Another made for American TV film which also went out under the title “Rebel of the road”. Produced in 1979 by the ABC network, “Hotrod” tells the story of Brian Edison, played by Gregg Henry, a small town mechanic who puts together a mean looking black Plymouth, (a ’65 Belvedere running a gorgeous 426 Hemi motor), & heads to California for the Munn’s root beer drag race nationals. The big, black, boxy Belvedere looks fabulous cruising into the fictional town of Lyons, it’s tail riding high above huge 70s Wolfrace slot mags. The town’s full of rods & racers, gathering for the forthcoming drags, but it’s not long before Edison falls foul of local Police chief, Sheriff Marsden, played by Pernell Roberts, a regular face in TV dramas of the time. As seems to be the case in all American movie towns, the sheriff’s in the pay of the local bad guy, root beer magnate, T.L.Munn, (Robert Culp), who aims to fix the races so his boy, Sonny, (Grant Goodeve), can win the title.
Almost as soon as he hits town Edison writes off the Plymouth in a street race with Sonny’s ’69 2 door Olds Cutlass. Obviously the film can’t end there though, so Ed Begley Junior, as the local mechanic, Clay, not only tows away the wrecked sedan, but offers our hero free bed & board at his struggling hotel. With the help of his old pal, the muscle-bound “Cannonball”, (Bruce.M.Fischer), in his Studebaker pick up truck, they rescue an ancient 40s Willys coupe from it’s equally ancient owner’s barn & set about transplanting the Plymouth’s Hemi motor -“You can have the car for free as long as you beat Munn”. Can the beat-up, grey primered, old school hotrod take on the 70s muscle cars? ’Course it can, especially when they’re given a 6-71 GMC supercharger by a local garage owner -“You can have the blower for free as long as you beat Munn”, & steal a blower drive from one of the exhibits in Munn Senior’s own Hotrod Hall of Fame.
Along the way, Sonny Munn sabotages the coupe, stealing it & over-revving it till he blows a hole in the Hemi’s crankcases. Our hero’s response? Why, sneak into a darkened parking lot & lift the engine from one of the local Police force’s cruisers of course! Fortunately the AMC Matadors just happen to be equipped with big block motors. Edison also pinches Sonny’s long-suffering girlfriend, Jenny, played by Robin Mattson, winning her heart by letting her pilot his old coupe to outrun a Porsche on the outskirts of town. So the scene’s set for the big drag race showdown. The racing footage was actually shot at North California’s Fremont raceway with plenty of authentic pitlane detail, some great burn out & wheelie action from top fuelers & funny cars of the day & unusual race shots with the camera car following the competitors up the strip. There’s even a clip of a rocket car making a run up the quarter mile. During the Willys close up shots, the camera mounting can be clearly seen, fixed to the driver’s door.
As a piece of cinematography, Hotrod’s on a par with most other Friday Night Movie offerings. The storyline’s predictable, the characters are basic, the acting’s questionable & the dialogue’s pretty lame. As an excuse to watch some great drag racing footage, wallow in 70s nostalgia & just live the atmosphere of late nights in the garage & racing on the streets, it’s great though. Local disc jockey Johnny Hurricane, (Royce.D.Applegate), who befriends Edison after hitching a ride into town with him at the start of the film, creates a link between the 50s inspired built-to-go racer & the more modern 70s rods & customs that cruise the streets of downtown Lyons, by providing a background soundtrack of classic hits by the likes of Buddy Holly, Fats Domino & Martha & the Vandellas on KARZ radio. Unusually for a TV film, we actually get to see the work being done on the car & rather than miraculously producing an immaculate race-tuned beauty, the old pre war, low budget Willys constantly refuses to start. It’s doors don’t fit, the bonnet’s propped open with a stick & it’s grey primer aerosol paintjob hardly fits in with the 70s disco inspired metal flake & chrome of it’s competitors -but it’s SO cool!
So does he win? Does the little guy, doing all his own spannering with a 2 bit budget & a 30 year old retro racer, outrun the big bucks bad guys? I don’t think I’m spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the film by confirming that Yes, obviously, he does. Good triumphs neatly over evil when Munn sacks his corrupt Police chief & gives his deputy the job, only for him to instantly arrest them both. Then the victorious Edison’s 1000 dollar winner’s cheque is confiscated to cover the cost of the stolen Police car parts, ensuring no-one profits from their mis-deeds.
“Hotrod” ends with the obligatory view of the good guy & his girl driving off into the sunset.
It’s not high brow & doesn’t pretend to be, but it’s a classic car culture film.
YouTube video clip 1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bmb1pa5Gvko&feature=related
YouTube video clip 2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDfgfruQ250&feature=fvw
YouTube video clip 3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s24cYesegSo&feature=related