Both Ray Nelson and Tom Sparks supplied rental cars from their vintage car collections to the film Industry. In the 1950's and 1960's Ray's antique automobiles appeared in such films as "The Rascal", and "The Great Race". During this time, Tom Sparks owned and operate his Sparks Automotive shop across the street from the Paramount Studios lot. Tom once explained, "Because my shop was just across the street from Paramount Studios, I got a lot of movie work and movie business customers. I'd keep old cars running on sets and for driving shots and started to get to know people around that world. That's how I got to know people like Steve McQueen. He became a customer after coming by my shop one day because he knew I had interesting cars in my shop a lot of the time. He was a neat guy," Sparks said. "Anyway, I got the idea to start building camera cars out of old trucks and anything else I could. There wasn't much in the way of special-built vehicles for that kind of stuff, and I didn't see that anyone else was doing it. Lucille Ball was a customer of mine, and she sold me one of the custom-made Chrysler camera cars that they had built for their studio. I turned it into a wrecker eventually, but I rented it to different production companies for a while, and that got me thinking about making other camera cars, so I did."
Tom Sparks (second owner) worked with Francis Ford Coppola as a Technical Advisor on the set of "Tucker" to secure 22 original Tucker cars from across the US for use in the film. Tom's shop, Sparks and Bonney Automotive, was across the street from Paramount and other movie studios. Producers, directors, and actors brought their cars in for restoration, and Tom rented them his vehicles for films. When Francis Ford Coppola got ready to film "Tucker: The Man and His Dream", he found only two running Tucker cars. Tom was enlisted to acquire the rest. Not only did he find 25 originals, but he also had to make fiberglass molds and produce five more replicas (on various chassis), plus a scratch-built, aluminum-bodied version for a crash sequence. He also custom-built camera cars and trucks for filming moving vehicles.
Ray Nelson (the first owner of The Roadster House) often loaned out his antique automobiles to the film industry. In the 1965 film, "The Great Race," Ray Nelson taught actress Natalie Wood how to drive his 1913 Stanley under steam.
Many of Tom Sparks' cars were used in the making of the 1999 film, "Pearl Harbor".
The 1969 comedy-drama film made by Walt Disney Productions, featured Ray Nelson's Stanley Steamer being driven into a pond during a vigorous race scene. He bought the car in 1949 and spent 2 1/2 years restoring it. Because Ray Nelson lived near Hollywood, he was able to provide several Antique Automobiles to the film industry. For more behind the scenes photos of the Stanley in the pond click here.
Tom Sparks had several cars in this 1991 film starring Sylvester Stalone.
In the late 1960's, Lucille Ball sold her custom built Chrysler Camera Car to Tom Sparks for $1.
By Gene Babow.
“Among other things, I supply rental cars to the movies, “ says Tom Sparks, owner of a restoration shop in Los Angeles. “It’s a different business; its fun and reasonably profitable.” His Cars will be in 40-50 movies a year. Some films are only identified by a production number, not a name, The Sting, W.C. Fields and Me, Gable and Lombard, Chinatown, and Day of the Locust had cars from the Sparks stable. The 1926 Pierce Arrow used in The Sting, was his, as were most of the cars used in the film. He also has a ‘26 Buick, ‘27 Chevrolet, ‘29 Nash, ‘32 Studebaker President, Hollywood Graham, Rollston Packard, some Cadillacs and Fords, an Allard, LaSalle and Metropolitan. Sparks was born in Stewart IA, in 1926. He left the farm life for Hollywood in 1939 and seeing all the wild body styles on Hollywood autos gave him a good feeling for cars
WANTS ‘32 COUPE
The first car he wanted was a ‘32 Ford Coupe, and that was his first car. Since driving didn't come naturally, it took him only 20 seconds to have his first accident. He switched to a Model A. Sparks started as a body man for Roy Hagge in 1941 doing sanding and bodywork. He then learned quality painting for the Hollywood Packard agency. He moved to midgets, and worked with Frank Kurtis. “I drove the midgets against Bill Vukovich an Kimmy Bryan. I was mediocre and got discouraged, “ said Sparks. However, through midget racing he got to know Eddie Meyer in 1946. “It was then that I decided to become a mechanic.” Edie Meyer built speed equipment and was the brother of Louis Meyer (Meyer and Drake and Offenhausers).
ON HIS OWN
After four years, Sparks went out on his own. First came hot rods and drag racing, but the expenses of blowing engines week after week without sponsorship were too much. He then took to the older cars that people still had and just kept the cars reliable. “That was called restoration then.” His shop was just opposite Paramount Studios. It was about this time that the studios, for tax reasons, got rid of their fleets of old cars. But if they made a period piece film, they were stuck. All of a sudden, the studios would want 50 cars, and from one person. “I had three old cars and rented them to the studios. I got money and bought more cars. I didn’t need the expensive cars, just non descriptive cars for the backgrounds.” Sparks has some interesting thoughts on film rental cars: “The director is God on the set. He’s in control and everyone carers to him. If a door doesn’t open wide enough the limit straps will be cut. If this is not wide enough, the doors come off, now. If the hinges don't come off in 30 seconds, a torch will do it. It’s unreal what they’ll do to a car. “They don’t want show cars. Don’t leave a nice car with the studios; stay with it. The crew has no thoughts about a car, its just a piece of equipment. There may be pieces missing, dents, batteries inside, straps to hold a camera inside the car or bent bumpers. They almost always need some repair. The studios will pay a reasonable amount.”
REAL BULLET HOLES
“Special effects such as bullet holes can be made to look like the real thing. Occasionally the director doesn’t like the effect and wants the real thing. Often there is not time to ask the owner. They’re willing to pay for the damage, but there are some things money won’t fix.” Sparks described an incident that happened during the filming of 1941: “I rented a nice 1941 Buick coupe. I couldn’t believe it was my car when I got it back. Battery acid ate up the upholstery; it looked like it was laid upside down for a year. It seemed the director wanted the Buick upside down. At least they used a fork lift to put it upside down. “I could have saved the disaster by being there. You can talk back to the director if you’re there.”
One 1953 Buick Skylark of Sparks was rented for a commercial. “The car was supposed to have been in a barn with the wheels off for a long time. They had a solution that sprayed cobwebs. I looked at the solution, it was an effects paint. The special effects man said, ‘It’s a water base paint and will wash right off.’ I asked if he was dead sure. He said, ‘I’m the special effects man.’ “They did the scene; however water wouldn’t take the solution off. The stuff was on the paint, leather and dash. There was $7000 damage. The insurance didn’t pay, seemed there was a ‘Stupidity Clause,’ and it was an act of stupidity. I was on the set. They wouldn’t listen to me. The solution ate through the paint. It had to be stripped.” Sparks also warned about transporting rental cars: “If the set is out of the area, they will try to save transportation costs and rent cars in the new area. They get cars for practically nothing, just so people can see their cars on the screen. Sometimes, they transport cars. They’ll put seven or eight cars on a transport. The cars on the bottom will be squeezed in and the weight of the cars on top will cave the tops in or have oil drippings or battery acid. The nice cars on top will get hit by low trees. If you’ve got a nice car, send it in a single car trailer.” Sparks says the pay for a plain Jane car is about $75-100 per day. A better car will of or $250. The weekly rate is about $350; monthly even less. There is nothing in writing, the contract is all verbal. “With $600,00 worth of cars on a set, it is scary but is always done that way. Sometimes they want the car for just one day’s shooting, but want the car at their disposal, for as much as 15 days. Delays in shooting cause this condition.” It is no wonder that the studios want to deal with just one person when they want autos for movies.”
CAMERA CARS UNSUNG WORKHORSES OF INDUSTRY
Camera cars, or insert cars as they are called on the set, are the unsung heroes of the movies. The workhorses are always there, but never seen.When Tom Sparks opened his shop opposite Paramount Studios in Hollywood in 1949, the camera cars were worked-over1924-26 Lincolns. Flathead Ford engines replaced the Leland-designed Lincoln V-8. They were ok, but had inadequate steering and brakes. They were used until 1956. It is true that Chrysler Corporation supplied two camera cars to some studios after they visited sets and saw an opportunity for publicity. The year was 1949 and the studios didn’t like the straight with engine or the fluid drive. At one time Sparks had both units; he still has one. In 1956, Gil Casper, a camera car driver, came to Sparks. He had saved some money and wanted a camera car built to his specs. Using a 1956 Ford 3/4 ton cab and chassis, Sparks cranked out six units. He said, “Overnight the 1926 Lincolns were obsolete. I built one new truck each year for Casper. The old one was sold overseas, not in the U.S.” The regular inner car will have as many as 12 people on the car at one time. Even during a bright day, lights will be used to prevent unwanted shadows. An aircraft generator powered b a Corvair engine supplies power for the big lights. The engine is soundproofed. The light weight of a Corvair engine is important, as weight must be held to a minimum. The engine does not run all the time, but it can't be noisy when it does, sense the soundproofing. The engine runs a full rpm for a few minutes at a time. For Chase scenes and race movies, where nighter speeds are needed, Sparks built Casper a Chevy El Camino using experience from his early drag racing days and Eddie Meyer’s training.
STUDIOS USE QUICK ‘Peel Paint”
If there studios want a particular color on a car, they have a process called “Peel Paint.” A rubber base paint is applied to a car. Then the car is painted the desired color. The original paint is protected, since the new color will peel right off. The process works well and although it doesn’t produce a high quality, it is satisfactory for a background car. But a problem occurs when the paint is peeled off. There can be a residue in the cracks, crevices and corners. Tom Sparks recommends that is not to be done to a good auto. Sparks also says that a water base paint is sometimes used. It is pretty good too, but the results are the same - residue.