x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Bond cars in the spotlight as Skyfall opens

As the new James Bond film opens, Kevin Hackett remembers 007's cars.

The Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me. Courtesy MGM
The Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me. Courtesy MGM

Just a few hours ago, once the clock struck midnight, you might have been one of the diehard James Bond fans queuing up for the first public screenings of Skyfall here in the UAE. It's fair to say that levels of anticipation are high and, the fact that the film was directed by the man responsible for classic works such as American Beauty and Road to Perdition, means it's potentially a Bond film that can appeal to serious cinema buffs. And yes, there's an Aston Martin in it, just to keep a few of us car fanatics happy.

I can trace my fascination with cars back to July 1977, when my father took me to see The Spy Who Loved Me. As a 5-year-old, the film's plot would have escaped me but there was plenty to keep my mind entertained. I'd never before seen a digital watch and I'm pretty sure I'd never seen a metal-toothed assassin or a nuclear submarine swallowed whole by an oil tanker. But these things paled into insignificance when Roger Moore drove off the end of a jetty in a white Lotus Esprit. That split second of celluloid history sealed my fate.

The array of cars that James Bond has driven over the years has been as varied in quality as the scripts and the acting. For every corker there has been a real stinker - while the Aston Martins will always excite, the AMC Hornet, Ford Mondeo and at least two of the BMWs are probably best forgotten.

In the original novels, as most of us will know, author Ian Fleming put 007 behind the wheel of a 1930s Bentley and the only time we saw Bond using one of those was in From Russia With Love. As the films veered ever further away from the Fleming stories, so the cars and gadgets became more and more unrealistic. But we don't care about that - James Bond is about escapism, and a suspension of disbelief is an absolute requirement when enjoying this most guilty of cinematic pleasures.

Aston Martin has been trading off its Bond connection ever since the DB5 tore onto cinema screens in 1964's Goldfinger. It's become a natural association and for good reason, too, because James Bond is suave, sophisticated and brutal when necessary. Just like Aston Martin's cars both then and now.

But for me that Lotus will always be the ultimate Bond car. The Spy Who Loved Me ranks as the best Roger Moore outing and the man himself says it's his personal favourite. The film combines exotic locations, high-octane action and classic one-liners that will last forever. The shock of seeing a white Esprit morph into a rocket-firing submarine, though, is what causes me to put the DVD in and press play whenever I need cheering up. It's not simply a nostalgic trip down memory lane - it genuinely is epic cinema.

Obviously the real car could not dive into the sea, pressurise its cabin, sprout fins, tuck away its wheels, launch a missile strike on a helicopter and drop mines onto the seabed to deal with psychotic scuba divers before emerging onto a crowded beach and driving away, while Bond nonchalantly drops a dead fish onto the sand.

Instead, several miniature models were used for the underwater scenes, as well as a fully functioning submarine controlled by scuba "drivers" who were completely submerged. The car that entered the water was an empty shell that was fired from the jetty into the sea using a compressed air cannon.

While some people are disappointed to learn how certain stunts are pulled off for the silver screen, I am always fascinated by the methods used to make the impossible appear genuine. And the fact that, some 35 years after that Lotus blew my tiny mind, it still looks totally real, is truly astonishing.

James Bond's character has become more realistic in recent years - he's now a brute in a suit, a ruthless and efficient assassin. But I do yearn to see another automobile that captures my imagination the way an underpowered, underdeveloped, plastic British sports car did in the summer of '77. I'm totally prepared to suspend disbelief.