Star Wars! Epic spaceship battles! Space wizards with laser swords! Aliens! Chosen ones! Hot rods! Wait, hot rods? Yes indeed, science fiction's biggest franchise is lightly infused with car culture. Allow us to explain.
George Lucas, Car Guy
We've already shown you George Lucas' USC thesis film A Man And His Car, plus the guy did American Graffiti, for cryin' out loud. His fascination with cars runs deep; that's him riding in the Cobra with Allen Grant at the 1963 Pacific Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. Lucas bummed around racetracks a lot in those days, and apparently worked on the cars as well as filming them. He's said to have worked on pit crews at local tracks, and has claimed he wanted to be a race driver until he crashed his own car, an Autobianchi Bianchina (Fiat 500 variant) in a traffic accident, which is as good an indication as any that he wasn't cut out for the racing life. Luckily for us, it didn't dampen his automotive enthusiasm. After making a movie about cruising, which was chock full of hot rods, he turned his attention to long-ago times in faraway galaxies… and put hot rods there. Let's take a look at his creation through fresh eyes.
Luke Skywalker's Landspeeder, Hot Rod
Not exactly a stretch. What else could it be? That dented wraparound grille, the faded paint, those jet engines — Luke has himself a lead sled in progress. Or perhaps even a home-built lakester; Lucas was no doubt familiar with the California dry-lake racing scene, and we can't have been the first kids to look at this shot of Luke tear-assing across Tatooine and think "El Mirage" or even "Bonneville." The landspeeder is a brilliant little "used future" hopped-up vehicle design, and for a lot of knee-high car geeks, it made perfect sense for a space farm boy.
Luke Skywalker, Space Gearhead
Anyone who grew up in a small town recognized Luke, which was of course the idea, but kids who grew up around gearheads recognized something others may have missed. It didn't escape our attention that aside from his space bathrobe, a few space wrenches, and eventually, his laser sword, his ride is the only thing he owns. And it's pretty obvious that despite its smooth levitating action and steady high-pitched whine at idle, it's not exactly the newest-latest, either. You just know that Luke's been wrenching on that thing in between bullseyeing womp rats, wondering if he should fix the stereo or the broken seat recliner next, shucking and jiving for hop-up parts with the Jawas (who just happen to share a name with a particular Czech off-road motorcycle which was popular with California desert riders around the time the film was made, a bike that was also prone to making odd noises and scattering strange bits of metal laying around on the sand). Then, when Luke really needs to get out of town, he sells his hot rod in order to get a ticket on the first thing smokin', a painful life choice familiar to any car guy who ever had their priorities suddenly rearranged by events. You have to wonder if he doesn't want his old landspeeder back in quiet moments, but at the time, he's trading up.
The Millennium Falcon, Whiskey Trippin' Bootlegger's Buggy
Yes, it's a space pirate ship, and yes, it looks more like a hubcap or an aircleaner than any car we can name. But it was a smuggler's machine, and Lucas couldn't have been a California car guy without hearing stories about the moonshiners of the South, many of whom eventually wound up in Bakersfield. Han and Chewbacca are always working on the thing, because if it isn't fast, them Imperial Revenooer boys will catch them. It may not look like much, Han tells us, but she's got it where it counts. Of course, while this turns out to be true, Han sure talks a lot.
Han Solo, Racer; Or, What That Stuff About The Kessel Run Really Means
A swaggering self-centered guy whose identity is tied up with his machine? Any car guy will recognize Han's type right away. He's a tremendous badass, he'll tell you, and he never loses-but when he does, it isn't his fault because, hey, even he gets boarded sometimes. Han's impatient whenever anyone doubts him, has one sidekick he treats as more or less an equal but who doesn't really get to speak, and just wants to be in his ride when he isn't in a bar. Obviously, Lucas had been paying close attention when he was hanging out with racing drivers.
Oh, and that bit about making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs? People fall all over themselves to explain or retcon this. Some say it was simply a mistake and that someone didn't realize or care that a parsec was a measure of distance and not time. Lucas himself has said that because of the unique nature of navigation in Star Wars, making the run in less distance was a measure of spacefaring skill. Well, we think that's crap. When gearheads hear "making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs," we're hearing a drag racer say their car will "do a quarter-mile run in less than 12 seconds," which would have been a fairly respectable time when Lucas was a kid. The line would've sounded right to him when he wrote it, and hey, admit it-our explanation makes as much sense as any other. Lucas is just covering up what a car geek he is, because these days— largely thanks to Lucas himself —being a geek-type geek is better than being a car geek. To which we say, George, may John Force be with you.
Sebulba, Stock-Car Racer
As much as it pains us to talk about the later prequels, they're chock full of car culture as well, and none much more obvious than the scenes revolving around this weedy-looking alien. The podracer scenes may have been lifted from Ben Hur, but they were meant to reach kids who were enthralled by NASCAR, so of course there has to be a fender-bashin' bad guy who plays by his own rules and will wreck ya to beat ya. Enter Sebulba. This space-mustachioed villian's name simply must have inspired by Sepulveda Boulevard, one of the epicenters of American automotive subculture and the street Time magazine wrote about in one of the very first mainstream magazine articles about hot-rodding. For all that, Sebulba is a stock-car driver through and through. And if you consider his open-faced helmet, his cheap-looking goggles, his aggressive driving, and his ugly space ‘stache, it becomes pretty obvious that he's intended to be Space Dale Earnhardt.
Anakin Skywalker's Princess-Magnet Yellow Landspeeder
We hate to break it to everybody, but that Anakin kid is no damn good. Check out that speeder he's in-not only is it the kind of yellow that always seems like a cry for help, at one point he even describes the color as "gonzo." Who talks like that? Clearly Anakin's headed for a bad end. Otherwise the car, anyway, is not a bad design, reminiscent of the classic T-bucket rods right down to the exposed engine and even the scuttle in front of the driver. Unfortunately, when it's a teen driving it, you know he's had everything come to him too easy and probably has daddy issues on top of it. Plus, some guys you can just tell are going to be no damn good to women.
Everybody In The Universe Knows That Chicks Can't Drive, Har Har
Speaking of no damn good to women… You've got to take the bad with the good, and part of the bad in car culture is the chauvinism. The Star Wars universe isn't particularly kind to women anyway, as they're always being tortured or chained to fat space mobsters or dying in childbirth, but on top of that they screw up every time they try to drive, which is pretty much once. Here we see Leia driving a space-off-roader in one of the best action scenes in the original trilogy, and she does okay right up until she biffs it and has to be rescued by the cute furry comic relief. Seems her twin brother never had that problem. Sadly, this portrayal of half the driving population is pretty consistent with the attitude of most mainstream gearheads, who like to refer to girls as counterweights, cupholders, or passenger seat warmers. Seems like we haven't come that far since long, long ago.