One of the key scenes in director John G. Avildsen’s Rocky is also a groundbreaking chapter in movie history. Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) street jogging/training “Gonna Fly Now” montage — which includes his famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum — utilized the new technology called Steadicam.
This innovation showed Hollywood that the camera operator’s movement could now be isolated from the scene and provide a smooth, stable motion on film. At the time, this feat was astounding; the shot would be money even if the road was, well, rocky.
Our documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, includes a behind-the-scenes look at the original Rocky, including the making of this iconic scene and use of the then-new technology. In addition to the original Rocky, Avildsen directed all three Karate Kid films, as well as Save The Tiger and Joe. His gift for underdog stories inspired millions of filmgoers and influenced popular culture for decades (yet Avildsen is barely a household name). He received a Best Director Oscar for his work in Rocky (it also won the award for best film editing). In all, Avildsen directed seven actors to Academy Award nominations.
Although Rocky wasn’t the first film to use this technology, it was an early adapter. The “Gonna Fly Now” scene is one of the most beautiful and iconic uses — and best examples — of the Steadicam. Before Rocky, it was first recognized in the Hal Ashby film Bound for Glory (1976), which received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Fun fact: the cam was actually first used in the Manhattan chase scenes in Marathon Man (1976), which was released two months before Bound For Glory. Rocky was also released before Bound for Glory.
By 1980, the Steadicam was becoming a further force of innovation — in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it was used in “low mode,” barely above the floor, which opened up the possibilities of creative angles and more dynamic storytelling. Later, in Return of the Jedi, the Steadicam travels through a Redwood forest at one frame per second, to achieve the real feel of a high-speed chase.
Before the Steadicam, establishing a seemingly simple shot like this was nearly impossible. The closest the director could usually get was mounting the camera on a dolly that would roll on tracks or leveled boards. This often proved time-consuming, clumsy, and impractical. Another typical “solution” would require the camera operator to hold the camera by hand, but even the most skilled professional couldn’t eliminate the bouncy effects of hand shaking and foot stepping.
Of course, the hand-held-camera technique would later prove provocative for documentaries, reality television and music videos, but in most cases, a dramatic scene in a film calls for a sense of steady as she goes.
For Rocky, the Steadicam was operated by its inventor (and Philadelphia native), Garrett Brown. He worked on the technology until it proved the ability to tilt, pan, and evenly distribute weight on whom it was harnessed. To show it off, he and his friends made a reel of “30 impossible shots” that could never be pulled off successfully without the Steadicam. Scenes included running in a field, jumping over a three-foot ledge, and running alongside a pool while following a swimmer.
“The astonishing, and lucky thing, about this little invention was you could show someone the effect and not show them the cause. You could show them the impossible shot and they would have no clue whatsoever how you did it,” Brown said.
One additional idea Brown had: filming his wife running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. This caught the eye of Avildsen, who asked, “Where are those steps? How did you do that?”
The rest, of course is history.
The early Steadicam was not all smooth sailing; it did present some challenges. From an operator’s commentary from The Steadicam Letter (March 1989), Brown said, “My only problem was keeping the camera running in the cold. The two CP batteries weren’t strong enough, particularly after a dent in the center-post started rubbing against the internal motor shaft. We made the well-known Art-Museum-Steps shots with [Ralf Bode, director of photography] running along beside me carrying two automobile batteries to jump-start the Arri [camera]!”
The Steadicam also captured Stallone running through South Philadelphia’s Italian Market and alongside the antique sailing vessel, the Moshulu. That ship shot was recorded from a van, the first-ever Steadicam captured from a moving vehicle.
In 1978, Garrett Brown won an Academy Award of Merit for the invention and the development of the Steadicam, but he didn’t stop there. In 1979, he invented the SkyCam, which flies over and shoots stadium sporting events. In 2006, it won him a scientific and engineering award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In 2009, he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2013.
Brown also invented the DiveCam (following Olympic divers) and the MobyCam (an underwater camera which follows Olympic swimmers). In all, he holds 50 camera device patents worldwide.
Of course, in the 21st century, the Steadicam is a non-negotiable given. New generations of camera stabilizing systems have since evolved, creating new possibilities in the digital age. It’s was Rocky’s run, though, that showed the world how the Steadicam could fly now.
Cick here to devour John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.
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Most people know it as the “Theme From Rocky,” but the official title of the original Rocky soundtrack title song is called “Gonna Fly Now.”
It was scored by Bill Conti, with lyrics (only 30 words long!) by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins. The vocals were performed by DeEtta West and Nelson Pigford, in a recording that lasts a mere 2:48. However, those few minutes are crucial to pop culture: it accompanied Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and is forever associated with underdogs who are fighting their way toward a goal, often accompanied by a montage noting their progress.
Our documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, includes a behind-the-scenes look at the original Rocky, including how its underdog theme was captured in music.In addition to the original Rocky, Avildsen directed all three Karate Kid films, as well as Save The Tiger and Joe. His gift for underdog stories inspired millions of filmgoers and influenced popular culture for decades (yet Avildsen is barely a household name). He received a Best Director Oscar for his work in Rocky; in all, he directed seven actors to Academy Award nominations.
“Gonna Fly Now” was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1977, for Best Original Song (it lost to Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen,” from A Star Is Born). However, United Artists released it as a single. Like an underdog, it fought its way to the #1 position on the Billboard pop chart after 20 weeks, on July 2, 1977. The magazine ranked it as the 21st most popular song of the year, exceeding over one million copies in record sales.
That same year, the song was also interpreted by jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. That version spent 13 weeks on the Billboard charts, reaching as high as #28. “Gonna Fly Now” was also given the inevitable disco treatment — Rhythm Heritage, a hitmaking instrumental group that also disco-fied the TV themes from S.W.A.T. and Baretta, took its version of “Gonna Fly Now” to Billboard‘s Hot 100 (#94). The American Film Institute included the theme in its 100 Years…100 Songs list (#58).
The song lived on far past 1977. It was reincarnated in different forms in future Rocky films, including Rocky II (1979), which featured a children’s chorus, and Rocky V (1990), in which two different versions of the original song were played. Rocky Baboa (2006) brought back the theme yet again, with additional brass as well as a vocal remix. Creed (2015) sampled the first few notes of the song during the film’s final fight scene.
Composer Bill Conti attended Julliard, but his big break came in 1976, when he composed the Rocky theme. Director John G. Avildsen wanted noble, fairy-tale, no-nonsense music for his fighting underdog. The song, which earned Conti an Oscar nomination, also cinched him the job as musical director of the that Academy Awards program (he has held this position 18 times since then, more than anybody else). Avildsen asked him to compose the music for another of his underdog movies, The Karate Kid (1984).
The success of the “Theme From Rocky” brought Conti into the spotlight as a go-to composer for film and TV. He scored the music for the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981). During the rest of that decade, he created classic TV themes for Dynasty, Falcon Crest, American Gladiators and Cagney & Lacey, among others.
Cick here to devour John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.
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A reason to live: a 21st century update on one of director John G. Avildsen’s most famous underdogs. YouTube Red will present Cobra Kai, a ten-episode sequel to the original 1984 film, The Karate Kid.
The Hollywood Reporter exclusively broke the news of the straight-to-series sequel, with stars Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) and William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) reprising their original roles. The two sat for a press conference after making a surprise appearance at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. The actors remained friends during the thirty years that had passed since the original film (which included three successful sequels and a 2010 reboot). Entertainment Weekly called the original Karate Kid one of the 50 best high school films of all time (#40).
Our documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, includes a behind-the-scenes look at the original Karate Kid, and how its underdog theme forever connected with audiences.
In addition to all three original Karate Kid movies, John G. Avildsen’s films include the original Rocky, as well as Save The Tiger and Joe. His gift for underdog stories inspired millions of filmgoers and influenced popular culture for decades (yet Avildsen is barely a household name). He received a Best Director Oscar for his work in Rocky; in all, he directed seven actors to Academy Award nominations. This includes The Karate Kid‘s Pat Morita, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for his role as teacher Mr. Miyagi.
The story takes place three decades after the original All Valley Karate Tournament. A down-and-out Lawrence seeks redemption by reopening the Cobra Kai karate dojo, which reignites a rivalry with LaRusso.
The series is written and produced by Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine) along with Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold and Kumar).
Here is their recently issued statement: “Like everyone who grew up in the 1980s, the three of us are enormous fans of The Karate Kid. Cobra Kai will be a true continuation of the original films — packed with comedy, heart and thrilling fight scenes. We can’t wait to reignite the LaRusso-Lawrence rivalry, and we’re thankful to our partners at YouTube Red, Sony Pictures Television and Overbrook for their shared enthusiasm in making our dream project a reality.”
Macchio zeroed in on the underdog theme of his character, telling The Hollywood Reporter: “[Daniel has] become very successful and maybe has lost a little bit of touch — he needs to have flaws, and he had flaws as a kid and he will have them as an adult. His heart is always in the right place. As I’ve done at 50-something years old, there comes a time where part of your life creates some challenges: raising teenagers, trying to handle your successful business and having your nemesis come back 30 years later [that] keep you up at night just because of the importance of carrying on the Miyagi legacy. Then how Daniel’s wife will embrace or not embrace this new chapter of him now going back to the dojo. I’m looking forward to that evolution.”
Zabka’s character, Johnny Lawrence, is usually depicted as the bad guy, but in this series he will have an underdog story of his own. He tells The Hollywood Reporter: “Through this show, you get to see who he was and where he came from. I never saw Johnny as a bad guy; I always saw him as the antagonist but at his core, he had a good heart. At the beginning of the first movie, he said he had one year to make it all work and that’s what he wanted to do. He was an ex-degenerate. Then LaRusso comes in town and turns his world upside down. At the very end, he hands him a trophy and says, ‘You’re all right, LaRusso.’ He has a good heart and they tap into that in the show. You’re going to empathize with him. He’s still tough and rough around the edges, but it’s a really smart and fun take on it and I think it’ll be really entertaining.”
The ten half-hour episodes are set to stream in 2018.
Click here to find out more about our documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.
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Rocky reveals this back story to Adrian on their first date, at a vacant ice-skating rink: “Yeah – My ol’ man, who was never the sharpest, told me – I weren’t born with much brain, so I better use my body.” This small detail starts the underdog engine of the first Rocky flick, directed by John G. Avildsen.
Our documentary, John G. Avildsen, King of the Underdogs, examines Avildsen’s astounding (yet widely unknown) directing career and his expert handling of the underdog story — a genre much more difficult to convey than outwardly seems.
The commonly understood meaning of “underdog” is a person or fictional character who is expected to lose, but wins (think Cinderella, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Seinfeld greenlit for a second season, and the 1969 New York Mets). Avildsen understood underdogs, which means he knew how to interpret Sylvester Stallone’s script. The combined power of Stallone and Avildsen energized the underdog story: Rocky was plucked from obscurity to fight World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed; Rocky knew he didn’t stand a chance, but his plan was to remain standing when the final bell was rung — an admirable but near-impossible goal. This is essentially and symbolically every underdog’s story: remain standing at the end. Survive. Says Apollo’s trainer: “He doesn’t know it’s supposed to be a show. He thinks it’s a damn fight!” Had Rocky beat Creed, the story would not feel as genuine.
Avildsen, an underdog himself in Hollywood, inspired millions of fans to realize their own potential to go fifteen rounds and remain standing. The film itself is an underdog story, initially dismissed as a hokey B-movie most suitable for a drive-in; it ultimately earned 1976 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Avildsen himself. He went on to direct all three Karate Kid movies, all of them successful.
The average moviegoer may easily recognize director names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, but Avildsen — despite his film legacy — remains a head scratcher (our documentary hopes to change that).
In a cinematic case of a rising tide lifting all boats, Rocky Balboa’s underdog story causes a chain reaction that affects those around him.
Mickey Goldmill: this calorie-burning performance by veteran actor Burgess Meredith earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, as well as a forever place in pop culture. Mickey, the manager of Rocky’s gym and a crusty father figure, vocally expresses his disappointment in Rocky falling short of his potential. This sparks Mickey’s own underdog story, whereas Rocky hires him as his trainer for the Big Fight. Mickey, at age 76, sees this as his last-ditch grab at greatness, and as a one-time chance to reverse the neglect that caused Rocky’s career to suffer. As the film progresses, with the help of Bill Conti’s goosebump musical score, the energy changes from negative to positive for both Rocky and Mickey.
Mickey himself had a lackluster boxing career before he opened a gym. He laments that he never had a manager, something that he claims Rocky needs in order to fulfill his potential. Mickey finds the courage to ask Rocky for the chance, but the job request is not easily granted, due to past resentments. In the end, though, amends are made; Mickey becomes Rocky’s manager, completing the circle of life. Score one for the underdog.
Adrian Penino: Talia Shire’s underrated performance takes the “ugly duckling to beautiful swan” underdog story beyond cliché. Adrian works in a neighborhood pet store, frequented by Rocky. She’s introverted, cerebral, insecure, and stifled by her tyrannical brother Paulie. Her underdog credentials are impeccable: her late mother told her that she wasn’t pretty and that she should develop her mind, her brother/roommate orders her around like a slave, her boss at the pet shop treats her shabbily, and she has a hard time making eye contact with customers. Rocky’s romantic interest in her unlocks her own potential and confidence. Rocky and Adrian make quite a surprising match; the match is lit for her eventual fashion makeover and, even more importantly, her newfound independence. Her finally standing up to her maniacal brother is one of the most powerful scenes in the film; it shows the power of the underdog when the rage is unleashed and handed back (later, Rocky will demonstrate this in the ring). It’s then when Adrian finally finds her voice and her power, and it’s loud and strong and clear and articulate. Another reason to cheer. Rocky’s greeting, “Yo, Adrian,” has become a pop culture catchphrase, and Shire’s performance earned her a Best Actress nomination.
Cuff and Link: Rocky’s pets are not underdogs but turtles, yet they bring a strong underdog symbolism to the story. Rocky, Mickey and Adrian are like turtles; they’re small and somewhat helpless, withdrawing into their hard, rough shells. Love and care are what bring them out, and keep them alive. Astounding trivia fact: Cuff and Link, who are both female and known technically as red-eared sliders, survived another 30 years to make a second appearance in the movie sequel Rocky Balboa in 2006.
One of the best rewards of a well-told underdog story like this one: giving yourself permission to cheer. Out loud. And maybe even doing so while rising up (both physically and spiritually). Theater audiences have done this at Rocky screenings for decades, but don’t deny yourself this pleasure if you’re screening this joint on a digital-age device. Allow yourself to give three cheers for Rocky, Mickey and Adrian.
Cick here to devour John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.
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Upon the June 16th death of director John G. Avildsen, 81, The Director’s Guild released this statement:
“We were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of beloved director John Avildsen. His iconic ‘Rocky,’ which won the DGA Feature Film Award in 1976, has been lionized throughout our culture as the quintessential underdog story – a recurring theme in his notable body of work which included ‘Save the Tiger’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ franchise. Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans.”
Chassy has paid tribute to this iconic director with King of the Underdogs, a biographical documentary about the man and his deceptively simple vision.
Avildsen was attracted to underdog stories. In his career, he directed seven actors toward Academy Award nominations and earned his own Oscar for Best Director.
The documentary features never-before-seen interviews with Martin Scorsese, Burt Reynolds, Jerry Weintraub, Ralph Macchio, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, and Sylvester Stallone, among others.
Avildsen’s work on Rocky made Sylvester Stallone a star — and captured the attention of the world in 1976. The film’s underdog story took a strange turn toward reality when — at the 49th Annual Academy Awards — it stunningly beat out such heavyweight contenders as Network, All The President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory as the year’s best film.
Avildsen’s win as Best Director that night was no small feat — his intense competition included Ingmar Bergman (Face To Face), Sidney Lumet (Network), Alan J. Pakula (All The President’s Men), and Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties).
Stallone issued a statement shortly after Avildsen’s death: “I owe just about everything to John Avildsen. His directing, his passion, his toughness and his heart — a great heart — is what made ‘Rocky’ the film it became. He changed my life and I will be forever indebted to him. Nobody could have done it better than my friend John Avildsen. I will miss him.”
The original Rocky was an underdog story both on and off the screen — the project nearly missed seeing the light of day. Avildsen was reluctant to take on the project, as he told The Baltimore Sun:
”When this script came to me from an old friend … I said I had no interest in boxing, I think boxing’s sort of a dumb thing. He pleaded and pleaded, so I finally read the thing. And on the second or third page, [Rocky is] talking to his turtles, Cuff and Link. I was charmed by it, and I thought it was an excellent character study and a beautiful love story. And I said yes.”
At the time, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that the film deserved to “make movie history.” It went on to be nominated for 10 Oscars (as mentioned, winning Best Picture and Best Director), and spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises.
His other successful film franchise, The Karate Kid, starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Its underdog story is often compared to Rocky (Alvildsen once called it “The Kar-Rocky Kid”). The first film was produced in 1984, spawning three successful sequels and a remake in 2010. Entertainment Weekly called the first film one of the top 50 best high school films of all time (#40).
John Guilbert Avildsen was born on Dec. 21, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois. He attended New York University and then assisted both Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger. His first film project on his own, Joe, about a racist factory work (played by Peter Boyle), was a critical and box office success. His next film, Save The Tiger, was also a commercial and critical hit, and earned Jack Lemon an Oscar for Best Actor.
Not all of Avildsen’s films were successful, which contributes to his own underdog story. The Formula (1980), starring Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, was a notable failure, as was Neighbors (1981), with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. However, his use of charming characters, somewhat familiar storylines and sense of simple but universal truths have consistently proven his celluloid magic touch.
“I don’t go out of my way looking for underdog stories,” he had said, “but if they’re good, I respond to them.”
Click here to preorder King of the Underdogs.
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As shown in our documentary The Bug, Volkswagen was super serious about its American print and TV marketing (although it never took itself seriously in the ads). In its first year in the States, VW sold exactly two cars (check out the entire VW history timeline here). By the time these ingenious commercials became part of the pop culture landscape in the 1960s, The Bug was a superstar.
Like the car itself, VW commercials were odd, funny-looking, raw, but dependable. During program breaks, viewers didn’t head to the bathroom — they stayed and watched, and sales (and bladders) exploded. These weren’t just commercials — they were events. People talked about them. Journalists wrote about them. And VW dealers watched the amounts roll in.
Check out the best of them here. They’re some of the most powerfully effective TV commercials you will ever see (if you’re even still watching TV commercials).
This joint was filmed in 1970, and shows that, of all the cars at the 1949 Auto Show, the lonely Volkswagen was the only one that kept its promise (even though nobody was listening). Yep, that’s McLean Stevenson selling Packards.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2jJeEnHbtA&w=560&h=315]
Shortly before he was seduced by Mrs. Robinson, Dustin Hoffman was seducing America with a bigger Bug — awesomely called the Fastback Sedan. This ad was an honest answer to those consumers who thought the VW was not roomy enough. Dusty’s in super-sales mode here, but it’s low-pressure and non-threatening. That’s what makes it so convincing. He’s about to show us where the engine is stored, but only your VW dealer knows for sure. This clever cliffhanger got people rushing into VW showrooms to learn the answer.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGdf9ea2olQ&w=560&h=315]
By 1971, America was primed for dark humor. The New Hollywood was already producing films like Bonnie & Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, but TV was playing catch up. All in the Family would debut in January of that year (and M*A*S*H soon after), sounding the toilet flush for a type of TV humor that didn’t mind offending and didn’t care if you were. As usual, Volkswagen was just a few car lengths ahead of the curve, as seen in this darkly funny ad that shows sweet revenge from the Other World.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqcCqjrJ9HE&w=560&h=315]
Just in time for America’s bigger-is-better obsession with shiny objects, conspicuous consumption, and overloaded chome, Volkswagen (which is none of these things), quietly, humbly shows how you can reallocate funds by being a nonconformist.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tHwQK4VQMc]
Volkswagen never cared how its Bug looked; it cared how it worked. And this commercial shows you just that, with a ballsy and no-nonsense demonstration of what makes the VW so alpha. Very few other auto manufacturers would try this shit at home.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB9rK8UR0vk&w=560&h=315]
Your Bug is a wonderland. Here’s early-career John Mayer (2006), making music with the New Beetle, showing that the VW can still rock, in case you had your doubts. In fact, the idea here is to turn your Bug into an actual musical instrument.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jLSUSqH55Q&w=560&h=315]
Just by watching our doc, Winning, you can get a real sense of Paul Newman’s sense of style and love of competition. That spirit lives on as his beloved Daytona watch goes up for auction later this year. The sale may result in the item being classified as the world’s most expensive Rolex watch.
On October 26th, the iconic piece will head to the Phillips’ New York Watch Auction: WINNING ICONS — Legendary Watches of the 20th Century.
Paul’s in classy company: other legendary watches on the block include those owned by Jackie Onassis, Bob Hope and even Al Capone.
This Newman Daytona was owned by Paul himself, but is actually part of an entire line of high-quality Daytona watches. It’s currently appraised at $1 million, but may generate enough excitement to demand an auction price as high as $5 million.
Celebrity-owned watches are always an exciting part of any world-class auction. However, this watch has special significance: it was never sold publicly before, and the piece Newman owned earned the mythic nickname, the Paul Newman Daytona.
Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, gave him this Daytona as a gift when he began auto racing in 1972. Her inscription on the back: “Drive Carefully Me.”
In helping us understand the aesthetic meaning and beauty of the watch, the online magazine dedicated to high-quality watches, Hodinkee, says:
The Paul Newman is so desirable for so many reasons, one of which is the undeniable fact that the thing is just downright gorgeous. The playfulness of the dial is so beautiful, so very un-Rolex. On the wrist, a Paul Newman is hard to match. And, because it’s so well known, they are about as liquid as any watch in the world, even at the astronomical prices that we see now.
The post also goes on to say that there is no technical difference between a Paul Newman Daytona and a basic Daytona beyond the type of dial it features. As well, there are more fake Paul Newman dials in circulation than there are real ones, so care must be taken — and expert advice sought — when purchasing.
Here’s how to tell the real thing:
Original name: Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oyster
Reference numbers: 6239, 6241, 6262, 6263, 6264, or 6265. (6239 is the one that Newman owned.)
Color combos: there are only four of them. A “panda” dial with black background and white chronograph totalizer subdials; an inverse panda with white background and black chronograph totalizers; an inverse panda with cream-colored background and black chronograph totalizers; anthracite-colored background with white chronograph totalizers.
“Exotic” dial: a red scale which circles the perimeter of the dial.
Proceeds from the sale will go to the Nell Newman Foundation (Nell is Newman’s daughter). The foundation awards grants in ten core program areas: environment, education, arts & culture, spiritual, scientific, human services, emergency relief, animal welfare, and international affairs.
Click here to check out Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. You’ll then truly understand what puts Paul Newman in the driver’s seat.
By 1960, the Big Three American automakers — GM, Ford and Chrysler — were on top of the world, responsible for nearly 100% of car sales in the United States and almost half of all sales abroad. Gasoline averaged 31 cents per gallon, and a typical car price hovered around $2800. The American product was unanimously big, strong, and flashy, with gleaming (but needless) chrome and ever-growing tail fins. The advertising and marketing was loud, patronizing, and in some aspects, false. That didn’t stop sales from going supernova in this feel-good postwar society that prized materialism and conspicuous consumption.
Of course, the times were a-changin’. As shown in the Chassy documentary, The Bug, Germany’s little miracle, the Volkswagen Beetle (nicknamed The Bug), was so odd and so much of a square peg that it was practically ignored in America at first. However, housewives needing second cars and the coming-of-age Baby Boomers began to catch up with it, understand it, project its own individuality onto it. Heads were turning toward economy, durability and uniqueness. Smaller foreign cars were just beginning to crack the market. The Bug took time to gain traction, but once it did, it gave the Big Three a run for its money.
Aside from the growing popularity of the Beetle, the American Motors Corporation’s Rambler also beat the Big Three to the economy-car punch, with an evolved version of its quirkly Rambler American. It was originally a two-door sedan with a very select customer base, but a four-door was introduced in 1959 and became an immediate bestseller in the new American suburbs. Ramblers were powered by a 170 cubic-inch flathead six or a 259 cubic-inch V8. Not too shabby.
To the American auto industry, the VW Beetle was initially a curious blip, but the raging success of the Rambler was a frightening wakeup call. When the Big Three hopped on the smaller-car bandwagon in 1960, that was the beginning of the end for Rambler. It would only live until 1969.
By the 1970s, the quality and economy of Japanese imports like the Toyota, the Datsan and the Honda would even threaten the existence of the Bug. Yet the road to intense competition began with the Big Three in 1960, with these offerings:
The Chevrolet Corvair
In 1960, Motor Trend magazine called Corvair the “Car of the Year,” but little did it know that it would soon become notorious. Its most noticeable feature was its aluminum, air-cooled rear engine (an obvious immitation of the Volkswagen VW). The problem: rear weight and swing axles (and a lack of a roll bar). This made the Corvair very tricky at handling, especially on sharp turns. Ralph Nader wrote all about it in his 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed, which detailed the many dangers the American car industry ignored in its products. The book caused a sensation, and helped lead to government legislation of the industry and enforced safety standards.
The Ford Falcon
Despite barely having a personality to its name, the Falcon was a hit from the start, selling almost half a million units in its introduction year of 1960. It was powered by an inline 6-cylinder engine, delivering up to 25 miles per gallon. The two-door coupe was its biggest seller, but it was also available as a four-door sedan, a station wagon an even as a Ranchero pickup.
The Mercury Comet
The Comet was a bastardization of Ford models like the Edsel, which had died a sad death in 1960. The Comet survived the Edsel as a standalone (it was sold only through Mercury dealers, in order to shake off the demon). From then on, the Comet aped the Ford Falcon (it was sometimes thought of as “the rounder Falcon”). The car continued to suffer an identity crisis as the decade rolled on — the Comets became wider, longer, less compact-looking. The hazily defined line ended in 1969, but was rebirthed in the ’70s as a Mercury version of the Ford Maverick.
The Plymouth Valiant
The innovative idea of design styling wizard Virgil Exner is what gave the Valiant its above-average flair — it didn’t look small, but it did look sporty, and it purposely lacked excessive tailfins. It simply appeared to be modern. It offered more legroom than the Corvair or the Falcon. As a result, it cost slightly more, but America lined up for it. Chrysler-Plymouth took the Valiant seriously: it was its first new six-cylinder offering since the war, powered by a slant-six engine. It had been developed and tested for years (with the help of early computers). In the end, the Valiant was more about the brain than the body: as Valiants aged, they rusted like crazy.
Click here to discover the Volkswagen Beetle’s David vs. Goliath story, and how it aimed its slingshot at the Big Three.