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Eleanor Mustang

ELEANOR MUSTANG HISTORY

Gone Again

The remake of a cult car-chase movie gets Bruckheimered.

CAR & DRIVER JULY 2000
BY JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN
MULTIPLE PHOTOGRAPHERS

In a grim neighborhood in Los Angeles seldom mentioned in the Chamber of Commerce brochures, it isn't unusual to find someone chopping up a perfectly good Mercedes S500.

What is unusual is that in this case it's a crew of union guys getting paid double time in the parking lot of a grubby diner next to a strip club at 1 a.m., in anticipation of its being comically pulled apart by an oversize tow truck.

But that's the sort of thing that happens on a movie set. In this case, the set of Gone in Sixty Seconds, producer Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget (about $90 million, according to the Wall Street Journal) re-imagination of the late filmmaker Toby Halicki's practically no-budget, barely comprehensible 1974 car-crash epic Gone in 60 Seconds. Halicki and his friends starred in the original; Bruckheimer had the money to hire some big names, such as Nicolas Cage, Robert Duvall, and Angelina Jolie. Make no mistake: It may be about car crashes and wacky chases, but this is a major Hollywood movie.

If the guys hacking away at the big Mercedes were successful on that foggy night last October, then when the movie opened June 9, audiences around the country, fully engrossed in their suspension of disbelief, would double over in laughter.

Or if the movie doesn't work, as Bruckheimer's 1990 NASCAR epic, Days of Thunder, most definitely did not, there'll just be the huge groan that comes with the collective recognition of radical implausibility. Days of Thunder isn't well respected among race fans ("I didn't know that," Bruckheimer said when we told him), but it may be more than a coincidence that it kicked off NASCAR's greatest decade of growth. And whether the new Gone turns out to be a car-chase classic or a major Hollywood flop, it will enter the automotive oeuvre. Because Bruckheimer movies (Crimson Tide, Con Air, and The Rock) aren't small, aren't subtle, and are almost always wildly popular.

"I think Jerry certainly looks for interesting, bigger-than-life characters," said the new Gone's comparatively unknown director, Dominic Sena (1993's Kalifornia). "He looks for action. He is always trying to infuse the pictures with some humor. And I think the good guys always win.

"This one was different. There were more sorts of characters involved, and there were no asteroids, not many explosions at all." Of course, making a movie where the good guys are car thieves, typically not good guys, presents problems.

Due to potential carnage, the need for more than one Eleanor was obvious, and eventually a total of 13 were built by Ray Claridge's Cinema Vehicle Services (CVS). One was the mock-up used for prototyping, and 11 were used in the movie. One Mustang fastback was split into a "process car" for filming scenes where a complete and intact car would inhibit camera moves, and the others to be used in the movie were modified for specific tasks (one, for example, was geared specifically for high-speed running in one scene, others were modified to slide dramatically).

The front suspension was replaced on all the filming cars with a reinforced coil-over system incorporating Total Control Products (TCP) rack-and-pinion steering. Powerplants ranged from ratty 289-cubic-inch V-8s to one car that got a new 400-hp Ford Motorsport 351 crate engine. All the cars got a set of Paul Schmidt (PS Engineering) 8.0-by-17-inch wheels wrapped in P245/ 40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, front and rear, and each was lowered.

This made driving a challenge for the stuntmen. "We have eight Mustangs [for stunt work], and not one of them drives the same," Martin says. "So each car was used for specific things. We had one that would handle corners better, we had one that was more of a race car, we had one that would get damaged a little bit."

At least two of the Eleanors were destroyed filming an over-the-top jump on L.A.'s Vincent Thomas Bridge; others were speared by a forklift and placed in a shredder for another scene. Seven of the 11 survived to return to CVS's inventory.

CVS built a 13th Eleanor for Bruckheimer's personal use from an actual GT500. Unlike the cars used in filming, this car's very low-hanging side exhaust and C-pillar fuel filler work. However, the suspension wasn't modified, and, says CVS, the whole car can be easily returned to stock. It's the nicest of the Eleanors, but it's not in the movie.

On the screens of the editing bays at Jerry Bruckheimer Films in Santa Monica, an early look at the not-quite-complete Gone promised big dirty fun, with a giddy goofiness, some truly spectacular stunt driving, and the gloss of a Bruckheimer production.

We can guarantee this: If Cage, Jolie, and Duvall earn second Oscars, it won't be for Gone in Sixty Seconds. But the movie's probably more than good enough to stoke the fires of automotive passion for another generation of adolescent boys.

In fact, it's already had that effect on some of the cast.

Going into the movie, 24-year-old Giovanni Ribisi "absolutely knew nothing about anything. Then we talked to this guy who was a car thief. From research it evolved into building this car. Now I'd definitely say I have the bug." Ribisi and a friend wound up shoehorning a 502-cubic-inch Chevy big-block V-8 into a '69 Camaro before filming was done for his personal transportation, and Ribisi was allowed to pick over the carcasses of some of the used-up Mustangs in CVS's lot. "They let me ravage two of the Shelbys.

We got, like, two nine-inch rear ends and some seats. We were like, whooa-yahh!"

Yes, well. If one of its stars has wound up turning the CVS lot into Celebrity Pick-a-Part, then good has already come from the movie.

So it helps if the head thief is played by a big-time movie star like Cage, who won a best-actor Oscar for 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, and whose real-life passion for cars is well-known and whose rumored $20 million paycheck should let him snap up a few more classics for his collection. The film, Cage said, "has kind of a glorified '70s B-movie aura," evoking such drive-in classics as Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.

Joining Cage in the cast are two more Oscar winners, Duvall (best actor in 1983 for Tender Mercies) as a veteran thief and Jolie (best supporting actress for 1999's Girl, Interrupted) as Cage's love interest, a specialist in Ferrari thefts. Supporting them are veterans Delroy Lindo (Ransom, Get Shorty) as the cop who pursues Cage and a whole flock of youngsters ranging from Vinnie Jones of Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels to James Duval of last year's Go as members of Cage's gang.

Although the makers of the new movie haven't taken a lot from the old one, the plot does generally follow the old one. It's still about a gang of Los Angeles car thieves who try to steal 50 cars in one night, and they still give each of those cars a feminine code name. Why exactly they need to accomplish that task is as murky as the cinematography in the original, but in the new movie it's to save the Cage character's little brother (played by Giovanni Ribisi of Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room, but perhaps best known as Phoebe's brother on the NBC-TV hit Friends) from the wrath of a crime-syndicate boss after a caper goes haywire.

Fine. But what about the cars?

"What we wanted to do was come up with the perfect blend of classic American and import and super-carish kind of stuff," said production designer and on-call car nut Jeff Mann, about choosing the gang's 50 rolling targets. "Stuff that people are going to be interested in seeing stolen. But I also didn't want everything to be, like, the '57 Chevy; the most predictable thing you could think of. There was a McLaren F1 on the list for a while, but that one proved to be fairly impossible to acquire. But we did manage to find a Jaguar XJ220. We have a Hemi 'Cuda, which plays a big role. It was a long, ongoing process till we hit on the 50 cars." That list includes exotics such as the Lamborghini Countach and a passel of Ferraris ranging from a '67 275GTB/4 to a new 550 Maranello rented for the movie from a stuntman who happened to own one.

Compared with the original, whose climactic chase fills 40 of the film's 105 minutes and in which a supposed 93 cars were destroyed, the automotive body count in the new film is relatively light. "This movie is not so much about crashes like the other movie was. It's more about high speed, near misses, all that," said Johnny Martin, a stunt coordinator. Delroy Lindo accidentally totaled a new BMW 540i his cop character drove, and a Porsche 911 sustained $15,000 worth of damage jumping through a window, but the Ferraris were unscathed.

As in the original, the hero of the new movie's climactic chase is "Eleanor." In 1974, Eleanor was a '73 Ford Mustang Mach 1, but it wasn't necessarily going to be a Mustang in the new movie. "We were talking for a while about the new Shelby, the Series 1," said production designer Mann, but it was judged "maybe a little girly and small, in the long run. The one we were really hot on was the Ford GT40."

But GT40s were too expensive even for Bruckheimer. So it was back to Mustangs, Shelby's '67 GT500 in particular, for the new Eleanor. Unfortunately, among all those Ferraris and Porsches, an old stock Shelby doesn't have a particularly dominating screen presence. So they set to work developing a genuinely bad-ass version of the GT500 for the film's star car. Mann enlisted well-known hot-rod designer and illustrator Steve Stanford to develop Eleanor. "Stanford always kept in touch with the original car. I didn't want it to end up looking like that Corvette Summer piece-of-garbage movie car." He's referring to the hideous Vette that co-starred with Mark Hamill in that 1978 movie.

Working from Stanford's drawings, Chip Foose, hot-rod king Boyd Coddington's former designer, mocked up the fictional hyped-up GT500's pieces on a Mustang using clay and wood. From that work, molds were made to produce a new fiberglass front end filled with high-powered PIAA driving lights, and new fender flares, side skirts and scoops, trunk lid, and hood.