AMC Hornet--The Best Bond Car Ever
"He's mad, I tell you, mad!"
No, I'm not. ("Denial! That's the first sign!") Friends and fellow Car Lusters, before you start composing angry emails to management berating them for letting a raving lunatic type his incoherent rantings into the blog, first lend me your eyes and allow me to make the case.
At first glance, no, the lowly AMC Hornet does not appear to be anything particularly special. It's never been as famous as some of the other Bond cars--at least in and of itself. And in terms of either sheer performance or coolness, yes, it probably falls pretty short (see? I'm not totally off my rocker). I'll grant that the original DB5 carried a certain panache (not to mention a .30 caliber machine gun and ejector seat) and the Lotus Esprit was not only elegant but handled well ... underwater. Yes, all fabulous cars and nearly everyone, myself included, would love to have a licence to kill to have one in our garages.
On the other hand, as we archaeologists are fond of saying, context is (nearly) everything. Most of those other cars were pure fantasy in that, outside of the magic of special effects, they didn't do a whole lot of things that many, many other equally capable cars of the time were able to and did. But the Hornet is something special. It actually did what those other cars could only sit in their clean, well-lit garages and dream about doing: The Stunt.
Technically, it's called the Astro Spiral Jump and it was actually performed, as seen on film, by an actual AMC Hornet, albeit a somewhat modified one. The movie was 1974's The Man With the Golden Gun, with Roger Moore in the starring role. I've lately come to see Moore as a rather under-appreciated Bond, so I hope this post will do at least a little to burnish the reputation of that generation of Bond flicks. True, he often didn't have a lot to work with (Moonraker? Moonraker?), but in retrospect, I think Moore captured the elegance and levity of the series particularly well, and the earlier entrants in the Moore series were, IMO, quite good.
Of course, as we've noted here before, some of those were almost farcical in their product placements, and many have often wondered what an international (and very wealthy) gold-gun-toting hit man would be doing with an AMC Matador. At least Bond had a reason to be driving a Hornet at the time: he stole it from a dealer to give chase. So, we have a Hornet chasing a Matador, ho hum. But no!
The car itself, a 1973 Hornet X, was not a total slouch when it came to performance--certainly not up to the heyday of the 1960s, but in its time the Hornet X was a pretty good competitor in the compact performance market.
AMC built the X largely by grabbing available off-the-shelf parts, often from the competition. The transmission was Chrysler, the steering GM, and they got carburetors from Ford. The engine was okay, a fairly unexceptional 2-barrel 360, but it was mated to a decent suspension such that Car and Driver described it as "no Firebird Trans-Am, but a Hornet with the heavy duty suspension and radial tires is complacent in curves that would leave a Duster with the front tires peeling off the rims." 0-60 times were rated at a vaguely respectable 8.4 seconds and at least to my eyes it's a nice looking hatchback.
So, not a bad car, but so far nothing to blow anyone's skirt up. But ... what it did. ...
The chase scene reaches its climax with Bond and his passenger Sheriff J.W. Pepper (first seen in Live And Let Die) gunning after Scaramanga in his Matador X, and they need to cross a river. Seeing the broken remains of an old bridge, Bond takes aim and jumps the river while at the same time spiraling 360 degrees around the roll axis of the car. There weren't any computer animated graphics back then and it wasn't done with models. It was a real stunt performed over a real river with a real car and driver, and done in a single take.
The idea for such a jump was the product of two men, Raymond R. McHenry and W.J. Milligan, Jr. The latter you may have heard of, but the former is largely unknown except to trivia buffs. McHenry worked for a company called Calspan (then Cornell Aeronautical Labs, Inc.) whose business at the time included developing and testing mathematical models of various violent vehicle maneuvers in order to assist in the evaluation of vehicle safety. McHenry developed a general model and computer simulation called the HVOSM, or Highway Vehicle Object Simulation Model. In order to test the model's results against actual vehicle maneuvers, Calspan employed various stunt drivers who would carry out maneuvers on sensor-equipped vehicles, thus providing actual measurements to test against the mathematical model.
In late 1970, McHenry and Milligan--who was developing a traveling auto thrill show of his own--got together and discussed using some of the stunts developed during the Calspan studies in the show. Out of these talks, Calspan was contracted to develop what would be known as the Astro Spiral Jump. Part of the motivation, at least from Calspan's perspective, was to further test the model in other-than-real-world situations, thus providing not only additional data for verification but also a nice little bit of marketing.
At this point you may be thinking "Piffle, anyone could have figured out how to do that just by fiddling with different ramps and speeds." True, theoretically, but realistically the jump is so complex from a dynamics standpoint that simple trial and error testing would have proven too costly--and dangerous--since failure is rather catastrophic to both vehicle and driver. As a subsequent paper put it in the understated prose of academia, "[T]he destructive aspects of unsuccessful tests would preclude the application of a 'trial and error' experimental development."
Hence, a simulation was needed that could provide the correct set of parameters necessary to achieve stable and predictable performance in flight and during the landing. Suffice it to say, it worked.
Keep in mind that the idea of the jump preceded the Bond film and that the touring show had already featured the stunt. Still, each situation was different. The producers located a suitable river in Thailand --one that was narrow enough to perform the jump and also had suitable run-up and landing room on either side and was also reasonably safe--a swampy area of the Mae Klong River outside of Bangkok. They constructed a pair of ramps on either side, disguising the supporting columns and other paraphernalia with scrap wood to make it look like a partially collapsed bridge. The stunt Hornet was modified somewhat to create proper vehicle dynamics. The steering wheel was moved to the center, extraneous equipment was removed, a roll cage was added for safety, and a professional stunt driver, Loren "Bumps" Willard, was installed as driver.
The tolerances were not particularly large. The target speed, weight of the vehicle (including driver), and distance between ramps were 40 +/- 1 MPH, 1461 +/- 3 kg, and 13.85 +/- 0.03 m, respectively. And remember, while these were mainframe computers, most engineering calculators today have more computing power.
While various emergency vehicles and personnel stood by, Willard fired up the Hornet and went for it, completing the jump successfully on the first take while eight cameras captured the action. The jump itself took little more than a second, so the footage in the film is slowed down to give the viewer the full effect.
A few myths have cropped up around the stunt. As I mentioned earlier, this wasn't a one-off: the stunt was performed at various car shows both before and after the film, mostly by AMC Javelins. True, it hasn't been done that often since, largely I think because it remains fairly risky and it's still not simple to calculate (see below). In addition, Milligan has said that there was some great secret to the jump that he "would take to his grave." This, as we have seen, is basically untrue; it was a matter of mathematics, albeit fairly complicated ones, and pretty tight tolerances. In fact, the jump was patented, which has long since expired so anyone is free to give it a try.
And there you have it, my case for the best Bond car ever. The Hornet was a fairly ordinary car that performed a magnificent stunt, on cue and in one take, one that no other Bond car and few other cars at all have done since. No ejector seats, oil jets, machine guns, or submarine capabilities, but then again, those other cars didn't really have those anyway. This car and its stunt were the real deal.
The location of the actual car used in the stunt is at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, U.K. This appears to be the actual stunt car (photo, right) as you can make out the roll cage in the photo, and the steering wheel seems to be in the center, among other clues.
Credits: Many thanks to Brian McHenry (Raymond R's son) who provided details on the jump. The flying Matador photo is from the ever-useful 24 Hours of Lemons site and the bottom photo is from here. The other graphics and documents are from the McHenry Software site where there are a LOT more technical documents and discussion of the mechanics of the jump for those with more interest.
And for your edification and enjoyment, here are a few clips showing various aspects of the jump. First is the footage seen in the film:
This is the stunt in the film taken by a handheld camera showing the actual speed of the jump:
And here is a short clip showing various spiral jumps:
And finally, Top Gear's attempt at replicating it: