It’s hard to pin down anybody connected with the movie “Drive” exactly why a 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle was chosen for Ryan Gosling’s ride. But, looking at it from the perspective of today, it was probably consistent with a hard economic choice that a car-savvy protagonist with a mysterious and troubled past might have to make.
What makes a 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle special, in the automotive world? It’s not one of Chevrolet’s landmark models. It missed the Muscle Car era, and arrived just in time for a fuel crisis, 55 m.p.h. speed limits and an oil embargo. It wasn’t particularly powerful, but neither was it fuel-efficient. General Motors generally considered its cars from 1973-1977 to be an “all right” car that arrived at the wrong time. Looking at what was to come in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, it might have been Chevrolet’s Last Best Car.
Here are some things worth knowing about the ’73 Chevelle in general, and the one Mr. Gosling’s “Driver” wheeled around the mean streets of L.A.:
1. The movie car is often identified as a “Malibu”. Malibu was a Chevelle trim line that year, not a model. Besides, the movie car looks (to me) more like the similar Chevelle Laguna Colonnade Hardtop Coupe.
2. The Laguna Colonnade Coupe was a new trim pack for 1973 – and it was top of the line. If it came with options such as a 454-cubic-inch V8, a 4-speed transmission and a Super Sport package, it had an MSRP of a $3,202.
3. The 1973 model was the first year of the much-improved third (and last) generation Chevelle. The Chevelle nameplate would be phased out in 1977 – and replaced by the new Malibu model designation, which continues to this day.
4. The Super Sport, or SS, package first offered in 1961 was last offered in 1973. If the movie Chevelle had the SS package, it would have meant a reinforced chassis, beefier springs and shock absorbers, better brakes and special wheels and tires.
5. The 1973 Chevelle was the last car John Z. DeLorean had direct involvement in developing. He left G.M. in April 1973.
6. Even without the SS handling improvements, the ’73 Chevelle was one of the best-handling Chevrolet cars of its age. DeLorean had insisted upon significant upgrades before he departed. A Car and Driver magazine review at the time said the Chevelle handled so well, it went down the road “as if guided by an unseen hand.”
7. The 1973 Chevelle did not, however, make impressive amounts of power. Even its top-line 454 produced a rather anemic (by today’s standards) 245 horsepower.
8. The 1973 Chevelle was among the safest cars built to that time. Its roof was improved for greater body rigidity and rollover protection (in anticipation of a new federal standard that never became law), and it had the industry’s first 5 m.p.h. crash-resistant bumpers.
Note the broadside crash & the attributes of the 5 mph bumper.
In the movie, this was a great advantage (never specially mentioned) for Driver’s Chevelle; its bumper-bashing prowess became something of a plot point (although it’s fair to say the movie car’s bumpers got a bit of strengthening from the special effects crew!).
9. Remember how Mr. Gosling’s character had an affinity for racing? A ’73 Chevelle Laguna would have been a nostalgic favorite for a stock car racer. That body style, with its aerodynamic “fastback” roofline, would become one of the winningest cars in NASCAR history.
Indeed, many racing historians contend the Laguna was designed specifically to give Chevrolet a contender in NASCAR. Benny Parsons won the 1973 Winston Cup Championship with it; Bobby Allison and his brother Donnie, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip ruled stock car racing 1973-1977 driving Chevelles.
10. Today, even in ratty gray primer like the movie car, it might be worth three times as much. If you could find one. Despite the fact hundreds of thousands of them were sold “back in the day”, not all that many have survived. The ones that have, like the one belonging to Mr. Gosling’s Driver, are lovingly preserved and maintained.
Maybe the ’73 Chevelle was a much better choice than it originally seemed.
September 11, 2011