Aaron DiManna
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My Cousin Vinny was Almost Perfect

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A red 1964 Buick Skylark
Photo from Greg Gjerdingen via Flikr

In 1992, the genre of courtroom drama saw its watershed moment with the release of My Cousin Vinny. The film is a comedy masterpiece involving wrongful convictions, the benefits of a good plate of grits, and, rather unexpectedly, a fair amount of automotive trivia. In fact, it was one character’s incredible knowledge of cars that not only sealed the defense’s case in the film but also likely secured actress Marisa Tomei her well-deserved Oscar.

The crux of the prosecution’s case is the unique nature of the tire tracks left outside the scene of the crime. The defendants, who were guilty of nothing but the accidental theft of a can of tuna, were driving a 1964 Buick Skylark. Moments after they left the scene, another man, driving a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, shot the clerk at the same convenience store they had just left.

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So, how did the tire tracks implicate them in the crime? Well, the prosecution analyzed them and determined that they had been left by a vehicle with an independent rear suspension. And several witnesses confirmed that the vehicle driven by the killer was painted “metallic mint green.” So, when the protagonists were pulled over in a metallic mint green car that was later determined to have an independent rear suspension, it seemed like an open and closed case for the prosecution. 

The only thing that saved our heroes from an unjust execution was the extensive automotive knowledge possessed by the defense lawyer’s fiancee, Lisa–played by Marisa Tomei.

But how accurate were her on-the-stand statements regarding independent rear suspension in 1960’s metallic mint green vehicles? During her expert testimony, Lisa explains that there were two cars that held this unique feature.

“Now, in the ’60s, there were only two other cars made in America that had positraction, and independent rear suspension, and enough power to make these marks. One was the Corvette, which could never be confused with the Buick Skylark. The other had the same body length, height, width, weight, wheelbase, and wheel track as the ’64 Skylark, and that was the 1963 Pontiac Tempest.”

Even though her monologue was extremely entertaining, it turns out that there were actually three cars made in the 1960s that had independent rear suspension. According to the screenwriter for My Cousin Vinny, Dale Lauer, that car was the Chevy Corvair. Although he knew at the time of the movie’s writing that the Corvair made the list, for the sake of expediency, he chose to leave it out – but the Corvair deserves its long-overdue moment in the spotlight.

While the Buick Skylark hasn’t been in production since 1998, the Corvair was axed in 1969, and Pontiac is no more, the Corvette is undergoing something of a renaissance. Let’s just hope that nobody uses one as a getaway vehicle.

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