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Fire on the Set: When Dozens of Your Movie Cars Go Up in Flames

I didn't own all those Chevys that burned to the ground, but they were my responsibility.

One of the great things about running a film-car business is witnessing the look of joy on owners’ faces when they drop off their cars to appear in a big-budget movie or television production. Watching people survey the incredible 1990 Chevrolet dealership that had been created out of a former (real) dealership in Ellenville, New York, by the talented production people for the upcoming HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True, you could feel—even bask in—their excitement. Recreating a moment in time is so cool, and when it all comes together? Wow.

But then again there’s the absolute worst thing about being in the film-car business: Having to call an owner and tell them that their car has been damaged. This is a call I’ve had to make a few times, and it’s not pleasant, although in my experience big-budget productions never complain about paying to repair damage that’s occurred on their watch. I’ve heard tales of legendary meatheads treating cars badly, but I’ve always found production people to be respectful of and careful with old and valuable cars.

Actually, scratch that last paragraph. Damage to a vehicle would be the second absolute worst thing. Because the worst thing is what happened today, when I got a 6 a.m. call that the ersatz Chevy dealership that had been so painstakingly crafted to serve as an I Know This Much Is True set had burned to the ground overnight. So today was spent by me calling and writing owners to alert them that their cars may have been destroyed or severely damaged in a fire on set, details to follow. The videos—one is embedded below—were horrifying. Cars I’d supplied burned to the ground in a three-alarm blaze, along with the dealership. That it happened sucked for me, of course, but most obviously and even more for the owners and the people who had re-created this amazing dealership. For them, it was far worse.

What of the bright yellow, super-low-miles 1990 Chevrolet Beretta Indy Pace Car edition? The row of wonderfully preserved Camaros in all models and hues? The Corvettes and the incredibly original C1500 pickup? Or the fellow who spent a week putting together genuine Chevrolet loose-leaf binders exactly as they appeared on sales desks in 1990 and ’91? I felt so badly for all of the people involved.

Other than needing to call someone to notify them of the death of a human loved one or a treasured pet, there isn’t much worse than having to tell them their one-of-a-kind gem of the automotive past is no longer among the living. Sure, in this case, some of their cars might be more obscure objects of automotive desire, but it’s their obscure object, a subject I surely know something about. There’s a lid for every pot, they say, and an owner for every downtrodden Chevy Lumina APV (one of the cars that survived completely unscathed, ironically enough). No one wants to see their car burned to a crisp.

Fortunately, everyone is insured by the production and they will be made whole, financially. And no one was injured—or worse. Still, there is no amount of money and nothing you can say about a total loss of a motor vehicle that makes it right, although everyone I called took comfort in the fact that no people were injured. While fire inspectors, police, and insurance claims adjusters poke through the ashes, the cars that can still move leave the site, while others sit, charred and grim as could be. We don’t know yet what caused the fire. We don’t know why it spread so fast. Surely with this much at stake, they’ll get to the bottom of it soon enough.

But even while the rubble is being removed and wreckers cart off the steel, aluminum, and fiberglass carnage, the search for a new set on which to re-re-create the 1990 dealership, and the quest to locate more 1990 Chevrolets, has begun. This is showbiz and the show must go on.

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