Is Hollywood Killing Our Muscle Cars?
Is Hollywood Killing Our Muscle Cars?
“Yes,” says one insider, but his company is doing something about it!
From the July, 2011 issue of Popular Hot Rodding / By Johnny Hunkins / Photography by The Author
Ted Moser would never admit it, but he’s one of the most powerful men in Hollywood—at least to any car guy who likes watching movies or TV. Moser, owner of Picture Car Warehouse (headquartered in an old Cadillac dealership in Northridge, California), is responsible for selecting, building, maintaining—and sometimes destroying—fleets of automobiles that are used as props for movies, TV shows, music videos, and commercials. As part of that, Moser also builds high-profile “hero” cars, many of them, muscle cars and hot rods. Technically, Moser is a “vehicle coordinator,” but that nebulous term really doesn’t do him justice.
To illustrate what we mean, when we recently visited PCW, we found that Moser had been contracted to provide 50 cars in six weeks for the next Men In Black flick. What makes the job so remarkable is that unlike the prior films in the MIB franchise, this film will be set in the mid ’70s—meaning Moser will have to select, locate, repair, paint, and deliver tons of realistic vintage tin from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s—and do it on an insane timetable. When it comes to delivering that quantity of Detroit iron, other Hollywood movie car suppliers are left flat-footed.
Moser is not your typical Prius-driving, granola-munching Hollywood elitist. He’s more like a one-man vehicular onslaught of nature.
Even for a car guy, Moser’s passion for muscle machines runs extraordinarily deep. Not only is he a walking encyclopedia of automobilia, his desire to collect cars seems unmatched. Moser’s Picture Car Warehouse is home to over 700 running (or almost running) cars of every description. These run the gamut from turn-of-the-century classics to late-model muscle. Not being independently wealthy, and incapable of ignoring his burning desire to collect every cool car under the sun, Moser was quite literally forced into his current profession because it’s the only job consistent with the reality of providing a decent living while being able to collect obscenely massive numbers of rare old cars.
Make no mistake: This is Ted Moser’s world, and we just live in it.
But all isn’t well in paradise. Hanging over Moser’s automotive utopia is a dark pall of destruction, one that eludes any acknowledgement by the film and TV establishment. Hollywood is killing our classic cars with wanton abandon at a precipitous pace. Take for example The Green Hornet movie, in which some 29 Chrysler Imperials were modified, cut in half, smashed, blown up, buried, and pocked with bullet holes. The vehicle coordinator on the film is reported to have said he hopes they don’t do a sequel because there aren’t any more good cars left.
Likewise, fans of The Dukes Of Hazzard are well aware of the wholesale destruction of ’68-70 Dodge Chargers, both during the TV show and follow-on movies. The on-screen genocide of Dodge Chargers has simultaneously reduced the vehicle population while increasing their value beyond the reach of average enthusiasts.
The same can be said of the ’70s TV series Starsky & Hutch, with its striped-tomato ’74-76 Ford Torinos. During the production of the 2004 comeback movie, prices of Torino parts and cars skyrocketed as the film’s two car suppliers went on an eBay binge that soaked up everything related to Limited Edition ’76 Torinos. (Only 1,000 were made.) We could go on for pages detailing the carnage, but you get the picture: Nothing increases a car’s desirability and value like not being able to get one.
Movers and shakers in the entertainment industry seem unfazed. In the quest for box office and ratings success, wrecking cool classics is considered a necessary evil. A car worth $50,000 is a drop in the bucket for a movie with a $100 million budget. And if smashing muscle cars just so happens to conveniently dovetail with Hollywood’s environmental and political agenda, then who cares?
Ted Moser sure as hell cares.
Unlike some of his Hollywood colleagues, Moser is clearly conflicted about his role in facilitating the destruction of muscle cars. Often to his detriment, Moser is a car guy first and a Hollywood insider second. Not afraid to stand toe-to-toe with a director, Moser is emboldened by his love of Detroit iron, and will usually suggest a less-expensive option that saves an irreplaceable car. When all else fails, Moser will restore the car himself on his own dime.
At the end of the day, all this Hollywood business is merely the means to an end. The assembly line process Moser uses to make movie magic means he has access to hundreds of cars, buildings full of parts, a huge staff of mechanics and bodyshop men, a state-of-the-art paint booth, and a garage most of us would die for. This has allowed Moser to develop his business as a car builder to the stars—and to anyone who wants to take the ride. The sheer size of PCW and the fact that Hollywood is already paying the “rent” means Moser can build hot rods and muscle cars for a reasonable price for regular dudes. Moser has even built cars from carcasses used up in film and TV production, meaning a regular guy can end up with both a cool car and a piece of history. (Interested parties can check out Picture Car Warehouse at www.PictureCarWarehouse.net.)
We met with Moser at his headquarters in Northridge for an interview and a tour of his facilities. Around every turn, inside every nook, and under every tarp there were incredible cars and amazing stories to go with them. Here are some of them!
PHR: How did you get into the Hollywood car business?
Moser: I started as a mechanic for the movie industry in Denver. It was Die Hard II. They were doing the one where the mother-in-law’s car gets towed from the airport. They bought a bunch of Caprices and told me to tune ’em up and get ’em ready. It was really cold, like in January, and the coordinator told me to fix them. I ordered a bunch of parts, and he told me he didn’t want them—take them back to the parts store. Then the car broke down and the producer was going to fire him on the spot. I hadn’t returned the parts, and fixed the car on the spot. I ended up getting into the Hollywood Teamsters union 399.
That was in 1990, so once I got into the union I started going up the ladder. I went from being a mechanic to being a transportation captain, to being a coordinator. The coordinator does the travelling carnival —the trailers, makeup, wardrobe, but I also do the picture cars.
PHR: Tell us about your “field of dreams” at the Agua Dulce film ranch?
Moser: My wife told me at one point I had to find a way to pay for my habit. After doing 2 Fast 2 Furious, I had 25 cars and was paying to store ’em. I was trying to figure out how to pay for them and wanted to recoup some of the storage costs by renting them out. A production company will contact me, or I’ll get a script and break it down to find out how many multiples of a vehicle will be required to shoot the movie. We may need 50 cars, and we can’t store them all at one facility. We also recycle, and we need a place to put ’em to use for future projects. The yard at Agua Dulce is a great place to do that.
PHR: People see one hero car on the screen, but there are often several. Why so many?
Moser: On a movie like 2 Fast 2 Furious, we might need two cars for the first unit, two cars for the second unit, and a buck, which is for interior shots with our actors. We shoot out of continuity—we may shoot the end of the movie on the first day. The average movie is 55 days long, and it’s dictated by location. We may go to a location and it may represent the beginning of the movie, the middle of the movie, and the end of the movie, but we’re there for just three days and we need to get all our shots. Several cars need to be in several different conditions for that.
PHR: What’s the most demanding movie you ever had to provide cars for?
Moser: All The Pretty Horses. It took place in 1952 in a rural Texas town. You had the war where they didn’t produce vehicles, so we were having to get trucks that were 15 years old for the period, so they had to be ’35 to ’41. And normally vehicles like that—especially in Texas—were run into the ground. They were work vehicles. Funny story: I was walking through this guy’s junkyard looking for some trucks and found this four-car hauler—a Budell from 1944. A tree was growing up through it. This guy named Shorty was about 90 years old, and he had to sell everything in the yard so he could raise money for an attorney for his grandson’s defense in a murder trial. I paid $1,000 for it. It was edited out of the movie. That’s one of the big disappointments. You work hard on something and then they cut it.
PHR: When you’re done with a movie car, what happens to it?
Moser: We’ll sell some of them—put them on eBay. Like the movie Faster, which we built ’67 GTOs for and one of them is on eBay. For The Bucket List we had the yellow Challengers. We built four of them, and I sold three of them. Normally what will happen is that we build them, they go on our website, movie companies rent them, music videos will rent them, we’ll repaint them, then commercials and television shows will use them over and over again.
PHR: Destroying cars—sometimes classics—is commonplace in Hollywood. How do you get around it?
Moser: In The Defenders TV show, Jim Belushi’s character drives a ’66 Hemi Satellite convertible, and what they did was blow it up in the show. So I took a four-door Belvedere—an old rusty piece of crap—cut the top off of it, and rigged it to blow up so it looked like the real deal.
Another example is Seven Pounds with Will Smith. You know the ’64 Corvette? I made a mold of the body and put fake bodies on a couple of ’81 Corvette chassis. We wrecked those instead of real Corvettes. Sometimes you can’t prevent the wrecking of a numbers-matching car, like in the music video “What Comes Around Goes Around” with Justin Timberlake and Scarlett Johansson. They originally wanted two ’64 Corvettes, so I found one out of San Francisco, and a numbers-matching car in Big Bear. [Editor’s note: Ironically, the numbers-matching ’64 used in the video was disguised as a ’67 big-block car with a stinger hood and 427 badges.] In their usual swiftness in making a decision in three or four days, they decided they could only afford one car, so I had to buy the close one in Big Bear—the number’s matching car. It goes to special effects, and I never even saw the car. Then three days later, they call me and say we need another car. I told them “Stop! I’ll trade that one out for a non-numbers-matching car,” but it was already too late. They’d put the rollcage in it. They ended up flipping the numbers-matching car. I’m now fixing the car they flipped.
PHR: Are producers and directors receptive to your pro-hobby stance?
Moser: Usually, no. They don’t always recognize muscle cars and hot rods for their value and their art. So I’ve had many arguments about wrecking a car. Seventy-five percent of the time I can convince them to do something different. In 2 Fast 2 Furious, there was a ’69 Camaro they launched onto a boat. Knowing that I was totaling that car, I went out and looked for something that was not restorable. The Florida salt had eaten the car alive. There were so many holes in it; I just injected it with foam.
The special effects guy says the car would never hold together, so he brought the producer in, and we debated it. I won, and it made it into the scene. Funny story: We sat in this big production meeting, and they had no end to the movie. I didn’t say anything. They adjourned the meeting. I went down to the second unit director and said, “I know I’m just a dumb transport guy, but I kind of see it as Tyrese looks at Paul Walker and Paul Walker looks back and says ‘Oh no, not this Dukes Of Hazzard shit!’ They race off through the brush and launch onto the boat. The second unit director says, ‘That’s brilliant,’ and that’s what they did.
PHR: Do some directors just not care? Or is it a matter of education?
Moser: Some directors just don’t care. Some do, but most don’t. It depends on if they’re a car guy or not. Sam Bayer cares [Nightmare On Elms Street, Green Day, Blink 182].
PHR: What movie stands out as one where you really made a difference saving a cool car?
Moser: The Defenders [TV show] would stand out the most. That’s the highest value car I’ve ever worked with. The ’66 Hemi Satellite convertible is only like one of 19. They didn’t want to spend the kind of money it would take to blow that up, and I didn’t want to destroy a convertible. We came up with a really acceptable compromise.
I don’t have any problem wrecking an Audi, a brand-new Cadillac, or a Rolls-Royce; it’s the muscle cars to me. We lost our art in the ’80s when we went to the smaller lightweight cars. When I’ve got a director saying we want a muscle car from the ’80s, what the f— would that be? I really feel like I’ve escaped having to destroy a really correct GTO, Mustang, GTX—any one of them. I haven’t been at that point yet.
PHR: What’s the one thing about your shop that you think would surprise people?
Moser: The multiple cars—that would be it. They think it’s just one car when we’ve got five or six. They have to be identical cars. And the time frame we have to build them in. Usually the most time we have is eight weeks, but normally it’s less than two. That’s the biggest thing.
PHR: Building movie cars is the most visible part of your business, but you also build hot rods and muscle cars. What are you working on now?
Moser: Having the picture car company has enabled me to live my real passion of building nice cars. We’re doing a ’69 Corvette for director Sam Bayer, a ’72 Charger for Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and a couple of secret projects for Hot Wheels that will be released later in the summer. We’re doing an SS 396 ’67 Chevelle for a colleague of mine [vehicle coordinator Joel Marrow]. One of the numbers-matching ’67 Corvettes I bought for Seven Pounds that we were going to destroy, I saved instead by making a mold of the car. Now I’m restoring the car.
PHR: You ever take a used-up movie car and build it into a hot rod?
Moser: Yes! The Bucket List Challengers. One was a six-cylinder car that I put the late-model Hemi and the Magnum Force frontend in. GM had teamed up with the Transformers movie with the new Camaro, and Chrysler wanted to get involved with The Bucket List and the launch of the Challenger. The deal I made with them is that they would give me two new Hemis to put in these Challengers, but the engines didn’t show up until four days after we shot the movie—so I got to use them myself afterward.
PHR: Has a movie producer ever asked you to make the hero car from their movie a personal hot rod for them? That’s got to be gratifying.
Moser: Yes. The ’69 Camaro from 2 Fast 2 Furious we did for Neil Moritz was a Yenko clone with the correct date-coded engine.
PHR: How do you find your cars? Some of them are quite old.
Moser: Word of mouth, eBay, Craigslist. For example, the cars in the teens are from a movie called The Great Debaters, which we filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana. I got on a plane and flew to South Carolina, rented a car, looked at the guy’s stuff, got on a plane, and called a car hauler out. The guy there had a picture car company and had rented cars to the movies. He had about 25 cars.
PHR: You ever walk through your aisles of junk cars and just say, I gotta build that one into a hot rod?
Moser: Of course. I walk through all the aisles of cars and say I gotta do this. My goal is to have a car in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge, have it go to SEMA, and race it in the Challenge. I’ve got a couple picked out. One is a ’70 Cuda that we’ve had going for about 10 years. I’m going to put this ’Cuda body on a Viper chassis—an old rust bucket from the Viper TV series.
PHR: Some shows and movies are infamous for their car destruction. The Dukes Of Hazzard for instance. What could other movie companies be doing to save those cars?
Moser: CGI has helped. Computer graphic imaging. Things like the Dynacorn bodies. Also making fiberglass molds of bodies.
PHR: In recent years, some movie producers have wiped out almost the entire cherry fleet of some car models. For instance Torinos for Starsky & Hutch, or Chrysler Imperials for The Green Hornet. At the very least, it’s run up the price of good cars and parts cars for the average guy. Do you think this is right?
Moser: It’s very conflicting for me, because you know there’s a finite amount. The moral judgment I question is that is there any difference between a hot rodder stealing parts off a four-door and putting them on a two-door, and a producer wrecking a car? [Editor’s note: Much of what PCW does is supply ordinary four-door cars for set dressing, some of which are hard to find because they’ve been destroyed for parts cars.] Grindhouse is a perfect example. I built four or five Chargers and four or five Challengers for the movie, but I didn’t know what they were doing with them. When I saw that movie I just went “Oh no!”