To the Max
By Jeremy Hart
The Sydney Morning Herald
A low-budget Mel Gibson film hit the screens 25 years ago. Jeremy Hart, on location, joins diehard fans in replica cars to relive the cataclysmic action.
First there is only the wind, whistling eerily on a wire fence alongside the cracked bitumen of Little River Road. Then the empty road resounds to rumbling, roaring and throbbing.
From the heat haze breaking the line between cloud and bitumen, over a blind crest, painted black on black, its silver supercharger screaming like a banshee, is a tonne and a half of celluloid automotive legend: an Interceptor, one of the mobile stars of the 1979 cult movie, Mad Max.
Exactly 25 years after the genre-setting movie hit the screen, we've taken a matte-black replica of the car driven by a young Mel Gibson to a quiet stretch of road an hour south-west of Melbourne, where most of the film was shot.
In the film, Little River Road is labelled Highway 9 and carries a health warning: "Highway 9 Sector 26. High fatality road deaths this year = 57. Monitored by Main Force Patrol." On Kirks Bridge, Mel Gibson, as Main Force Patrol officer Max Rockatansky, adds to the tally by spearing a quartet of Toecutter's biker gang into the water below after a 140mph game of chicken.
Gibson has long moved on but here we are on that very bridge. Road signs no longer bear the skull and crossbones but there is no doubting we are at the location of the raw road movie, described by one critic as "porn for people who like fast cars".
The approaching roar of the 351 cubic inch Ford V8 in the Interceptor -- an Australian-built 1973 Falcon XB GT coupe with a bolted-on sloping "Monza" nose -- prompts the first Mad Max-ism of the day.
"The l-last of the v-V8s. S-s-she sucks nitro. S-six hundred through the wheels," is uttered at my side by Mad Max tragic Peter Barton.
This piece of film dialogue, describing the Interceptor, sways Max -- instead of quitting the Main Force Patrol (MFP), he seeks revenge on Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) for killing his family.
Barton and a mate, Scott Smith, have brought together replicas of the Interceptor and two other MFP patrol cars from the low-budget ($200,000) film that became a $150 million blockbuster. I join them on a pilgrimage; Little River is the shrine.
"Most of the movie was shot around here," Barton says.
"Many people think it was filmed way out in the bush near Broken Hill, but that was Mad Max 2 and 3," explains Barton, whose website -- www.madmaxmovies.com
- is a hub for Max trivia.
"[Creator] Byron Kennedy lived in this area and that's how he knew the roads."
The roads in Mad Max are also characters. The straighter they are, the more aggressive and dark their role. Little River Road is dead straight, with a dip at Kirks Bridge.
"This is pretty well as it was for the film," says Barton, an IT boffin by day and a walking Mad Max encyclopedia by night.
"They took the crash barriers off for the filming to allow the bikes to fly off into the river as Max scythes through them."
Cue Scott Smith in the Interceptor. He takes a lunge at the bridge, replaying the film over in his mind as he clings to the Ford's black, deep-dish steering wheel.
For 12 weeks in 1978, Little River (population 1000) was the location for a dystopian western with cars replacing horses.
Everyone wanted to be part of the film. The Vigilantes, a local bike gang, ended up performing stunts. A truck driver handed over his truck -- for $50 and a slab of beer -- for the climactic scene in which Toecutter is run over. Most locals had bit parts.
"It was fantastic having the film boys 'round here. They always encouraged us to come out and watch the filming. There was a real buzz," remembers Colin Cotter, a plumber we meet propping up the bar the Little River Hotel.
"They'd come back here every night and huddle outside to discuss filming. I can't say I remember seeing Mel Gibson though."
The real stars of the film, it could be argued, were not the actors but the four cars: Max's coupe, the pair of yellow MFP pursuit cars (Ford XA and XB V8 sedans) and a Holden HQ Monaro MFP pursuit special -- stolen by Nightrider (Vincent Gil) for the film's stunning opening scene and another immortal line of dialogue: "I'm the Nightrider. I'm a fuel-injected suicide machine. Sent down to strike the unroadworthy! I'm hotter than a rollin' dice. Step right up and watch the kid lay down a rubber road right to freedom."
Barton's eyes light up at the suggestion that we head off to find locations and recreate some of the on-road highlights.
We pull up at a junction on the outskirts of the Little River township and position the cars to recall a still from the movie. I get to drive the yellow peril which, inside, smells like it looks -- right out of the 1970s; the body colour, baby poo tan, is right for the era too. There are cool touches inside: a 351 GT logo in red, a bold silver V8 badge and a deep binnacle speedo. The massive police lights work. It is illegal to switch them on. So?
Barton spares me a black leather jacket to look the part. It creaks even when I sit still. At least it is leather. In the film, Gibson wore leather, the rest vinyl.
The climax to the Nightrider chase and the Toecutter's grisly demise under the truck both happen on Old Melbourne Road, the other side of Little River. It is also the climax to our rubber-burning trip down memory lane.
In three months of filming, the Mad Max crew notched up some impressive driving statistics. The demolition toll was 14 vehicles, three V8s and five gearboxes. Three mechanics worked around the clock to keep vehicles on the road.
The end of Nightrider's car was the most dramatic destruction derby in the film. Special effects man Chris Murray was in charge of the devastating ram raid of a crash -- setting off a chain of pyrotechnics Guy Fawkes would envy.
Murray grins at the recollection: "We strapped a navy booster rocket to the car. It gave 6500lb of thrust over 1.8 seconds and blasted the car 400 metres off course. The Nightrider ended up doing 148mph, a 180-degree turn to camera and then exiting. It could never be repeated."
We park on the gravel alongside the Old Melbourne Road. Scott Smith motions me over to the black Interceptor. "Mate, you have a go."
On the very tarmac where Max gets his man, I slip into the Interceptor. I'm wearing the jacket but, compared with Gibson, I feel distinctly uncool. I look around. Before me is the dish sports wheel. But unlike Max's, it has no picture of his wife and kid. The boost gauge even has MFP on it. The door has no trim. In its place there is a leather ammo pouch and a bolted-on machete. The rear window is missing. The seats are deliberately ripped.
The view through the screen is partial, blocked by the V8's massive supercharger and injector "hat" rising out of the black-on-black bonnet. It's illegal, but so are the flashing lights on the XB sedan.
This is the chance to drive a celluloid legend. To hell with it. I fire her up. The exhaust is almost straight through and I'm nearly straddling it. I unleash nearly 300kW. It doesn't help that the chassis flexes like a pair of pants on a washing line.
Ahead is the crest over which the semi-trailer appears, looking like the Grim Reaper to the Toecutter. Like Max, I back off to let fate take its course. And pull over by the side of the road. I sit for a second and stare at the crest.
Smith catches up and leans in the window.
"I've seen this bit of the film hundreds of times," he says. "I never get bored. It is the best road movie ever. If there was something better, we'd be off chasing that, not sitting here talking about this one."
Mad Max certainly made a big impression in the US. Mad Max Cars (madmaxcars.com) claims to be the No 1 importer of Australian cars into the US, and sells replica cars and kits. Popular Hot Rodding reports on perhaps the best-looking replica Mad Max Interceptor Drive has seen, built by a restorer in Illinois. (See popularhotrodding.com/features/0405phr_falcon/)
Other vehicles used in the original Mad Max (according to madmaxcars.com) included XA and XK Ford Falcons, a 1972 Holden HQ Monaro, 1969 Pontiac GTO, 1975 HJ Sandman, various Ford F Series trucks, a Holden EJ ute, a Mazda Bongo van, Kawasaki motorcycles and a Honda trike.
Smash hit I
Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter) still has the huge carcass-cleaving axe used to hack a 1959 Chevrolet Impala in Mad Max.
Smash hit II
Mad Max grossed more than $150 million worldwide, and the Herald this week reported that at one stage it held the record as the most profitable film on a cost-to-revenue basis. Director George Miller and many of the actors -- but not Mel Gibson -- held a 25th anniversary reunion in Sydney on Monday.
Mad Max lives on -- in Japan
By Peter Lyon
Published: The Sydney Morning Herald
Yoshinao Hirata reckons that Mel Gibson's Mad Max Falcon V8 is the greatest movie car ever. That's why he bought one. Incredibly, Hirata's is one of three Interceptors in Japan.
When Drive caught up with Hirata on the limits of Tokyo's sprawling metropolis, the 32-year-old home renovation specialist couldn't hold back his excitement that someone had recognised his machine.
"My car gets lots of looks," he explained, "but I'm convinced that few people realise what I'm driving."
Hirata said he wanted to own one since he was eight, when he first saw the movie. His favourite characters, as opposed to cars, are "Goose [Steve Bisley] and Toecutter [Hugh Keays-Byrne], and of course Max".
"I was so taken by the action and the look of that black Falcon that I collected all of the movie brochures and used them to learn how to draw the car.
"I would sketch it constantly and sometimes even got in trouble at school for drawing it during classes. I knew that some day, I would own an Interceptor."
That day came in early 2001. He was flicking through the pages of a Japanese car magazine when he spotted a double-page article on a Mad Max Interceptor that had just been imported from Australia, and with the huge bonnet-mounted fake supercharger and side exhaust pipes.
"It took me about two seconds to call the shop that had imported it, and the rest is history."
He paid about 4.3 million yen ($53,000) for the then 28-year-old Falcon. One of the first things he did was remove the fake supercharger and side pipes.
"The car looks mean enough on public roads without those two extras, plus it's easier to get the car licensed if it looks less menacing."
What about the police? Hirata smiles. "The police appear to pay more attention to my car than most," he says, "but I never give them an excuse to pull me over."
What does he like about his car? "Apart from the looks and the torquey 300hp [225kW] V8, I adore the sound of the exhaust. It's awesome."
His favourite scene in the movie? "The one where Max drives up slowly and does a cool U-turn, after wasting one of the bikers."
Having bought his Interceptor, Hirata has one more dream: to visit the movie locations.
A fan who has a nose for authentic Interceptors
By Jeremy Hart
Published: The Sydney Morning Herald
Only one guaranteed original Interceptor from Mad Max remains. And it is no longer mobile. The black Interceptor is in the Cars of the Stars museum in Keswick, UK.
But enthusiasts Peter Barton and Scott Smith claim even that car is not accurate. Smith says it has been repainted without using the satin black overlay and that the supercharger is not authentic.
Their Interceptor, they claim, is the only one that is entirely faithful to the film original. The attention to detail borders on the obsessive -- the job took more than a decade.
"There are only two original Monza front ends in the world," Smith says. "I got this through wreckers I knew -- only after 20 or 30 calls. I found the front and then built the rest of the car.
"The supercharger is fake. This is the same as the film car. The supercharger [screams] because the belt is connected.
"The injector hat was the hardest thing to find. It took three years to find. It was from the US and was used on drag cars. The most bizarre thing is the fuel cap. It is from a Routemaster London bus.
"When I was building it, I had the DVD player set up [next to] the car in the garage. The one closest to the film car is this one. I reckon it is worth $45,000.
"I know guys who'd pay $200,000 for that one in England. I hear [the owner] wants $500,000! He paid $70,000 12 years ago."
Smith has just sold one of his yellow MFP cars to a collector in Japan.