No Mr Bond, I expect you to slide

Filming high-speed car chases in UNESCO-listed town squares for the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die, is no simple matter.

Thankfully, Aston Martin’s Special Projects Division and $140,000 worth of Coca-Cola are on hand to help make things run like clockwork.

Words Vince Jackson Photos Max Earey

Spoiler alert: Daniel Craig isn’t actually James Bond, but rather a ruggedly handsome British actor paid a large amount of money to portray him on the big screen. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t exactly Earth-shattering when it comes to big reveals. But this next one might be.

Because the iconic 1960s silver-birch Aston Martin DB5 that provides Bond’s effortlessly cool transport in the forthcoming Bond movie No Time To Die isn’t actually an Aston Martin either. And as we’re about to find out, for very good reason.

We’ve been issued the entertainment world’s equivalent of a Golden Ticket; a hen’s-teeth rare opportunity to visit the set of the new Bond movie as it films on location in stunning southern Italy. And the aforementioned Aston Martin is currently being pulverised by machine gun fire in an ancient town square.

For a car as iconic, as beautiful, and as expensive (real-world examples regularly fetch in excess of US$1m) as a classic Aston Martin DB5, this treatment amounts to a crime against humanity.

The carnage we’re witnessing is the final piece in a long and painstakingly orchestrated car chase that has flowed (albeit a little slower at times than we might have expected) through the historic Italian city of Matera.

Oh, we should also probably point that this is all happening back in 2019. Why so long ago? Because not long after we visited the set in southern Italy, the world sort of fell apart, and not in a ‘Hollywood magic’ kind of way either. As it is, the production team behind the new Bond film is only just now preparing for the movie’s theatrical release.

The man behind the wheel of this almost-Aston is Mark Higgins, a 48-year-old British rally champion turned full-time stunt driver: a job that already sounded fun before he stepped into the leather brogues of the world’s most famous fictional spy.

 

And the Aston? It’ll be just fine. It’s one of eight replica DB5s built especially for No Time To Die. The sharp minds at Aston’s very own Q Branch – otherwise known as the Special Projects Division – is responsible for their creation. Each replica DB5 is a work of art in its own right, with a steel spaceframe chassis wrapped in carbon-fibre bodywork to replicate the iconic styling of the original. Beneath their gently flowing lines lurks a 268kW straight-six, while rally-derived suspension completes the performance picture.

Each is then further configured to perform perfectly, no matter what the specific scene demands. A car expected to perform a slide will be engineered slightly differently to one involved in a high-speed chase. And so will one expected to be peppered with machine-gun fire, which is why the car we’re staring at is 100% bullet proof — a fortunate turn of events for Mark, who’s still strapped into the driver’s seat.

 

But even for Aston Martin’s own in-house Q Branch (also the group of super engineers responsible for vehicles like the Valhalla and the Valkyrie as well don’t forget), there are some problems you just don’t see coming.

“The challenge here in Matera is that you’ve got five or six different road surfaces that you’re adjusting the cars to all the time,” says Neil Layton, the man responsible for tuning and maintaining this unique movie garage.

The one that worries him most isn’t actually the road surface, but what’s sprinkled on top of it. Dust, and lots of it, which can (without warning) transform a once-normal road into an ice-skating rink. And when the list of stunts includes navigating absurdly narrow Italian alleys at 145km/h before pulling spectacular handbrake drifts into a UNESCO-listed town square, you really want to be precise about grip levels.

 

The solution? Coca-Cola. Thousands of litres of the stuff was poured onto the roads to eat away at the dust and increase traction.

 

“Before filming, we spray the roads with Coca-Cola,” explains Mark. “The difference it makes is amazing, increasing grip levels by about 70%. All in all, we’ve spent £70,000 (around NZ$140,000) just on Coke for the roads.”

 

Of course, dust is just one problem when filming high-speed car chases in a city built long before cars were invented. Some require more than fizzy drink to solve.

 

“This is the most challenging city I’ve worked in,” says stunt coordinator Lee Morrison, now on his fifth Bond film. “Matera is such an ancient place. I’ve had to drive around every location at the same speed I’m asking my stunt guys to do, thinking ‘Right, I need to protect that wall with a steel plate or some K-rail [temporary concrete barriers]’.

 

“You need stunt drivers with the ability to be extremely precise, who understand what the camera is doing.”

 

Still, this is all nothing that Bond, James Bond, can’t handle, surely? We’ll find out soon enough, with No Time To Die at last on its way to screens.

And when you’re sitting down to enjoy it, marvelling at the heroics of 007, remember to spare a thought for the high-speed work of Higgins, Mark Higgins, and the engineering work of the team at Aston Martin’s Special Projects Division, who no doubt deserve ‘00’ status, too

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