By Richard Truesdell
I'm often asked where I find the inspiration for my road trips. Can you believe that some come from favorite movies?
Over the years, cars and film have gone hand in hand like bore and stroke. Some have been big-buck, big-studio productions. Grand Prix starring James Garner and LeMans starring Steve McQueen immediately come to mind. What about lesser productions, the kind you're almost embarrassed to admit you enjoy watching? The 1964 movie The Lively Set, starring James Darren, is one such movie for me.
Darren was a teenage heartthrob from rock's infancy. He is best known as Moondoggie from the Gidget series of teen flicks, and later as Officer James Corrigan, the co-star to Star Trek-captain-turned-Priceline-pitchman William Shatner on the 1980s police drama T. J. Hooker.
So why is The Lively Set a guilty pleasure? To start with, there's the acting quality and a plausible plot--or, in this case, the almost complete absence of either. The Lively Set is the story of Casey Owens, a young ex-G.I. mechanic who has dreams of setting a world land-speed record with a turbine-powered car of his own design. While there are some similarities to the story of Craig Breedlove, in reality, The Lively Set is as much a remake of a 1954 guilty movie pleasure, Johnny Dark starring the late Tony Curtis.
You also can't help but notice the similarity to the Speed Racer cartoon show that would come three years later--right down to the prim and proper Trixie-like Eadie Manning played here by the fetchingly attractive Pamela Tiffin. The only thing missing is a chimpanzee. Instead, this movie has the late Doug McClure as Casey Owen's partner in crime.
The classic Dodge pickup roadster that Darren drove in the film has apparently survived--even though most of the 50 Chrysler Turbine Cars built in 1963 and loaned out to 203 U.S. families did not. It's even featured in a YouTube video.
What ultimately redeems The Lively Set from the fate of so many teen, beach, and car flicks of the era is that many scenes are laced with great mid-Sixties cars, hot rods, and jet-powered dragsters--and with actual race drivers at the wheel. The late Mickey Thompson and Dave MacDonald were involved in the movie's production, ensuring great action sequences.
Besides, how can a movie be truly bad when the real star is one of Chrysler's Ghia-built Turbine Cars? In The Lively Set, the Bronze 130-horsepower, T-Birdesque Turbine Car is painted white with the number five slapped on the side (another Speed Racer connection). It outruns 400-horsepower, Tri-Powered Pontiac NASCAR stockers.
Ever since the 1964 New York World's Fair where I saw my first Turbine, I've been a big fan of Chrysler's bold yet failed experiment to replace the internal combustion engine. The Lively Set showcases the car to great effect.
This Universal production was filmed in color at several locations in and around Los Angeles, including open-road, high-speed scenes through Death Valley before it was a National Park (with the cooperation of the Department of the Interior). In an age of computer-generated special-effects movies, The Lively Set is refreshingly realistic in a way that NASCAR fails to be today, with its spec racecars and robot-like drivers.
The opening scene is filmed at Pomona's famous NHRA drag strip, home of the Winternationals. It's remarkable to see just how underdeveloped the area was back in 1964. Today, suburban sprawl and big-box industrial buildings, some almost 40 years old themselves, surround the massive NHRA complex and museum. Back then, the place was the outer extreme of the Los Angeles metro area that now extends much farther east, stretching non-stop past Fontana to San Bernardino.
Rarely does The Lively Set appear on TV. When it does, it's usually broadcast on an obscure cable channel. To my knowledge, it's never been released commercially on DVD. I've long wanted a copy to enjoy in the privacy of my home theater with a big bucket of popcorn and a 64-ounce Coke. God forbid should Universal ever release it on Blu-Ray.
It is available on DVD, sort of. With a quick search of Google, I located several websites that offer unofficial versions of The Lively Set. My copy was apparently recorded off an American Movie Classics cablecast (the AMC logo appears in the lower right-hand corner). The quality is about what you would expect, as this is obviously not a major studio release.
Copyright issues notwithstanding, it's a highly enjoyable 95 minutes of car-related fluff for those like me who seem to live in the Sixties.
Digging a bit deeper on the Internet Movie Database, I looked over the user comments for this Hollywood masterpiece and was glad to see it has something of a cult following. One user comment from Dennis Stecher notes that his father George, then a Chrysler employee on the Turbine program, was the stunt driver for Darren for the production. Chrysler insisted on having one of its employees drive the car. Years later, in 2005, I would get the chance myself to drive one of the remaining Chrysler Turbine cars at the Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill... or was it?
Here's where the inspiration comes in. In the movie's climactic scene, the Turbine car participates in a Silver State Classic-style over-the-road race from Long Pine, California through Death Valley, Las Vegas, and on to the finish in St. George, Utah. Firing up Google Maps and consulting a 1964 California road map, I see that much of the route traverses many of the same roads as my Death Valley drive in Jim Bell's 650-horsepower supercharged Camaro on Page 85, at least as far as Furnace Creek.
Earlier this year, I photographed Jay Leno's 1956 Buick not long after he had purchased one of Chrysler's remaining road-worthy Turbine Cars --quite possibly the one I drove back in 2005. As we walked through his collection, I noted that he had the Chrysler Turbine parked next to the Eco Jet turbine-powered concept car he designed with GM's current V.P. of Design, Ed Welburn.
Here's a thought: Track down a 1956 Dual-Ghia, and maybe the 1963 Pontiac hardtop also in the film, and contact Jay to see if he'd be up for a road trip. During my brief conversation with him in his Big Dog Garage, I got the sneaky suspicion he just might consider such an adventure.