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How Do Period Films Acquire Classic Cars for Historic Movie Sets?

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Still from the 1973 movie American Graffiti showing Suzanne Somers in a 1956 Ford Thunderbird Classic Cars for Historic Movies

1956 Ford Thunderbird in American Graffiti
Photo: Universal Pictures

Have you ever noticed the abundance of vintage vehicles lining city streets in period films set in the early 20th century? Surrounding the movie characters — be they a 1950s family or 1920s mobsters — are dozens of pristine cars from that time period. Classic cars are an essential set dressing in historic films needed to give the setting authenticity. It’s not Hollywood magic that does the job: There are secrets behind how studios acquire classic cars for historic movie sets.

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Where do production crews obtain classic cars for historic movies?

To sell the realism of a historic cinematic setting, production companies and set crews need dozens of accurate-looking, like-new vehicles to populate their movie. They have multiple ways in which to do so:

  • Companies exist that amass stockpiles of cars from various decades that can be rented by studios for use in movies. Companies like Cinema Vehicles, America’s largest cinema vehicle services company, supply studios with picture-read cars for stories of any time period.
  • Other companies exist that connect production studios with classic car owners and collectors. Businesses like Laurel’s Motion Picture Car Locators act as agents for car owners, cultivating a library of contacts and their available items. When studios ask for certain models or years for movie sets, these businesses draw from their contacts to have collectors drive their beauties across the screen.
  • Some production studios are big enough to have their own internal department or representatives who reach out to classic car associations and clubs to ask for cars to use on-set. This approach works when the crew is looking for specific vehicles to be featured front-and-center for in-story reasons and driven by major characters. In such cases, they can put out “casting calls” for specific cars.

Having their car featured in a major Hollywood movie is a dream of many enthusiasts who have spent years babying their vintage vehicle.

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Sources: L.A. Times, Newsday