There’s a moment at the climax of ‘Back to the Future Part III’ when Marty McFly takes a breath.
He’s just miraculously transported from 1885, having used the propulsion of a steam-engine train to push the DeLorean to its requisite time-traveling speed of 88 mph — just before he, and the train behind him, ran out of track. Instead of careening off a cliff like that ill-fated locomotive, we suddenly find Marty in the DeLorean on that same railroad line, one hundred years later, as he cruises to a stop in his hometown of Hilldale… in 1985.
But just when we think Marty has safely traveled “back to the future” — his face turns pallid at the sight of an oncoming freight train! Marty throws open the gull-wing door, rolls out of the car just in time as the DeLorean is pulverized. Smashed to smithereens over the train tracks. And millions of film-lovers everywhere, myself included, suffered the heartbreaking loss of our beloved movie car.
At the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Bob Gale, the screenwriter and co-creator of the ‘Back to the Future’ franchise, reflected on my devastating childhood memory with glee, “We did our job. You were supposed to feel that way!”
The DeLorean is one of many film and television vehicles on display as part of a new exhibit at the Petersen, entitled “Hollywood Dream Machines: Vehicles of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” which opened to the public on May 5, 2019 and will run through March 15, 2020.
I was lucky enough to represent AlphaLuxe at the press day event, where the museum hosted a panel discussion of some of the most accomplished movie car designers and film producers of the last thirty years, including Bob Gale (Back to the Future Franchise, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars), Harald Belker (Batman and Robin, Armageddon, Tron Legacy), Dennis McCarthy (Batman Begins, Man of Steel, Fast & Furious Franchise), George Hull (The Matrix Franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Blade Runner 2049), Josh Hancock (Casino, John Wick 3, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and Michael Scheffe (Back to the Future Franchise, Avatar, Knight Rider).
This group of Hollywood heavy-hitters came out swinging, touting the merits of designing cars for the movies vis-à-vis the general automotive market.
Harald Belker, who is likely the only person on earth who has sketched car designs for both Porsche and Batman, said that when he crossed over into motion picture production design, “My world just exploded with the possibilities you have in film. Unlike automotive design where it’s very limited, very corporate — [working in film] you become a ten-year-old dreaming every day, coming up with the coolest thing.”
There are over fifty such “cool things” to observe at the exhibition, which features vehicles from film and television titles as diverse as James Bond and Death Race 2000. “Hollywood Dream Machines” came together under the leadership of Terry Karges, Executive Director at the Petersen, who expressed his anxieties about replicating the success of the outgoing “Porsche Effect” exhibit, which celebrated seventy years of Porsche automotive design. “It’s a challenge, what’s next? What are you going to do to top that?” He was initially hesitant to approach a featured exhibit steeped in science fiction and fantasy, “We’ve never done anything that wasn’t pure cars.”
But as studio support started to roll in, and Comic-Con and Microsoft came on board as partners, the show started to take shape. And as the lights in the main hall danced around us, bouncing off the motorcycle from Tron and the Landspeeder from the original Star Wars, Mr. Karges evaluated the museum’s work as a “major hit.”
I would have to agree.
Taking in the evolution of Blade Runner vehicles along the back wall of the main exhibit, I asked Blade Runner 2049 designer George Hull how he went about reconceptualizing the cars from Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic.
“I tried to read the story [for] cues. In this world, there was supposed to be a lot more snow, a lot more pollution. The first Blade Runner is all about rain. And so we thought about making [the new film] even more paramilitary, more brutal, more armored to deal with the climate change.”
It turns out, in film production, as in commercial automotive design or motorsport, form follows function. And where automakers concern themselves with the practicalities of safety and aerodynamics, production designers in film and T.V. must serve the functions of story and character. “And how does [our work] help tell that story?,” asked Michael Scheffe. Bob Gale chimed in, “When you see that DeLorean for the first time you say, ‘that looks really cool.’ But you also say, ‘God, this didn’t come out of some showroom. This came out of this guy’s garage!”
Mr. Scheffe agreed, driving home the point that movie car design is dictated by the world of the story, “Does [the car] look like it was built by some crazy guy in his garage? Or does it look like it was built where cost was no object and they had serious industrial designers who went to serious design schools?,” referencing his equally famous K.I.T.T. Car from the television series Knight Rider (also on display).
So these movie machines look cool, they play a role in supporting our understanding of character and story, but how do they perform? Well it turns out, the truth is a mixed bag. “One of my biggest headaches today is with modern cars,” complained Dennis McCarthy, citing the Lexus LC 500 featured in Black Panther, “Lexus gave us these amazing cars, and [they’re] made to do everything that’s not a stunt. No tire sliding, no burnout. And of course, you get a director saying, ‘Hey I just want this car to do a slide into a 180.’ Well… [it] doesn’t have a handbrake. You try to put a slide brake in the car, the car is so smart it won’t let you do that.”
His workaround for modern nannies? “I’ve learned now when I do these jobs, I ask for a computer programmer.” Lexus obliged, “They sent a guy… and if we did something the cars didn’t like… he would get into his laptop and dial it in.”
If modern movie cars are over-engineered, their forebears were, well, decidedly not. In reference to Doc’s famous time-traveling DeLorean, Bob Gale recounted, “The difficult part was getting it to run. I mean, that car is seriously underpowered.” He chuckled to himself, remembering the production hurdles caused by his decision that 88 mph would be the threshold time-traveling speed of his movie universe, “If you look at the speedometer on a stock DeLorean, it only goes up to 85. That was a shock! We finally got a DeLorean, the damn thing only goes up to 85!”
Nothing a little movie magic can’t fix. Upon closer inspection of the DeLorean on display, I found hilarious evidence of the truth underlying Bob’s story — a fake speedometer tacked over the original, which is starting to peel away after all these years.
And you thought the actors were the only stars on screen to undergo a bit of nip/tuck.
The Petersen Automotive Museum is located at 6060 Wilshire Boulevard (at Fairfax) in Los Angeles, California 90036.
“Hollywood Dream Machines: Vehicles of Science Fiction and Fantasy” runs through March 15, 2020.
Admission prices are $16 for general admission adults, $14 for seniors, $11 for children ages 4 to 17. Active military with ID, personal care attendants and children under 4 are admitted free.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
For general information call 323-930-CARS or visit www.petersen.org.
Garett Pereda became a petrolhead the moment the boost in his father’s Porsche 930 first threw him back in his seat when he was four years old. He’s been chasing that rush ever since. After graduating from NYU and Pepperdine Law School, Garett worked as an entertainment attorney at William Morris Endeavor before diving headlong into his life’s work — pursuing a career in television writing. He is a proud member and union captain for the Writers Guild of America, having worked on shows for Netflix, Warner Bros., Blumhouse Productions, Ellen DeGeneres, Lawrence Bender, and others. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, step-son, and their long-haired cat, Kiku.