I don’t have to tell you the story of The California Kid. It’s the made-for-TV movie that aired in September 1974, starring Martin Sheen, Vic Morrow, Michelle Phillips, and a young Nick Nolte, about a sheriff whose wife and daughter had been killed by a hit-and-run driver on the Main St. of their small SoCal town (“Clarksberg”) and therefore turns it into a notorious speed trap where he arrests drivers going a few miles over the speed limit, but also chases speeders on the twisty mountain highway outside town in his hopped-up ’57 Plymouth cop car with two large push-bars on the front, sending more than a few to their deaths on one tight curve at the edge of a steep cliff.
The movie opens with two young sailors in a white ’51 Ford coupe speeding down this highway trying to make it back to the base on time. Just as they pass through a tunnel on the 2-lane road, Sheriff Roy pulls out of his hiding spot in his blue-and-white Plymouth, bright red gumball twirling on the roof, in the first of several tire-screeching car chases, before nerfing the Ford off the road at the “Slow to 30 Dangerous Curve” and they, like others, tumble down the hill to their deaths. The sheriff backs up, gets out, stands at the cliff’s edge, hands on hips, and shakes his head.
The next scene, to opening theme music and title credits, introduces the star of the film. No, not “California Kid” Martin Sheen (aka Mike McCord), but his lowdown, chopped-top, wildly flamed ’34 coupe, similarly named, as it slowly drives through the bridge above, dramatically shot with a telephoto lens, as the highway enters the small town of Clarksberg that is only two or three blocks long.
Movie buffs and car guys would probably tell you that “Bullitt” was the best car-chase movie ever made. Hot rodders vote for “American Graffiti” as the best car movie, period. And I’d agree. But to any true blue-blooded rodder, “The California Kid” comes in second, and that opening bridge scene seals it.
So, as I said, I don’t have to tell you the story. About all of the plot I need to relate here is that McCord has come to town in his wicked rod to somehow avenge the death of his younger brother, the driver of the ’51 Ford (played by Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen’s actual younger brother). For plenty more on the film, characters, actors, etc., check websites such as Wikipedia, IMDb, or several others. As for the ’34, you know its details from the Baskerville “Couparison” and classic barnyard cover of the November ’73 issue of Rod & Custom with Pete Chapouris’ and Jim Jacobs’ chopped 3-windows (not to mention my own cover and feature on The Kid in the Nov. ’77 Street Rodder, after Chris Carrier bought and refurbished it). Plus I would strongly recommend reading, on the current Pete & Jake’s website, the late Pete Chapouris’ description of the car, the filming, and how it was spotted and selected from that R&C cover by the movie’s producer literally days before shooting began.
OK, so what are we doing here? You know I have a penchant for searching and finding lost hot rods. But I also love exploring for things like long lost drag strips, parts manufacturers’, and speed shops, such as I did way back in The Rodder’s Journal No. 4 (1995) for an article titled “The Grand Shop Tour,” in which I coined the term “Hot Rod Archeology.” This is also a form of performance art, where the searching–the doing–is nearly as important as the finding.
I had long known that much of The Kid was filmed in the very small, old town of Piru, a few miles west of I-5 at Magic Mountain, and just north of Hwy 126, which runs from Santa Clarita to Ventura, where you catch 101 up to Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and so on to San Francisco. We’ve driven this route zillions of times, often in rods or customs going to events such as Paso. And I’ve also jogged the short detour through Piru just ’cause it’s fun.
Then Covid comes into play. First, being homebound gave me plenty of garage time to finish our ’33 sedan. Second, Anna and I found one good way to get out of the house was to take exploratory day trips as far and as long as we could make it without getting out of the car. This combined nicely with needing to take the ’33 on some “break-in” trips. And third, not being able to go out meant finding and rewatching several of our older DVDs, one being The California Kid. Doing so, I found myself trying to identify locations, not just ones I remembered in Piru, but also the chaparral mountain road-chase scenes, particularly the tunnel, which I figured might be on the old Sierra Highway through Soledad Canyon, east of I-5, which rodders used to drive up to Muroc and El Mirage long before they built the 14 freeway.
So we combined day trips with test drives for the ’33 with searches for the filming locations of The California Kid. I’ll show you what we found, starting with that bridge that once led into Piru’s main street (actually named Central).
It’s now gated, with a new, low bridge next to it. But I couldn’t resist posing the top photo. However, I’m certainly not suggesting that our car is anything akin to The Kid. That’s a pure bad-ass hot rod. Ours is a cruise rod. In fact, if we’re rating things, I’d say Pete’s coupe is the third most famous rod of all, with the Kookie T first and the Graffiti ’32 second.
And this is basically the block-long “downtown” of Piru that the Kid drove into after leaving the bridge and crossing the railroad tracks you see in the foreground. The Stop sign is where he turned around to cruise back. You probably never noticed in the film that the center of the street had been dug up (as to lay a pipe), with a 3-ft. wide strip of bare dirt down the middle.
I’ll also mention here that, while Pete Chapouris regrettably isn’t around to answer questions, Jim Jacobs says he was “hired” (his quotes) as the official hot rod advisor for the film, and attended nearly every day of shooting. So I asked him plenty of questions. First off–and this is scary–you have to remember that this film was made almost 50 years ago (47 to be exact). Yikes! Seems like just yesterday. But, as Jake put it, our memories seem to be dimming.
But one thing he told me was that for a brief shot during this scene, where the camera is actually looking forward, just over the roof of the coupe, they asked him to remove the trunk lid so they could mount a camera in it. Which he did. He also said that for shots of Sheen driving the car, taken through the side window, they mounted a camera to the driver’s door on a large tripod structure with suction cups, which were secured with a vacuum pump. For this camera, the trunk had to be filled with large batteries.
And speaking of the interior, the coupe had very little at that time. “There were two cheap fiberglass bucket seats,” says Jake. That’s about it. No headliner. Gold house carpet (visible in one scene where he’s pushing the spoon throttle). It did have chrome window frames, but no door upholstery. You can tell by the hollow sound every time they slammed the door (they even broke the window glass doing that, Jake quipped). And the Stewart-Warner speedo shown a couple of times, though more correct, wasn’t what was in the car. It had new-at-the-time S-W Stage IIIs, with the yellow sideways pointers.
This is the corner where the Kid turns around, heading back through town. The bridge is at the far end. The dark line across is the tracks, and to the right at the stop sign is a small restored Victorian station where you can take day-rides on a vintage train once Covid is done. See the small red car just beyond the tracks? It’s turning onto Main (i.e., Central) just in front of the gas station.
And the red brick building on the right corner, now Piru Pizza, was a bank at the time of filming. But the crew hung signs on the front and side denoting it was the county courthouse and Clarksberg police station. Jake said all the actors did was go in and out the door, and meet the Checker Taxi out front. All the interior scenes of the court and police offices were filmed at Universal Studios, about 50 miles away.
The spot where Sheriff Roy pulls over the Kid and tickets him for going 3 mph over the limit through town, is just past the bridge where there are still orange groves today. Of course you know that when Roy asks to see “the mill,” Sheen opens the hood and it cuts to a very tight, close shot of the 4-carb Chevy from the Graffiti coupe (also at Universal Studios then). They put black cardboard around it to approximate the ’34. But as Sheen goes to close the hood, you can clearly see the engine is a smallblock Ford with finned valve covers, white headers, and some big, shiny aluminum boxy thing covering the single 4-bbl. and most of the top of the engine. We see this again a few times as Sheen “tunes” the engine.
The movie was set in 1958, so they correctly swapped Chapouris’ Halibrand mags for red steel wheels and caps. Jake said some “executive” decided it also had to have those tacked-on Corvette side pipes. And Pete’s chrome rear nerf bar was replaced by a big, black U-channel “bumper” (literally) for cop chase scenes. But the thing that got me was how they changed a car with an automatic to a stick. Not only that, but it was running open headers and had a pretty cackly cam. Remember the scene at the gas station where McCord lets mechanic Buzz’s little brother Lyle drive the coupe, and he asks him “You know how to drive a stick-shift, right?” Well, Jake said they used some healthy, unseen, 4-speed Corvette to record all the coupe’s engine sounds, and they did an excellent job of dubbing them in. Coulda fooled me.
And this of course is the gas station, which has been in Piru at least 100 years. For the film they put some old red pumps in the island between the poles. Of course the windows weren’t boarded up. Buzz (Nick Nolte) runs the station, the towing service (and impound yard across the street), as well as a mechanic’s garage and welding shop. But it’s a bit nebulous whether the garage is behind the large doors in this spacious building, or in a bigger one across the street.
The station is at the corner where today’s Main St., running to the left a mile to Hwy 126, abuts Center St. (i.e, Main in the movie), with the downtown visible in the distance. I talked to someone at the station (note open door) who said it was just full of “storage” today. That army truck has been there for years.
This is the scene looking across today’s Main St. from the station. The large vacant lot you see was fenced off for the film, and filled with junk cars, some sitting on top of others (including a semi-decent ’53 Studebaker). This is where McCord finds his brother’s wrecked ’51 Ford–though sharp eyes note it’s a sedan instead of the coupe–and sees the tell-tale dents in the back bumper from the cop’s push-bars.
And if we look across the street the other direction, you can see a tan-colored building with a large door in the middle. In the film this building has a smaller white front, a door on the right side, and curved roof sides. Although it still has large signs hanging on the front saying “Bait and Tackle” and another advertising “Ice” in the movie, it also has a sign over the door saying “Buzz’s Garage” and one advertising “Welding.” Lake Piru, about 5 miles north of town, offers fishing and boating, and apparently some shop in that building catered to that crowd 40+ years ago. But there are a couple scenes in the film inside Buzz’s garage, the first with town teens hanging out, drinking Cokes while one works on his jacked-up, black primered ’51 Merc, which has no grille, but a nicely chopped top. In a later “necking” scene, we see this Merc from the rear. It’s nosed and decked, but has stock head and taillights. I asked everybody I could think of who might know whose chopped Merc this was and where it might be today, and nobody had a clue. In fact, most films that involve old or specialized vehicles usually have a Transportation Manager in charge of finding and maintaining cars needed. None has ever been listed for this movie, so we really don’t know where the ’50s cars came from. Somebody did at one time, but I don’t.
A couple other scenes in Buzz’s garage show the Kid parked on wood ramps over an old-time “pit” (these predated lifts), where McCord works under the car with wrenches and later a torch to supposedly tune or “tighten” its suspension. When a call comes in saying Buzz’s kid brother has just gone off the cliff at the dangerous curve, thanks to Sheriff Roy, Buzz, McCord, and several kids come running out the door of that building, as if that’s where Sheen (or a double) was working in the pit. More on this in a minute.
I should also mention here, as briefly as possible, that the one location I could not find was the square, green Stateline Cafe that figures in several scenes. Although the coupe was there several times, Jake says he can’t remember where it was. Of course they pulled in the house trailer where waitress Maggie (Michelle Phillips) lived next to it. And Jake said actors’ trailers, catering, and even a trailer with one side cut off to shoot “interior” shots of Maggie and McCord, with a large canopy cover, were parked somewhere near, but out of sight. Several movie references list Ojai as a filming site, but I’ve never seen a cafe like that there, and it’s pretty far west from Piru (other filming was done to the east). Jake flatly stated “They didn’t go to Ojai.” At first I thought it might have been on old Sierra Highway, because it had cafes and motels like that at the time, but then I realized that was a 4-lane, while this cafe was on a rural 2-lane road, with not much else around. Further, it had no paved parking, which is odd. Now I’m thinking it might have been in or near Agua Dulce, another very small “town” north of the 14 freeway, also popular for filming, but with a couple of newer cafes today. Whatever and wherever it was, my bet is it’s gone now.
Which brings us to Agua Dulce Road. It crosses the 14 about 15 miles east of I-5. Go north 3 miles to Agua Dulce. But if you go south, it looks like this for 2 miles until it ends at Soledad Canyon Rd. This is where most of the chasing and screeching and sliding and nerfing took place. We’re looking north here, but the cars were coming south, toward us. The steep drop-off was into the canyon on the right. Jake said they closed off this whole 2-mile section of road during filming.
But the first thing I found was the tunnel, seen at the opening. It’s actually on Soledad Canyon Rd., just a little way if you turn right at the end of Agua Dulce Rd. This is the side where the white ’51 Ford emerges at speed.
And this looks very much like Sheriff Roy’s hiding place (without the cement barrier), from which he comes chasing in his ’57 Plymouth. The thing is, in the movie this side dirt road appears to be just past this tunnel, and I can’t see any visible film cut between the Ford speeding by and Plymouth pulling out behind it. But there is no such road next to the tunnel. This one is about a half mile away. So they had to do some trick splicing to make it work.
And this is the other side of the same short tunnel, again with steep mountains on both sides. The only time you see this view is soon after McCord challenges Roy, and the two go chasing through it, going the opposite way I am here. The camera even follows them through the tunnel, when it gets dark for a few seconds.
I asked Jake who drove the coupe in action scenes. He thought it was Hal Needham. But one reference I found said Needham was in charge of stunts, but Jerry Summers actually drove the coupe. Jake said Sheen was definitely not comfortable with the car (or tools). Did you notice that he broke the side mirror off the door while getting out after one test run spin?
And this, as far as I can tell, is where the spinning took place. There are only a few dirt turnouts like this on the road, and this one has the telephone pole you see in most shots, plus a smaller one not far up the road (behind us) where McCord did his turn-arounds while making test runs. The drop-off here, however, is relatively short, so the scenes showing cars going off the edge and tumbling down the cliff were staged at another spot. In fact, if you watch the film, you’ll clearly see the cars spinning sideways in the dirt, facing right, toward the road, not going left off the edge.
Further, the only car you really see tumbling down the cliff is the ’51 Ford, and the most amazing story Jake told me was that they cut holes in the floor of this car and mounted some kind of rockets to make it jettison off the cliff (the camera is shooting upward, about halfway down) and to tilt it so it would roll, which it does several times before coming to rest on its roof at the bottom. Then, incredibly, Jake says the stunt driver climbed out of the car, and stood next to it with his arms raised in triumph. Obviously it had to have a roll cage in it. But I can’t imagine why they needed a driver in the car. Yet Jake said that’s what he saw. Done in one take.
In the case of Sheriff Roy’s Plymouth, the weird part is that it sheers off a telephone pole not seen here (maybe a half-cut fake?) then heads off the cliff, pointing downhill. But it stopped halfway down without rolling, so several crew members had to climb down the hill and push it over by hand to complete the scene.
Can you stand one more? This was my surprise, and I know many of you will appreciate it.
This has to do with that building across the street from the gas station that was supposedly Buzz’s Garage. This is what it looked like the last time I was in Piru a couple weeks ago. As you can see, the big door happened to be open, so I went over to take a look.And to my total surprise, this is what I found, right inside the door. There’s no name or any other clue on the outside that this is now a high-end, full-on automotive restoration shop. It was Saturday morning, and one young employee was inside, getting ready to close. I asked if I could look around. He said ‘Sure.” There were six cars inside in stages from skeletons to near complete. The first two are aluminum bodied, an “Iso-something” (according to the kid) looking pretty good, and a Lamborghini Miura in need of serious work. The third is obviously a Chevy Cameo pickup, getting fiberglass work on the bed. I could see it has an LS engine and found out it’s on a complete Roadster Shop chassis.
The place is a full-on machine shop, plus has just about every Pexto metal-working tool I’ve ever seen. The employee said the shop didn’t really have a name, but that the owner was Ellery Engel, and gave me his phone number. I had never heard of him, nor had any of my hot rod buddies. But apparently he’s known to the concours contingent, especially those with British or European “sports cars.”
When I reached him on the phone a couple days later he was happy to chat (he’d never heard of me, either). He said he specialized in aluminum metalwork, but could do most anything from the frame up. Plus, pointing out the Cameo, he said he was just branching into some hot rod work. His employee noted that his boss was a stickler for body fit and panel gaps. I asked how long these cars had been in the shop, and he immediately replied, “Oh we get them in, and get them out. Nothing sits around.” What really impressed me was the organization of the shop, especially the panel boards full of body hammers and custom-made handle-dollies. This is serious.
When I asked Ellery about how long these jobs would take, he pointed out the Miura, which had obviously led a rough life, having been crunched, then poorly repaired, several times. He said, “That one’s going to need several new body panels, and the owner’s on a fairly tight budget, so it’s going to take a while. Probably about six months.” Whoa. If it’s true, that’s amazing. But the most amazing thing in the shop, to me, was the huge, yet beautiful English wheel he built himself. He said it’s made of 1/2-inch thick steel sections, curved with fixtures on a hydraulic press, then welded together. Plus it has internal cross-bracing. “I guess it’s a little overbuilt,” he admitted. Plus you can see plenty of other metal-working tools in the background, several draped with cloths.
He said he wasn’t there when the movie was made. He bought the building in ’83, and said it was literally falling over, so he rebuilt it like this in ’85. Apparently he has no need to advertise, and is simply known as Ellery Engel Restorations.
Plus–further surprise–he said he bought the gas station across the street about 20 years ago, and uses it today strictly for storage. Or for other movie or TV productions, which he said happen pretty regularly in Piru.
So, speaking of which, I asked if he knew where the “garage” scenes were shot for The Kid. He said he had no idea. Then I asked if there was ever a mechanic’s pit in his shop. He said no, but there was one inside the shop at the gas station when he got it, but he filled it in. Draw your own conclusions.
And speaking of conclusions, the one for this column is way past due. Some questions remain. But I had fun finding and learning what I did. So did Anna. Hope I didn’t bore you silly. There’s way more I learned and could tell you, but I won’t. I’ll do better next time. Promise.