A Brief History of Early Stunt Driving

December 18, 2012 Off By Humberto Byrn

When we think of stunt work, especially stunt driving, we tend to think of the latest Bond movie, or go back to the ‘classic’ era of 70s stunts. But actually incredible stunt work has been around for as long as movies have, and driving stunts quickly became a staple part of the movie-goer’s diet. In fact there was an incredible amount of driving thrill work being done in these days, which just wouldn’t be allowed today, and for all the graininess of the footage from the silent era there are still a lot of breathtaking stunts that blow any CG effects from recent movies out of the water.
License: Creative Commons image source
Have the Classics Been Forgotten?

Some of these stunts have been almost entirely forgotten now, especially as they featured in ‘serials’ rather than full length movies, meaning they were tit-bits designed to entertain an audience before or between the main features. One such segment of stunt vehicle history was pulled off by driver Buddy Mason. He was known for motorbike work, and in one particular piece he had to jump from a bridge onto a moving train. The safety measures he prepared were just a few mattresses and a stack of cardboard placed in one of the train freights. As it turned out the timing was off, and Mason managed to land on the train but not the mattresses, earning himself fractured bones all over his body, but getting the footage and surviving.
Why Would People Put Themselves In Such Danger?

Movie directors had a taste for combining different features to get the most out of a car stunt. For example ‘Speed’ Osborne performed a trick where he drove a motorbike over a cliff and opened a parachute to avoid catastrophe. Sadly he didn’t open the chute when he was supposed to, and ended up – according to one of the cameramen – with his shin bones sticking through his boots. Osborne’s later response to why he did such dangerous stunt work was a simple: ‘Twenty-five dollars a day.’
‘Won In the Clouds’ Set the Standard

While the disasters might be more infamous, there were plenty of stirring successes. Al Wilson was an ace driver and stunt pilot of the 20s, and his jump from a moving car onto a moving plane in the movie ‘Won in the Clouds’ is one of the all-time incredible pieces of stunt work. These were people that laid the groundwork, and in many ways set the bar, for stunts in movies. While the movies themselves may be largely forgotten, all risk-based action in movies today pays tribute to their work.

Thanks to Keith Yarrow for this post. Keith is a motoring enthusiast and a film buff. Keith devotes his time to his Peugeot 206 and has always dreamed of being a stunt driver.