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When the car's the star

By STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

[Photo: H.B. Halicki Productions]
“Eleanor,” the 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1 that starred in the original Gone in 60 Seconds, earned her fame in a spectacular chase that left dozens of pursuing police cars in a pile of wreckage.
Automobile chase movies were all the (road) rage a generation ago. Cars were the real stars, and they had short, memorable careers.

Sure, Gene Hackman won an Oscar for The French Connection. But didn't he owe nearly as much to Detroit as to Hollywood?

Today's release of Gone in 60 Seconds, a remake of a 1974 car chase classic, sparks fond memories of high-octane movie thrills. Motorized vehicles have been part of filmmaking since the Keystone Kops. At times, they displayed more character than their drivers.

Steve McQueen's speedy deeds in Bullitt (1968) introduced a period when cars were kings of the box office. That chase set the pace for a decade of auto-matic plots, until Burt Reynolds went to the gas pump one too many times.

A little too straight and narrow
Too respectable for its own good, Gone in 60 Seconds lacks the reckless thrill of the original.
Pop quiz: Name the actor who played Kowalski in 1971's Vanishing Point. Time's up. Now, tell me what kind of car he drove. If you know the answer, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, you missed a good time at the movies.

Nobody gives prizes for best performances by cars and drivers. Too bad, but we can try to make up for that.

There is only one rule of the road: We're not talking about simply cool or funny-looking cars. Otherwise, Bob Falfa's 1955 Chevy in American Graffiti or Wayne Campbell's 1976 AMC Pacer in Wayne's World would be shoo-ins.

We're talking speed and/or destruction, just the way stunt masters Bill Hickman (Bullitt, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups) and Hal Needham (anything with Burt) would like it. These are the 10 greatest road warriors, starting with the pole position:

Detective Frank Bullitt's 1968 Ford Mustang GT -- McQueen was never cooler. The streets of San Francisco never seemed so treacherous. The Bullitt Mustang jousted with another classic car (a '68 Dodge Charger) in the chase to which all others have been compared. You almost don't notice that the same hubcap gets lost three times because footage is repeated from different camera angles to prolong the action.

Detective Popeye Doyle's 1970 Pontiac LeMans -- Hackman's character simmered for an hour before erupting behind the wheel, in reckless pursuit of an elevated train in The French Connection. Production assistants chased pedestrians out of the way mere seconds before Popeye barreled through. Several close calls made the final cut.

Jake and Elwood's Bluesmobile -- A 1974 Dodge Monaco, formerly a police car. As Elwood described the vehicle: "It's got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant. It's got cop tires. Cop suspension. Cop shocks. It's the model made before catalytic converters, so it'll run good on regular gas." The Blues Brothers mobile caused more pileups than any single automobile ever.

Kowalski's 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T -- A supercharged Alpine White metaphor for the waning counterculture. The hopped-up, obsessive Kowalski (Barry Newman) was "the last free soul on the face of this Earth," and this was his ride to cult posterity in Vanishing Point. Signaling during a high-speed lane change was a nice touch. Lost a game of chicken with a pair of bulldozers.

James Bond's 1964 Aston Martin DB5 -- The greatest 007 gadget stole the show in Goldfinger. Extras included machine guns, oil slick spray, rear bulletproof shield, smokescreen and water jets, rotating license plates and a passenger ejector seat. Reportedly stolen from a collector in 1997.

The Bandit's 1977 Pontiac Trans-Am Special Edition -- Viagra with a steering wheel. Black as coal with a gaudy, golden firebird on the hood and enough room for Reynolds' ego in Smokey and the Bandit. Two interesting gaffes: The car has an automatic transmission, but manual gear-shifting is heard on the soundtrack, and the odometer never changes in close-ups.

Luke Doolin's 1950 Ford Coupe -- A decade before Bullitt, Robert Mitchum hauled moonshine down Thunder Road (1958) in a movie that packed Deep South drive-ins for years. "Revenooers" never had a chance. Future NASCAR fans found a hero. Luck ran out when Luke changed cars. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Maindrian Pace's 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1 -- The original Gone in 60 Seconds concluded with a 40-minute car chase demolishing dozens of vehicles and a few eardrums. This racer, affectionately named "Eleanor," led the way. The remake features a 1967 Shelby GT 500 in the role.

David Mann's 1970 Plymouth Valiant -- Not exactly a muscle car. But the others didn't contend with a Peterbilt tractor-trailer tailgating at full speed. Steven Spielberg's Duel turned highway danger into superb existential tension.

Annie Porter's 1959 GMC Coach -- Okay, so this is a bus that really belonged to the city of Los Angeles. But didn't Sandra Bullock look cute behind the wheel in Speed? Not very fast off the line and didn't corner well. However, once it got past 55 mph, it was "da bomb."

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