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How classic cars get featured in movies

Actors Owen Wilson, right, and Ben Stiller, who

Actors Owen Wilson, right, and Ben Stiller, who starred in the movie based on the 1970's "Starsky and Hutch" television series, pose in front of a Ford Torino, made famous by the movie and series, in London. (March 11, 2004) Credit: AP

We’ve all seen television shows, movies, and advertisements in which “period correct” classic cars play a prominent role, or are used in background shots. Did you ever wonder how the producers of this media manage to assemble all of these cars in one place at one time? In most cases they contract with any one of a number of companies that specialize in providing classic cars to these industries.

It is early on a Sunday morning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was contracted to deliver two of my classic cars to be used in a photo-shoot, so I thought it would be interesting to write this column as the models, photographers, hair stylists, makeup artists, caterers, and producers all mill about performing their assigned duties in some semblance of ordered chaos.

In this instance the cars are the stars. They are placed side by side in a cavernous warehouse. Nondescript from the outside, the inside of the warehouse looks as if it hasn’t been renovated in 100 years. In stark contrast to the gritty brick walls and rough timber roof joists, modern lights on moveable poles illuminate the warehouse as brightly as the sunniest day. Wires snake everywhere as far as the eyes can see, and modern digital cameras and monitors are everywhere.

The cars are prepped in the warehouse and the models are prepped in their dressing room. As soon as both are ready they will meet. If you are the type that feels faint anytime someone walks within 3 feet of your classic car, then this is definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you are the type that enjoys new experiences, and a wire being accidentally dragged across your car will not send your heart into palpitations, then this is something you should experience at least once.

Here’s how it works. You list your car with one or more of the companies that provide classic cars to the industry. They call you when a need for your car arises. You agree to provide the car at a specific time and day, they cancel on you, and you start all over again. In most cases this will be repeated several times before your car actually “gets a job.” The reason for this is because they are calling you to find out if your car is available, and if so, can you provide it when they need it? They will do this with several car owners, and then they provide photos and descriptions to their client to make the final choice. Eventually you’ll make the cut. When you do, you’ll sign a contract outlining the particulars such as the fee you’ll get paid, the period of time they’ll need the car, who will transport the car (you or them), the use for the car (indoors or outdoors, moving or static, etc.), and liabilities.

You won’t get rich doing this. The typical fee is anywhere from about $300 - $800 per day unless you have a rare or special car in which case fees can rise dramatically. Because of these rather modest fees it’s important to make sure that the rental company has appropriate insurance, and to be clear what they will be responsible for. Remember, the rental company is just a middle-man. The production company will actually be using your car.

Most production companies are fairly careful with the cars, but they are there to do a job in a finite period of time, and as such, things do occasionally happen. The car might get a small chip, or a wire might scuff the paint slightly. In most cases, f you didn’t see it happen, you probably wouldn’t even notice, and most damage can be easily remedied.
In 95% of the cases everything goes smoothly and you get paid a fair price while getting to enjoy the day. Notice that I didn’t say 99% of the time, or even 98% of the time, because sometimes things do happen. Bad things.

And that’s why you probably don’t want to do this with a car fresh out of the restoration shop, or a “survivor.” A case in which I was recently retained concerned a “survivor” that was damaged when the production company sprayed it with a chemical intended to simulate frost on the car. The chemical was not intended to be used on the lacquer based paint so common on classic cars, and the entire car needed to be repainted. Under any circumstances this would not be an ideal situation, but with a “survivor” the value of the car was significantly diminished once it was re-painted. Scenarios such as this can be avoided by simply not agreeing to any risk that you are not willing to accept.

If you are like the 95% of the rest of the people who rent their classic cars for use in the media, you’ll enjoy an experience not available to most. One might say that this is “better living through classic cars.” 

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