To be a columnist in this day and age is special. Just twenty years ago, one could write an article such as this and expect it to be fairly provincial in its reach unless it was printed in a national publication. Owing to the global reach of the internet and social media though, the words one writes can now be read by people in all parts of the world. It’s really an amazing thing if you stop and think about it.
Needless to say, when my articles are published, the volume of correspondence I receive is truly startling, as is the breadth of the locales they come from. I have received email from folks as far as Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Israel, all over Europe, and, of course, here in the States.
The majority of comments are in the form of thanks, questions and critiques, but occasionally I get requests from people to cover particular cars or films. Just a couple of weeks ago, I received one such message from a nice bloke living on the Isle of Man. Andy suggested I have a look at his favorite car movie, an Australian cult film called Running on Empty. Familiar with the flick, I readily agreed. So for Andy, and all of you out there here’s my take!
Running on Empty was an independent production by the Film Corporation of Western Australia, and was distributed by Roadshow Films. It was released in the United States under the alternate title, Fast Lane Fever.
Filmed in Canbeligo, Cobar, and Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, the movie was directed by first-time filmmaker John Clark, based on a screenplay penned by Barry Tomblin.
The film starred neophyte actor, Terry Serio as Mike, Deborah Conway, singer for the Australian pop band Do Re Mi, as Julie, Richard Moir as Fox, John Aguis as Tony, and Max Cullen as Rebel.
The movie follows Mike, an aspiring street racer, and his buddy Tony, his mechanic, who toil away as steelworkers by day and vent their angst in Mike’s Australian muscle car on the streets of Sydney in their spare time.
Fox is the leader of a gang of miscreant street racers who dominate the illegal speed proceedings in their area and bully just about anyone who attempts to make inroads on their turf.
During a race early in the film, Fox’s opponent loses control of his car and perishes in a fiery crash. Witnessed by the other street racers who Fox depends on for wager income, the incident has the effect of turning many of them off from competing.
Now facing a dearth of opponents as well as their cash and pink slips, Fox concocts a plan to lure Mike into the fray.
Knowing that Mike has eyes for Fox’s girlfriend Julie, Fox and his gang violently confront Mike and force him into a trio of races for cash as well as the affections of Julie. Totally smitten by Julie at this point, Mike agrees to the challenge.
After losing to Fox in the first race, Mike, Julie, and Tony decide to head out to some smaller towns outside of Sydney to take some easy wins off of local racers. The idea being that they will make enough money to mod Mike’s engine so he can defeat Fox.
In addition to beating a bunch of yokels and scamming gas station attendants, the trio cross paths with Rebel, a blind, sage-like, retired street racer who still lovingly maintains his old race car. After the yokels seek revenge for losing by lighting Mike’s car on fire, Rebel helps Mike and Tony rebuild the car, and outfits it with a nitrous system to help Mike win against Fox.
Back in Sydney, Mike lines his car up against Fox’s and is winning the race when a truck suddenly pulls out in front of the racers. Mike ends up in the hospital and his car is totaled. Undeterred, Mike borrows Rebel’s race car and enters a final race with Fox, a mile-long road course run, to decide who is the top dog.
Running on Empty was most assuredly a low-budget attempt to cash in on the car movie craze that swept Australia in the wake of Mad Max (1979), and its sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
Many similarities between the two films are present, though Running on Empty substitutes 80s new-wave synth-pop, skinny ties, upturned collars, and silly haircuts for a post-apocalyptic wasteland and anti-social road-ragers.
The look of the film is decidedly low-budget, with a variety of fairly grainy, non-matching film stocks used. What’s more, the lens choices, lighting, and camera movements are clearly the result of having novice technical crew members populating the camera department.
Equally creaky is the film editing, which allows for multiple jump cuts, continuity errors, and poor match-on-actions throughout the movie’s duration. In the scene where the street racer dies in a fire, the car he is in changes pre- and post-crash.
The acting, perpetrated largely by non-professional actors, is not good, with some performances as wooden as a Belgian forest, and others, especially members of Fox’s gang, ludicrously over-the-top. The lone exception to this is Max Cullen’s performance, which shows some subtle nuance at times that actually elicits emotions. That aside, we are left mostly watching cartoon characters.
But guess what? None of this actually matters, because Running on Empty is a fun, mindless romp that largely moves at a good pace, tells a decent story, and entertains throughout. Beyond that, it has some truly excellent cars and automotive action in it.
Mike’s ride is a 1971 Ford Falcon XY GT-HO Phase III, an Australian muscle car of prodigious power and speed. Powered by a 351ci Cleveland underrated at 300 horsepower for insurance purposes, the lump actually pushed out closer to 350-380 ponies.
Built for homologation, the Phase III had a four-speed, top-loader gearbox behind the Cleveland and a nine-inch Detroit locker for putting the power to the ground. Brakes and suspension were race-derived. All of this made the Phase III capable of 140+ mph, a zero-to-sixty time of 6.4 seconds, and a standing quarter-mile time of 13.9 seconds.
Mike’s car is red with twin, black over-the-top racing stripes and is equipped with chrome-plated GT Rally wheels. Quite a cool car that is driven at full-tilt boogie numerous times in the film. My hope is that the car destroyed twice in the movie was a lesser Falcon XY, as today Phase IIIs are approaching a million dollars in value.
Being a Mopar guy, I couldn’t help but love Fox’s car – a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. Done up in black with crazy, canary yellow lighting bolt graphics on the flanks, a massive, custom, hi-rise airbox smack in the middle of the hood, radiused rear guards, side pipes, Center Line drag wheels, and headlight covers, Fox’s whip is one wild-looking car.
An original, numbers-matching Burnt Orange Metallic 440 Six-Pack with a 727 TorqueFlite slushbox, the production contracted FX Illusions to repaint the car and add all of the aesthetic mods.
Like Mike’s Falcon, Fox’s right-hand drive Challenger is run hard in the movie, performing multiple burnouts and full-throttle quarter-mile runs.
You’ll be glad to know that a dummy car was destroyed at the film’s end and that Fox’s Mopar lives on today. It has been restored to exactly how it appeared in the film, albeit with a few modifications under the hood, and bears actor Richard Moir’s signature on the dash. It is in the permanent possession of Running on Empty megafan and muscle car buff, Jason Turner, in Perth.
And then there is Rebel’s beloved dragster. A gloss black 1957 Chevy 210, the car packs a blown 427 cubic-inch V8, fender well headers, a Ford 9-inch diff, a one-piece tilt front, radiused rear wheel arches, steel spoke wheels, and Recaro seats.
While it appears as a two-door in the movie, the car actually started life as a right-hand-drive four door and was cut down to a two-door! Like Fox’s Challenger, the Chevy is also alive and well, and is in the process of being restored in Sydney by a fellow who bought it nearly three decades ago.
Running on Empty is far from high art, but its kitsch factor, combined with an engaging story, excellent cars, and multiple high-speed racing sequences performed practically in a time before CGI, make it well worth your time to watch. It’s a bit hard to find at the moment, as no major streaming services seem to be carrying it, but with a bit of searching it can be found on the internet. I give Running on Empty six-and-a-half out of ten pistons.