‘Some of you won’t make it. For those that do, there’ll be no glory, no headlines… but just a few magic hours against the redline, with no catalytic converter, and no 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. Ladies and gentlemen, The Gumball Rally has begun!’
And that line, delivered by car-loving candy-firm exec, Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) kicks off the eponymous film that effectively created the trans-Am race genre which became so popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Forget the star-studded, but car-action-weak The Cannonball Run franchise; The Gumball Rally was the first of Hollywood’s films inspired by the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, named after Erwin George Baker, aka ‘Cannonball’, who in 1933 set the first US coast-to-coast time record in a car.
It’s also the most authentic – for car action, anyway: the sight and sound of a genuine AC Cobra 427 and Ferrari 365 GTS4 (yes, the Spider) at full-bore on a US highway is all the compensation you need for the movie’s somewhat lacklustre script and honky-tonk soundtrack.
‘Gumball’ is the code Bannon uses to gather his coterie of speed-freaks in New York City for the start of the illicit race. They’re well-equipped, too. As well as the aforementioned Cobra and Daytona, the line-up also includes a female team in a Porsche 911 Targa, two well-heeled gents in a Mercedes 300SL Roadster, a couple of good ‘ol boys in a Chevrolet Camaro Z28, and even a token biker – crazed but mute on a Kawasaki KH400.
Their challenge is simple: the first to reach the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California – 2,900 miles away – wins. And as Bannon reminds them, ‘…there are no rules.’ Inevitably, there’s police interest, with LAPD’s Lieutenant Roscoe (Normann Burton) desperate to nail Bannon and his Daytona-owning rival, Steve ‘Smitty’ Smith (Tim McIntire), whose ‘ringer’ driver, F1 star Franco Bertollini (wonderfully over-played by Raul Julia) is as passionate about the opposite sex as he is winning.
Director/producer and former stunt coordinator Chuck Bail was intent on making the action as authentic as possible. Nicholas Pryor, who played Bannon’s Cobra co-driver, Professor Graves, described in a recent podcast for The Projection Booth how Bail’s original plan was to shoot the teams ‘driving’ as they were towed by a 100mph rig-car driven by one of two pro-racers (John Morton and Wes Dawn), with the actors even taken to a track near LA beforehand to get used to being driven at high speed. But when they started filming along the New Jersey Turnpike, the rigs attracted so much attention from the public on roads that weren’t closed that they had to stop. In the end, actors were given basic race training at Willow Springs so that they could manage the less extreme driving themselves.
Filming of the cars leaving New York City took place early on a Sunday morning in December, 1975. Released at 10-second intervals, the only team that fails to proceed is in a 1974 Jaguar E-Type V12 (the death rattle from its starter motor is a running gag through the film, and apparently a rebuff to Jaguar, which refused to lend Warner Brothers a car). But the rest charge at genuinely high speed through empty streets (though hundreds of spectators can be seen lining the sidewalks).
However, despite being a ‘coast-to-coast’ race, everything else you see was filmed near either Flagstaff or Phoenix in Arizona, or LA and its surrounding area. Two identical versions of each car – one for filming, one as a back-up – were provided, and in a somewhat blatant example of product placement, all are equipped with Cibie driving lights, complete with branded covers.
Setting aside the odd lame gag, there’s an abundance of great vehicular action. Gibson (Gary Busey) can’t resist two-wheeling his Z28 along a freeway as they near the finish with incredible skill, until it flips onto its roof. Franco and Smitty recreate the famous The Italian Job bus-loading scene, when they drive their Daytona into a moving service truck to evade a police road block. And Lapchick the Kawasaki rider (Harvey Jackson) manages to perch his bike on the upper bows of a tree when he hits ice on a mountain pass.
But nothing beats the sight of a mud-strewn Cobra and Daytona, vying for the race lead as they slide and pirouette along the dried-out LA River to avoid a clogged highway in the closing stages of the race. To see such cars – each worth approaching £2 million – being driven with complete abandon will either amaze or appal you, but the end result is captivating.
I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you who won, though Warner Brothers’ plea for it to be the female Porsche team (Susan Flannery/Joanne Nail) was rejected by producer Bail. Either way, The Gumball Rally‘s winning car crossed the line in 33 hours and 57 minutes at an average speed of 92.7mph – which, if you’re interested, is precisely six hours and 36 mins slower than today’s fastest real-life ‘Cannonballer’.