To watch Munich is to experience almost firsthand the European automotive ecosystem of the ’70s. It was arguably a high water mark for driver involvement, innovative engineering, and forward-looking styling, and Munich takes it just as seriously as it takes the reenactment of the Black September killing. Highly recommended.
Jack Baruth was born in Brooklyn and lives in Ohio. He is a pro-am race car driver, and he has been the “Avoidable Contact” columnist for Road & Track and Hagerty magazines.