Classic Car Cinema – George Humenik – THE BACK SEAT DRIVER
(Wherein we look at some lesser known movies and TV shows that featured classic vehicles)
THE LONG, LONG TRAILER
If you’re a fan of the old “I Love Lucy” TV show, vintage travel trailers and old Mercs (that’s Mercs as in Mercurys not Mertz as in Fred, the Ricardo’s neighbour on the TV show) you’ll get a kick out of this flick with the red-headed chick. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz basically repeat their TV characters in this film with a few changes. On TV they were called Lucy and Ricky; here they’re called Tacy and Nicky (must have taken hours to think up those names for the film ). On TV they were a married couple with Ricky a band leader (Babaluuu) and Lucy a house wife; here he’s traded in his baton for a slide rule and he’s a civil engineer (seriously?) and she’s his new bride. She talks him into buying an enormous 36 foot long travel trailer for them to honeymoon, live and travel in, while he goes to his various work locations. Numerous funny mishaps occur, things get wrecked, arguments ensue, make-ups follow . . . just like their TV show!
OK, so where do the classic cars come in? Well after buying the humungous trailer Nicky needs to buy a new car to tow it. He picks out a new ivory coloured 1953 Mercury Monterey convertible to do the job. We see a lot of this gorgeous car (fender skirts, white walled tires) throughout the film as it valiantly struggles to pull the behemoth of a trailer straining its 125 hp flathead V8 engine to the limit, while Nicky vigorously works the column shifter of its manual transmission. For those of you with eagle eyes, watch closely for the scary scene near the end of the film where Nicky and Tacy are driving and pulling their trailer up a steep, narrow mountain road (this was filmed on Whitney Portal Road on the way to Mount Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains). There are two brief shots of the car’s front end which reveal that the Merc was replaced by a similar looking 1953 Lincoln Capri convertible (the grille is clearly that of a Capri). The Capri was used in this scene as it had a more powerful engine (250 hp V8) that was needed to pull the trailer up the steep grades of the mountain roads. To make it look more like a Monterey the Capri’s chromed side spear was painted body colour and a phony spear was painted several inches above it.
Montereys were manufactured by Ford’s Mercury Division for 22 years from 1952 to 1974. They were first introduced in 1950 as part of the Mercury Eight Series (model 72C) of high-end vehicles, but did not sell well. They underwent restyling and reengineering for 1952 and emerged as Mercury’s top model line. A really cool feature in the 1952-1954 Montereys is their dashboards, which have the heater and vent levers standing upright on a flat plane behind the steering wheel, like those found on a large airplane. An interesting production note is that a “Siren red” coloured 1953 Monterey convertible became Ford’s forty-millionth car produced. The Monterey name was resurrected briefly for use on Mercury’s minivans from 2004-2007.
MGM had its doubts about making this film, as they felt people might not want to pay to see Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a movie when they could watch them at home on TV for free. However this colour film (made in 1953, released in 1954) directed by Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza and director of “An American In Paris”, “Gigi” and other hits) went on to be a big hit and became MGM’s highest grossing comedy film up to that time.
One of the funnier scenes in the movie has Tacy trying to prepare dinner in the trailer while Nicky is driving it over a bumpy road. A huge mess ensues. Another finds Nicky trying to back the trailer into Tacy’s aunt’s driveway, destroying her prized rose garden and veranda in the process. Then there’s the mountain road scene where the overloaded trailer almost topples over a steep cliff. Funny and scary!
About the trailer. Today the average length of a travel trailer is about 20 feet. Watching this film I figured the long, long trailer was just a hollow prop. However, it was the real thing! The 36 foot long yellow and silver travel trailer, which weighed over three tons, was a 1953 New Moon model made by The Redman Trailer Company of Alma, Michigan (some models were as long as 42 feet . . . that’s getting near tractor trailer size). New Moon trailers sold for $5,345 US back then (about $52,000 US in today’s dollars). The interior of the trailer was modified a bit for the film. Specifically it was given a sunken living room floor so Nicky could do a pratfall when he first entered it and a furnace located between the front door and kitchen was removed. The popularity of the movie resulted in a surge in sales of travel trailers and in 1954 Redman came out with an honourary “I Love Lucy” model. I find it amazing that anyone would have had the courage to hitch up one of those dinosaur-sized trailers to the back of their mid-fifties vehicles and gone happily cruising down the highway singing “Breezin Along With The Breeze” as Nicky and Tacy do in this movie. Can you picture yourself pulling into one of today’s cramped self service gas stations with one of these? The back end of the trailer would probably still be out in the street blocking traffic as you filled up!
Daughter Lucie Arnaz says her parents kept the trailer at their home after the film and she and her brother used it as a children’s playhouse. Its whereabouts today is unknown.
This film has some funny bits and some slick classic vehicles in it. I’ll give it 2.5 hubcaps out of a possible 4.