7 March 2013

B-List Bond

The other Bond Cars

 

This dialog between James Bond and Q from the 1964 movie “Goldfinger” introduced the most enduring and famous relationship between a car and a film franchise — and perhaps the greatest bit of product placement — ever. Alas, this article isn’t about that Bond car.

Over the 50-year screen history of Ian Fleming’s immortal spook, James Bond has driven countless other cars besides the Silver Birch 1964 Aston Martin DB5 equipped with everything from machine guns to an ejector seat. Although most became interesting collector cars in their own right, none achieved anywhere near the level of immortality and indelible association with 007 as the Aston. Not coincidentally, none are remotely as expensive, either. Good news for those of us mortals who like a little bit of James Bond trivia in our collector cars’ past.

Strictly speaking, an official “Bond car” is one that was actually issued to Bond by MI6 armaments quartermaster Major Boothroyd, otherwise known as “Q.” The longsuffering character was played by Desmond Llewellyn in most of the official EON-produced Bond films through 1999’s “Die Another Day.”

Over the series of 22 films to date, some of the “official” Bond cars have been either forgettable or barely seen at all (Bond’s Bentley Mk IV in “From Russia With Love” is only briefly on screen), while some of the unofficial Bond cars — the ones “borrowed” by 007 — were involved in some of the more memorable scenes in Bond moviedom.

The first car chase in a Bond film happened in 1962’s “Dr. No” between Bond in a “borrowed” 1961 Sunbeam Alpine and — of all things — a 1939 LaSalle funeral coach driven by No’s henchmen. Bond slides the Alpine under a crane, the LaSalle can’t follow; it goes over a cliff and explodes for no apparent reason. When a bystander runs up and asks 007 (played by Sean Connery) what happened, he quips in what became his trademark gallows fashion, “I think they were on their way to a funeral.” The Alpine was reputed to have been loaned to the producers of the film because it was the only sports car available in Jamaica at the time.

Of the “borrowed” Bond car subgenre, perhaps the most memorable was the red 1971 Ford Mustang Mach 1 from 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.” In a fantastic chase scene, the great stunt driver Carey Loftin drives on two wheels through Las Vegas (the streets were cleared via a “favor” done by none other than James Bond fan Howard Hughes).

“Diamonds” was possibly the weakest of the Sean Connery Bond films. An out-of-shape Connery had been bribed back into the role after the failure of his replacement, George Lazenby. But it was at least partially redeemed by the scenes involving the Mach 1. Corgi, the British diecast toy car manufacturer, even issued a model of the Mustang, an uncommon honor for an unofficial Bond car.

The appearance of a 1971 Mustang in the film gives a little bit of added collector luster to what was arguably the most controversial of the first generation of the original pony car, the largish 1971–73 version. By the early ’70s, perhaps both Connery and the Mustang had put on a bit of a middle-age spread.

The Roger Moore era of Bond started with “Live and Let Die” in 1973, and while it sported a henchman driving the Corvorado — a truly bizarre combination of a Cadillac Eldorado and a Corvette — it held little else of automotive interest.

Moore’s next turn as Bond was 1974’s “The Man With the Golden Gun.” And if the placement of the Aston DB5 in “Goldfinger” was the Bond franchise’s golden moment, then the over-the-top, virtual sponsorship of “The Man With the Golden Gun” by American Motors was its zinc moment.

In “Golden Gun,” Bond steals a 1974 AMC Hornet hatchback and drives it through a Hong Kong AMC showroom window. If the notion of an AMC dealer in Hong Kong wasn’t strange enough, in one scene, the million-dollar-a-shot hit-man referenced in the title (played by the great Christopher Lee) makes an escape in a flying AMC Matador with Tattoo from "Fantasy Island" for a co-pilot. Needless to say, this particular plot device wasn’t found in the original Ian Fleming novel.

Moore wasn’t issued an official Bond car until the 1978 film “The Spy Who Loved Me.” And it is likely the best remembered of the "other" Bond cars chronicled here, particularly for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. The production version of the Lotus Esprit had been introduced just prior to filming. Waist high and with arresting wedge styling from Giorgetto Giugiaro, it looked like just the thing to replace Bond’s hoary Aston Martin, which seemed so out of step in the disco-era 1970s.

Like the DB5, the Esprit came “with modifications” from Q, the most famous of which turned the car into an actual submarine, something heretofore done only by Amphicars with leaky door seals. This being the days before computer animation, midget submarine builder Perry Submarines of Florida was retained to turn an Esprit into a U-boat a good five years before Tom Cruise did the same thing to a Porsche 928 in “Risky Business.”

Bond put the Lotus’ submersible capabilities to good use while being strafed by villain Karl Stromberg’s helicopter pilot/henchwoman (played by Carolyn Munro). In the famous scene, Bond drives the Lotus off a pier (to the shock of his passenger, played by Barbara Bach). The wheels fold up into diving planes, propellers and a periscope deploy, and Bond takes care of the pesky helicopter with missiles fired from the hatch area of the Esprit. I remember thinking as a 14-yearold watching the film, “Wow, that’s hardcore. Bond offed a girl — and a smoking hot one at that.” C’est la guerre, I suppose, or plenty of fish in the sea if you’re Bond.

It wasn’t the Esprit’s only big moment in the film. There was a memorable mountain road chase in Sardinia that proved problematic for the filmmakers. Due to the Esprit’s particularly high handling limits, the stunt driver just wasn’t able to wring enough obvious speed and drama out for the cameras to satisfy director Lewis Gilbert. Not wanting to artificially speed up the film, a factory Lotus test driver was brought in to suitably thrash the car for the scene.

A couple of later Esprit Turbos made brief appearances in the 1981 film “For Your Eyes Only.” Like so many other Bond cars, Corgi issued a model of the white Esprit in submarine mode, complete with plastic shooting missiles, which were lost by most kids within 10 minutes of removing the model from the box.

The rest of the Roger Moore era was relatively dull from a car standpoint, save for a decent chase scene in 1983’s “Octopussy” involving Bond in a “borrowed” Alfa Romeo GTV6 as he flees some German cops in BMW cars and motorcycles.

Cars figured little into the brief two-film Timothy Dalton era, other than an Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante in 1987’s “The Living Daylights.” Both Dalton and the film were vastly underrated and the later Aston tried gamely to capture some of the gadgetry and magic of the DB5, but a more jaded 1980s audience was having none of it.

Dalton handed the Bond franchise off to Pierce Brosnan (whom the producers had wanted anyway when they cast Dalton), and the series went into full blatant product placement mode with Bond driving predominantly current-model BMWs. In 1995, “GoldenEye” featured a then-new BMW Z3 in light metallic blue with a tan top. The accompanying marketing campaign caused a significant Z3 sales spike, particularly those in the “James Bond colors.” Notbad for a whopping two minutes of screen time. Near the end of his tenure, Brosnan was back in an Aston, this time a V12 Vanquish.

It’s hard to say why none of the subsequent Bond cars have taken off in value the way Aston Martin DB5s have. One could argue that Connery was the first and the best James Bond and that the Silver Birch DB5 was the first and the best of the gadgeted Bond cars and made the most lasting impression on a generation of then wide-eyed and now moneyed Baby Boomers. But for the rest of us, it’s just as well to be able to lean on the fender of our red ’71 Mach 1 and tell the neighbor, “You know, James Bond drove one of these. Maybe even this one.”

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