'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.'

evan pondel
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
Celluloid classics: Bob McRae drives his 1963 Lincoln Continental weekly to keep it in good mechanical shape for Hollywood studios.

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.

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."

• • •

McRae never set out to rent cars to motion picture studios. He spent a long career managing automobile dealerships. When he retired, he cultivated relationships with friends and neighbors who owned classic cars, long one of his preoccupations.

"I'd have my eye on some cars for years, right here in the neighborhood," says McRae, whose genteel smile and affability have served him well in building up a fleet of more than 45 cars, which he rents out with his son, Robert. "I'd hear about this car and that car, and think to myself, 'How am I ever going to own it?' "

Then Hollywood came knocking on his garage door. He had developed a reputation for owning cars that seemed as if they had been preserved in amber. The perks didn't hurt, either. "I never intended to work again, but the catering on some of these Hollywood back lots is unbelievable," he says jokingly. "I mean, we're talking lobster, roast beef, and barbecue chicken."

McRae lives in a two-story home with a squared-off lawn in the tony West Los Angeles neighborhood of Cheviot Hills. His classic car bug is more than a hobby: Most days he is up at dawn, coordinating projects and vehicle maintenance with his wife, Barbara. His cars usually rent for $300 a scene.

In his den, several dozen miniature cars sit on a bookshelf in the corner, all, of course, neatly preserved. A photograph of McRae and Jay Leno, another car buff, sharing wide smiles with old vehicles adorns one wall.

The phone rings. It's a neighbor who wants to stop by for visit with an out-of-town guest who loves cars. "Absolutely, I'll be here," says McRae, jotting down a quick reminder.

While he owns nearly four dozen cars, McRae doesn't want his fleet to become any larger. For one thing, warehouse space in Los Angeles is expensive. For another, he considers his vehicles like grandchildren – he doesn't want to lose touch with any one of them.

Aside from parking cars in front of his house and at his son's lot in Sun Valley, Calif., McRae rents garage space from neighbors. "I always loved walking by his house and looking at his cars," says Brian Marks, who grew up down the street from McRae, admiring his bituminous gray 1963 Lincoln Continental. "This guy is legendary around here." Mr. Marks had recently returned from living in New York and dropped by to catch up with McRae.

"Let's go for a ride," McRae says, gesturing to the Lincoln, which appeared in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line."

Before entering the car, McRae runs his index finger up the entire length of the driver's side. "Oh, that's a smooth paint job," he says. He settles into the bench seat and starts the big V-8 engine. "All of my cars are in great working condition because I drive each of them a couple of times a month," he says.

McRae believes every car has its own character and tells a story. "If they are preserved well, they evoke a sense of time and place," he says.

Others agree. In fact, in some movies, cars are almost as important as the actors. "They help establish a mood," says Leslie Kendall, curator at The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. "You get a strong visual with a car. And cars and movies were born about the same time, so you find that movies embrace automobiles because they move."

For talent agents who scout cars, finding the right vehicle isn't enough. They also have to have the right owner – preferably one whose vehicles are insured and run right. "You don't have to worry about him running anyone over," says Ms. Meier of Aba Antique Autos.

Indeed, McRae likes to drive his own cars on set whenever he can rather than have actors do it. That's one way for him to insure they won't get dinged or dented. He can recall only one time in the past 10 years when one of his cars suffered a mishap – this one a nick on the bumper. In the recent movie "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," McRae drove his 1951 Packard, an ink-black behemoth with a silver swan ornament on the hood. It's one of Jay Leno's favorites.

"He pulled up next to me once and nodded with that 'I-like-your-car' kind of look. But I don't think I'd ever be interested in selling any of my cars," he says, focusing on the headlamp of a 1932 Dodge that he had worked on with his son." I have so much history with them."

• • •

The helix strands of cars and movies run deep in McRae's DNA. He was born in Culver City, Calif., home to one of the biggest motionpicture studios at the time, MGM. His father was a teacher who discouraged McRae from selling cars. "He didn't think it was an honest job," says McRae, who worked at a gas station across the street from MGM. "But I'd fill up the cars of all these stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner, and I thought some day I'd like to sell these cars."

McRae eventually worked for Pontiac for several decades and raised three kids. After retiring, a friend of his referred him to a studio. Before long, agents were thumbing through his portfolio. Chuck Shubb, an agent and owner of Specialty Vehicle Association, has placed McRae's cars in several films, including "The Thirteenth Floor." Shubb says many people rent out classic cars, "but there is a certain trust you have for people like Hollywood Bob."

Yet for all his celluloid success, McRae and his cars often suffer the same letdown as actors. "Sometimes when I go see a movie, I notice a lot of the stuff, including my cars, ends up on the cutting floor," he says. "It's a real shame."

In his neighborhood, though, McRae is still a celebrity. He sits down to a turkey sandwich lunch. The phone rings. "Oh, you're here. Great!" he says, excusing himself from the table to greet the neighbor and his guest. "I'll be right down to give you a walk through of my cars."

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