Of all the automotive themed films released in the past 10 years, it is my humble opinion that Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive is by far the best. As I pointed out in my analysis in “Rob’s Car Movie Review” some two years ago, the movie starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan was half car flick, half art film, and 100-percent neo-noir classic.
For the car lover, Drive has an overabundance of superlative eye candy, ranging from then contemporary Mustang GTs and Chrysler 300 Hemis, to vintage Chargers, GTOs, and Thunderbirds. But the unequivocal automotive-star of the movie is the protagonist’s main ride, a 1973 Chevy Malibu, the subject of this month’s edition of “Rob’s Movie Muscle!”
Based on a novel by James Sallis, and helmed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive was produced in collaboration by FilmDistrict, Bold Films, OddLot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Motel Movies and Newbridge Film Capital, and was distributed in the United States and other territories by Universal Pictures.
Like many pictures with lofty commercial/art-film aspirations, it features a cast consisting of a mix of bankable stars and notable character actors, including Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac.
Drive tells the story of an unnamed young man, known only as The Driver (Gosling), who works as an auto mechanic and movie stuntman by day, moonlights as a freelance getaway driver for criminal crews. In the process of helping out the husband of his neighbor for whom he has feelings, The Driver inadvertently becomes embroiled in the deadly schemes of a pair of gangsters.
Apropos for a film entitled Drive, Gosling spends much of the film behind the wheel of various cars, but his character’s own ride – a 1973 Chevy Malibu – is the one given the most screen time. As it turns out, the actor had an interesting connection to this unusual choice for a hero’s car. But before we get into that, let’s explore a bit of history on Chevrolet’s long-running model.
The Chevrolet Malibu was first released in 1964 as a mid-sized, top-of-the-line variant of the Chevrolet Chevelle. It was available in a variety of configurations including a four-door sedan, two-door-coupe hardtop, convertible, and two-seat station wagon. Crisp styling, plush interiors, and a variety of available motors including high-performance versions made the Malibu a hit with the car-buying public from the get-go.
A second generation, which most Malibu and Chevelle aficionados consider the prime iteration came in 1968 with muscular proportions, timeless semi-fastback styling, and serious firepower under the hood, especially in the 1970 model year.
In 1973, the Malibu was again treated to a complete redesign, this time with a calculated eschewing of the muscular guise that the previous generation embodied. Owing to increasingly stringent EPA requirements as well as the rising price of gasoline, Chevrolet designers created a larger, less athletic, and sadly less performance-oriented car that encapsulated many of the curious styling cues which seemed to dominate the automobiles of the 1970s.
The last car executive John DeLorean had a direct-hand in developing for General Motors, the third-gen Malibu sported a long hood/short trunk design, with a semi-fastback roofline that incorporated arched door frames and large rear-quarter windows. This roofline and greenhouse styling was bequeathed the rather posh moniker “Colonnade” by GM.
The car’s wheelbase was unchanged from the prior model, but the bodies were 5 inches longer and 1 inch wider, creating considerable overhang, especially in the rear.
In the Malibu coupe (which is the car seen in the movie), engines ranged from a rather anemic 100 horsepower, 175 lb-ft of torque, 250-cubic-inch Turbo-Thrift six cylinder, to a 350-cubic-inch V8 Turbo-Fire Hydra-Matic that pumped out 175 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.
We never get a good glimpse under the hood of The Driver’s Malibu in the film, but given his proficiency with a wrench, we have to assume that at some point he crammed a big ol’ 454 or the like in there. It certainly sounds that way, at least.
What we do see in the film is a primer-gray sleeper, sans grille, with aftermarket gauges on the dash and mag wheels. This perfectly mirrors the character’s speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick nature, as well as his natural inclination to keep a low profile, given his less-than-legal nocturnal vocation.
And that is exactly why the car appears in the film. According to the movie’s director, Nicholas Winding Refn, he gave Gosling permission to pick his character’s car. Gosling apparently combined his personal automotive taste, with what he thought a man such as the one he was portraying would own. After several choices were weighed for pros and cons, Gosling made his final decision, and one day took his director to a local Los Angeles junkyard. There he pointed at a beat up 1973 Malibu, which was promptly purchased by the production team.
But the actor’s relationship with the Malibu only began there. It was towed to a warehouse where Gosling tore the Malibu completely down to the frame and rebuilt the entire car himself, save for the transmission, which was handled by professional mechanics. Gosling felt the exercise gave him insight into the type of patience and skill his character would have to exude in the multiple scenes where he was seen working on cars, and further gave him a “personal connection” to the car.
It is notable that The Driver at one point races a stock car in the movie, which suggests he has prior experience in that endeavor. Fans of the third-generation car will know the body style, with its aerodynamic roofline, was one of the winningest cars in NASCAR history. Benny Parsons won the 1973 Winston Cup Championship in one. This could likely have been another factor in Gosling’s choice of car.
While still an unconventional car to feature in a movie about a professional driver, the logic evident behind the choice does make for a compelling reason for its appearance. Now that you know all of that, I insist you watch the movie if you already haven’t. It’s one hell of a car movie.
See you next time!