Just as the 1960s and 70s were a golden era for American performance cars, so too was the period a booming one for the car movie.
After Easy Rider had become an unexpected hit amongst the youth demographic, Hollywood became more than amenable to stories that depicted young people experiencing life on the road.
As a result, within just a few years of Easy Rider’s release, countless movies were produced that tried to tap into the same formula with varying degrees of success.
Many of them were straight-up B-movie actioners, mindless romps featuring fast cars and bikes and even faster women, but a select few, like American Graffiti and Vanishing Point, had a dose of social commentary woven into their narratives.
Perhaps no other film from the era was as unconventional and thought-provoking as Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop though. Starring two non-actors, musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys, and ostensibly about the nomadic wanderings of a pair of drag racers, the movie could be interpreted as a thinly veiled comment on America, and the schism the Vietnam War was creating between the generations.
What made the movie even more memorable, of course, were the cars, led by an iconic 1955 Chevy 150 gasser. While it was indeed quite a car (which also made another screen appearance as Harrison Ford’s unbeatable hot rod in the aforementioned American Graffiti), Two-Lane Blacktop featured another ride that was stirring as well: a 1970 Pontiac GTO.
Since Two-Lane Blacktop is one of my most beloved films of the era, and the GTO on the short list of favorites for virtually every gearhead, in this month’s chapter of Rob’s Movie Muscle I thought we’d take a look at the ride that received second billing to that 150.
Two-Lane Blacktop was a shoestring budget project, costing a mere $875,000, that was produced and distributed by Universal Pictures in 1971. Adapted into a screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer off an original short story by Will Corry, the film was directed by Monte Hellman.
Although a financial and critical flop at the time of its theatrical release, the picture was reassessed decades later as an arthouse and car movie exemplar, and has amassed a cult following subsequent to its 1999 issue on home video.
The movie follows two young hippie types as they roam America, going from town to town, drag racing for money. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiking teenaged girl, and then find themselves in a race for pink slips to Washington D.C. against a listless loner, himself wandering the country in a contemporary muscle car.
And that, my friends, is the entirety of the plot.
In further arthouse film fashion, we never even learn the Christian names, much less the surnames, of the movie’s protagonists. Instead, James Taylor is simply billed as The Driver, Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, Laurie Bird as The Girl, and Warren Oates as G.T.O., the film’s antagonist.
Named after the car he drives, G.T.O. is a middle-aged alcoholic who compulsively spins spurious yarns about his background and past escapades, and serves as a foil in the film to his youthful competitors by virtue of his age and decidedly un-hip views.
In contrast to the primer-covered, patched together, do-it-yourself 1955 Chevy 150 that The Driver and The Mechanic roll in, G.T.O.’s Goat is a brand new 1970, and appears to be factory stock. Clearly, the two cars are intended to be visual metaphors of the disparate generational values each of the vehicles’ occupants possess: one that takes pride in assembling their speed machine with their own hands, and another, a consumerist, who just wants to take a short cut and buy performance.
A closer look at the GTO reveals interesting things.
The car is draped in classic GTO Orbit Orange over a black vinyl interior. While it has the iconic tricolor pink, orange, and blue eyebrow stripes over the wheel arches that were part of The Judge package that year, the car lacks “The Judge” stickers that would normally appear on the front fenders and the trunk lid, and instead is outfitted with “GTO” emblems (more on that in a moment.)
The only other non-stock equipment on the exterior of the car seems to be a set of Keystone Klassic five-spoke, chrome and black wheels.
Inside, the car sports an automatic shifter linked to a Turbo Hydramatic three-speed slushbox, and a cassette player mounted under the dash.
Now back to those missing stickers.
Some questions seemed to have developed over the years as to what trim the movie’s Goat actually was, in large part because of the “GTO” emblems appearing on the car.
According to the director, Monte Hellman, Pontiac provided two GTOs to the production after the screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, wrote the car into the screenplay, but no one, including him, can recall if the cars were Judge models or not. Hellman did note in an interview that the cars were factory stock when delivered, and that the film’s vehicle supervisors made no modifications whatsoever to either vehicle.
Certainly, the Orbit Orange color, eyebrow stripes, front spoiler, Ram Air hood, and rear wing that are present would suggest the cars were indeed Judge models, as those were all standard features of the trim. If the production did not alter the cars though, how did they end up bearing “GTO” emblems on the fenders in lieu of “The Judge” ones that should have been there?
Perhaps Pontiac executives, having seen the screenplay, decided to put the “GTO” emblems on in place of “The Judge” stickers so the car would bear the film character’s name on it. Or possibly, they figured viewers would recognize “GTO” more readily than “The Judge,” leading to added promotional value.
Some people in the classic Pontiac world had another theory entirely though. They believed the cars were not Judge models at all, but were standard GTOs dressed up like Judge models. As to why Pontiac would do that, they suggest there may have been a pause in Judge production at the time the cars needed to be supplied to the film and thus a workaround was arrived upon.
These folks also pointed to the fact that in one scene, G.T.O. tells a hitchhiker he gives a ride to that the car has a 455 under the hood.
In 1970, only 17 Judge GTOs left the factory equipped with the 455 cubic-inch motor, as it was a late availability option that replaced the standard 400 cubic-inch lump. Conversely, the larger engine was available on non-Judge GTOs from the start of the model year, and thus over 4,100 were delivered with it.
If G.T.O.’s dialogue in fact reflected the movie cars’ true powertrains, then it is much more likely that the cars were standard GTOs dressed up like Judges, given the rarity of 455s in the latter, or so the “they weren’t Judges” crowd believed.
Of course, since virtually everything G.T.O. says in the movie is an utter fabrication, his reference to the car having a 455 could have just been more of the character’s duplicity, and not an indication as to what really lurked under the hood of the production vehicles.
The debate would finally be settled when the disposition of the cars, post Two-Lane Blacktop, became clear in recent years.
According to Monte Hellman, after filming had wrapped, the production held on to the two GTOs for a few months. Hellman himself used one as a daily driver during that time. “I think I had more tickets in that three-month period than I did in my whole life outside of that time,” the director recalled. “The cops would explain to me, ‘Well, you know, it’s because your car is orange. It just stands out more!’”
After that three-month period, the cars were returned to Universal, which loaned the cars out to other productions several times in the 1970s, including for episodes of Kojak, Adam-12, Columbo, and Baretta.
In 1988, Universal finally relinquished the cars, selling them to a pair of private individuals. Subsequently, one of the cars then disappeared into obscurity, with its present whereabouts unknown.
The other car, however, was listed in Hemmings News a few years after the sale, and a fellow in Alaska ultimately bought it. He subjected the car to a full, ground-up restoration and confirmed in some online Pontiac forums that his car was indeed an original Ram Air IV Judge with the standard 400 cubic-inch V8, based on the factory build sheet that he was able to obtain.
While the ’55 Chevy naturally garners the majority of attention when Two-Lane Blacktop is discussed as it is the hero’s car, there can be no doubt that the GTO is a highly memorable movie vehicle as well. Given Hollywood’s long established practice of destroying cars in the process of filming stunts, the fact that at least one of the GTOs survived to this day is a gift to all fans of Two-Lane Blacktop and of classic Movie Muscle in general.