I was on my way to India when Christine Wandel got naked in my bed. I was twenty, and a virgin. We were cast out. We camped on Mount Tamalpias where Bill and I camped since we were thirteen. I took Rena here, then, Gloria. We left our spiritual energy behind. A man came along and saw our ghosts, and our ghosts cars. They started making car commercials on our road. They recited our message. They took my vision, and commercialized it.
For fifty days in the summer of 1970, I had the All American Girl, with Car. I drove eighteen year old Rena Christensen over some of the most beautiful landscape in California in my 1950 Dodge Coronet I named General Eisenhauer. We camped in a white canvas tent that had been setup in Morocco.
Rena had to go back to school. She had a scholarship to the University of Nebraska where she was approached by a fellow student taking a photography class. He asked if he could take nude photographs of her. He took her into the woods, She was still seventeen. When I went to visit her she gave me the image he took that was used for a Oktoberfest poster.
I am doing a painting of Rena and call her in Nebraska. I ask her for a photo, a side view. She says;
“If you were here, I would give you such a kiss!”
Rena and I were architypes. We left an indelible vision behind. I compared her to a Maserati. When I took her to town, we turned many a head. She made a point to intimidate every beautiful women we came upon. Cats never smile. The City Swells wondered what kind of foreign sports car we owned, and when they saw us get into General Eisenhauer, we topped off their jealousy. We left them frozen in our wake. We were the embodiment of The American Dream.
Five years ago, on Christmas Day, Rena wrote me a long letter, that began;
“Here I am!”
I forgive you, Rena.
“Greg, I want you to know & listen. I apologize for being an abusive girl when our paths crossed in 1970. I had come out of a dark and dangerous place, and you helped me. Please forgive me. No one deserves abuse. I have learned a lot now.”
When Rena and I left the backyard, we went to that freak-out hotel on Telegraph so we could engage in intercourse in a bed. It was a disaster. No sooner did we get naked in bed, then we heard blood curdling screams and evil arguments – from every room. Folks were on bad drug trips. Our room was ugly and used – in an abusive way.
I looked at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, who did not belong here. What a mistake.
“Let’s get out of here! Get dressed.
“Where are we going.”
“It’s a surprise.”
We crossed the San Rafael Bridge around six in the afternoon. We got to Mount Tamalpais, and pitched our beloved tent at seven. We had two hours of daylight. Rena loved this place.
“I want to go swimming. Is there any place to swim?”
“Yes, follow me!”
Fifteen minutes later, we are standing on the trail looking at the beautiful pool of deep water that Catarac Falls fell into.
`You see an ad with a winding road, without a fence in the background – that was shot here,” says Fred Lew, a California State Parks ranger and veteran of more than 40 Mount Tam car shoots.
While other state parks worry about having too many bears, snakes or scorpions, the problem on Mount Tam is keeping the creative-director population in check. Last year, Mount Tamalpais (pronounced tam-al-PIE-us) added a full-time state-park employee who keeps track of requests from film crews eager to reserve camera time for the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Lincoln-Mercury.
The mountain routinely turns into a mile-high traffic jam as camera crews take over the roads.
The car shooters who create the ads for more than 640 automobile models are a small, vagabond group. They are followed faithfully by tightly knit production crews.
Indeed, about 90 percent of all car ads are shot by the same 10 people, says Jamie Appelbaum, a senior art buyer at Team One Advertising in El Segundo, Calif., which creates ads for Lexus.
“Shooting a vehicle is different because it’s an enormous reflective surface,” she says. Only a few people “understand what needs to be done to make a car look beautiful.”
Most tend to go for that same “golden moment” of the day – just after sunset, when auto enthusiasts say cars look their best – photographing the vehicles from a three-quarter angle.
Creative directors naturally want their ads to be unique. But reality often intervenes. “They all want to go to Nowhere, Nebraska,” says car shooter Mickey McGuire, who dominated car advertising in the 1950s and ’60s. But human models are scarce, and “there’s no processing lab in Nowhere, Nebraska, so we have to set up a processing lab, and that means a lot of extra cost. That’s why, historically, we ended up in Miami or Palm Springs or San Francisco.”
Madison Avenue discovered Mount Tam back when photos were finally replacing black-and-white illustrations in car ads. The year was 1955, and Jimmy Northmore was on assignment for a company then called Dodge Motor Co. ``The most important thing, as far as the manufacturers were concerned, was chrome,” recalls Northmore, a longtime partner of McGuire. And chrome, to avoid being sullied by a bluish tint, needs to be reflected against an all-white sky. That means overcast weather, which led to Mount Tam.
Keeping Mount Tam under wraps was relatively easy until the late 1970s, when photographer Dick James chose it as the backdrop for his first BMW commercial for the original “Ultimate Driving Machine” campaign. The ad, showing a pair of headlights zigzagging through the twilight, became the talk of the auto world. From then on, James says, keeping Mount Tam to himself was like hiding a just-discovered sunken treasure.
He has used the location many times since, though he won’t say how often. That is because clients hate to hear how many others have gone before. “It’s like taking each new wife to Paris,” James says. They all “want to think they’re the only one that went there.”
Sensitive to the problem of overkill, ad makers have flirted with other locations over the years – such as dry lakebeds and deserts.
The lighting was lovely, the backgrounds were showy. But other than that, “we didn’t have a good reason” to shoot there, James says. Shooting cars in fields of flowers was another big trend, but most clients didn’t like to see the flowers obscuring the bottoms of their cars. “The clients said, `People will think the cars have flat tires,”’ James says. “So we had to put the cars up on boxes and cut the flowers down.” Mount Tam won out.
The state-park service that oversees the part of Mount Tam most popular with car companies has gone out of its way to make the area commercial-friendly. The horizon is free of visual distractions such as telephone poles, which can spoil an otherwise clean shot. Film crews once made a habit of uprooting road signs, until the park two years ago installed special pull-out reflectors that could be whisked away at a moment’s notice.
“I know all the tricks,” says Ranger Warren White. He has seen how riggers paint the underside of the car black to obscure distracting engine parts. He knows how to stuff sandbags in the trunk to make it sit lower. He has seen more car companies than he can count rent water trucks to wet the road so it looks black.
On a recent day, a beefy “grip” named Tom, with a cable lashed around his waist, slowly tugs a 1999 fire-engine red Corvette with the motor turned off around a blind turn. As Tom labors, ox style, a pretty blonde named Bonnie sits behind the wheel and pretends to drive. “Let’s see a nice smile Bonnie, but no teeth,” shouts Michael Arola, an associate creative director with Campbell-Ewald, Corvette’s ad agency.
Eleven hours later, the sun is setting, and the light turns beautifully warm and gold. “Now that they have the light,” Ranger Lew says, “everything else they shot before this will be thrown away.”