Americans still love their cars

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We’re being squeezed at the gasoline pumps, and we hate it.

But does this have to mean Americans’ long love affair with autos is on the skids?

Don’t worry, Oscar-winning director John Lasseter said recently. “Americans still love cars,” he declared.

Indeed, if Lasseter has his way, Americans are finding themselves looking at cars with new appreciation and nostalgia. That’s “cars” in general and “Cars” with a capital “C” – the new movie from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios.

Now appearing in theaters, the film is a comedy adventure set in an unusual world where there are no people, only vehicles. And these vehicles are alive, with memorable, even touching, personalities. For example, the main character, Lightning McQueen, is an immature rookie race car that finds the true meaning of friendship and family in a small town on America’s Route 66.

The 49-year-old Lasseter, who was behind such blockbuster films as “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo,” created the much-anticipated “Cars” only after getting a rare peek inside the world of automakers.

“I can’t think of a better PR ambassador for the auto industry (than this film),” said Leonard Maltin, the veteran movie critic who appears on TV’s “Entertainment Tonight.”

“This whole movie is about a time when people loved their cars, they loved motoring,” Maltin said. “This movie is a hymn to that time and maybe will inspire young people.”

Real cars inspire animated autos

Lasseter, a car buff and racing fan, drew heavily from what he learned from automakers. Asking Ford Motor Co. for help in his early automotive research in 2000, Lasseter struck up a friendship with design chief J Mays, who brought him into Ford’s design and decision-making process. The two men went to auto shows together and, over the years, Mays visited Lasseter’s Pixar facilities in Emeryville, Calif., to see how the film was moving along.

“The relationship with Ford has been very special; the two (men) completed each other,” said Darla Anderson, producer of “Cars.” “John and J talked about how behind each car is a story.”

Thus, in the film’s final version, a vintage Ford product – a 1949 Mercury police cruiser – is the town sheriff. Paul Newman provides the voice for the police car.

Meanwhile, Lasseter’s team had decided from the beginning that a German-made Porsche would be in the film. So Howard Buck from Studio Services of Van Nuys, Calif., also visited with Pixar several times. Buck handles movie product placement for Porsche. Lasseter eventually settled on a blue 2002 Porsche 911 to be the main female character – Sally Carrera, who is Lightning McQueen’s friend and romantic interest.

Actress Bonnie Hunt was excited to be tapped as Sally’s voice, Buck said. Speaking to the press at a red carpet Hollywood event before the movie was completed, Hunt joked that, by being the Porsche’s voice, “I finally have a sexy body (on screen).”

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Evolution of design, story line

Lasseter, whose father was a parts department manager at a Chevrolet dealership in California years ago, and his team also visited General Motors Corp. in the early 2000s. Steve Tihanyi, general director of marketing alliances at GM, said Lasseter met with GM designers and, while visiting the GM Design Center, was among the very first people to see the new-design Chevy Corvette.

Lasseter “showed up wearing a Corvette shirt, and he’s into the whole scene,” Tihanyi said. “We brought him into our inner sanctum.”

But the movie’s story line kept evolving.

“Back then, there was a reason we showed them the (new) Corvette,” Tihanyi said. “… The story line originally was much different from what they wound up with. It changed pretty significantly.”

He declined to provide details, but Pixar producer Anderson confirmed that the story “changed a lot” as the movie developed.

Still, there are several GM vehicles – new and old – in the movie.

For example, the character Ramone, a car customizer in the movie’s small town of Radiator Springs, is a 1959 Chevy Impala low rider.

Tex, a big-time race car sponsor in the film, is a 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

A green, modern-day Hummer pops up now and then, and Tihanyi said that Mater, a beat-up tow truck that’s a main character in the movie, is based on a 1950s Chevrolet pickup.

“You can’t have a Route 66, car-based, NASCAR-type movie without General Motors being reflected in it,” Tihanyi said.

But GM wasn’t interested in an early Lasseter idea that would have portrayed an old-model Chevrolet stock car as a movie villain, Tihanyi said.

Indeed, the ruthless Chick Hicks character in “Cars” is a generic Pixar design – roughly “a stock 1980s American car” and not an identifiable make and model of car, according to Pixar publicity coordinator Amanda Sorena.

No one can readily identify Lightning McQueen, either.

“It’s a Pixar design (not any one single car model),” Sorena confirmed.

Asked why, she replied: “I think they wanted to make him “the best”‘ and thus not peg him to any one model.

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