The James Bond of the Roger Moore era was a pale shadow of his former, or future self. But the spiral jump stunt in The Man With The Golden Gun is one of the most memorable in movie history, and one that holds a Guinness World Record, and a patent for its development.
Given the kinds of things that cars do in movies today, the jump hardly seems significant now, but in the early 1970s, the 360-degree spiral jump was as big a deal as the first time Jose Yanez did a backflip on a dirtbike in 1991.
The idea to do the jump had been floating around the carnival-like auto thrill show circuit for years.
Stuntman and thrill show promoter Jay Milligan came up with the original plan to do the spiral jump, as part of his J&W Productions thrill show.
According to Jay Milligan in an interview from the Big E — the Massachusetts State Agricultural Fair in Springfield — the thrill show was only around a short time, and ran as a sideline between the company’s successful demo derbies and traditional auto racing events. Its biggest backer at the time was AMC.
There’s some confusion and speculation about why the stunts were performed with an AMC. Like Hal Holbrook said in All the President’s Men, “Follow the money.” Jay Milligan explained it in his interview from Springfield in 2009.
Joie Chitwood — the most famous thrill show promoter of the era — had a strong relationship with Chevrolet, the Kochmann Hell Drivers were running Chrysler products, and other car companies mated up with other promoters to get their cars in the public eye, especially for world-record stunts.
AMC was no exception and provided its cars to J&W Productions. The show used just about every AMC product over the years, including Pacers, Gremlins, Javelins and Hornets. When AMC sold out to Renault, the relationship ended, as did the six or seven year thrill show business for J&W Productions.
Stuntmen are crazy, but they aren’t stupid. It’s probably why a stunt like this wasn’t performed 20 years before. The prospect of dropping out of the air on the roof at speed was a bit much for the drivers, so J&W Productions — based in Hamburg, New York — got in touch with some smart people in Buffalo. Calspan Corporation was originally founded as part of the Research Laboratory of the Curtis-Wright Airplane Division, and eventually became part of Cornell University’s engineering school.
According to Milligan, the company had been studying how cars reacted to road irregularities. When a car “goes over a bump at the same speed, it always reacts the same way,” he said in an interview in 2009. He said “Calspan…got federal money to investigate the repetition of cars rolling over, and we hired them to use some of their mathematical equations.” The idea was to study the practicality of a car doing an airborne barrel-roll in midair on a “home-built ramp,” he said.
The first time the stunt was performed was at the Houston Astrodome on January 14, 1972. By November of that year, Calspan — more specifically, one of its employees, Raymond R. McHenry — had filed a patent on the apparatus, not only for making the jump in a car, but perhaps more importantly, for making the jump in miniature scale.
The abstract for U.S. Patent 3,814,021, filed on November 13, 1972, reads: “Spiral jump stunt apparatus, either in full scale version or toy version, in which a wheeled vehicle takes off from a ramp so constructed as to impart roll, pitch and lift impulses to the vehicle as it assumes free flight to cause the vehicle to spiral while jumping a gap between such take-off ramp and a receiving ramp on which the vehicle lands on its wheels.”
Toys were becoming huge money in the 1970s, and toys featuring car and motorcycle stunts even more so. Kenner was selling its Smash-Up Derby SST sets by the boatload in 1971. By 1973, Ideal would make a fortune with the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. Calspan knew it had something with the spiral jump, and knew there was money to be made in the toy business. McHenry’s patent is specifically referenced as prior art in patents filed by Mattel, Inc. as late as 2013.
The McHenry patent refers specifically to the car J&W Productions used in the jump at the Astrodome, which was based on computer modeling by Calspan:
“The vehicle used in actual experimental jumps was a modified 1972 American Motors Javelin SST with a six cylinder engine and an automatic transmission.”
The Javelin was heavily modified to make the jump, but the driveline — all 100hp, with a Carter 1bbl carburetor and a three-speed automatic transmission — was just as it came from the factory.
The suspension was heavily modified to withstand the load the launch and landing. The team replaced the front springs with heavy duty units to also provide better ground clearance. One thing not mentioned in the patent was that the front track appears to be modified, too. In the photos from the car on display at the Big E (below), the wheels are pushed out by at least an inch on each side. The tires were “heavy duty tires with tubes mounted on heavy duty wheels. An inflation of 60 psi was used during actual performance of the stunt.”
Key to the jump was keeping the weight distributed perfectly from side to side and front to back, so the driver’s seat moved to the right, and rearward to the very center of the car. An extensive roll cage protected the driver in a crash.
The Javelin and later the Hornet also got “Speed control equipment of known construction,” to get the vehicle to 40 miles per hour as quickly as possible, and maintain that speed as the car hit the launch ramp.
What nobody talks about, though, is the fifth wheel. It’s what allowed stunt driver Adrian “Wildman” Cenni to claim to have completed “the first ever ground to ground 360° barrel roll in a 4 wheel vehicle” in 2013 as a promotion for the Baja 1000 that year.
According to the patent, and visible in both the drawings filed, and in the stunt as executed by Chick Galiano, “the vehicle was modified to mount the small auxiliary wheel under the rear axle.”
The auxiliary wheel was forged steel with a polyurethane tread, which sounds technical, but it actually looks like the kind of wheel you’d find on any warehouse cart in America.
The patent continues, “The axle housing was reinforced to support large bending loads. Also, a rod structure was fabricated and installed on the rear axle to prevent lateral motions of the axle under conditions of side loading through auxiliary wheel.”
Unlike the front of the car, which had much higher ground clearance, the auxiliary wheel only cleared the ground by an inch. “The vertical centerline of this auxiliary wheel is about 12 inches to the left of the fore and aft centerline of the vehicle,” reads the patent.
The ramps were designed not only to keep the left and right wheels in the proper orientation, but to connect with that auxiliary wheel. When the car hit the ramp, the force exerted on the ramp allowed it to drop slightly, exposing a third track for the auxiliary wheel:
The track included a “drop section in an operative upper position…arranged to be dislodged by contact with the front wheel on the corresponding side of the vehicle to allow said section to drop to an inoperative lower position and to drop the vehicle on to said auxiliary wheel,” reads the patent filing. The auxiliary wheel allowed the ramp to “impart…pitch impulse to said vehicle.”
Stuntman Jimmy Canton — who completed his first spiral on January 10, 1975 — talked about how it worked in an interview promoting the documentary Helldrivers:
“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.”
The jump made it to the film with stunt driver Loren “Bumps” Willert (often misidentified as “Bumps” Willard) behind the wheel. In one take, Willert executed the jump as it appears on film.
The question is, did it help sell any cars? Probably not. Just ask Roger Moore, who looks positively thrilled to be associated with the brand.