The petrolhead who builds hundreds of cars for Hollywood – then destroys them

A scene from Fast X - Universal Pictures
A scene from Fast X - Universal Pictures

How many car wrecks does it take to make a Fast and Furious film? According to Dennis McCarthy – the man behind the wheel of that particular department – Fast X (in cinemas now) destroyed somewhere in the region of 150 cars. “Quite a few survive,” he says. “The ratio at the end though is many more get totalled than survive. But that’s par for the course.”

McCarthy is Hollywood’s leading “picture vehicle coordinator”. His team, Vehicle Effects, builds and supplies cars for the Fast and Furious and other blockbuster movies. On the Fast and Furious, they build up to 300 cars per film, with multiples required of each model. Talking from his Los Angeles auto shop, McCarthy does a quick stocktake of vehicles supplied for Fast X: 14 Dodge Charger R/Ts, seven Porsche 911 GT3 RS, 14 Dodge Charger Hellcats, seven Harley-Davidson Pan America motorbikes, four Alfa Romeo 2000 GTs, and four gold Lamborghini Gallardos. Among many others.

The Dodge Charger is a staple of the high-octane series – the trademark ride of Vin Diesel’s hero, Dom Toretto. “That’s the one car that you can always count on,” McCarthy says. “I think the fans would be grossly disappointed if Dom’s vintage Charger was somehow missing.” Each iteration has changes and modifications, though McCarthy has taken the car back to the original in the new film – one of many nods to the series’ past glories in Fast X.

McCarthy is excited about new additions to the Fast family’s line-up, including a Datsun 240Z, a Japanese racing classic (“That car has come around a few times in the past but never made it”); a Chevrolet El Camino loaded with explosives and cannons (“That was more of an art department project”), and a purple Chevrolet Impala, driven by Jason Momoa’s baddie, Dante. Momoa insisted on the purple to match his character’s streak of flamboyant sociopathy. “Odd colour choice but that was one hundred per cent Jason Momoa,” says McCarthy.

The last few installments have blended into one big pile up. But Momoa – who also drives a '66 Ford Fairlane – sums up Fast X. It’s riotous fun.

More than a mechanic, Dennis McCarthy has a fascinating creative role in the Fast and Furious series (box office $7 billion and counting). He jokes that he’s like a casting director for cars. McCarthy looks at the script and suggests the best cars to suit the character, location, and scenario. He’ll work with the writers, stunt drivers, and actors to get the cars to the right design and spec.

“In this franchise, without a doubt the cars are an extension of the characters’ personalities,” he says. “I think over this many films the audience identifies the car with the characters. If you see a Hellcat Charger pulling into frame, you’re going to be pretty confident that’s Dom’s car… Roman [played by Tyrese Gibson] is always in something extravagant, like the gold Lamborghini… as far as Shaw goes [Jason Statham’s cockney villain-turned-hero], I try to keep him in some kind of British car. It’s a McClaren, it’s an Aston, it’s a Jaguar.”

Vin Diesel likes to have input on his character's cars. McCarthy, talking on Car Guy Confessions podcast, described steering Diesel towards the best models. “It’s kind of standard protocol,” he said. “You don’t want to say, ‘This is what you’re driving.’ You always have to say, ‘I’ve got a few cars for you, which one do you like?’”

Jason Momoa with his purple Chevrolet Impala - Universal Pictures
Jason Momoa with his purple Chevrolet Impala - Universal Pictures

Some cars are supplied by manufacturers (Dodge is a longstanding partner), though others are built from scratch from second-hand parts found in Auto Trader-style classifieds. “I have guys here that just scour the internet, go to junkyards, trying to find these parts,” he says. They also customise and kit out vintage models with new engines. The cars are mostly standardised with LS3 V8 engines and given manual transmission – because shifting through gears just looks better on screen. McCarthy says just about any car can be fitted with a fast engine. “There isn’t a car we couldn’t make faster or make perform,” he explains.

There are recycled cars too. Some of the ’69 Chargers from the fourth film were in fact repurposed General Lees from the Dukes of Hazzard. They also save any bits and pieces from the cars that are wrecked, cataloguing the parts and filing away for future use. “At the end of the day, nothing really goes to waste,” McCarthy said previously.

As per the revving-up-the-ante mantra of the Fast franchise, McCarthy’s crew build cars with specifications for particular stunts and requirements. Some cars need to jump; some need to drive across quarry gravel or ice; some need to, erm, drop out of planes; and some need to go really, really fast in a straight line. “We usually build cars that are going to survive any set of circumstances,” he says.

'You’re going to be pretty confident that’s Dom’s car': Vin Diesel with a customised Dodge Charger - Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures
'You’re going to be pretty confident that’s Dom’s car': Vin Diesel with a customised Dodge Charger - Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures

There are times when the stunts seem too insane to work. McCarthy looks back to Fast Five (still the best in the series) and an opening set piece in which Dom’s crew steal cars from a moving train – by driving alongside the train in a monster truck-flatbed hybrid, cutting open a train carriage as it’s in motion, and whipping the cars out sideways onto the truck. The truck had to be built for real, with functioning, adjustable flatbed and suspension to handle jumping over extremely rough terrain.

The truck began life as a load of steel tubing, and was built pretty much from scratch. McCarthy did some driving in that truck. “With the actors and crew members and director all hanging off the side of that truck,” he says, “at about 35 mph, bouncing off the side of a moving train, with a 12-foot cliff on my right. I couldn’t have been more in the middle of that.”

The specifications can change mid-production too. “We might start filming and we haven’t even chosen the third act location,” says McCarthy. He points to a Rio-set drag race in Fast X – a throwback to the franchise’s street-racing origins.

'Yes, there is a giant ball rolling': the Fast X Rome chase - Universal Pictures
'Yes, there is a giant ball rolling': the Fast X Rome chase - Universal Pictures

At one point, the sequence was changed to a race around a mountain. “On a winding mountain road,” says McCarthy. “I was like, ‘man we just built all these cars for straight lines!’ The Impala is a straight-line car so we started scrambling to find different Impalas that could handle corners.” Fortunately, the race was switched back to the more straight-up, straight line race seen in the finished movie. But as McCarthy says: “We’re always scrambling.”

The finished drag racing sequence is an adrenaline-pulsing joy. “There’s nothing incredibly outlandish about it,” says McCarthy. “But that’s a real race – the cars are lined up, they’re burning rubber, doing their thing, bouncing off each other. That’s about as legit as it gets.” For another sequence in Portugal, the cars had to tear across a quarry. McCarthy realised the suspensions on the El Caminos weren’t robust enough, so he put suspension kits on a plane and flew them out there to be fixed on location.

McCarthy has been a fast car enthusiast since childhood. He built hot rods and competed in drag races. “I’ve been playing with cars for as long as I can remember,” he says. Opening an auto shop in Burbank, California in 1990, McCarthy serviced fleet vehicles for nearby movie studios. One day, a producer asked him to help prep a vehicle for the 2002 film Dragonfly, starring Kevin Costner. Since then, he’s built cars for Death Race, Blade Runner 2049, Gran Turismo, and various Marvel and DC films.

He names, perhaps surprisingly, the Seth Rogen-starring superhero effort The Green Hornet as a significant production. “We built 29 Chrysler Imperials, so that one always stands out.” But McCarthy admits: “The reality is that nothing ever compares to a Fast and Furious movie. I guess it’s just my favourite because there’s such a diverse selection of cars. And we have so much latitude there. There’s really nothing like it. There’s no other film or franchise that puts such an emphasis on the vehicles themselves, which makes Fast and Furious the ultimate car guy film.”

McCarthy joined the franchise at the tail end of 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, helping prep cars for promotional events, and joined proper for the 2006 third installment, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. He’s worked on every installment since, including spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, which means McCarthy has worked on as many Fast and Furious films as main man Vin Diesel. He’s one of the family.

It’s fair to say the series’ wheels have left the ground reality-wise. But criticisms over its lack of realism are as ridiculous as the films themselves. They’re about as subtle as a monster truck on the driveway. Since the films’ relatively modest, testosterone-powered beginnings – street races, hijacks, and undercover cops – the series has had a fuel injection of pure, glorious, amped-up nonsense. Dom’s family are now carrying out muscle car-based black ops for a top-secret government agency.

More than the ridiculousness of characters returning (regularly) from the dead and evil siblings turning up out of the blue, the recent Fast films have seen the cars race way beyond the suspension of disbelief. Cars have jumped between skyscrapers, flown beneath the belly of a magnetic aeroplane, and gone to space – symptomatic of the series’ need to go bigger, better, faster, more furious each time.

In Fast X, they speed over to Rome for a mission-turned-double cross, and end up trying to stop a boulder-sized bomb from rolling straight into the Vatican – like something from the 1960s Batman series crossed with Raiders of the Lost Ark. But how to stop the bomb? By driving straight off a bridge and into a crane, which swings around and knocks the bomb into the River Tiber, of course. “Dom’s car seems to have some magic behind it,” says McCarthy.

And that’s not even the most ridiculous scene. Dom – with his 9-year-old son in the passenger seat – escapes an almighty explosion by driving down a 460 ft dam, like a turbo-charged version of Pierce Brosnan’s bungee jump in GoldenEye. “Everything is one hundred per cent real,” says McCarthy. “The car we built to drive down the dam was a special dam car… no, I’m just kidding.”

One of the family: Dennis McCarthy has worked on as many Fast & Furious films as Vin Diesel
One of the family: Dennis McCarthy has worked on as many Fast & Furious films as Vin Diesel

Joking aside, far more of the car action is filmed for real than viewers might realise. “For the most part, the cars are usually doing what you see them do on screen,” says McCarthy. “It’s the environment that’s enhanced or altered behind it.” He adds: “If the cars are sliding, crashing, landing – everything you see is for real. That’s one thing behind the franchise that they’ve always strived for – to keep the stunts as real as possible, and keep real cars and real stunts and real drivers behind the action.”

McCarthy points to the Rome bomb chase. “Yes, there is a giant ball rolling,” he says. “Yes, it is bouncing off a car. [Not only that: it was set alight and sent crashing into a bus for real.] Rome is a good example of what I would say is very close to reality. What you see on screen actually happens. Obviously, there are safety precautions. The ball isn’t going to run over crew members.”

Rome also provided the vehicle effects team with a new challenge. And there’s one of every film, says McCarthy – something new their cars haven’t done before (something real, he means – not going into space). This time it was driving a Charger down a flight of stairs, which was practiced in another location. “Obviously, we didn’t go down the flight of stairs you see in the film, but we did drive Chargers down another flight of stairs over and over and over again,” he says. “The cars survived, no problem.”

For my money (I’d even bet my pink slip) the Rome chase is the best sequence in the film because it feels real – the thrill of actual car chases and stunts can’t be replicated by CGI.

Even the dam sequence, set at the Aldeadávila Dam between Spain and Portugal, is surprisingly real. Some of the car action was filmed on the road atop the dam, with further footage filmed at Leavesden Studios, where a recreation of the top of the dam was built. As detailed by The Ringer, the stunt driver drove off the fake dam, crashing through a barrier, and dropped 40ft below. To simulate the vertical race down the dam, a landing ramp was used, bouncing the car for real, as if it was hitting the dam wall.

“We were all afraid that if we tried to do that as a CGI landing, the suspension might not work as well as we’d like,” said stunt coordinator Jack Gill. The car also crashed into a water tank for the climatic bottom-of-the-dam splash. As ludicrous as it sounds at this point in the franchise, director Louis Leterrier wanted to ground the action with as much practical stunt work as possible. “I wanted to – no pun intended – land it back on Earth,” he told Esquire.

McCarthy admits that he prefers realism in the car action – he likes making behind-the-scenes videos so audiences can see how the stunts are created. “I’ve been around the series for a while,” he says. “Maybe I’m becoming the older guy… I’m always drawn towards reality. Obviously, to make these movies as exciting as they can be, the bar has to keep getting raised and raised and raised.” He adds: “In my opinion, if it turns into a complete CG movie, then I think it loses some of the excitement.”