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Top Gear's history of the drive-in cinema

Who else to make sense of 2020's trend for in-car movies than... Socrates?

  • Top Gear: Long time no see, Socrates. Let us talk of drive-in cinemas, for they are back!

    Socrates: So I hear, Top Gear. But please, let us begin at the beginning. To know where we are, we must know from where we have come.

    TG: Most wise, Socrates. Well, the story of the drive-in begins with an obese, angry mother.

    S: As do so many great quests.

    TG: Quite so. In New Jersey, in the late Twenties, a young entrepreneur named Richard Hollingshead found himself cooped up at home with his frustrated, overweight mother.

    S: Why was she frustrated?

    TG: Because she was very enormous, and therefore could not visit the cinema. At least not in comfort, and not without several shoehorn-wielding ushers to extract her afterwards. So her diligent son decided to do something about it. One balmy summer’s evening, young Richard parked up the family sedan in the front garden, levered Ms Hollingshead onto its front bench, balanced a Kodak projector on the hood, nailed a bedsheet between a couple of trees... and lo, the world’s first drive-in cinema was born.

    S: Any loving son would do the same. Was the portly Mrs Hollingshead pleased with her son’s exertions?

    TG: History, sadly, does not record her reaction. But, clearly believing he was onto something, Hollingshead Junior spent the next few years finessing his concept – not least by upgrading the trees and bedsheets arrangement to an actual screen, and the front garden to a purpose-built amphitheatre. In 1933, in Camden, New Jersey, he opened the world’s first drive-in cinema, with space for 400 cars.

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  • S: Was it an immediate and spectacular hit?

    TG: It was not. Partly because the first film that he screened, a British comedy called Wives Beware, was a notorious stinker. But also, more generally, because of the problem of sound, and the fact it travels slower than light does.

    S: It has a tendency to do so.

    TG: Cinemagoers parked far from the screen, and thus the speakers found an annoying delay between pictures and noise. It wasn’t until the late Forties that drive-in operators solved the issue, offering either individual speakers for each car, or by broadcasting the film’s soundtrack on FM radio. This, coupled with the post-war explosion in American car ownership, ushered in the drive-in’s golden era. The Fifties and Sixties.

    S: This is the part, I believe, where you descend into a misty-eyed reverie about good old days.

    TG: It is. Just picture it, Socrates! Cruising to the drive-in in your tailfin Caddy, your sweetheart on your arm. Hot dogs and French fries and soda delivered by a carhop... on roller skates! America in the Sixties. What a time to have been alive!

    S: Apart from all the racism. And all the warmongering. And all the Monkees.

    TG: Would it kill you, Socrates, for once not to put a damper on Top Gear’s rose-tinted view of history?

    S: I am a natural sceptic. But were drive-ins not dens of iniquity?

    TG: They sure were! Drive-ins were the original ‘Netflix and chill’, introducing an entire generation of what might today be referred to as ‘interactive in-car entertainment’. In fact, sociologists have calculated that around a quarter of all Americans alive today were conceived at a drive-in.

  • S: Is that true?

    TG: No. What is true, however, is that the American press dubbed drive-ins ‘passion pits’, which presumably did nothing to dissuade amorous teens from visiting. And visit they did. In their late Sixties heyday, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins across America. The biggest, in New York, could hold over 2,500 cars. But just a couple of decades later, this had plummeted to just a few hundred.

    S: What fuelled this precipitous decline?

    TG: Myriad factors, Socrates. The oil crisis of the early Seventies sparked a shift to smaller, more economical cars. Smaller, more economical cars lacking in that all-important front bench seat. At the same time, the rise of the mall saw landowners tearing down their drive-ins to make way for lucrative shopping complexes. And then there was the invention of the VCR. Why drive to the edge of town to watch a film when you could do so from the comfort of your own sofa?

    S: I believe they call them couches. But tell me, Top Gear. Why did the drive-in never take off in Britain?

    TG: Some blame our smaller cars. Some blame our soggier weather. Some blame the fact that we have simply never been as wedded to our cars as the Americans. Let’s be honest, we’ve only really got comfortable with the idea of drive-through food in the past decade or so. But Top Gear’s theory is that, in the Fifties, Britain just wasn’t quite cool enough to pull off the whole drive-in thing. Also, it is very difficult to deliver a full roast dinner while wearing roller skates.

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  • S: But now, you contend, the drive-in has arrived in Britain?

    TG: Yes, S-dog! It’s 2020, and the drive-in is back, baby!

    S: I must dispute your thesis. Surely, in Britain, the drive-in never truly arrived in the first place. One cannot, logically, return to where one has not previously visited.

    TG: Always with the philosophy, Socrates. But fair point. So... it’s 2020, and the drive-in is finally here, baby! And it’s all thanks to coronavirus.

    S: That virus has received a deal of criticism, much of it justified. But we must give it credit when it pulls one out of the bag.

    TG: Quite so. With regular cinemas – shall we call them walk-ins?

    S: Let us not.

    TG: Your call. With regular cinemas closed or severely hamstrung by COVID-19 regulations, drive-ins are springing up all over Britain right now. The biggest player, if you’ll pardon the pun...

    S: What pun?

    TG: Sshh. The biggest player is Luna, which currently has eight screens across the country, mostly in the grounds of grand country houses, mostly showing classic films.

  • S: And you have sampled the experience?

    TG: Strictly in the name of research, Socrates. We brought an old Ford Mustang. We ate hot dogs. We watched Back To The Future.

    S: Living out your classic Americana fantasies in front of a film about time travelling back to Fifties America. Never one for the subtle symbolism.

    TG: Don’t spoil this, Socrates. It was glorious. Big screen, kaleidoscope sunset, classic muscle car. Squint and it could have been Sixties California.

    S: You would have to squint pretty hard. Isn’t that Blenheim Palace in the background?

    TG: It is. Also you’d have to ignore the distinct lack of Eldorados, Bel Airs and Thunderbirds. And the distinct presence of Micras, Fiestas and Zafiras.

    S: You know what they say. When the Zaf’s rocking, don’t come knocking.

    TG: Distinct lack of amorous smooching to report, in fact. Which is probably for the best, as most of the cars seemed to be filled with families of four.

  • S: Let us deal with the most important question. Were the hot dogs juicy?

    TG: They were indeed juicy, and delivered by carhops on electric scooters instead of roller skates, which is about as weird as intergenerational mash-ups get. Also, on the subject of modern tech, every car gets a little wireless speaker on entry, which on the upside delivers booming, perfectly synchronised sound, but on the downside is very easy to accidentally take home after.

    S: So tell me. Now the drive-ins have arrived, are they here to stay?

    TG: Depends how long coronavirus is planning to stick around, but Top Gear suspects they are not. Even Luna concedes drive-ins aren’t an especially economical enterprise – compared with a regular cinema, you need a lot of space, and a lot of staff, and, if you’re using a conventional projector, you’ve got to wait until it gets dark to start the show. Which is a problem in high summer, as it means your film will probably finish around 2am.

    S: You sound pessimistic, my friend.

    TG: Sadly so. Though a gloriously novel experience, Top Gear fears that, for most, the drive-in will remain just that: a one-off novelty rather than a weekly outing. Bunging on a DVD may be less romantic, less redolent of a balmy past, but it’s also a whole lot easier. So let’s make the most of the drive-ins while they’re here, because they might not be around for long.

    S: Quite so. In which case, pass me the keys to the Stang. I’m off to catch Dirty Dancing at Knebworth House and eat my own bodyweight in burgers.

    TG: Classic Socrates.

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