Like so many of us, I saw Goldfinger for the first time in a big-screen theater back in the early 60s; I distinctly remember jumping out of my seat when James Bond pressed that little red button, mounted on the gear shift lever of his Aston Martin DB5, simultaneously popping the passenger side roof panel off the car and sending one of Goldfinger’s henchmen flying through the now open roof panel, clean out of the car.
It was the craziest, most exciting, most unimaginable movie stunt my impressionable blue eyes had ever seen. No matter, the “Bond cars die” was instantly and permanently cast in my young, impressionable brain at that moment.
After several rescheduling of its in-theater debut, Bond’s latest No Time to Die appears legitimately (assuming everyone stays Covid smart and careful) on track to break cover in theaters in a few months.
This all recalls to me the brushes with Bond machines I’ve enjoyed over my three decades career as an automotive writer, photographer, and book author. We all want to be Bond for a Day, but getting to be up close and personal, sometimes on set, with several of his cooler cars, and meeting and interviewing one of the great actors to portray our favorite British super spy, was as close as I’ll ever get.
My first encounter was during the filming of 1999’s The World is not Enough. A few years earlier, Bond’s first BMW for Goldeneye was a Metallic Blue over beige Z3 – a lovely little sports car for sure, but hardly super enough for 007.
When we saw Pierce Brosnan, Isabelle Scorupco, and Joe Don Baker’s scene with the four-cylinder Z3, we were all disappointed: The little Bimmer was handsome enough but didn’t make motor music any much sportier than your average Corolla or Altima, and although it was purportedly packed with rockets and some of Q’s usual tricks, we never got to see them in action, nor did the car fly through the air or any other such Bondian magic. The Z3 meekly spun its tires a bit in the soft sand and motored away with little drama.
This is why when the new M5 V-8 powered Z8 was named as Bond’s next ride for Not Enough (two movies on from the Z3), I had to kick my way onto the set to meet the car and hopefully the Bond.
Many letters and connections-making followed, and then I was on my way to London and later Cuenca (pronounced Coo-wenka), Spain, to catch up with the production.
In London I visited the sprawling Pinewood Studios campus with a date at the shop, and with the team, that fettles the movie cars.
There were Z8s, scale models of Z8s, and bits of Z8 all about the shop, and when I rounded a corner to finally see what appeared to be most of a completed car, I was more than a bit shocked to see that it was built on a tube frame, with a very muscle car looking Small-block Chevy V-8 underhood.
My guide, a lovely bloke, named Andy Smith, explained that BMW hadn’t yet built enough Z8s to supply the production needs but did provide a fully running early prototype unit that looked for all intent like a production car.
So Pinewood’s car-building boffins splashed body molds off of it, rounded up a few tube frame racing chassis and Chevy 350s, and built their own.
They weren’t absolutely exact duplicates, having a few less and slightly different body cutlines and such. Still, they were so close enough that while driving by the camera, or ultimately getting sawn in half — nobody would be able to tell the difference.
All proof that movie car magic was indeed, A Thing. Now on to Spain.
We arrived at a lovely hacienda-style resort hotel just in time for dinner; I was on target to meet Pierce Brosnan at breakfast the next morning, then hopefully sit down one-on-one with him during filming at the set.
I had no idea what to expect: would Brosnan really be a little old man, hunched over and feeble with bad teeth, made to look like (with makeup and a toupee ) James Bond? Would he be a cool dude, or even a little bit friendly? Or just frosty and unaffected?
At breakfast, I was walked over to Brosnan’s table; he looked fresh out of the shower, with still-wet hair and no makeup, casually wearing an all-black sweatsuit.
He stood up, greeting me with his trademark grin and a hearty handshake – absolutely the most handsome man I’ve ever met. His wolfish smile was perfect, his voice hale and hearty, and his demeanor absolutely genuine. We chatted a bit, and about halfway through his meal, he got the call for transport to set, and we agreed to talk cars later. Cool. Dude.
Of course, my head was on a 360-degree swivel once we got to the set; fake oil pipelines built upon the rugged Spanish countryside set. And over there, a pair of Z8s, one fully rigged with cameras, lights, reflectors, and sound equipment, plus another “beauty car” devoid of all that and looking dead stock. I was then parked behind the cameras as filming commenced.
When lunch break was called, Pierce, now in full costume, walked out to a quiet area with me and sat down on a couple of giant boulders to talk. His charming and friendly personal assistant brought us each an egg and tomato sandwich, and then it was just us – surrounded by a thousand people but nobody closer than a hundred feet.
So I asked him the ultimate question: “So, James, what do you think of your new Z8?” With a chesty chuckle, he said, “sure knocks the spots off of a Z3, doesn’t it!”
We discussed some of our favorite Bond cars (his unquestionably the Aston Martin DB5), and Bond car scenes, and life as Bond in general.
In short, he loved the Z8 and its performance, and most particularly its retro-inspired design saying that “it really looks the part.” Kind of just like you, Mr. Brosnan.
My next Bond car encounter came with the production of Die Another Day filmed in 2002. Die’s big news was Bond (finally) switching back to an Aston Martin, this one being the V-12 powered Vanquish, designed by my pal Ian Callum.
Bond back to Aston was big car movie news, so back to Pinewood studios, I went to meet the cars. The Vanquish was equipped with all sorts of Q mania, including guns, rockets, and the ability to turn itself invisible; the bad guy Zao was assigned an equally lethal metallic green Jaguar XKR convertible.
You may recall that this film’s most compelling action scene takes place on a giant frozen lake, with the cars chasing each other, firing their weapons, and often spinning like tops on the glassy ice. For this scenario, special cars were also required; they were built using all-wheel-drive Ford Explorer drive- and powertrains, with Ford V-8 engines and automatic transmissions. As with the above-noted Z8, they looked authentic for the camera and pretty convincing in person.
My final, or at least most recent, chance to play Bond for a Day came immediately post-production of 2008’s Quantum of Solace; Bond, now portrayed by Daniel Craig, did a magnificent, film opening chase scene in a “Quantum Silver” Aston Martin DBS V-12 (with the bad guy in the trunk, no less).
One of the actual “beauty cars” from the production was in Los Angeles for film premiers, and a PR specialist from Aston Martin called and asked if I’d like to borrow it for a few days. Well, duh.
This car was breathtaking; the special Quantum Silver paint was really more of rich metallic charcoal. The car wearing aluminum badges on the sill plates proclaiming that it a “James Bond Aston Martin DBS, Hand Built in England.”
I don’t, in any way, resemble Daniel Craig, but I could wear his sunglasses, his Omega watch, and drive his Aston Martin, which I did. In fact, I felt like the guy at a carnival or the county fair who minds the ponies. So I gave rides; my wife, my niece, her friend, another friend, and countless more friends. And, of course, every woman had to snuggle into the driver’s seat so they could sample the same leather chair that Daniel Craig’s behind nestled into.
A BBC Top Gear publication by noted Brit journo Jason Barlow, this deeply researched and well-illustrated hardbound volume tells the story, film by film, of most of the cars featured in each one (not just the Bond hero cars, but including so many of the other interesting rides driven by others, plus how so many of the stunts were done).
It’s clear that Barlow had deep, if not virtually unlimited access, to EON and Pinewood’s archives of great production still photos, telegrams, letters, invoices, and other documents that tell the story. It all begins with the first Bond film, Dr. No, and carries through to and including No Time to Die. A must-have read if you are a Bond geek, and most particularly, a Bond car geek.
All of these close encounters of the Bond kind made at least two things further and more abundantly clear to me. The first is that I am not, nor could ever be, anything like a real or imagined 007. Further, the world’s favorite British spy always has and likely always will drive the bang on most compelling cars.