LONDON // Scientists claim they have found the solution to one of cinema's greatest cliffhangers - how Michael Caine and his crew escape with their lives and stolen bullion in The Italian Job. The 1969 movie ends with the coach teetering over the side of a ravine, the gold bars at one end balanced by the Caine gang at the other. If any one of the gang leapt from the vehicle, the rest would topple over the cliff edge along with the bus and the gold.
Caine's character, Charlie Croker, closes the movie with the now famous line: "Hang on a minute, lads, I've got a great idea." Now, the Royal Society of Chemistry reckons it knows what that great idea was even if Caine himself has his own version of what happened. For the past three months, the society has been running a competition to see who could come up with the best science-based answer to the dilemma. More than 2,000 members of the public put forward solutions and John Godwin, an IT consultant from Surrey, has now been named as the victor.
Under the rules, a helicopter could not be used and the gang had to get the gold off the 1964 Bedford VAL14 coach in 30 minutes. Mr Godwin, 39, who went to the trouble of tracking down one of the few remaining VAL14s to test his theory, came up with a three-stage solution to save the gang and the loot. First, the coach windows are smashed out at the back of the vehicle, and smashed inward at the front, to change the weight ratio slightly.
Then, one of the robbers is lowered outside the coach to deflate the tyres still on terra firma, stabilising the vehicle. Next, a robber empties the fuel tank containing an estimated 139kg of fuel through an access panel at the bottom of the coach. This would be sufficient, Mr Godwin estimated, for a member of the gang to leave the bus and ferry rocks on to the front of the vehicle until there was sufficient weight on board for the gold to be retrieved.
"There are several sheets of maths here. It was a good long day with a calculator," Mr Godwin told the BBC. "It's more than 20 years since I saw the film. I remember thinking there must be some way of getting that gold off the bus. "I always had an idea of how they might solve this, so when the Royal Society of Chemistry put this out to the public as a competition it seemed like the ideal opportunity to see if it would really work or to see if it was hot air."
Last year, however, the star of the film revealed that there had always been a solution, though not one that could have been achieved within half an hour. "I crawl up, switch on the engine and stay there for four hours until all the petrol runs out," he said. "The van bounces back up so we can all get out, but then the gold goes over. "There are a load of Corsican Mafia at the bottom watching the whole thing with binoculars. They grab the gold, and then the sequel is us chasing it."
Caine - now Sir Michael - suggested that the alternative ending had been filmed in 1969, but the producers decided against using it. Richard Pike, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said Sir Michael's explanation was just "one of those many plausible routes to securing all that gold". He added: "Beyond Michael Caine's own proposal, which a number of people have put in, others have suggested jumping out of the bus and going down and getting the gold. Others have suggested superconductivity and the use of magnetism - although some people have pointed out, quite rightly, that gold is not magnetic.
"Other options involve even melting the gold, using the burning of the petrol, and in a sense sucking the liquid gold towards the fugitives." For his efforts, Mr Godwin has won a three-day holiday in Turin where, of course, the Mini-driving gang pinched the gold in the first place. firstname.lastname@example.org