TRAVIS Pastrana, Ken Block and Tanner Foust – the world is awash with videos of their stunt-driving, bone-stressing prowess, making them household names in a way that very few suicidal steerers achieve.
Sure, they’re quantifiably brilliant – and certifiably bonkers – but let’s not forget that they stand on the shoulders of giants whose names have passed into history, and plenty who never got the recognition they deserve.
These six drivers may not be as well-honoured as Evel Knievel, Hal Needham or Ben ‘The Stig’ Collins, but all of them went above and beyond, and often upside down, to bring us some of the most spectacular stunts in movie history.
1. The pirouetting Aston DBS in Casino Royale: Adam Kirley
In possibly the best bit of PR for a new car ever, Aston Martin’s DBS proved to be too stable to roll.
Setting out to roll a car like a leaf spinning out of a tree, or Cheech and Chong approaching some Tally-Hos, is the sort of thing stunt men put a lot of research into.
The team behind 2006’s Casino Royale had practised the giant Aston roll with a few, slightly cheaper BMW 5 Series – the approximate size and weight of the Aston – and they’d turned over easily. Aston supplied a few pre-production mules to stunt driver Adam Kirley and set him up at the Milbrook proving ground to film the spectacular sequence.
There was only one problem: the Aston just wouldn’t roll. It’d still crash, sure, after all, Kirley was hitting the ramp at 110km/h and it was literally all downhill afterwards, but it just wouldn’t put its belly in the air.
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After a few unspectacular yet suspension-cleaving runs, the Bond team resorted to the old stuntman favourite: The gas cannon.
On his next run, Kirley had his work cut out: hitting a car-width ramp and setting off a pressurised gas-powered battering ram to flip the doomed DBS down the hill. If he got it wrong, he’d be halfway up a smattering of pine trees and coming down into an ambulance.
The clearly fear-free Kirley fired the gas ram from the cabin with split-second timing. The DBS punched the launch ramp harder than a thousand Rocky Balboas, sending him and 1500 kilos of Aston into the history books, completing seven barrel rolls, one more than had ever been seen before.
When the bits of metal had settled, Kirley emerged with a world record, a spectacular scene and perhaps the most understated reaction in movie history: “That was a fairly violent ride.” Quite.
Kirley, who also doubled for Daniel Craig in Casino Royale’s awesome crane-chase opening scene and featured in Batman Begins and Tomb Raider is, obviously, British.
2. The horrific head-on crash in Death Proof: Buddy Joe Hooker
For his homage to 1970s car flicks, Quentin Tarantino was about as likely to rely on CGI as he was to produce a film with a PG-13 rating.
“I’ve watched so many car chases, from films made now going right back to the '70s," the profanity-loving director recalled.
“The '70s ones are always better, because they did the stunts for real – none of that CGI nonsense.
“So that's what we did – real cars, real shit, at full f…ing speed.”
That was Tarantino’s mantra for Death Proof, enlisting the most adventurous and unhinged stuntmen and women he could find outside of hospital wards. And he found a ripper in Buddy Joe Hooker.
With a name like Buddy Joe, the seemingly not very death proof collision he was asked to produce was always going to be spectacular, but even veteran stunt coordinators working with Tarantino were blown away by how well he pulled it off.
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The stunt was performed at night on a provincial backroad, no more than six metres wide. Tarantino had asked for a head-on collision with a twist: the 1970 Chevy Nova had to hit a Honda Civic at 120km/h and basically drive over the top of it - ripping the heads and limbs off a car full of delightful, singing babes. Subtle it was not.
To do this, Buddy Joe needed the perfect car flip, rolling as many times as possible down the road, coming to rest on its roof and bonnet, all while staying on a tiny stretch of bitumen.
Hooker took off into the night, hitting his mark with almost surgical precision and creating exactly what Tarantino had envisioned - furious carnage.
After launching his gas cannon, then crashing for the best part of 150 metres down the hill, Hooker’s Nova came to rest in the middle of the road, just in front of the waiting cameras.
Buddy Joe’s life was dramatised in the Burt Reynolds 1978 stuntman flick Hooker, and he did stunts in that too.
3. The barrel roll from Man with the Golden Gun: Loren ‘Bumps’ Willard
It’s a shame that arguably the best stunt in James Bond’s spectacular history was consigned to such a limp-wrested pastiche of the Bond canon. Complete with slide whistle sound effects, a Dukes of Hazard-looking fat American passenger and performed in an AMC Hornet, of all things, the amazing precision of the stunt is woefully undersold.
The first barrel roll in cinematic history - launching over a river from one angled bridge to another - was so technical that even back in the 1970s, it was mapped out on computers before it was performed. If any parameter of the stunt deviated from the precise, computer-generated trajectory, things were going to end with compression fractures, or death.
In retrospect, it probably should have; the stunt driver who’d been hired to perform the jump had to fly back from Bangkok to America for family reasons, so a mechanic, Loren Williams, known as "Bumps", volunteered to run the gauntlet.
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There was only one problem: he’d never done it before.
Bumps was about to perform a hugely technical stunt for the first time in his life, the first to be mapped out on computers and the first time such a feat would ever grace a feature film. Quite a few firsts there, but Bumps was undeterred.
With no margin for error, eight cameras rolling and ambulances revving, Bumps coaxed a 1970s malaise-mobile up and over the tortuous ramp and executed a perfect roll, landing with more grace and finesse than a figure skater.
Bond mastermind Cubby Broccoli, who was on scene to witness the incredible display, ran over to a grinning Bumps with a fat roll of $100 bills as a bonus for nailing the jump first go.
Bumps’ only response was “Can we do it again?”
4. The truck rollover from Mad Max 2: Dennis Williams
While Wheels readers will likely be familiar with Mad Max’s architect of destruction, Guy Norris, he wasn’t the madman who pulled off the iconic truck roll from what used to be the best film in the series, Mad Max II:The Road Warrior – that distinction goes to truckie Dennis Williams.
It was the first movie in which Williams had done any big stunts and it was going to be a spectacular start - the first truck rollover ever captured on film.
It wasn’t going to fly off a ramp or be mocked up with green screen; it was going to be real, at real speeds, tipping off the road and down a trench with furious momentum.
The apocalyptic Mack truck was stripped of anything dangerous – glass, batteries and film stars – before Williams hurled it off the road at the Mundi Mundi plains.
On doctor’s orders, Williams hadn’t had anything to eat for an entire day, just in case they needed to anaesthetise him and operate to put his bits back where they should be. What an exciting bit of medical advice that must have been.
“We built a huge roll cage and we had an ambulance on standby, a chopper on standby and I hadn't eaten for 24 hours so they could operate, which sort of freaked me out a bit,” he said.
"But the weirdest thing was that half the town of Broken Hill was up in the hills with their thumbs up and I thought to myself 'I can't chicken out now.’
“And all I got was a face full of dirt.”
Makes you proud to be Australian.
5. C'était un Rendezvous: Claude LeLouch
LeLouch rates a special mention here – his exploits have graced just one eight-minute film that doesn’t involve explosions, jumps, rolls or even a power slide. And yet in spite of this fairly dismal resume, C'etait un Rendezvous stands apart from all other car films, because it was real.
At 5am on a chilly Parisian morning, Claude LeLouch set off across Paris armed with nothing more than a video camera and a malfunctioning two-way radio. Hitting speeds that he later claimed to be “higher than 230km/h” he set a blistering pace across the ancient city, blasting past famous landmarks with Gallic disdain for traffic laws or self-preservation.
Red lights, blind intersections and one-way tunnels were no deterrent to LeLouch’s progress as he pushed his machine to the limit, getting from the Boulevard Périphérique to Montmartre in an absurd eight and a half minutes.
As amazing as it seems, not all of Rendezvous was entirely accurate: the sonorous sounds of the purported Ferrari 275 GTB were actually pre-recorded and matched to the footage. That said, the choice of car wasn’t just movie trickery: the Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 LeLouch chose to gun through the streets of Paris was actually chosen because of its soft suspension.
The supple ride helped stabilise the bonnet-mounted camera for the run through the city streets in a way that a 275 GTB couldn’t, so LeLouch also drove his 275 GTB to prerecord the creamy V12 engine note.
Much of Rendezvous is shrouded in mystery and myth; at the time, LeLouch told people the pilot was an unnamed F1 legend. The truth came out years later: LeLouch himself was the driver.
In a way, Claude LeLouch made the original viral video – a no-holds-barred, banzai run across the centre of Paris: A one-shot, one-take, eight-minute snippet of insanity.
But Claude’s video didn’t generate hits, likes or retweets; instead, it was a font of controversy and urban legend for years to come.
6. The bus jump from Speed - Jophrey Brown
Buses aren’t renowned for their speed, which plays wonderfully into a beautifully structured plot that none of us will ever forget: There’s a bomb on a bus, and if it drops below 50 miles an hour, it explodes. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?
Buses are also fairly poor at flying, but that wasn’t going to stop a certain stunt lunatic called Jophrey Brown.
Unlike his Game of Thrones namesake, Jophrey wasn’t a ruthless killer. Nor was he a fictional character. What he shared with the bloodthirsty king, though, was a great big dollop of insanity.
Brown’s job was to send a cantankerous, American-built blunderbuss sailing through the air like a big, slab-sided swan.
With suitably palpable distress, the team watched on as he rolled up to the ramp. Brown needed a mile of run-up just to get the bus up to 65 miles an hour – about 105km/h, and likely the big girl’s top speed – to get the now-famous aerial absurdity from the 1994 blockbuster.
The big bertha reared back, weighed down by the aft-mounted engine, exposing its underside in a 35-metre arc that could never be described as elegant, but was certainly exhilarating to watch. Equally inelegant was the landing, which tore the bus apart, despite its chassis modifications.
“The tyres popped, the doors came off, it blew the oil pan to bits and oil went everywhere,” said Brown.
“But it’s a high you can’t explain, just a natural feeling.”
A natural feeling? Flying a bus?
7. Honourable Mention – The Blues Brothers
Ranging from the insane to the outrageous, the magical powers of the Bluesmobile called for a lot of earthly bravado, including a cannonball run across Chicago streets, jumping a split bridge and bunny hopping a police car.
More than 40 stunt drivers went to work on John Landis’s 1980 masterpiece, which remains uniqe as the only watchable musical film in existence.
Even though the Bluesmobile was the star of the show, the multitudinous car pile-ups set all kinds of records, destroying more cars than any movie before it (and only eclipsed this year by Mad Max: Fury Road).