The Karate Kid is one of those rare films that lives on for decades but, in the words of its star, has also been able to reinvent itself to attract new generations of fans. Last spring, streaming service YouTube Premium launched 10 episodes of Cobra Kai, which chronicles the main rivals from the 1984 summer hit, Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, 34 years after their infamous championship bout in the All Valley Karate Championship. The series became an overnight sensation with fans and critics, scoring a 100 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the first episode boasting more than 60 million views. On the eve of season two’s April 24 premiere, we chatted with Ralph Macchio—Daniel LaRusso himself—about a certain 1947 Ford Super Deluxe convertible about to reprise its own star turn.
AM: The response to season one of Cobra Kai was amazing, and the anticipation for season two is off of the charts. What do you make of all of this?
RM: You know, The Karate Kid film is one of those rare, rare times where something keeps reinventing itself and then it gives back. Who knew? Who really knew? But now, the series is taking off in such a great way, and we found such a unique angle that sort of preserves all of the nostalgia and all of the feelings and all of the stuff that the hard-core fan wants, and yet it’s relevant for today.
How did you come to own the ’47 Ford Super Deluxe convertible—the same car Mr. Miyagi gifted to Daniel in The Karate Kid?
Well, it’s interesting. When I went to do the second sequel—and it was always a three-film deal I originally had—so when the original film was a success, it spawned the sequels and it was just an idea I had before I started shooting The Karate Kid Part III. I sat down with the head of Columbia Pictures at the time and I just floated it out. I said, “Maybe at the end of this film, I’d love to buy that car just to have it. It’s just become a piece of pop culture and would be cool to keep in my family,” and all that stuff. And she just listened to me, her name was Dawn Steel. She’s since passed away.
But the day the second sequel was released, that car was on a flatbed in front of my house on Long Island, New York. I never had to purchase it. The title was turned over to me and it was a gift from Columbia Pictures.
What kind of condition was it in?
As is often the case with older movie cars, they look great on the outside but very often they aren’t so easy to deal with. This car was no different, and it was always a challenge. It sometimes wouldn’t start when we were shooting but, you know, on film it was perfect, it was the ultimate. It purred like a kitten and never had a hiccup—that’s the magic of movies.
But when I had it, you know, for a couple of years I kept it up and we had to do a little work to it. And then, life changes for me. I had kids, I got married, and the car was kept in storage for decades on end. It became—I called it the “yellow elephant” instead of the “white elephant.” Like, okay, I asked for this, now what am I going to do with it?
Should I hang on to it? And I always had someone saying, “Hang on to it.” But it was always where was I going to put it? It was more about paying to keep it in storage, because I didn’t have enough garage space. And when I got the call to hear this pitch for Cobra Kai, I said to myself, “Well, I don’t know what the show is, but maybe at the end of day I can get this car up and running.”
Where did the idea of owning the car come from in the first place?
You know, you’re jogging my memory and I’m going back 30 years. People just called it the “wax-on, wax-off car.” It was the coolest car, you know, and I always kept—from every movie and every project I’ve ever done—I kept something. The Outsiders, I kept the Converse high tops and the jean jacket. My Cousin Vinnie, I literally kept the can of tuna fish, which I still have. I will not open that can of tuna fish. Crossroads, I kept the Fender Telecaster. It’s an awesome guitar, and I got to keep that. Even How I Met Your Mother, I took the suit that I wore in the show. It’s kinda fun.
So, with The Karate Kid, it was the original headband and the trophy, and then I said, “Boy, would I love to have that ’47 Ford. How cool would that be?”
What were the main issues that had to be addressed with the car to get it ready for Cobra Kai?
One, it needed a whole new engine and electrical. We could have restored the old engine that was in there. They left that decision to me, explaining, “For when you want to keep this car going forward, it would benefit you to put in current technology but keep the shell.” When you do these auto shows, it’s like any museum, you don’t want to change anything from the original. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for us. Now it has radial tires and disc brakes for safety. And it’s supported with an independent suspension. All the things that we have in vehicles today, but yet when you look at this car you wouldn’t know that.
People know that the car is in season two [of Cobra Kai] because I mentioned that at the New York Comic Con, and at the end of season one, if you recall, there’s a shot panning the front of the car. That actually wasn’t the car. That was another, like, ’48 Ford in the same color, but it had a hardtop. So that’s why it was half covered. And then once we started season two, we shipped my car down from New York to Atlanta where we shoot most of the show and that’s where they did all the work on it.
Specifically, what was done to it?
They put in a new Ford 302 crate engine. It’s a Ford Racing engine with Holley Sniper fuel injection—probably more engine than this car needs. So I have to be really careful. It’s got a little bit of a jump to it. It got a new Ford C6 automatic transmission. We put that way low on the floor, because originally it was a three-speed and reverse, and it was on the steering column. We still left that all on the steering column [to retain the original appearance]. It also got Ford 9-inch rear disc brakes, a custom front suspension, and rack-and-pinion power steering.
It’s nice to see the car being taken care of, because it’s part of pop-culture history.
I guess when you look at the famous picture cars—besides Herbie the Love Bug, I guess the DeLorean in Back to the Future, the Smokey and the Bandit car—that’s pretty good. I’m dating myself. But this one is up there. And I guess all the James Bond cars. But this one is up there. It’s a little piece of Americana cinema pop culture.
People might not realize it, but you had the car repainted, correct?
Well I did that, probably, in ’91 or somewhere around there. It was getting some chip marks and stuff. It happens while we were making the film, you just don’t see it. Someone said, “You know the actual yellow, the Ford yellow, the factory color, was a little bit lighter.” So I was in the mindset at that point, “Well, let’s get this car looking as close to what it did when it rolled out of the factory, as long as it’s yellow.” I wanted to make sure if someone was changing it, it wasn’t going to be blue.
So it was a slightly lighter yellow than the original film, and then we put on a new convertible top, because that top, by the second sequel, had tears in it. The first movie, it was fine, but I think they might have used it in another movie or two as a background car from ’83 to ’89. It wasn’t just sitting there, it was a picture car that was used for all different types of movies. And it had, when it was sold, like nine coats of paint under that yellow, because they would just paint it for whatever project it was on. I feel like it got rescued. I got a rescue dog.
Have you been able to trace the car’s full history?
I have not. I did learn, though, that it was a California car. Or it seemed to be, because whenever someone inspected it underneath, just based on the rust and the stuff from the winters and the pitting of the metal, it was kept as a good-weather car. Our assumption is it was a West Coast car.
Silly question, but have you ever asked yourself what the deal was with Mr. Miyagi having all those old cars in his yard? It looked like he was running a chop shop for vintage Detroit iron.
It’s part of the magic of Mr. Miyagi. I guess it’s part of the fact that he could clap his two hands together and rub them together and make all injuries go away. We want to believe in that. It’s a wish fulfillment. It’s a piece of the soulful magic that only Miyagi has, and then you’ll see in season two, it’s not so easy for Daniel LaRusso when he calls back on those same moments and is questioning why it was so easy and made so much sense when Mr. Miyagi taught it, but when I try to teach it, it’s not the same. Miyagi’s always on some other pedestal level.
But yeah, where did all those cars come from? And you will see—I will tell you this much—you will see those cars again at Miyagi’s house this season.
The real question is whether anyone in real life has ever actually caught Ralph Macchio waxing the car in his driveway?
Ha! Yeah, that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s actually the opening of season two. One of the pieces in the first episode is [Daniel is] going to open up Miyagi Dojo and it’s him dusting it all off, and then going back to that place in his life and shining up those cars because that’s all part of the training.
In your real life, what’s one of the most memorable things that has happened to you in any car?
One was I had this Mazda 626 in New York and I had just auditioned for the public theater production of Cuba and his Teddy Bear. And it was starring Robert De Niro and Burt Young, and I would be the second lead of that show, to play De Niro’s son. The Karate Kid Part II was in the can. I’d just finished Crossroads. I auditioned for that show and I was a nervous wreck. I got in the car and I got the call that I got the part and I’ll never forget that. This was beyond words, being by myself in the car and just, you know, I did all I could not to go over the speed limit driving home.
In Cobra Kai, if the Ford represents the spirit and the chi of Daniel LaRusso, what car would best represent Johnny Lawrence?
Ha! That’s funny. What car would—well, he gets a pretty cool one early in season two. The Cobra Kai dojo is flourishing and has a little bit of money to make it look the way he wants, so you’ll see that. It’s exactly what you would want Johnny Lawrence to have: some bad-ass car that somehow always has AC/DC blaring out of the radio.
What about sensei John Kreese? Or is he strictly a motorcycle guy?
Yeah, right? I think Kreese is—you’ll learn some stuff about him this season. Good and bad, that’s like every character. One thing about Cobra Kai is, it’s really about the gray areas. And that’s the difference between it and the original film, which was so black and white, good over evil. But Kreese, yeah. Martin Kove would have to answer that question for you.
Speaking of other original characters and them potentially making a return on Cobra Kai, what’s on the table?
Everyone’s on the table that makes sense in the show. Anyone who’s in any of those films. Last year we had Randee Heller, who played my mom. I can’t spoil anything, but everything is possible that works organically in the story, and you’re going to see some things that harken back to that nostalgia. I just can’t say what they are.