When Bond drove BMWs

As Skyfall hits the theatres, it’s time to look back at James Bond’s foray into Bimmerdom, when the world’s most famous spy traded his signature Aston Martin for a Z8 and other BMWs.

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December 14, 2012

Bond. James Bond.

It’s a name more strongly associated with Aston Martin than with any other marque—and indeed he’s driving Astons in Skyfall, released in November 2012—but Bond has also driven a few BMWs over the course of his career as the most famous spy in the movies.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr. No, the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, England launched the largest exhibition of James Bond movie vehicles in the world. Entitled “Bond in Motion. 50 vehicles. 50 Years,” the exhibition included the iconic Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, the submarine Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me, the two-wheeling Ford Mustang Mach 1 from Diamonds are Forever, the aerobatic autogyro “Little Nellie” from You Only Live Twice and the phenomenal folding wing Acrostar jet from Octopussy.

It also included three BMWs driven by Pierce Brosnan as Bond, namely the remote control, Stinger missile-firing 750iL and the helicopter-jumping R1200C motorcycle from 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, plus the rocket-firing Z8 from 1999’s The World Is Not Enough.

To find out more about these BMWs and to discover how those breathtaking stunts were executed, we chatted with the man who coordinated and scripted them, the legendary Vic Armstrong, and the rider who performed them, French stunt rider extraordinaire Jean-Pierre Goy.

From 5ers in Octopussy to a Z3 in Golden Eye

The relationship between Bond and BMW goes back a bit further, actually, to 1983’s Octopussy, for which BMW supplied six 5 Series cars and a boxer motorcycle. In the film, Bond, played by Roger Moore, commandeers an Alfa Romeo GTV6 and is pursued at high speed through the outskirts of West Berlin en route to USAF Feldstadt by two green and white “Polizei” Bimmers and the motorcycle. The driving is spectacular as the four vehicles fishtail, slide and slither through heavy traffic, with near-misses aplenty. We asked what happened to those cars after filming, but BMW didn’t know.

Twelve years later, BMW got its first official placement in Golden Eye, which saw Bond himself driving a BMW for the first time. Since the Z3 hadn’t been officially launched at the time of filming, two pre-production models were used.

Introducing Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, to the Z3, Q tells him that it has “all points radar, self-destruct system and naturally, all the usual refinements.”

“This I am particularly proud of,” Q adds. “Behind the headlights, Stinger missiles.”

Despite Q’s pride in his invention, the Z3 is used sparingly and sedately for less than two minutes, and none of these gadgets are shown. (BMW says that the actual cars supplied had no special features.)

The car’s debut took place at the film’s premiere in Germany, marking the start not only of the Bond-BMW relationship but also a new way to launch a car. Today, the Bond Z3s reside in the BMW Museum in Munich and at the BMW Zentrum in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the cars were built.

The 750iL Protection stars in Tomorrow Never Dies

After a low-key debut in Golden Eye, Bond’s BMW made a spectacular appearance in Tomorrow Never Dies.

This time, Q delivered a fully loaded and armed 750iL Protection, to which Bond returns after performing one of his deadly deeds only to find it surrounded by gangsters trying to recover a secret decoder he’d locked away in the glove box safe. He watches from behind a column as they try to smash their way into the car with sledgehammers and machine gun fire, which the Bimmer shrugs off before delivering electric shocks and finally tear-gassing its assailants. Bond then produces his Sony Ericsson phone, which doubles as a remote control pad and monitor. He starts the car, drops the rear window and guides the car towards him to the astonishment of the goons. As it passes, he dives through the window onto the rear seat and scorches off, with a Mercedes (well, it just had to be!) in hot pursuit.

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A German-accented voice from BMW’s on-board computer advises Bond to first “Please fasten seatbelt,” then to “Reduce speed. Pedestrians in roadway,” as more machine pistol-toting henchmen block his path and shoot out his windscreen. Watching the monitor and deftly working the touch pad, Bond skillfully negotiates the spiral ramps only to discover a car blocking his path. He presses a button and a rack of missiles pop up from the BMW’s sunroof and blow the offending car clean out of the way and onto a Volvo’s roof in a ball of fire.

Another Merc gets on his tail and shoots out his rear window. Bond presses yet another button and scores of sharp metal stars are dropped from his BMW’s rear bumper into the path of the Merc, blowing out its tires and causing it to crash. Bond sees a car park exit but a roll-up door closes in front of him. He fires another Stinger but it fails to clear a path, so he broadsides the car and goes back the way he came, blowing out his own tires over the same metal stars he’d used to disable the Merc. No worries: His tires automatically re-inflate.

Another baddie steps into his path armed with a rocket launcher. The rocket flashes through the BMW’s windshield and out through the rear window, blowing up a chasing Ford. Bond is then confronted with a wire cable stretched across his path, but the BMW logo on the hood slides open and up pops some spinning cutting wheels, which just happen to be at the exact height of the cable. The BMW computer voice announces “Reminder. Unsafe driving will void warranty.”

Yet another Merc gets on his tail and chases him up the spiral ramps onto the roof. Bond jumps out unseen and remotely guides the BMW, with the Merc tight behind, towards the roof edge. He gives it more gas and the BMW crashes through the parapet wall, soars over the street below and punches through the ground floor plate glass window of an Avis car rental office, upon which the onboard computer says “Congratulations on a safe journey.” Meanwhile, the Merc is left teetering with its front wheels dangling over the edge. Bond smiles and walks away.

This was a truly epic, jaw-dropping car chase with some incredible driving and stunts, nearly all of which were done for real.

“The script called for a remote-control car, and director Roger Spottiswoode and I were wondering what we could do with it,” recalls Armstrong. “We started designing this car park chase over seven floors and dreamt up every bit of action we could think of. Barbara Broccoli thought we were completely mad.”

Filming the sequence took three weeks and three locations: Hamburg for the roof and street scenes, the Brent Cross shopping center in London for the interior and Frogmore Studios in Hertfordshire for the jump.

“BMW supplied seventeen cars and sixteen of them went back in carrier bags. We hammered them all!” Armstrong says.

“Because the cars are rigged for different things [by 2011 Oscar winner Chris Corbould and his special effects team], you soon run out of cars. You don’t want to go too fast into a corner and smash them up, but at the same time you’ve got to make it exciting.”

To keep pace with the BMW stunt cars, Armstrong also built a special high-speed camera car to replace the usual flat-bed rig.

“I wanted something that was small, fast and agile that could keep up with the BMW in the car park,” Armstrong says. “Technology was changing and we had new stabilized cameras. With these, you didn’t look through them but at a monitor, so all we needed in the camera car was a camera operator, a focus puller and a driver. Dave Bickers (1960 and ’61 European motocross champion turned stuntman) who did all my mechanical rigging, bought a TVR sports car, stripped it right down to its tubular chassis, fitted a roll bar, race seats and five-point safety harnesses. It was the first of its kind, and it worked brilliantly. It was a new way of filming a chase, and now everyone uses them.”

Although the car chase appears to be staged over several floors, in reality only one floor of Brent Cross was used. It was cheaper and easier to redecorate and juggle parked cars around than to move all the rigging and lighting to different floors for each sequence. However, the stunt where the rocket passed through the BMW and spectacularly blew up the pursuing car in a ball of flames nearly ended in disaster.

“The BMW was driven down a wire because it was too dangerous to have anyone in it, and the rocket was also on a wire,” Armstrong recalls. “The car behind got the Sam Peckinpah shotgun blast, as I call it, and went flying backwards. We let it burn and burn to get as much footage as we could, then called Cut. But the fire department couldn’t get their water pump started. By now, the fire had got a real hold and we had to get out of there. They shut down Brent Cross because of the black smoke pouring out of the place. It was like a terrorist attack.”

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Though Armstrong feared eviction, the shopping center was actually thrilled.

“They said they’d never had so much publicity, and they had so many people come they couldn’t park them all. So it actually worked out very well.”

So was the BMW really remote controlled?

“The possibility certainly exists now but not back then,” Armstrong says. “The blind driving was probably the most difficult part. We stripped out the cars, took out the front and rear seat cushions but left in the seat backs, extended the pedals, gear lever and steering column so that the driver could lay flat on his back on the floor. We put lipstick cameras in the rear view and side view mirrors, which fed pictures to three monitors above the head of the guy driving. He looked up into the monitors to see where he was going. Then we put black material over him so that on all the run-bys we didn’t have to keep the camera down low. You can see perfectly into the car and see that there is nobody driving it. The only problem was that the driver suffered badly from motion sickness. After every couple of takes, he would get out and vomit and get back in again. It took a lot of skill.”

For all the thrills provided by the BMW vs. Mercedes battle, the final scene—filmed at the Frogmore studio—would top them all.

“For the last piece where the BMW hits the Avis building, Dave Bickers made a rig with a nitrogen tube and several thousand pounds of nitrogen. There is a tube built into the car and a male section on the rig. It is aimed like a dart and blown off the rig through the window, which was great.”

Of the 17 cars used in filming, four were full special-feature cars. Of those, one was completely destroyed, one is with BMW Classic and one with production company EON while the location of the fourth is unknown. All the other cars were sold.

Second-billed R1200C steals the show

The 750iL may have played a dominant role, but for BMW the product placement of their R1200C motorcycle was actually more important, since the company was just about to take on Harley-Davidson in the highly competitive cruiser market.

For filming, BMW provided eight un-modified pre-production models. Many stunt coordinators would have despaired at being given such a big bike to work with, but not Armstrong.

“I always hate it in movies when someone steals a car or a bike and it’s perfect for what they are doing. I like to see things working out of their comfort zone.”

In the film, Bond escapes his captors, handcuffed to pretty Chinese agent Wai Lin (played by Michelle Yeoh) and “borrows” a parked BMW cruiser that they hurtle through the bustling streets of Saigon chased by gun-happy villains in Range Rovers and a helicopter. Being handcuffed together made riding pretty difficult, and the pair miraculously swap places several times on the move.

The big BMW pops wheelies, smokes its tires, climbs stairs and crashes through doors and windows in a bid to escape. Bond and Wai Lin then jump the bike from the top floor of a 25-meter high building, flying over a hovering helicopter, landing on an opposing rooftop and crashing through to the floor below. After startling a love-making couple, they ride onto a balcony that progressively collapses behind them under the weight of the bike, then down more stairs into the street. At high speed, Bond slides the bike underneath the hovering helicopter and throws a wire into the tail rotor, bringing down the chopper. Fantastic—all the more so when you realize that most of it, including the amazing jump, was done for real.

“I was looking for a rider who could do spectacular stuff without getting anybody killed, and my brother introduced me to Jean-Pierre Goy,” Armstrong recalls, noting that “not getting anybody killed” was especially important since his own wife, Wendy, would be serving as Michelle Yeoh’s stunt double.

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“Goy was very, very good. Within an hour of getting on this long, heavy bike he was pulling vertical wheelies, sliding it and smoking the tires. He’d get through a back tire every nine miles. We then sat Wendy on the bike and he’d pull another wheelie. The bike only had limited suspension travel, so it lands like a jumbo jet. You can always tell the wheelied bikes from the others because of the dents in the tank made by Wendy’s backside.”

The Vietnam street scenes were actually shot in Bangkok, Thailand.

“It was very dangerous, because we had 200 cyclists with a motorcycle plowing through the middle of them. We also filmed the helicopter flying shots and the aerial rooftop shots there. It was amazing.”

Since the crew couldn’t destroy Bangkok, an exact replica of the street and rooftops was built at Frogmore. This set gets shot to pieces and destroyed in the film, and it’s also where the helicopter jump took place.

Although Armstrong had insisted that Jean-Pierre and Wendy wear a running safety wire attached to an overhead rig for the collapsing balcony scene, “just in case,” there were no such safety devices for the helicopter jump. He’d originally thought this scene would be computer generated, but Goy convinced him he could do it for real.

The helicopter’s blades were removed and drawn in later, but its motor was running and the hub turning. The front edge of the landing was designed to break away in case Goy landed just short. Underneath the roof, which collapses when the BMW lands on it, were 10,000 cardboard boxes. Goy was made to wear a harness, and a crane was on standby so that he could be quickly clipped on and winched to safety if fire broke out when he landed.

“This was my big film,” Goy says. “I like difficult, technical stunts, and I like precision riding. Sometimes I crash, but I spend a lot of time thinking and carefully preparing. I had not seen the BMW before. It was a big, heavy bike. When you see some movies, they change the bikes to a light motocross bike. They don’t make the right noise, or you see the wrong tires. Some people don’t notice but motorcyclists do, so I prefer to use the real bikes. The jump was 21 meters long and very high off the ground. I made 200 jumps in training but had just one day for filming. The woman on the bike is a mannequin. There were 350 people in the street and it was dangerous, but I made it.”

After filming, all the bikes were apparently sold off, perhaps because Tomorrow Never Dies had generated so much interest: In the year following its release, the R1200C was BMW’s biggest seller.

The World Is Not Enough, but a Z8 should be!

For 1999’s The World is Not Enough, Bond was given a new Z8, which like Golden Eye’s Z3 hadn’t yet gone into production when filming began. BMW supplied two pre-production prototypes, which the company still has, and the Bond film team made six plastic-bodied replicas for modifying and wrecking.

According to Q’s assistant, played by John Cleese, the 4.9-liter V8 Z8 featured remote control, equipped with titanium armor, a multitasking head-up display and “the very latest in intercepts and counter measures—and six beverage cup holders.”

Despite all that, the car was used only briefly in the film. While being chased through the forests around the Caspian Sea by helicopters with tree-cutting buzz saws suspended underneath, Bond uses a Stinger missile that pops out the side of a front fender to destroy one helicopter before another descends and saws the Z8 in half.

“The reaction [to that scene] is very funny,” Armstrong says. “I think many people would sooner see their wives cut in half than a lovely car.”

He’s probably right, so maybe it’s for the best that Bond has returned to driving and destroying Astons in subsequent films, including the latest, Skyfall. But if BMW’s product placement team decides to outbid Aston to provide future Bond cars, well…Never Say Never Again.

Film stills and other Bond photos:

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