The road leads to nowhere in Two-Lane Blacktop

by Simon Hucknall
25 March 2022 4 min read
The road leads to nowhere in Two-Lane Blacktop
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Halfway through Monte Hellman’s 1971 movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, actor Warren Oates’s character plays Me and Bobby McGee on his Pontiac GTO’s stereo. ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…’, sings Kris Kristofferson, which frames this cult masterpiece perfectly, as early ‘70’s American youth strove to find deeper meaning to its car obsession. You won’t find any traditional car chases here, but if, like me, you recall a time when a car was more than just mobility, but an oily, noisy, gloriously smelly affront to authority, then I promise that you will get Two-Lane from its first few frames.

Two scruffy hot-rodders, played not by professional actors, but rock singers James Taylor (The Driver) and The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic), strike out from LA across the States in a ’55 Chevy rod, drag-racing along the way for $300 stakes. Motoring east, they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird) with no questions asked, who makes her home in the seat-less back of the Chevy. They’re goaded by Oates (‘GTO’) in his shiny Pontiac, who plays a confidence trickster, prepared to risk losing his car’s ‘pink slip’ (ownership paperwork) if the pair beat him to Washington DC. His chameleon-like persona juxtaposes brilliantly with the rodders who, you sense, are just trying to authenticate their young lives. As pared down a film as you can imagine, even the characters names are unmentioned. 

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Leaving LA, they reach Santa Fe by night-fall and scout around for action at a rodders’ meet. Scriptwriter Rudy Wurlitzer was yet another non-actor drafted in to play the pair’s first victim, as the owner of a custom Ford. “Gee mister, I’ll bet it’s pretty quick…,” taunts The Driver, “…but I’m just not in the habit of seeing the Chevy work against a two-bit piece of junk.” Gauntlet laid, the Ford owner bites: “Let’s make it fifty.” But The Driver wants more: “Make it three yards ($300), mother*****r, and we’ll have an automobile race.” The low-key, malice-free delivery of the dialogue is pure magic, and in this scene, given even greater atmosphere by The Doors’ otherworldly Moonlight Drive playing in the background.

But the automotive atmosphere has real substance, too. Three, identical primer-grey Chevys were built by North Hollywood rodder, Richard Ruth, for the production. Ruth won the contract after taking the film makers street racing in LA, and in Sylvia Townsend’s book, Bumpy Road: the Making, Flop and Revival of Two-Lane Blacktop, he claimed: “They didn’t know what they wanted so left it up to me. I made the car of my dreams on the studio’s money.” Ruth built a race-spec car with a 427 cu in Corvette engine, and a stunt car with an 454 cu in motor, which also had individually-braked wheels for skids and slides. Both engines ran Holley four-barrel carbs (complete with deliberately crude metal hood-shrouds), and transmitted drive to their Posi-centre axles through Muncie four-speed ‘Rock-Crusher’ ‘boxes, controlled by Hurst shifters. In other words, the real deal. A third car with a less powerful engine was used for interior shots, and had a camera platform attachment for the film crew.

GTO’s Orbit Orange GTO perfectly embodied his perceived bravado, and was probably as close to a factory-built ‘rod’ that was available in 1970, when the movie was filmed. Pontiac provided two cars, both of which were almost certainly to ‘Judge’ spec, apart from aftermarket Keystone Klassic wheels. Bragging about his ride’s 390 horsepower and 500 pounds foot of torque, GTO quite accurately sums up his prospects to an unsuspecting hitchhiker: “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m going to go into orbit.”

The road leads to nowhere in Two-Lane Blacktop
Left to right: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and James Taylor in a scene from the 1971 movie. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Two-Lane is so authentic, and makes every other road movie feel contrived by comparison. It was filmed in sequence, with Taylor and Wilson only having sight of the scripts on the day of filming as they actually drove from LA to Tennessee, mirroring the storyline. While there’s no grand finale – which fits with the aimless vibe – behind the scenes the Chevy’s final quarter-miler did nearly end with fatal consequences, according to James Taylor in a 2006 Charlie Mars video discussion. “There was a camera man riding in the back…and a stills photographer behind. The car was sitting (on the line), but it had been left in reverse, which was very close to first. (I was told) ‘take it up to 6500, then just dump the clutch. The drive shafts snapped off and came through the floor, right between the cameraman’s legs. And thank God, even though they’d been shooting behind, the guy must have gone to change the film and happened not to be there. It would have taken his head off!”

Commercial success evaded Two-Lane Blacktop until decades after it was released. Even director Hellman declared that, “…there’s no story, it’s day to day life,” so it’ll be too unvarnished for some tastes. But if you want to almost smell a slice of early-‘70’s petrol nirvana, you will not be disappointed.

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