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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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“the LAST RIDE”

 


Pontiac GTO – “THE JUDGE”

For those of you old enough to remember and young-at-heart enough to care, it can be argued that Pontiac ruled the streets in the muscle car era of the mid-60s to the early 70s. One of their top performance cars was the legendary Pontiac GTO. Just ask Jim Wangers, a car guy hired in the late 50s to dramatically increase Pontiac sales.

At that time Pontiac had a pretty dull image and the numbers supported that fact. Jim enthusiastically led the charge to inject some high performance into the product mix. Sales took off as a result, despite subsequent anti-racing edicts from a nervous General Motors management team. Jim can tell you all about it (and perhaps will, if I can somehow convince him to grant me an interview). In the meantime, I strongly recommend reading his memoir entitled “Glory Days” “When horsepower and passion ruled Detroit.” For ordering information and to learn more about the start of Pontiac’s muscle car performance revolution, go to www.JimWangers.com.

Now, finally, Pontiac is making a performance comeback. Their new GTO is just part of it. I can’t think of a much better way to promote their new car than in an action car movie. That is certainly the opinion of the people at Pontiac who were the driving force behind a made-for-TV movie entitled “the LAST RIDE.”

For me it all began with an unpretentious white envelope that was sent to me by USA Network. Inside was an invitation. On the cover of the invitation were two Pontiac GTOs (a classic one and a new one), the title graphics from the then-upcoming made-for-TV movie entitled “the LAST RIDE” and pictures of stars of the show, featuring the famous actor Dennis Hopper. Inside, the invitation read: “Pontiac and USA Network invite you and a guest to the world premiere of ‘the LAST RIDE.’”

I need to tell you something here and now. I’ve never been to a movie premiere in my life, much less a Hollywood premiere, so this was a really big deal to me already. The fact that this was for a car movie featuring the legendary Pontiac GTO put it way over the top. Needless to say I was thrilled to be invited and called in my RSVP right away.

A few days later I received a phone call about my RSVP. Someone from General Motors was wondering if I would like to join him and a few other invited guests for dinner in Beverly Hills, followed by a ride to the premiere. Okay, it was time for a reality check. Here I was a really quite ordinary car enthusiast being invited to an action car movie premiere and dinner with some serious car people from the upper ranks of General Motors, as well as senior people in automotive journalism. The event would showcase the Pontiac GTO and the movie’s star was Dennis Hopper. Jeez, the guy from GM didn’t even have to ask. Of course count me in!

Eventually the big day came. I put on my best suit, selected what I hoped would be an appropriate tie (open-wheeled race cars and checkered flags), programmed the address of my destination into my portable, aging GPS device and left.

The trouble with the freeways between San Diego and Los Angeles is that I never know for sure how much travel time to allow for. If the freeways are clear it generally takes about two hours from where I live, but if there has been an accident it could easily take twice as long or more. I absolutely couldn’t be late. Since I had to be there at 5, I decided to leave around noon.

I hoped that would be enough time – and it was. Traffic moved nicely for most of the way there, only getting congested when I got close. It was mid-afternoon and many people were already heading home from work.

Several blocks from my destination found me on South La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. All of a sudden traffic slowed to a crawl. In a couple of blocks I saw why. Luckily it was on the other side of the street. It was like a scene from the made-for-TV movie that I was about to see. Cars were pointing in several directions on the roadway. Police vehicles were all over the place. A Volkswagen’s doors were open, revealing the deployed airbags within. This was not a publicity stunt. This was what looked like a high speed accident. 

I got past the accident scene and arrived at our meeting place for dinner: the posh “Le MERIDIEN at Beverly Hills” hotel. Unable to find a sign directing me to a self-parking lot, I drove up to a valet parking attendant and asked for directions. I was told there wasn’t any self-parking. I then looked around for a parking rates sign and spotted one. I gulped when I realized that valet parking would cost me $22 for the evening – not including a tip. I wasn’t in suburban San Diego County anymore. Welcome to LA. My no-expenses freelance gig at the paper made this sum seem all the worse. I explained to the attendant where I was going and left my car curbside while I went into the hotel to see about parking alternatives. Luckily, while I was doing that, word came down to the valet parking person that my parking tab would be taken care of by GM. My name was on THE LIST. I breathed a sigh of relief, took out my camera bag and gave him the key to my Ford Focus wagon. My strong aversion to the perils of valet parking was replaced by the realization that I would not be responsible for the $22. I was grateful.

I was introduced to my fellow dinner guests as the automotive correspondent for the Del Mar Times. The person seated next to me was Matt Stone, Executive Editor of MOTOR TREND magazine. Across the table was the Publisher of HOT ROD Magazine. Also at the table were executives from General Motors. It was a somewhat humbling experience. I focused first on not saying anything stupid, and second on trying to make intelligent conversation. It was difficult to do because inside I was quite nervous. I hoped no one would pick up on that.


Chauffer-driven Cadillac limousine

All too soon our dinner ended and it was time to leave for the movie premiere. We went outside to the front of the hotel. Remember that I’d left my Focus with the valet. GM was providing the transportation. My pumpkin-turned-chariot was not, as you might expect, a pavement-pounding Pontiac GTO, but rather a chauffeur-driven limousine. I must say I was somewhat stunned when, after being introduced to my chauffer for the evening, I realized that I would be the only passenger in her spacious Cadillac limousine. I was being treated like royalty. So this is how the other half lives.

When we got to the theater (inside the Pacific Design Center) we pulled up to a red carpet. My door was opened for me. Outside, photographers were waiting! Perhaps to their surprise, when I got out I too had a camera and started to take pictures of THEM. Ha! I circulated through the crowd and continued to take pictures.


Stars from “the LAST RIDE” including Dennis Hopper (2nd from left)


Pontiac GTO in front of the Pacific Design Center

Vintage GTOs cruised out front of the theater. I enjoyed seeing Dennis Hopper and Jim Wangers in person. Another in the many high points for me was when a spectator stopped me to ask if I was a member of the paparazzi! I was honest and said that I wasn’t, but he sure helped make my already wonderful day.

Before the movie started, credit was given to many of the people responsible for the making of “the LAST RIDE.” Then, when the movie started to play, there was applause as the names were shown in the opening credits. These people were justifiably proud of their accomplishments.

The movie was a rush – sort of a cross between “The Fast and the Furious” and, thanks in no small part to the contributions of Dennis Hopper, a movie with good acting. I enjoyed it – especially the many car scenes. It left me wanting a new GTO. At the very least I need to drive one and report on it in this column.

 
                    Special Pontiac GTO from “the LAST RIDE”                               Dennis Hopper                      

By midnight this wonderful event was over and I was returning to my everyday life – heading home to San Diego in my Ford Focus station wagon.

By the time you read this, “the LAST RIDE” will have begun airing on USA Network. If you love fast cars and especially (although not exclusively) GTOs, you really should see it. It was fun. I don’t know about you but I plan on seeing it more than once.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

 

Copyright © 2004, 2006 Jan R. Wagner – #102r2 AutoMatters

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