Shane Cardwell
Shane Cardwell, International Film and Precision Driving Instructors. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Depending on where you stand on such things, Billy Hoffele can take a lot of the credit – or the blame – for the contemporary movie car chase. It was Hoffele that invented the “Billy brake”, the stunt driver’s best friend: a second brake pedal connected only to the rear wheels that makes it easy to throw any car into a lurid, picturesque slide. It’s Hoffele you can blame for cop cars doing huge slides around tight city streets when the real cars simply plough on with terminal understeer; thanks to Hoffele and his brake, pretty much anything can go sideways, pretty much any time.

We’re at Hoffele’s Etobicoke shop on a field trip, part of a three-day Pro Stunts program put on by Campbellville-based International Film and Precision Driving Instructors (IFPDI), an organization that caters to professional stunt performers from around the world, providing them with the skills they need to execute pretty much any move you’ll ever see on the movie screen. Hoffele and IFPDI principal Shane Cardwell have worked on a number of films together, the most recent one being the Bruce Willis picture “Sixteen Blocks”, which you can still catch in theatres.

For that film, Hoffele was tasked with making a giant New York City bus slide around a corner into an impossibly tight alley in downtown Toronto. “No matter what we tried,” he says, “the bus just couldn’t make the turn. So we cut the top off it and mounted it on a Ford F-350 chassis with the driver in the same place as he’d be in the bus.” With the pickup’s tighter turning circle, it made its way around the corner in the requisite dramatic fashion.

The movie cars that Hoffele builds – and movie cars in general – are a truly odd mix of race-car engineering and low-tech “Red Green”-style improvisation.

Jump seat
Click image to enlarge

Take, for example, the Ford Crown Victoria that’s being set up for us to jump on the third day of the course: it’s fitted with a custom roll cage (built at a cost, Cardwell says, of about $3,600), a specially designed “jump seat” based on a racing bucket with extra butt padding for the hard landing, and a custom-fabricated Tilton braking system from a race shop. Like all of Hoffele’s movie cars, the diagonally-connected brakes have been re-routed, and the front and rear axles now operate separately (the ABS has, of course, been disabled). Inside, there’s state-of-the art safety gear, including a five-point harness with a sternum strap, and the provision for a lexan panel to be fitted under the windshield in case it shatters on impact; the cage has been structured, too, to provide easy access through the passenger door in case of a fire.

Ford Crown Victoria stunt car
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You’d be surprised, looking at the Crown Vic, because it looks so beat up. The body is pockmarked with rust, and every panel has been bent, repainted, and bent again. This car was originally set up to do a roll in the movie “Absolon” a few years ago, and it shows just how much abuse that movie stunt cars are put through. There are “picture cars” that are used for most of the close-ups and beauty shots, and then there are the stunt cars, which are often built, crashed, and rebuilt – often in the space of an evening to be ready to do more the next day.

Considering the abuse that the stunt cars are put through, that they look pretty rough is no surprise. For the roll that Cardwell executed, a vertical cannon was to be installed in the back seat that, with the flick of a switch still attached to the Ford’s steering column, would explode something like eight pounds of gunpowder, driving a section of telephone pole down out of the car to flip it over (and over) and out of control. “Cannons are always unpredictable,” Cardwell says, deadpan. “You’re never quite sure how hard it’s going to hit, except that when you hit that switch, you know you’re going for a ride.”

Shane Cardwell
Shane Cardwell, International Film and Precision Driving Instructors. Click image to enlarge

One of the most valuable lessons learned by participants in the Pro Stunts program comes not from just how to execute each of the moves, but also how to set up the car – and spot a car that has been set up improperly. Out back of Hoffele’s shop, Cardwell instructs students to make sure their safety harnesses are connected directly to the roll cage, rather than the car’s chassis; big stunts often shift the car’s structure so much that they’d tear right away. He also shows them how to inspect welds and joins to ensure that the cage meets their standards.

Then he talks about fires: those that are planned, and those that aren’t. For fires that are planned ahead of time, he fills all of the car’s nooks and crannies – including its vent system – with insulating foam from Canadian Tire (“hey, whatever works,” Cardwell says). And for bigger stunts his cars are fitted with fire extinguishers, sometimes a series of them that can be activated by a switch on the dashboard. “On some movies, I just have a row of switches in front of me to hit when the fires start.”

racing brake system
Racing brake system. Click image to enlarge

In the end, the roll that Cardwell performed on “Absolon” using the small hydraulic ram was so dramatic – flipping him over multiple times – that he ended up not having to use the cannon. “Screwed myself out of a big fee on that one,” he jokes. Then again, he and his fellow IFPDI instructors have rolled so many cars it must seem old hat by now. Henry Kingi has doubled – and driven for – everyone from Mr. T to Queen Latifah (the latter for which he won a World Stunt Award for his driving in “Taxi”), and Allan Wyatt, Jr. drove the General Lee for years on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” One roll opportunity missed? There’ll always be another.

Stunt driving’s an inherently dangerous business, where the rewards may be high but so are the risks. “On the really big pictures – those that have budgets of, say, 60 million dollars or more,” Cardwell says he’s seen a 25% reduction in the amount of stunt work out there, due to the use of CGI effects that replace real stunts. “But on your smaller pictures, those with 5 to 20 million dollar budgets, it’s still cheaper to pay a stuntman to do a roll than it is to program a computer to do the same.”

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