The stories behind five classic sci-fi cars

Feature Ryan Lambie 7 Nov 2012 - 07:15

We talk to some of the creators behind the cars in such sci-fi movies as Back To The Future, Total Recall and Minority Report...

Whether they provide an unlikely way of travelling through time, or a speedy means pursuing villains along futuristic highways, cars are a vital part of science fiction cinema. The best ones fit perfectly into the worlds created by their filmmakers; the cars in RoboCop are dirty and functional - a reflection of its crime-ravaged urban landscape. The vehicles in Minority Report, on the other hand, are pristine and rounded - fitting into its vision of a future where technology has affected every aspect of society, including the prevention of crimes before they even occur.

Here, we talk to some of the designers and builders who played a key role in creating the vehicles seen in Back To The Future, RoboCop, Total Recall, Demolition Man and Minority Report, and find out how they were dreamed up and built, and what happened to some of them after filming wrapped...

Back To The Future (1985)

A certain Time Lord's blue police box aside, Back To The Future's DeLorean is perhaps the most memorable of all time machines, and certainly one of sci-fi cinema's most iconic cars. But initially, the movie's time machine wasn't envisioned as a vehicle at all - when Back To The Future was still in its development stage, director Robert Zemeckis and writer/producer Bob Gale had imagined that Marty McFly would travel back to the 1950s in a refrigerator.

Although that idea made it into the first draft of the script (which saw Marty blown back in time by the power of a nuclear explosion in the Nevada desert), Zemeckis later ditched it, and instead came up with the concept of a time machine crammed into the back of a DeLorean DMC-12.

The one and only vehicle produced by the DeLorean Motor Company, the DMC-12's production was brief and troubled. With its distinctive stainless steel body and gull wing doors, this one-of-a-kind sports car finally appeared on the market in 1981, following about three years of design and cash flow problems. But by 1982, the DeLorean Motor Company had gone bust, its boss arrested for drug trafficking (but later acquitted), and the DMC-12's production ceased.

The DMC-12 could have been a brief yet fondly-remembered footnote in history, had Zemeckis and Gale not hit on the idea of using one as the basis for a time machine. Not only did this infamous vehicular flop seem like the kind of car Doc Brown might choose for his experiments ( "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?"), it also had the perfect futuristic look for one of the movie's key scenes, in which a family mistakes the DeLorean for a crashed flying saucer.

Under the guidance of production designer Larry Paull, concept artist and futurist Ron Cobb created the interior of Doc's modified DeLorean - a mess of cables, LED displays, and of course, the glowing Y of the plutonium-powered flux capacitor.

In reality, the DeLorean was handled by Jay Ohrberg, who'd already built cars for movies and TV for several years by the mid-80s - his credits include The Dukes Of Hazzard, Knight Rider, Starsky And Hutch and Ghostbusters. With little more than six or seven weeks before production on Back To The Future began, Ohrberg made creative use of spare parts from aeroplanes and other found objects to bring the time machine to life.

"In Los Angeles, there are a lot of aircraft surplus places, where you can find a lot of this stuff. So a lot of it was found in these surplus places, like the dash," Ohrberg told us. “The tubes around the side, that’s aluminium tubing, which you have to heat treat to soften and bend it around the car. And then I had to make all the aluminium boxes on the back. The [Mr Fusion] garbage thing at the back came from a Krups garbage disposal – it’s a Krups coffee [grinder]. Then I went to a neon sign place to get the neon sign at the back made – inside, the Y [the flux capacitor] – I had them make that for me. Most of it was from surplus places, the rest I had to fabricate.”

Ohrberg produced a total of four DeLoreans for Back To The Future, while three more were built for the two sequels. Ohrberg has since built several more replicas for displays and collectors - proof of the car's enduring popularity.

Back To The Future's assured status as an 80s classic has done much to keep the memory of the DMC-12 alive. Only last year, one of the original DeLoreans from the first film's production went on sale at auction, and ultimately sold for $541,000 , while a Texan company with the DeLorean name (but no ties to the DMC business which collapsed in the 80s) is planning to produce an electric-powered version of the DMC-12, which it hopes to begin selling next year.

RoboCop (1987)

Like Back To The Future, RoboCop is inarguably a high point in 80s sci-fi cinema. And like Back To The Future, the cars in RoboCop used existing vehicles and modified them for the screen - the 6000 SUX, for example, was modelled on a 1977 Oldsmobile by legendary car customiser Gene Winfield. But a rather unfortunate behind-the-scenes problem meant that RoboCop ended up driving a rather different police car from the one originally intended.

Designer Robert Webb had initially planned Robo's vehicle around a Chevrolet Camaro, fitted with a swooping carbon fibre body and a Batmobile-like jet turbine at the back. Jay Ohrberg was hired to build six of these for the production, which was set to begin in Dallas, Texas in August 1986.  

“On RoboCop, I built six Camaros, all Camaros redone," Ohrberg said. "New motors, new brakes, new everything – and they had square boxes that shot fire out the back - you just pushed a lever down and there was a spark inside, and the fire shot out. I made six of those, they took them to Texas to film the RoboCop guy [Peter Weller], and they couldn’t get him in the car. I built them six cars for that movie they never used!”

With time running out, production designer William Sandell had to come up with a convincing replacement - the rather less sporty yet futuristic-looking Ford Taurus.

"I'd just bought my wife a Taurus," Sandell told us. "I said, 'this is a big car that looks like a cop car to me'. It had to have the screen to keep the prisoners in the back, and you'd do little modifications, you know, install a computer and put a shotgun thing in it."

RoboCop's budget was a lean $13million, and with as much as $1million of that budget being spent on Rob Bottin's unforgettable Robo suit design, Sandell had to come up with cheap and simple ways of not only acquiring the cars he needed, but also making them look like futuristic police patrol vehicles.

"Someone in the company found a bunch of mud damaged Tauruses from some flood that Ford wanted to get rid of," Sandell revealed. "I said, let's paint them flat black, so they look real tough, and call it a cop car. It was big enough for Robo to sort of get in. He couldn't wear the bottom part of his suit in there. Peter had to sit there with just the top half on, but at least there was the headroom to put RoboCop into it. That worked out pretty well - the simplest idea was the best idea in the end, rather than all this other stuff."

That distinctive matt black finish, coupled with the Taurus' then-trend-setting design, meant that RoboCop looked right at home in the vehicle, even if he did have to suffer the indignity of driving around in it with half of his armour missing.

The Ford Taurus continued to be Robo's vehicle of choice in the sequels that followed, and one of the vehicles even survived the ravages of the first movie's production - it's reportedly sitting in a museum in Branson, Missouri. And those Camaros built by Jay Ohrberg? They weren't so lucky.

"Those were the cars we blew up along the road," Sandell told us. " We just needed to blow something up..."

Total Recall (1990)

After RoboCop, William Sandell and many of that film's other designers and crew worked with Paul Verhoeven again on the sci-fi action film Total Recall. With a budget around four or five times the size of RoboCop's, its production was lavish, but the sheer scale of its sets brought problems of their own.

"We were building almost 24 hours a day in order to keep pace with the schedule, Sandell remembers. "A lot of marriages were broken up, a lot of hell happened down there!"

While a crew of around 500 worked on the construction of Total Recall's sets in Mexico City, futurist Ron Cobb was sitting at home working on the designs for JohnnyCab, the AI-controlled taxi that features prominently in the film's early scenes.

"Cobb was working on those, sending us drawings from home. I never really liked them that much, but they served the purpose. We needed them to be battery powered, because we were going to use them in these enclosed spaces on the stages, and roaring through tunnels."

Total Recall's vehicles were also designed around Arnold Schwarzenegger's considerable bulk: "We built [the cars] real tall, so Arnold could get in them with other people, and a cameraman hanging onto the side. So it was really necessary to have a lot of room, for shooting purposes and that kind of thing."

Visual effects artist Rob Bottin was responsible for creating Johnny himself, while actor Robert Picardo provided both the visage and voice. It was but one of the dozens of animatronic and prosthetic effects Bottin was frantically producing for the movie.

"Ron would send us the drawings, and I would go to Rob [Bottin's] shop, and talk to him about how big it needed to be, this little robot," Sandell said. "So we kept in constant communication with Rob Bottin, who was in the middle of doing all kinds of other things for the film - Kuato, and all kinds of mutants. The head on the fat lady. He had his hands full. Johnny just got there at the last moment. It was hectic that way."

Another of Total Recall's key vehicles was the Mole - a gigantic drilling machine designed to tunnel beneath the surface of Mars. Although the machine seen in the finished film is a spectacularly weighty piece of industrial design, Sandell reveals that the vehicle that initially turned up on set was rather less impressive to behold - with its construction farmed out to an external company, the resulting prop proved to be something of a disappointment.

"I forget the company [who built it]... but we were waiting, waiting, waiting for it. Then this thing shows up, shipped across the border, that looked like hell. It was a frame on some kind of motorised, stripped-down vehicle, but it was covered with plywood and cardboard. We looked at it and our hearts sunk. We were like, 'My God...'"

 Once again, Sandell and his team of artists had to rush to get the vehicle ready for shooting.

"We stripped it, but kept the frame. I brought down truckloads and truckloads of [parts]. Just background shapes - pistons and bearings. Just stuff. I put two art directors on it, and we completely rebuilt and repainted it. We were designing and shaping drills out of clay, and they would mould them during the night - every night, all night, the vacuum form shop worked constantly for shapes for walls and also the drilling machine. It was pretty much a community, desperate effort. We had to shoot it within two weeks, so we really had to scramble on that one."

Demolition Man (1993)

"The future isn't big enough for the both of them" read the tagline for the Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes sci-fi pairing, Demolition Man. Memorable for its larger-than-life performances and its depiction of a pacifist utopia where everything from swearing to coffee is outlawed, the movie's also notable for its selection of svelte futuristic cars.

The most prominently featured of these, the SAPD Cruiser, was actually called an Ultralite - a real-world prototype vehicle designed by GM in 1991. Having turned heads at the Detroit Motor Show that year, the car's elegant shape and progressive design ideas - lightweight body, LED lights, low-emission engine - made it a common sight on the cover of automotive magazines. Producer Joel Silver was so impressed when he saw the Ultralite on one such cover, he chose it as the star vehicle for Demolition Man.

Jim Lutz was the program manager on the Ultralite project, and when Joel Silver contacted GM to discuss using it in his movie, Lutz became the lieason between his company and the moviemakers, and also the car's custodian - there was, after all, only one Ultralite in existence, and GM had to be sure that it wouldn't meet an untimely end at the hands of an overzealous film director.

"There was only one actual Ultralite," Lutz told us. "Silver Pictures needed many more for the movie, so we shipped down the tooling for the body panels, for both the interior and exterior of the Ultralite, and Warner Bros hired a company to clone and make replicas of the Ultralite."

These clones looked identical to the prototype, but whereas the real Ultralite was powered by a three-cylinder engine, the replicas used Volkswagen Beetle engines and components beneath their carbon fibre shells. As many as 20 replica Ultralites were made for the movie, and most were crashed or blown up during the production.

As a change of pace from his usual working life in the automotive industry, Jim Lutz spent three months on the set of Demolition Man, and even drove several vehicles for the film.

"In the movie, I drove the actual Ultralite concept car, and then in the action sequences, they used the cloned replica cars," Lutz recalls. "We had one scene where, at the time the movie was made, there was an elevated freeway on the southern perimeter of LAX Airport that wasn’t open to the public. We had like five nights where we took over that elevated freeway. We did the chase scene where the door gets ripped off the Ultralite - I was involved in that."

So given that Warner had so many Ultralites built, what happened to the ones that survived the shoot? The original prototype was returned to GM's headquarters,  where it's remained ever since, while the agreement was that all the cloned cars would be destroyed after shooting wrapped. But Lutz suggests that one of those clones may have survived, and may be lurking in a certain producer's garage.

"The agreement was that all the clone vehicles would be destroyed," Lutz said. "But I do believe that Joel Silver actually kept one of the clone Ultralites for his own private collection..."

Minority Report (2002)

In more recent years, the use of computers has radically changed the way sci-fi movie vehicles are conceived. 2002's Minority Report was one of the first movies to make the jump to an entirely digital production design, and its then brand-new process of previsualising (or 'previz') sets and shots on a computer is now a standard practice.

German designer Harald Belker, who has a grounding in automotive and product design as well as movies, was charged with the design of Minority Report's Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) city transportation system, and most memorably, the red Lexus 2054 that Tom Cruise drives in several scenes. Work on the futuristic Lexus began, Belker told us, "Exactly three weeks before Christmas."

"The design was picked from an earlier police car [design] that had these extreme proportions. I had a few days to modify it and present it. It was uniformly accepted, and we started 3D modelling right away. Spielberg liked the fact that the tires seem to be half outside the car. I sat with the modeller every day and we hammered the design home through Christmas and delivered it first thing in the new year. I basically had no clue what the car would look like in full size until it was cut out of foam three days later."

Based in Santa Ana, California, development firm CTEK were charged with the task of turning Belker's 3D models into a full-size vehicle. "I was shocked to see how wide it was," Belker said. "But it was also very thrilling to design a car in three weeks and see it take shape in front of you. Everything was custom, the proportions were so odd that it all had to be put together fitting the design."

Two Lexus 2054s were built for Minority Report; the red one driven by Tom Cruise's character, and a silver convertible version, used for background scenes. A working concept car which Lexus would later show off at a variety of motor shows and other events, the 2054 was powered by an electric engine and powered by 47 batteries. And while some of its features are currently science fiction - its DNA recognition system and voice-controllable body colour, for example - the 2054's design has proved to be surprisingly influential.

"Right after the movie came out, the design was quickly picked up," Belker said. "One student won a prize by presenting a design very close to mine, or for better terms 'inspired' by the Lexus for Peugeot. He contacted me later and basically said that he loved it so much that he took the design and based his on mine. Another company had a show car, again very close to the proportions of the Lexus. I am cool with that, and I hope to inspire..."

Minority Report was notable for the lengths its makers went to in order to create a believable vision of the future. A group of experts were gathered to provide their predictions for the technologies we might see in the year 2054, and the movie's network of magnetic transport pods and electric-powered Lexus sports cars were a direct result of those three-day meetings.

Spielberg's film is often singled out for its accurate anticipation of technology that is gradually beginning to seep into everyday use a decade later. But interestingly, many of the other vehicles covered in this article have managed to correctly anticipate the kinds of innovations that are now emerging in the present. Computer-controlled, self-driving vehicles not unlike Total Recall's Johnny Cab are being developed by Google, and may be on the road within five years. The lightweight, electric-powered Ultralite seen in Demolition Man contained many of the ideas and technologies seen in something like the Smart Fortwo.

When choosing the Ford Taurus for RoboCop to drive back in the 80s, William Sandell even managed to make an accurate prediction of his own: a few years ago, Ford ended production of the Crown Victoria, which served as the patrol car of choice for US police since 1950. Its replacement? A reworked version of current generation Taurus.

We're still waiting for a mad scientist to invent a time-travelling DeLorean, of course. But one of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's abandoned ideas did turn up in recycled form a few years later, when a certain Indiana Jones survived a nuclear explosion by hiding in a fridge...

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Hmmmm, I don't know if the RoboCop vehicle is really that "classic".

I know what you mean, but that matt finish and utilitarian (but ultra-modern at the time) design has really stuck with me. Of the cars in this list, the Delorean and Taurus are the only ones I remember.

I'd like to hear the story behind the Ghostbusters' Ecto 1 and maybe 'Herbie'

Hmmm...odd selection, stretching the idea of "classic" with the exception of the Delorean...and where's the Logan's Run car?

I was really expecting to see the Colonial Marines APC from Aliens. Build upon the chassis of an aircraft towing tractor it was so heavy that scenes had to be changed because the floors of the old power station they were shooting in couldn't take the weight.

Also the power loader and dropship are iconic sci-fi vehicles.
Perhaps the article should have been named "the stories behind five classic sci-fi CARS."

...or maybe they chose the 5 most interesting stories as opposed to the 5 best vehicles, like the title article suggests.

What's the interesting story behind that then?

I'm glad they chose a more 'normal' vehicle for Robocop in the end. The whole idea is that he is a replacement for ordinary cops and that, once he starts to become self aware, he sees himself as 'one of the guys' - an attitude which is even more prevalent in Robocop 2 - so for him to then jump into a proto-batmobile would have detracted somewhat from the realism.

Yes - especially since Robocop was made in a time when vehicles, especially Fords in the UK, had a much more angular, boxy look about them so the curves of the Taurus looked futuristic - but it also looked like the kind of practical car people might actually use in the future.

Bill and Teds phone box. Surely that has an interesting story behind it?

nothing from mad max? not a single vehicle?

Maybe there's not a story behind them - the article is, after all, about the interesting circumstances which led to those particular cars being chosen.

Because Bill & Ted's Phone Box fits the description of "classic sci-fi car" perfectly :-p

I would say that out of the 5 vehicles feature in this article only 1 is a "classic". The rest just happen to be in sci-fi movies.

The APC does have an interesting story that's why it came to mind. Come on a Ford with a paint job vs an aircraft towing tractor originally weighing 70 tonnes they had to remove half it's tonnage to make it usable. In the scene where they escape the facility with it they destroyed a camera that had until the last minute been manned.

Anyway since they changed the article name to classic cars from vehicles now the APC doesn't really fit. Still would have liked to hear about the Ecto 1 but like you said maybe there isn't an interesting story behind it.

What about the Audi from I, Robot? They recently found a stunt mockup of it sitting on barge somewhere in British Columbia.

The original Death Race 2000 had some interesting cars.

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