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Real Versus Replica: Reflections on the Bueller Ferrari

Much has been written about the late John Hughes and his impact on popular culture in the 80s and 90s. If you were going to the theater in those decades, there’s a good chance that more than one film you saw was at least written, if not directed, by John Hughes. In a world without Hughes, we may have never gone on any vacations with Chevy Chase, sat through a Saturday detention with the Brat Pack, watched John Candy innocently terrorize Steve Martin, or hung out with the youngest McCallister for the holidays.

Frequently ranked as one of Hughes’ most popular films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a classic. The movie chronicled a day in the life of Ferris Bueller, a clever high school senior joined by his girlfriend Sloane, and his best friend Cameron Frye. It’s a story of three teens who ditch school and commandeer a stolen Italian sports car, spending the day seeing the best that Chicago had to offer.

For gearheads, the most important star of the movie was the Ferrari that Ferris and Cameron “borrowed” from Cameron’s dad to trick the movie’s chief antagonist, Principal Ed Rooney, into releasing Sloane from school for the day.

It’s been common knowledge for years that the movie made use of three Ferrari 250 GT California replicas during production. However, what’s less commonly known is that a real 250 GT actually does appear in the movie, for about five seconds.

Today, a short wheelbase 250GT California is easily a twenty-million dollar plus car. With only 56 SWB 250GT California’s produced, they were scarce and valuable in the eighties as well. Hughes did not exactly have owners lining up volunteering to allow their cars to be used and abused for the automotive hijinks he had in mind. Luckily, Hughes connected with Modena Design and Development, a Ferrari replica builder who was eventually sued out of business by Ferrari for various violations of intellectual property rights.

We get our first glimpse of the car when Ferris and Cameron walk into the Frye’s garage mahal, containing a Mercedes 220S cabriolet, an MG J2, and the Ferrari. One wonders what Ferris said to Cameron off-camera that led them to the garage from Ferris’ house in the first place.

The J2 sitting there is worthy of discussion on its own, and it’s a good thing Italy’s finest was sitting in the garage upstaging it. There are lesser cars than the Ferrari that Cameron’s dad could have restored that might have caused me to figure out how to ditch Cameron and go pick up Sloane in the little MG instead. I give credit to Hughes here. He could have parked any old MG T-series in that spot and most everyone would have been happy, but instead, he put a rare and eclectic J-series in there to show off.

As the boys walk into the garage, Cameron recounts to Ferris: “The 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. Less than 100 were made. My father spent three years restoring this car. It is his love. It is his passion…”

Ferris interrupts, “It is his fault he didn’t lock the garage…”

Was it really Cameron’s father’s fault that he didn’t lock the garage? Ferris delivers his line with such ease and rationalizes what they are about to do with such charm, (“Come on! Live a little!”) that it’s easy to forget we are all watching a felony in progress.

One of my favorite things about many Hughes films is his uncanny ear for music. Hughes had a knack for finding obscure music that fit perfectly in many of his scenes. “Oh Yeah” by Yellow is a great example of this. The song plays as soon as we see the Ferrari. Could there be a better song to introduce that car? I can’t think of one.

When we first see the car, we see a Modena replica through the boy's eyes. Cameron is talking about the car while 5 seconds of still inserts of a real 250 GT cycle through. There’s a shot of the front grille, with a real and unmistakable Cavallino Rampante suspended in front of the egg-crate grille. The second shot is the driver's side front corner, with a correct and proper chrome surround on the headlight cover and a proper side marker light, both missing from the replicas. The next shot is of a real fender vent, and the shot after that is a real Borrani wire wheel with a correct Dunlop brake caliper visible. The replicas used conventional Dayton wire wheels. The last shot was of the real and iconic Ferrari nose badge. Sensory overload for a young car nut like myself.

We know Hughes was responsible for filming stills of the real thing. In his director's commentary, he gives us the inside scoop:

“The insert shots of the Ferrari were real 250 GT California. The cars we used in the wide shots were obviously reproductions because there were only a hundred of these cars, way too expensive to destroy. So we had a number of replicas made. They were pretty good replicas, but for the tight shots I really needed a real one, so we brought one in to the stage and shot the inserts with that.”

Allow me to translate: Someday, car-obsessed nutjobs are going to scrutinize my film for every stinking detail about the Ferrari these boys are going to destroy. I’ll give these wizards a little sleight-of-hand right out of the gate by showing them a few close-up shots of a real one so maybe they can spend less time thinking about the car and just enjoy the movie.

The implausibility of finding Ferris on a float lip-synching Danke Schoen in the middle of the Von Stuben Day parade will never occur to these same people. It didn’t to me. Nor did it occur to me that a snooty maitre d’ at Chez Quis would voluntarily suspend disbelief long enough for a mouthy seventeen-year-old to dupe him into believing that he was the sausage king of Chicago.

I was eleven years old when I first saw the movie in 1990, and all the finer points about the car were initially lost on me. Hughes' illusion worked and naturally I fell in love with the car. At the time, I also missed how well-cast several other cars in the film were, including Rooney's perfectly cast K-car, Cameron’s beat-up Alfa Romeo Sport Sedan (with sheepskin seat covers!), and Tom Buellers classy Audi 5000S turbo.

One thing I do remember was a sense of indignant outrage the first time I saw the Ferrari reverse its way through the plate glass window of the Frye garage. Landing in the wooded ravine below, it was reduced to a twisted, smoking wreck. Several times I watched that scene in slow-motion on the VCR, trying to figure out how Hughes did it, unable to accept the notion that any filmmaker would actually destroy a car like that. Remember, this was about the time that Back to the Future II came out. Kids everywhere had been fooled by Robert Zemekis and his hoverboards, so maybe we were not quite ready to believe everything we were seeing on the silver screen.

I had a hard time for a while figuring out exactly why the Ferrari in the film didn’t quite look like any car in the two Ferrari books I had as a youngster. Neither the Ferrari section in Roger Hicks book “Classic Cars”, nor any pictures in my copy of Ferrari: The Sports/Racing and Road Cars had pictures of a 250GT California that looked exactly like the Bueller movie car. This was frustrating for a kid growing up in the early nineties who knew nothing about replica cars and wouldn’t have his first brush with Google for another decade or so.

It was not until later screenings of the movie that I began to deduce that maybe not everything about that car was exactly as it should have been. Certain minor elements began catching my attention, like tail lights and the trunk lid on the replicas scored straight from an MGB. An eleven-year-old has no idea that Smith's gauges, stolen right out of an E-Type and put into a Ferrari knock-off look almost as out of place as a set of old Stewart Warner gauges might in a Mercedes. The lack of proper Veglia’s in the dash is distracting when I see it today, but the illusion fooled me as a kid growing up in the midwest who at that point had never seen a real Ferrari in person. The first time I ever stood next to a real 250 GT it only took one look to know that Cameron would have never fit, wedged in the back between Ferris and Sloane.

For most of the people who saw the movie, the details of the Ferrari are completely incidental. The movie is not about the car. To me, the film is less about Ferris and more about Cameron’s complicated and dysfunctional relationship with his father, under whose shadow Cameron appears to perpetually live. The car represents a broken link between them, and Hughes made a great choice casting that car to vicariously represent the unseen role of Morris Frye. The car is an embodiment of everything Morris loves, and Cameron hates the car because of it. That all seems pretty heavy, and I think that was exactly the point Hughes was aiming at, because without Cameron’s story, Ferris becomes a lot less interesting to watch.

I missed most of the undercurrent of what the story was really about when I was young. Eleven-year-olds are happy to ignore all the drama and teenage angst in a storyline we’re not yet ready to completely understand. But if you’re a young gearhead, you will devote an inexplicable amount of time trying to figure out why the tail lights on the hero car just don’t look quite right.


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