IN THE MAN FROM UNCLE, SOME SERIOUS MODIFICATION TURNS A 2-STROKE WARTBURG AND 2-STROKE TRABANT INTO SPEED MACHINES
“THE 2-STROKE ENGINES ARE ABOUT GOOD ENOUGH FOR A SEWING MACHINE BUT AS FAR AS CHASING SEQUENCES WERE CONCERNED THEY WERE NO GOOD AT ALL.
Cold War kitsch is on the menu in The Man from UNCLE, a new film set in the 1960s and inspired by the television show of the same name, with an opening car chase through East Berlin in which a Wartburg is tailed by a Trabant.
Yet all is not what it seems, because the “classic” Trabant and Wartburg cars used in the film are actually heavily modified for the silver screen. The film’s vehicle co-ordinator, Alex King, provided an insight into the work involved in transforming arthritic two-stroke 60s cars into all-action heroes.
King said: “The 2-stroke engines were about good enough for a sewing machine but as far as chasing sequences were concerned they were no good at all.
The modified Wartburg and Trabant cars pack a serious punch.
“We literally pulled the body off, threw away the chassis on the Wartburg and built a new one. We mounted Volvo 380 engines, rear-drive, which are commonly used for drifting. So that’s what ended up happening — backs out, rear-wheel drive.
“We ended up with several ‘hero’ Wartburgs to produce that chase. We fitted power steering, hydraulic handbrakes, different braking systems, sports suspension, and coil-over springs. It became very much a track car and incomparable to the original Wartburg that we started with.
“We had to modify the engines with the Trabants as well. We used 1.4-litre VW Polo engines, so it ended up a front-wheel-drive vehicle.
“To get the vehicles drifting, we also ended up building two rear-drive Trabants with Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engines, and they were pretty much like bullets. They were ridiculously fast.”
It sounds like a recipe for disaster, so how many cars did they wreck during filming?
“On other films we can wreck from anywhere between one to 200 cars. But with this opening chase sequence it was like a ballet. They were both very capable drivers. It was all near misses and a very close and exciting car chase, but there was no smashing up. The Trabant’s journey ends as it drives up a pile of concrete rubble and rips the axle off, then the tyres get shot out on the Wartburg.
“The special effects team built a front-driving rig on the Trabant, which is basically a cage where a man sits and then they have hydraulic links to the throttle, brakes, gear-change and steering, so you drive the vehicle from the front. That leaves the inside clear so they can put actors in the driving seat or they can put the cameraman in the driving seat looking backwards. You can do pretty much anything you want to in the car.
Agents Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin are forced to join forces.
The normal-looking Trabant and Wartburg were at the recent Festival of Speed because the Goodwood circuit was used during shooting of the film.
“We had to source lots of 1960s track cars at Goodwood for the race-track scenes. We started by having a load of Lotus sports cars, which are iconic from the time, but they are old and they are particularly loud. So we had to explore other options. We sourced a range of 1960s cars, different types of race cars that we could have on the track.”
And the plot for The Man from UNCLE, which opens in New Zealand tomorrow? I don’t want to give anything away, but CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin are forced to put aside long-standing hostilities to stop an international criminal organisation from destabilising the fragile balance of power at the height of the Cold War. Simple, compared with the modifications required to make old cars perform new tricks.