Creating an entire imaginary world is not easy, unless you have a really lazy imagination and just come up with a world that looks exactly like ours, except, say, everything smells 40 percent mintier. For most people, that’s not enough, so movies set in imaginary universes, like the Star Wars universe, are full of things that don’t exist in reality. To make them, though, prop-makers often use and re-cast real-world things. I recently learned about one of these re-imagined object-situations, in this case parts of a car, that became part of one of the most famous props in all of movies: Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Want to know what those car parts are? Sure you do.
I imagine everyone knows what I’m talking about when I mention Han Solo frozen in carbonite, right? Just in case you fell into a coma in 1979 and haven’t gotten around to catching up on the movies after 1977's Star Wars (in which case, welcome back, sorry everything’s so weird), I’ll recap:
In 1980's The Empire Strikes Back there’s a scene where Han Solo is, under the direction of Darth Vader, dropped into a facility that effectively puts him into a suspended animation state by solidifying him into a slab of something known as carbonite, which in the made-up universe of Star Wars, has the ability to keep living things in stasis. Painfully.
Anyway, on the sides of this slab are a bunch of control panels and displays (also seen in Return of the Jedi) that indicate the status of whatever is frozen inside the carbonite slab — is it still alive, if it’s a living being, or I suppose its chemical state if it’s some kind of volatile compound, or whatever.
It’s these control and display panels that are from a car.
More specifically, they’re the plastic instrument panel of a car, flipped backwards, and re-populated with more sci-fi-seeming lights and multi-segment displays and whatevers.
And the car they’re from? A Volvo! And not just any Volvo, but a Volvo 343, a car that was originally designed by the Dutch company DAF and could be had with a DAF Variomatic CVT transmission, which the company was most known for developing.
While it’s not that surprising that I’ve personally never heard this before, what’s really remarkable is that the use of the Volvo dash panels seems to have been forgotten for 30 years, as it took until 2010 for a dedicated Star Wars fan prop-replica builder to finally figure this glorious mystery out.
This is from the post where the builder, who goes by Rebelscum, revealed to the world the secret of the Volvo tie-in to the carbonite freezing industry:
I’m delighted to announce that after looking off and on for years for the part used for side panels on the Han in Carbonite, the search is complete...
The Han In Carbonite Side Panel found part is in fact a dash panel from a Volvo, installed back side out.
As many will know, it’s always been thought the side panels were a car dash. I’ve spent plenty of time working on that assumption but never had any luck, at least until a couple of amazing coincidences happened.
One day a new member joined and stated he planned to build a half-sized Tardis for his daughter’s birthday. His introduction post peeked (sic) my interest because he mentioned he works on old car electrics as a specialty, and like many members of the group, he lives in England. When I read this I immediately sent him a PM and, making no assumptions, asked if he was aware of Star Wars and if so, was he aware of the carbonite prop and if it would be possible for him to please look at some photos I included of the panels to see if he recognized them from an old car. He is aware of the prop but doesn’t recognize the panel, but he starts posting on car forums in England and very quickly sends me a photo of a possible car dash panel ... The search continues and soon he sends me a bad photo of another panel. Though the panel is placed inside out on the carbonite, and photos of the dash are from the front side, I can tell immediately as well it’s a match.
This post also included some pictures of the dashboard, which is from the 1979-1981 Volvo 343, both front side and the rear side, which was what was visible on the prop:
...now look again at some of these close-ups of Han in the carbonite slab:
Yep, that’s it! It’s flipped upside down, too, but you can very clearly see the bar for the warning lights, with the triangular turn signal indicators on each end:
It appears that at least four of these instrument panels were used per side:
...and the “top”panel appears to have the speedometer hole filled with what looks like the small display from an oscilloscope, complete with grid overlay:
Really, it’s a very clever re-purposing of objects. What’s also interesting is that these dash panels would likely have been bought as Volvo service parts, as they would have been pretty new at the time the movie was in production, and wouldn’t have been available in scrapyards. Maybe someone had a friend at a Volvo dealership?
The Volvo 343 was never a really common Volvo, and it was never officially imported to America at all, so demand for these parts for Star Wars hobbyists is far greater than the demand is from actual Volvo 343 owners.
Even more surreal is that because supplies of 343 dash panels in junkyards are so limited, we’re now in the strange situation where new Volvo 343 dash panels are being molded primarily for use in making Han Solos in carbonite and never intended to be used in actual Volvo 343s — though I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t. They’re made from actual 3D scans of a real Volvo 343 dash, a situation that absolutely would never have happened if these parts weren’t used in those movies.
See, now you have a new painfully geeky thing to point out to your friends or pets the next time you’re binging all the Star Wars movies!
And, if you’re a Volvo 343 owner desperately wondering why none of the 343s at your local junkyard have dash panels anymore, I guess here’s your answer. At least you can get new ones, though, right? They just might have labels that tell you how dead or not your carbonite freeze is.