H.B. "Toby" Halicki was proud of saying "I'm just a junkman. I don't know anything about making movies." But that didn't keep him from being one of the few car guys who actually went out and made a car movie. And 30 years later, his original "Gone in 60 Seconds," released in 1974, is still impressive on its own weird terms.
When he wrote, directed, produced and financed the film about a car thief stealing 48 cars, the 34-year-old Halicki ran a suspiciously successful junkyard in Gardena, Calif., and was assumed by many to be a major car thief. If there's any proof he was, we've never seen it, but the movie does nothing to dissuade the viewer from believing that Halicki was damn good at stealing cars.
Halicki also plays the lead in "Gone" and was the stunt driver behind the wheel of the now famous yellow '73 Mustang fastback he named "Eleanor." Eleanor is the only reason to watch "Gone." The poor car leads the movie's awesome 40-minute car chase through Southern California, past such landmarks as the Datsun corporate headquarters, and turns in the film's most charismatic performance. By the end of the ride, the Mach 1 looks like it had been driven off a cliff. Twice.
Even by today's standards, the chase scene holds up. There are scenes of the Mustang blazing through real freeway traffic, and on-board cameras recorded hits that look like someone had to have been hurt. There's one insane moment when Eleanor is tapped by a Cadillac at 80 mph and spins into a light standard, knocking it over. That stunt wasn't planned, but Halicki left it in the movie. There's also a "Dukes of Hazzard"-style jump, which Halicki replays in slow motion from several angles. You can actually see the Mustang's sheet metal ripple on impact.
The rest of the film sucks, despite cameo appearances by Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones and his Oly Bronco. The direction is inept, the cinematography is foggy, the dialog is lame and there's better acting at Charles Manson's parole hearings, but Halicki never claimed to be John Ford. In fact, he was most proud of the 93 cars he claimed to have destroyed during the making of the movie.
With his mangled Mustang in tow, Halicki took "Gone" to theaters around the country himself and pocketed the box office. Not a bad haul since it grossed more than all but 20 movies released that year. He'd eventually use the money to complete two more movies (1982's "The Junkman" and 1983's "Deadline Auto Theft") and acquire one of the world's largest collections of automotive memorabilia and toys.
Halicki was an independent filmmaker long before the term became fashionable around the Sundance Film Festival-a true pioneer. But he wouldn't live to have that acknowledged or see the inferior 2000 remake of "Gone" starring Nicolas Cage. He was working on a sequel to "Gone" in 1989 when a 100-foot water tower rigged for a stunt collapsed and part of the structure landed atop him. He left behind an unmatched legacy of maverick movie-making and automotive obsession.
The original "Gone in 60 Seconds" is available on DVD through Amazon.com for $17.36.