It’s nighttime in Pittsburgh. Tom-Cruise-as-Jack-Reacher has just beaten the tar out of a half-dozen creeps. Now it’s time to scram.
Reacher hops into his vehicle, grabs a gear, and hauls ass. The moaning bad guys can only stare at the yellow BABY ON BOARD sign in the rear window of his Grand Caravan.
Wait. What? Cut cut cut! Get me Props, dammit!
The vehicle in question is not, of course, a homely Dodge Grand Caravan, the minivanniest of all minivans. Rather, it’s a fire-breathing 1970 Chevelle SS, complete with Rally Stripes, a 396-cubic-inch engine, and a 4-speed transmission.
But you know what? Any sane tough guy would rather drive a Grand Caravan. Or maybe a Camry in a nice beige.
The U.S. is in the midst of a pony-car and muscle-car fetish driven by Baby Boomers’ fond memories of the wheels they wanted but could not afford when they were teens. Unfortunately (but inevitably), this mania is on full display in TV shows and movies about cops, PIs, and tough guys in general.
Here’s the dirty little secret regarding the Mustangs, Camaros, Chargers, Cyclones, Firebirds, and Barracudas of the 1960s and early ’70s: by today’s standards, their performance is laughable.
Those cars were designed to race in a straight line from stoplight to stoplight, and at that they did a fair job. But eventually, cars need to turn and negotiate bumps and stop. And compared to the lowliest $189-a-month econo-sedans on the market today, muscle cars are pitiful in these departments.
I’m being a spoilsport, I know, so I’ll make it clear that nobody enjoys a cool PI-mobile more than I do. Whether it’s Travis McGee’s Rolls-Royce truck, Jim Rockford’s golden Firebird, Elvis Cole’s Stingray convertible, or Bullitt’s Mustang, I get it: a cool car is part of the deal.
But I’ll add that my protagonist, Conway Sax, a former NASCAR racer, drives a Ford F-150 pickup truck in the first few books. In Shotgun Lullaby, I upgrade him—to an F-250. It’s refrigerator white, a truck you wouldn’t look at twice. And isn’t that what an investigator wants?
For this reason, my favorite private-eye ride in recent cinematic history is the creaky, not-awful-but-certainly-not-nice Buick driven by Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks) in recent seasons of Breaking Bad.
When it comes to cool dudes on film and their cars, though, the one true criterion has nothing to do with performance or anonymity. This criterion was aptly expressed by a college buddy of mine 30 years ago as we watched a hated rival roll down Fraternity Row in his Jaguar XKE: “You can get laid just by owning that car,” my buddy said mournfully.
And nobody ever got laid just by driving a minivan.
Steve Ulfelder is a race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, who’s also the Edgar-nominated author of the mysteries featuring unlikely hero Conway Sax: Purgatory Chasm, The Whole Lie, and the most recently released: Shotgun Lullaby. During his teenage years he drove a Toyota Corona station wagon, which may explain the chip on his shoulder regarding cool cars. Also visit Steve at Facebook and Twitter @SteveUlfelder.
Read all posts by Steve Ulfelder for Criminal Element .