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Behind the Scenes With Some Amazing Movie Cars

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author photo by Sam Keller May 2017

If you've ever seen "The Americans," "Boardwalk Empire," "Law & Order SVU" -- or even the latest Coach advertisement -- then you've seen a Lost Soul Film Car. I recently met up with David Cohen, a partner in Lost Soul Film Cars, a business that has rented cars to the film, TV and advertising industries for the past 20 years. We met up on one of Lost Soul's lots in Northern New Jersey and walked through rows of vintage police cars, taxis and other vehicles dating from the 1960s through now.

Although there were a lot of cars, they weren't exactly what I was expecting. The night before my visit, I had foolishly fantasized about seeing the Batmobile and maybe even sitting in it! Instead, the cars in front of me were not what you would call hero cars -- but cars that would convincingly date a shoot to a different automotive era. These were fully equipped police cars and period-correct taxis, ambulances and other interesting vehicles such as a bomb squad truck, a fully functioning news van, or a 1970s station wagon that any family from that era would own.

Lost Soul's main business is renting from hundreds of vehicles they own -- but it also comes from a database of over 1,000 privately owned vehicles they lease for production. Additionally, Lost Soul will locate and purchase specific vehicles on request. The recent Netflix show "The Get Down" asked for an old 1970s limo they could completely redesign -- so Mr. Cohen offered them an extremely beat-up 1978 Cadillac Fleetwood Limo that had been vandalized but still ran, and told them that they could have it. Netflix then had the limo highly customized at a nearby shop (and you can see its transformation here). In addition to sourcing the limousine, he provided many other vehicles to the show.

Interestingly, the problems that Lost Soul has with their cars are entirely different than yours or mine. Wear-and-tear issues are less important than problems associated with sitting vehicles -- such as a dead batteries, bad hoses and tire rot. In the fast-paced world of film-and-television production, delays on a shoot can become costly, and a straightforward workday can quickly become complicated if a vehicle presents a problem. Lost Soul is also frequently tasked with tracking identical vehicles: By using multiple vehicles, different scenes can be shot simultaneously, saving precious dollars in a traditionally tight-budgeted industry.

Another interesting tidbit: Nearly all of Lost Soul's vehicles are equipped with automatic transmissions. Mr. Cohen explained to me that actors will lie that they can drive a stick because they desperately want the part. Imagine an actor in a manual car repeating that they've got this while blankly staring at three pedals and grinding gears.

Many of the cars Lost Soul provides serve merely to set the scene for a period piece. The same 1970s sedan or taxi is often seen several times in the background of a single scene. They aren't supposed to distract from the actors, and they're often unnoticed -- but necessary. Mr. Cohen cleverly proved this by asking me if I knew what car Tom Selleck drove in Magnum P.I. The obvious answer is a Ferrari 308 GTS with a license plate reading "ROBIN 1." "How about ROBIN 2?" he then asked. I had no idea. The correct answer is an Audi 5000, and kudos to anyone who remembers this. Mr. Cohen's point is that a viewer only pays attention to the star -- and everything else merely needs to look the part and act the part, but not more.

Mr. Cohen is a charismatic gearhead and film fan who has worked with an impressive list of actors and directors over past 20 years. He got into the business years ago when he was contacted about bringing his car, a 1975 Cadillac convertible, for a shoot. He did, and hung out at the set -- and afterward, he was handed a impressive stack of cash. Realizing that easier money was never had, he never looked back, and has since turned his passion for cars into his livelihood. The next time you're watching a movie or show set in a different era, pay close attention to the cars: Now you know where they probably came from.

Movie Cars

Sam Keller is a visual artist from Brooklyn. He runs the Instagram account @hamptonwhipz, capturing classic cars in the Hamptons, New York City, and anywhere else his travels take him.

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Behind the Scenes With Some Amazing Movie Cars - Autotrader