Dave LaChance Dec 10th, 2013
Ed Straker’s car. Photos and images courtesy Sean Robinson.
The year is 1980, and the earth is under attack by aliens. All that stands in their way is Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization, or S.H.A.D.O., a top-secret force that employs aircraft, submarines, moon-based interceptors and other weapons to destroy incoming UFOs.
Overseeing this vital operation is Commander Ed Straker, who, to all outward appearances, is the head of a film studio in England. Naturally, the commander has a car at his disposal, and not just any car–it’s a long, low, gullwinged, gas-turbine-powered coupe that can outrun pursuing space aliens.
We’re talking about the British TV series UFO, which aired in the U.K. in 1970, and was shown in the U.S. in 1971-1972 (the female crew of Moonbase wore metallic purple wigs, if that helps jog your memory). The series sprang from the prolific imagination of the late Gerry Anderson, probably best known in the U.S. for his “Supermarionation” TV series like Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5, and the live-action Space: 1999 that came later. But Commander Straker’s car itself was very real, and it caught the attention of a six-year-old Brit named Sean Robinson, nowadays of West Berkshire, between Bristol and London. “I knew that it was not a model, it was a real car. That sort of transfixed me. That car exists somewhere,” Sean says. “And I just wanted that car from the very first second.” The car’s role in the show was part of its appeal, but more than that, “it was just a gorgeous looking car. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. It was this gorgeous thing.”
The car had been styled by Derek Meddings, who had been Anderson’s visual-effects specialist since the Supermarionation days. It, and two similar cars, had been constructed for Anderson’s 1968 film Doppelganger (also titled Journey to the Far Side of the Sun). Two of the cars were used for UFO; besides Straker’s, there was one used by another major character, Colonel Paul Foster. Viewers were always sure of seeing Straker’s car; it was featured early in the credits, and was shown in many of the episodes.
As Sean became older–and, not coincidentally, became a filmmaker, writer and director, too–he began trying to track the car down, but no one seemed to know where it was. He learned that it had been sold in the mid-1970s to a BBC Radio 1 disc jockey, Dave Lee Travis, who had used the car for promotions, but from there the trail grew cold. Sean wasn’t deterred; he made inquiries, followed leads, and, two years ago, tracked the car down.
“Dave Lee Travis had sold it to the garage that did its repairs, or kept it running, for a song. He wanted rid of it, he was sick of it,” Sean says. The new owner, too, used the car for advertising, until he, too, grew tired of it. “He told one of his employees to take it down to the dump, and the employee said, ‘No, no, I’ll take it home.’ It was taken to a back garden [backyard] in the Midlands, and that’s where it stayed, under a tarpaulin.”
The car had suffered from exposure to the weather. The underlying chassis, from a Ford Zephyr, was badly rusted, so badly that Sean’s hand accidentally went through the firewall. “It was like tissue paper. If you lifted the car up, it would probably fold in half,” he says. Even the aluminum skin was in poor shape.
Sean tried to buy the car–he still holds out hope that the owner will agree to sell it to him–but instead got the next best thing: permission to make a plaster cast of its aluminum body, from which he would be able to make a perfect replica in fiberglass. This was challenging work, but his film connections helped; a technician named Grant, who had molded the Ford Anglia for the Harry Potter movies, offered to help mold Straker’s car.
The owners had built a brick wall next to the car, making it impossible to remove the car without a crane, and so Sean and Grant did all the molding work in the owner’s backyard. They ended up with six heavy plaster molds. “We had to carry them the length of the bottom of the garden, over a six-foot hedge, to another garden, over another hedge, out onto the road, and then load them into a van. And we had to do that with each piece,” Sean says. “I had visions of not making it.”
Safely back in the workshop, the plaster molds were used to make castings of parts of the body shell, which were then assembled with the help of wooden jigs. “Once the castings were in the correct place, the car was re-fibreglassed underneath to secure all of the pieces, and then months of rebuilding and smoothing began,” Sean says. “It took a long time to get it right, but finally it was ready to make a new mold.”
From the new mold, a new one-piece body emerged. “The entire full-size bodyshell of Ed Straker’s car is sitting in my workshop. It’s amazing to look at when you walk in the door, to see Ed Straker’s car looking at you. Pretty amazing.”
There’s much more to be done, including all of the mechanical work. Sean isn’t keen to replicate the car’s original specification, which included a 1.3-liter four-cylinder from a British Ford Escort. (The camera was slowed down for driving shots, to make the car appear to be moving quickly when the film was played back at normal speed.) “In Derek’s exact words, it was a pig to drive,” he says. “It was very underpowered, it was huge, and there was no power steering.” The gearshift lever for the four-speed transmission had been sawed in half, so that it could fit within the console. “You had to actually put your hand down a hole to change gear. And the center console of that thing was quite high, so your elbow as right out in the air. You had your hand down a hole and you were trying to change gear and steer at the same time. Quite horrific,” Sean says.
The replica will be an entirely different story. Sean has bought a 2002 Jaguar XJ8, and he’s planning to have the roof cut off, and a tubular steel framework welded on to support the fiberglass body–something like Superleggera construction. “The beauty of the Jag is, it’s exactly the same wheelbase. I went and measured people’s cars,” he laughs. He’ll keep the beautiful leather Jaguar interior, and “just add bits around that to make it look the way it should have looked, actually. It’ll be an up-to-date version on the inside, but the outside will look exactly like it did.”
The exterior will be painted in the same shade of metallic bronze as the original, but with a twist. Sean secured a piece of the original paint that peeled off the aluminum body, and will have it color-matched. But because the car was always brightly lit by halogen lamps when it was filmed, he intends to tweak the color a bit, so that under natural light, it looks just as bright as viewers remember it being.
The original car’s gullwing doors never worked properly–they weren’t motorized, or sprung, so there would always have to be someone out of the shot to raise and lower them. Sean plans to use gas struts, to make them fully functional.
His hope is to have the car ready for its public unveiling at Andercon 2014, the official convention for Gerry Anderson fans on April 19-20 in London. No promises–”I’m a busy filmmaker, I’m a producer and a director, and getting the time to do this is quite difficult, so we might not make that,” he says.
With a mold already created, might he make more replicas? The thought has crossed his mind. “There’s a friend of mine who wants to make a series of them. So what we’re thinking about doing is getting the first one done, showing it off, then saying, ‘Right, we’ll make six, and then we’ll destroy the mold. Who wants one?’ That’s the idea that’s being bandied around.”
There was never a thought of making a static replica of Straker’s car–the childhood dream could only be realized by something that could be climbed into and driven. And with Jaguar V-8 power, Sean’s car will have performance to match his fantasies. “It’ll go like stink,” he enthuses. “It’ll go like a rocket!”