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Meet the man who found The Man From UNCLE's Sixties cars

Meet Alex King, the man who filled the sets of Guy Ritchie's new spy blockbuster with stunning period metal

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The Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie’s new Cold War blockbuster, revels in the glamour of the Swinging Sixties, especially when it comes to the most important members of the cast: the cars.

So how do you source a grid of period F1 racers, or a bunch of Trabants for a car chase across East Berlin, or enough glamorous British and Italian metal to fill the enclosure of a playboy’s racetrack?

You call Alex King.

The Man from UNCLE: the Top Gear review

As Picture Vehicle Coordinator on The Man From UNCLE, Alex was responsible for filling the streets of Rome, Berlin and, um, Goodwood with stunning, period-correct cars. And turning a fleet of Wartbergs and Trabants rear-wheel drive. And building a replica Ferrari 250 GTO from scratch.

Clearly, then, Alex was a man TopGear needed to meet…

TopGear.com: Jaguar E-Types, Ferrari 250 GTOs - The Man From UNCLE has a pretty tidy array of early Sixties cars. Were they all written into the brief?

Alex King: There’s no brief. The only brief I get is a script. I see where we are, where we’re set, the characters. Then I decide the cars.

Top Gear video exclusive: watch the car chase from The Man from UNCLE

With period shows, the cars are such an important part of the dressing. If you have someone walking down a street, depending what cars are going by, it sets the mood and the era. It’s a flavour.

TG: How do you source the cars?

AK: You build up a bridge of contacts. I’ve got a little black book on my computer. If I need a 1920s van, I can find it. There’s clubs, enthusiasts clubs, I’ve got buyers, people in Europe that know someone who knows someone.

The car world is a very strange place. You’re looking for something obscure and there’s nothing-nothing-nothing, and then you talk to someone who says, ‘You need to speak to so-and-so’. So you speak to so-and-so, and he says, ‘Yeah, I’ve got loads of those…’ 

Quite often it’s detective work. Sourcing, looking, meeting, chatting. Some times it’s easier than others.

When we got in touch with the Wartberg owners club, the guy was such a misery. He said, ‘No, no we’re not doing that sort of film work. Don’t bother calling me again.’ He put the phone down. We bought a load of Wartbergs and p***ed him off that way.

It’s detective work. Sourcing, looking, meeting, chatting

TG: Were there any cars you couldn’t get?

AK: When you’re going super high end, it gets tough. Left-hand drive Ferraris in the UK were tricky. The owners of these vehicles, they keep them under cloths in garages, they’re looked after, they don’t come out. And the owners don’t need us, they don’t need our money.

But then other owners say, ‘Yeah, would love to have it in the film. Take it.’ It depends who you deal with.

TG: How obsessive were you over the detail?

AK: Often a buyer would find a car I’d asked for, and say something like, ‘It’s a ‘67, but you could use that’. [The Man From UNCLE is set in 1963] OK, most people would never notice, but someone will spot that and it’s my fault. So I draw the line – even if I love it, it’s got to be period.

The [Ferrari] 250 GTO they wanted to source – well, I found a left-hand drive one in Italy. This car was absolutely stunning, but it was so expensive to drive and rent.

TG: Not exactly a surprise, that…

AK: We went all the way to this beautiful little Italian town, and the owner’s got this garage of amazing Italian cars. He said we could rent it, but they wanted a lot of money. An awful lot of money. I just couldn’t justify it. So we built a replica.

TG: The cars from the Berlin scenes aren’t quite so glamorous…

AK: Trabants were pretty much all you had in East Berlin at that time. Trabants and Wartbergs. We didn’t know how many would be around today, but they all came out the woodwork.

They were all barnyard farms, those things. Heaps of rust, falling apart, old smoky nasties. All the chrome and rubber was gone, handles were sent away to be rechromed. We had to source new motors for the windscreen wipers. Roof lining, new trim. Those cars were all put together again.

They were barnyard finds. Heaps of rust, falling apart

TG: Did they need a bit of… updating?

AK: The engines in the Trabants were awful, like sowing machines. So we replaced them with Polo engines, 1.4s.

We put Volvo engines in the Wartbergs. We unbolted the body from the chassis, and built a row of new chassis. We put new suspension on. We had to put a tunnel through the centre of the car to make it rear-wheel drive.

When we got them they were pieces of s***. After we’d done all our work, I looked at them and thought, ‘What a fantastic job I have.’ It was so great to see that transition.

TG: So you’ve got a fleet of the best-driving Wartbergs in the world?

AK: For sure. The Wartbergs did fly. And the Trabant. They both drove really well. Hydraulic handbrake? Rear-wheel drive? You could really get the back out round corners…

TG: Not exactly period-correct, though…

AK: We’re in the fantasy movie world. It was very old school Bond, that’s what it felt like. If I go back to my childhood and watch the James Bond movies, you can pull them apart. You go into a movie to go into an alternative reality.

The Sixties was the beauty decade for vehicles

TG: How ‘real’ were the chases?

AK: Very real. Guy wanted to do as much as possible real. As much as we respect CGI and visual effects, as far as gags and stunts are concerned, when it’s real you feel it’s real.

When you see Bullitt, it’s one of the most exciting car chases. It’s very simple, but done for real. With some modern action sequences, you know it’s CGI, and you lose the sense of reality and danger, the sense of risk. The more real and gritty it is, the more fun it is.

TG: Any hidden heroes in the film?

AK There’s a scene in Italy where they’re going into the hotel. Outside, we got the original Fiat Multipla, it’s this little… maggot of a vehicle, I absolutely loved it. It was so relevant to the time, and so beautiful in its design. That was one of my favourites.

TG: The early Sixties was the era for cars, wasn’t it?

AK: The whole Sixties thing, for me, is just incomparable. It’s all about performance now, but the beauty of the Sixties, the lines of the cars… it was the beauty decade for vehicles, the weird and wonderful. It all went a bit murky in the Seventies, didn’t it?

TG: The Man From UNCLE offers quite a… rose-tinted view of the Sixties, though. You’ve left out a lot of the snotters.

AK: Wouldn’t you do the same? Yeah, you could put a bunch of s****y cars in there, but no one would notice. It’s a waste of a space of a car. Why not fill it with something that someone says, ‘I remember granddad had one of those!’ or, ‘What the hell is that?’

I hope that reaction happens. It was a beautiful period. Sometimes I have the best job in the world…

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