The Car: 1965 Hannibal 8
The Movie: The Great Race
The Driver: Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon)
When you think of the on-screen partnership between Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, it’s natural to immediately think of their hilarious, screwball antics in the cross dressing comedy Some Like It Hot. It’s a great movie, to be sure, that’s rightfully earned its spot as one of the greatest comedies ever. But for me, when someone mentions Curtis and Lemmon in the same sentence, my mind immediately snaps to one of their lesser recognized (but no less delightful) outings: Blake Edwards’ 1965 comedy The Great Race. This is partly because it was a childhood favorite, but it’s also because Lemmon’s character, the villainous Professor Fate, drives a car that’s still unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The film isn’t unlike your typical episode of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races. In it, The Great Leslie, a charming and perfect performer of spectacular acts of derring do, proposes an automobile race that spans from New York City to Paris. Fate decides he’s going to enter the race and defeat his perpetual nemesis once and for all. To do that, he builds his own custom racer: the cartoonishly devious Hannibal 8. This six-wheeled beast has everything a moustache-twirling villain could possibly want for a trans-continental car race, sporting a hidden cannon, the ability to spew a smokescreen, a heated nose that can melt ice and the ability to lift the passenger cab up several feet into the air.
The Great Race was a perennial favorite in my house when I was a kid, so naturally I spent a lot of time wishing that a toy version of the Hannibal 8 would somehow find its way onto store shelves. Though, I suppose now that I’m older I understand why a somewhat obscure comedy from the mid-‘60s never inspired a hot line of toys. Still, the car remains one of the silliest and most memorable parts of a film that’s already pretty ridiculous in its own right.
But what’s truly great about this car is that, despite the impractical and ridiculous nature of most of its gadgetry all of it (save for the cannon and, to a degree, the heated nose) worked as shown. Sure, the cab’s lifting mechanism was a constant source of frustration for the crew as it would frequently malfunction, but seeing as CGI wasn’t even possible back then that lift actually worked. That smokescreen feature? According to a few reports found around the Web, it still works as one of the versions of the car used in the film is still in working order. The Hannibal 8 may have been a wildly impractical and outrageous vehicle, but there’s something truly wonderful in the fact that it actually existed and functioned almost entirely as depicted.