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'Hollywood' Bob McRae gets his classic cars on the Big Screen

The retired automobile dealer owns a fleet of 45 old vehicles, which he rents to studios for about $300 per scene. You've probably seen them – in 'The Aviator,' 'Pearl Harbor,' and 'Seabiscuit.'

By Evan PondelCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2008

Bob McRae owns a fleet of 45 classic cars, including a 1951 Packard and 1946 Dodge, which he rents out for as much as $300 a scene. His vehicles have appeared in such movies as ‘Pearl Harbor,’ ‘The Aviator,’ and ‘Seabiscuit.’

evan pondel

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Los Angeles

On most days, Bob McRae's home is flanked by seven cars wearing muted gray sheets. But on this particular morning, the covers are off and Mr. McRae is giving his cars a patent-leather shine, his buff cloth licking the dust from an egg-shell blue convertible Rambler.

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McRae, a sturdy man with a whisk-broom mustache, has married two of his passions – cars and movies – to create a second career late in life: renting classic automobiles to film production studios throughout Los Angeles.

He has developed a reputation as a go-to man for old motion-picture cars, making him as well-known among some crews on Hollywood back lots as Tom Cruise or Kate Hudson. Indeed, his vintage vehicles, which include a bejeweled 1951 Packard, 1963 Lincoln Continental, and 1932 Dodge, have appeared in such movies as "Walk the Line," "The Aviator," "Seabiscuit," and "Pearl Harbor."

When studios rent a car from "Hollywood Bob," as he's appropriately called, they know they will be getting a meticulously maintained vehicle, one that is likely to slow down when an actor (or frequently McRae himself) pumps the brakes, something that can be a concern with old vehicles on set.

"Hollywood Bob is great because he knows his cars, and he's able to stop on a dime," says Antoinette Meier, chief executive officer and casting director of Aba Antique Autos in Beverly Hills, who has worked with McRae on numerous movies.

McRae is part of a boutique industry that has emerged to serve the frequent demand for period vehicles in the film industry. Decades ago, most Hollywood studios owned their own fleets of cars. It wasn't uncommon for a studio to have a garage and employ an Indy 500-size staff of mechanics. But as cars aged, the cost of maintenance rose. So a subculture of car collectors began to rent out their Shelbys and Studebakers for use on the big screen.

"Studios no longer wanted to go out there, find a car, buy a car, and spend all that money for only one day of use," says Bob Hartwig, a rental agent at Cinema Vehicle Services in North Hollywood, Calif., whose company owns nearly 1,000 cars used in movies. "It is a lot easier to spend $275 a day to rent the same car."

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