When Mustangs Become Movie Stars: the Story of Eleanor

It’s the only Mustang ever to be named in a film’s credits. But it was actually three cars: two ’73 Mustang Mach 1’s and a single ’67 Shelby Cobra GT500. All of them were movie stars in a pair of screen productions, one in 1974 and the other in 2000, both of which went by the name Gone in 60 Seconds. And each went by the same name: Eleanor.

Shelby GT500 Mustang

In 1974 Toby Halicki, professional stunt driver and part-time actor, released a self-produced film in which he played the role of a car thief hired by a South American drug lord to steal 48 vehicles in a few days, in exchange for the then-princely sum of $400,000. His character lays out a plan to accomplish the marathon criminal session in a systematic fashion. He chooses each vehicle ahead of time and assigns it a female name, among them a ’74 Mustang he calls Eleanor.

Shelby Mustang GT500

For the film, two Mach 1s actually played the role of Eleanor. One was used for driving and action scenes and the other for so-called “beauty shots.” The first was modified in numerous ways, such as having a camera mounted in the back seat and being equipped with a NASCAR roll bar. The other was kept as pristine as possible. Both were fitted with a 351 Cleveland engine modified by Halicki himself, a 4-barrel carb, and a Cruisomatic automatic trans.

The working version earned whatever pay it got for its role. It played a key role in the epic 34-minute car chase in which Halicki is trying to outrun the cops. 93 vehicles of assorted makes were wrecked in the filming process. It was almost destroyed twice, once when it careened into a light pole at 100 mph. The left front fender was caved in, but after two hours of hasty repairs it was back on the job.

Its next close call came when it executed a 30-foot leap and fell 128 feet before landing. Amazingly, it survived and finished its role, although Halicki, who was driving, almost didn’t. Fortunately, he had equipped it with a first aid kit and fire extinguisher.

The film was a huge success. In the late 1990s, Jerry Bruckheimer Films decided to remake it. This time Hollywood mega-star, Nicholas Cage, played the role of the master car thief, Randall “Memphis” Raines, who must steal 50 cars for a British crime boss to save his brother’s life. This time around the role of Eleanor was played by a 1967 Shelby Mustang, one that Cage’s character had been trying to steal for years. By the end of the film, it found its way back into its rightful owner’s hands, but Raines drove off into the sunset with a consolation prize: a rusty, beaten-up version of the same car that’s his to restore.

Shot at a cost of $103 million, the film earned $237 million worldwide. On the other hand, the original cost $150,000 and earned in excess of $40 million at the box office – though that was in 1974 dollars, and without any DVD rental income.

Opinions vary, but the general consensus among car buffs is that the ’67 Eleanor was the more beautiful of the two. The ’73 version, on the other hand, looked like what it was: a product of whatever demons haunted the souls of car designers in the 1970s. (That was the decade of the AMC Gremlin, remember, not to mention leisure suits).

Carroll Shelby, in fact, began creating commemorative versions of the iconic car, leading to a nasty legal battle between himself and Halicki’s widow. Shelby lost the battle, ensuring that no more would be made. It’s just as well. In both films Eleanor is more than just a Mustang. She symbolizes that brass ring, that ever-elusive goal, that inspires men of all professions to exceed their limitations, even if the profession happens to be car thief. A million copies bearing the name can be made, but in every person’s heart and mind there is only one true Eleanor.

See more Mustangs here

Written by Bill Wilson

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