Posted by: helldriversmovie | April 25, 2008

Hell Driver Flashback: James Bond’s Astro Spiral Jump

Two stuntman accidents during the production of the new James Bond movie, “The Quantum of Solace,” has fueled media buzz about a 007 curse.

A third accident, which resulted in an Aston Martin skidding off the road and plunging into an Italian lake, actually happened during a promotional event and not during a scene. The London Telegraph jovially reported that the driver sunk to the bottom of the lake but emerged “shaken but not stirred.”

Bond movies have long dipped into their own pool of favorite professional stuntmen. But in the early days of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, the craziest driving was done by the very same Hell Drivers who delighted audiences at county fairs.

Even in this age of special effects, the most impressive Bond stunt of all time remains the infamous Astro Spiral from 1974’s “The Man With The Golden Gun” — a feat that spun an AMC Hornet X Hatchback 360 degrees in the air like a football. The stunt, later performed live at stadiums, was engineered by the brainiacs at Cornell University.

Legendary stuntman Jimmy Canton, a star for four decades with the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, did not perform this stunt in the movie (his buddy Loren “Bumps” Willert did it with an AMC Hornet). But Canton was one of the most successful stuntmen to pull off this physics miracle. He’s pictured to the left of promoter Jay Milligan at the Houston Astrodome below.

He spiraled in a Javelin, not a Hornet, and sometimes the stunt flopped — even when the driver did everything right. Some of the secrets were a small fifth wheel on the back of the car and a partially collapsible ramp that set the corkscrew effect in motion.

We caught up with Canton during the production of Hell Drivers and captured his memories of the Astro Spiral. Needless to say, when the stunt didn’t work, Canton didn’t blame it on a curse!

Here are a few choice snippets from our interview:

Q: How unusual was this stunt when it was unveiled in the 1970s?

JC: “The first couple of them, they did unmanned by radio control… When they were planning it, the odds were that it would never work.”

Q: What did it feel like inside the spiraling car?

JC: “It put about four to five G’s on you, it spins so fast, it’s just like a barrel roll in an airplane… You sat right square in the middle to get that spiral effect so your weight wouldn’t go to one side.

“Over every wheel had to weigh exactly the same. You had wheel adjustments built into the car and good roll bars. Nothing gave when you hit like that upside down. You’re the only one that gave and it would jar the devil out of you!”

Q: What was special about the ramp?

JC: “A series of events had to happen on this takeoff ramp. Your front wheels would hit the ramp and then you would hit a trip that knocked that ramp down so the back wheel wouldn’t hit it — that’s what would start it in a spiral.

“One side of the ramp was I think about seven feet high and the other side of the ramp was real low. So that gave it the final twist.

“As a driver, you had to hold that speed and listen. When that ramp dropped off from underneath the rear wheel, they had a little steel wheel half way from wheel to wheel underneath the car and it rolled on a steel plate on this ramp. When you heard that wheel hit and start to spin, that’s when you had to get off the throttle.

“If you didn’t, it would spin too far. There was a lot the driver had to focus on. You had to be mentally thinking every second.”

Q: Anything else you had to focus on?

JC: “The driver had to be within a half a mile an hour and you had about an inch on each side (of the ramp) for clearance. You had to be right dead on the money!”

Q: The stunt sometimes flopped?

JC: “All this stuff had to work perfect. I missed three times, one of them in the mud. I just couldn’t get the speed. Another time, the car went halfway and that’s where it landed (on its roof).

“You weren’t sure each time whether it was going to work or not. I did four of them four nights in a row in Hamburg, New York and that’s the only time my wife Shirley and the kids ever saw it. And all four of them worked.”

More important than impressing fans at the Astrodome back in its heyday (when it was dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,”and hosted the Bad News Bears) was impressing Mrs. Canton.

Shirley, who yawned as her hubby got shot out of cannons and escaped from bone-crunching crashes for decades, told us that the Astro Spiral blew her away.

“The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe that he really did that,” she marveled. “I couldn’t believe that it really happened because it was really fast. And they put a priest sitting beside me the first time I saw it. That made me a little nervous. It was a great act, a great stunt!”


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