Car Stars: Where Movies and Automobiles Come Together
Think fast: is there any film you had seen that didn’t have a car?
Difficult, isn’t it?
Cars and movies were born and developed at the same time, from the late 19th century to the early 20th, a moment when movement and speed fascinated new generations and opened opportunities for new horizons.
The first moving picture – The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Gare, in 1895 – showcased a protagonist from the previous century – the locomotive. A decade later, two of the four pioneer Miles Brothers attached a camera to a cable car and, in one formidable long take, gave us a magnificent view of a busy street – Market Street, in San Francisco in 1906, a few days before the massive earthquake that almost completely destroyed the city.
On the frame, we can see 30 cable cars, four horsecars, and, gloriously, three automobiles. At first, we think Market Street was filled with the new modern machines, but in reality, these three bold drivers were moving their cars around horses, carts, pedestrians, and, of course, the cable cars.
Among many things, Going Down Market Street is a testimony to how and why cars and motion pictures have been going hand in hand for over a century.
Los Angeles, a western village that transformed itself into a never-ending sprawl, thanks to the automobile, has one of the best – if not the best – museums dedicated not only to autos but all manner of moving machines that can be seen on screens big, small and ginormous.
Founded in 1994 by publicist, publisher, and auto enthusiastic Robert Elnar “Pete” Petersen and his wife Margie, the Petersen Automotive Museum, strategically placed on the busy intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, holds over 100 vehicles, from cars to submarines on display in its 25 galleries. Their pieces, donated by studios, filmmakers, and private collectors, are just part of the museum’s collection – beyond the relics that the museum holds in its enormous vault, under the building, plus temporary expositions in partnership with other entities.
In 2015, the museum closed for a whole year for a large-scale renovation. The architects of Kohn Pedersen Fox reinvented the exterior of the museum which now looks like a massive vehicle in motion. The galleries were redone, giving more space for the pieces to be seen in the context of the films and series they have starred in, and ensuring more safety to display complex cars and moving machines of all kinds.
Since 2012, another auto enthusiast has been at the helm of the museum. With a background in management, business, and marketing, from parks like Disneyland and SeaWorld to his own motorsports team, Terry Karges took the helm when the Petersen Museum was on the cusp to have a new look.
In addition to a complete redo of the inside and out of the museum, Karges created new projects to engage new generations not only to interest them in cars, but also to excite and inspire them as future designers, engineers, artists, and creatives. Supported by businesses and the Petersen Foundation, the museum offers guided visits, virtual events, and classroom programs in schools.
“It’s not just the interest in cars, although we love that they get interested in cars,” says Karges. “But it’s beyond that, it’s what the cars can do to inspire future talents.”
Karges, who says that he became “a lifelong design enthusiast” and shares that his passion for cars was cultivated at the tracks of Riverside and Laguna Seca, California, sees the museum as an interaction between cars and creativity, and how cars and other vehicles – that includes motorcycles, submersible vehicles, and flying machines – can become part of visual narratives. “The core idea of the museum is the role of the cars in the movies,” he says.
In Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy, for instance, the DeLorean that “lives” in the Petersen is an essential character that evolves along the back and forth of the human characters. The DeLorean DMC-12 that we see in the first film acts like a character through time in the franchise, being redesigned and redone by Robert Zemeckis and Robert Gale, becoming less like a car and more like a futuristic time machine.
Industrial designer Harald Belker created two Lexus hoverboard pods specifically for Steven Spielberg’s vision of the not-too-distant future – 2054 – in Minority Report (2002). Tom Cruise escapes the PreCrime division that now accuses him of murder in one of these hoverboard pods that now can be seen in the museum.
And then there’s James Bond.
Housed on a full floor of the Petersen – the Mullin Grand Salon- until October, the museum presents “Bond in Motion,” the first US official exhibition of the vehicles that starred in the Bond movies, from 1962 to now. “One important element (of the show) is that the 60 years of Bond movies begin in an era that didn’t have CGI,” says Karges. “When most of these movies were made, it was real stunts in real cars. It’s really remarkable.”
The Bond movies were a foray into a specific element of cinema: the automotive chase in which a narrative is made purely of movement (like in the first years of cinema itself). “The chase was essential in a Bond movie,” Karges adds. “There’s always a bad guy, sometimes more than one.”
However, in the pre-digital age, the chase in a Bond movie was a bit more complex than the efforts of pioneers of the motion picture: a Bond chase requires rigorous planning, excellent timing, a master editor, daredevil-ish stunt drivers, and the detachment of producers prepared to destroy some of the most beautiful and elegant automobiles.
Of all the spectacular records of the brilliantly insane work team of stunts and cars – and there are many – one beats all others: the unbelievable but true feat of an Aston Martin DBS overturning seven times consecutively in Casino Royale (2006). Yes, the stunt driver is alive. And the state of that heroic Aston Martin can be seen in all its glory at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
By the way: this is a great place to explore this Summer.