Drifting through London
Piccadilly Circus, Saturday, an hour before midnight.
Tucked inside a bald cap, Vin Diesel’s leather jacket and his Dodge Charger, my own mother wouldn’t recognise me. Alongside, in a modified Jensen Interceptor, British rally champ Mark Higgins was doubling the leading lady, Letty, though with ears like wing-nuts and a long black wig he looked a whole lot more like Ozzy Osbourne.
We were about to drift the V8 motors around the circus at up to 70mph for Fast & Furious 6. Oh, and we had three minutes to do it in.
Unlike the queues of girls wearing miniskirts at the peak of an arctic winter, we wouldn’t be warming our cockles at the neon-lit bars. We would be manhandling a pair of recalcitrant beasts around the circus dangerously close to each other and with a Nissan 370Z camera car tracking from just a few feet ahead.
With muscles like mine it’s rare to draw comparisons with Vin Diesel, but this was no ordinary occasion. Having spent two hours at the mercy of the girls in the make-up bus, the hairs on my head had been individually water-boarded and locked securely inside a latex bald cap. I spent the time contemplating the best way to pull this gag off without reshaping a famous monument.
Our boss, stunt coordinator Andy Gill, set out his stall of toy cars beside the memorial fountain underneath the vigilant effigy of Anteros. Gill was my hero growing up because he was the stuntman driving ‘KITT’, the Pontiac in Knight Rider. He and his brother Jack jumped, flipped, smashed and blasted KITT across America for four years of what David Hasselhoff called ‘non-stop, rock ’n’ roll, balls-out fun’. You wouldn’t believe a softly spoken gent from Georgia enjoyed such a violent career, but Andy has forgotten more about car stunts than I’ll ever know.
A few scratches of chalk later and the pavement at Andy’s feet was ready to simulate the action with his Matchbox collection. The two ‘hero’ cars would drive up Piccadilly towards the roundabout, make a sharp left towards Regent Street, switch right to slide onto Coventry Street, finally making another right down Haymarket. ‘Sideways all the way, obviously. I want you guys touching door handles. Reckon you can do that?’
Clearly a rhetorical question. We moved off to the cars. My ride was a lowered 1970 Dodge Daytona, so lowered the front tyres caught inside the wheel arches when you turned them. With a 5.4-litre Chevy V8 under the hood, horsepower was not a problem, and the stripped-out chassis that resembled Frankenstein from the inside made for a good power-to-weight ratio.
The similarity between my own and Mark’s machines ended with the engine. The Jensen would squat on its rear tyres whenever Mark planted his right foot, causing it to grip more and more the harder he gassed it sideways. Meanwhile the ‘Bird’, as the Dodge was known, kicked like a mule and spun its wheels if you so much as coughed near the throttle. Getting the two cars to match their speeds and rate of slide, which is essential for a tandem drift, would be no mean feat.
When a car travels sideways its footprint naturally covers a wider area and our area was half the size we were expecting. Westminster Council had stuck a bus lane on the roundabout, and to add insult to injury the pedestrian kerb from Shaftesbury Avenue had been extended by about 8 feet. That left a gap on the road of 22 feet, about a foot longer than the Bird in full drift.
Closing one of London’s busiest junctions is rare, so we attracted quite a crowd. As is the norm for filming in London, we had a three-minute filming window and then had to release the traffic onto the streets until we were ready to go again. That meant delivering pinpoint accuracy for each of the exclusive takes.