My college best friend had a white Karmann Ghia that he called “Leopold.” Ghias were, I suppose, slightly cooler than the ordinary VW bug that most of us owned back when we were young, but most of us thought they were funny looking and, most importantly, no faster than any ordinary beetle.
I had been watching “Once Upon a time… in Hollywood” (2019) on cable, and I remembered that Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) had been driving the same bloody blue Karmann Ghia in Mexico on her way to the final showdown in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004). So, I asked myself: Why in hell does Quentin Tarantino think that Ghias are cool, and what is it with that blue color?
I decided to search the Internet, and I found the answer: his dad owned one and he fixated on blue Ghias as a child! My father had a copper-colored 1960 Chevrolet Bel-Air, but I only thought it was cool back then. I wouldn’t take a free one today.
The cars in Quentin Tarantinoâ€™s â€œOnce Upon a Time . . . in Hollywoodâ€ come close to stealing the show. Given that the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt â€” both grizzled and a bit beaten up but all the more handsome for it â€” thatâ€™s saying a lot. …
thereâ€™s the blue, beaten-up 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, which belongs to Daltonâ€™s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt).
Oh, that Karmann Ghia. Itâ€™s lovely. I read that to help it perform in the movie as Tarantino wanted it to, he had its VW engine replaced with a pumped-up Subaru engine. The result, strange to say, is exactly what Tarantinoâ€™s films are like: cult cars souped up with new engines.
Theyâ€™re exercises, in other words, in having it both ways: nostalgic and up-with-the-times; viscerally violent and glibly cartoonish; knowing and innocent. Tarantinoâ€™s casting of the Karmann Ghia expresses this duality in more ways than one.
I should stress at this point that I am in no way a â€œcar guy.â€ I own a Honda CRV, and I can never remember where theyâ€™ve hidden the lever that opens the hood. But I do love beautiful cars, and whenever I see a Karmann Ghia, whether in a film or in real life, my heart breaks into a canter.
Yes, Porsches are gorgeous. Citroens are cool. And the great Italian sports cars are obviously unsurpassable. But Karmann Ghias â€” an unlikely combination of German (Volkswagen) mechanicals and Italian design â€” are simply the most beautiful cars ever built.
I know, I know, beauty is subjective. (Although itâ€™s not so hard to find agreement on the proposition that Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are good-looking.) But thatâ€™s precisely the point: A Karmann Ghiaâ€™s attractiveness is not absolute in any Platonic, archetypal way, like a Porsche or a Ferrari. Karmann Ghias are real. Theyâ€™re invitations to fandom. Theyâ€™re approachable. Theyâ€™re affordable. And their shape is â€” to a degree thatâ€™s almost sublime â€” just right.
So yes, if I were Quentin Tarantino, setting my film in 1969, with his moviemaking budget, I, too, would be looking for just about any excuse to film a scene with a Karmann Ghia. I might even build my whole movie around it.
There was a moment when I thought thatâ€™s exactly what he had done. In one of the filmâ€™s indelible sequences, Pitt bids farewell to DiCaprio, hops into his Karmann Ghia, and drives home. Suddenly, itâ€™s as if he were in a different movie, playing a bank robber with the cops in hot pursuit.
Heâ€™s not. Theyâ€™re not. The whole sequence feels gloriously pointless, and â€” in classic Tarantino style â€” quite a few seconds longer than it needs to be. But the pointlessness is exactly what makes it so wonderful.
You could argue that the scene helps â€œdevelopâ€ Boothâ€™s character. You would dutifully point out that when acting as Daltonâ€™s chauffeur, buddy and life coach, Booth drives his Coupe de Ville sedately, whereas when he is in his own car â€” the Karmann Ghia â€” he expresses his true calling as a stunt double: He appears to become a reckless lunatic, but he is actually very much in control. Both sides of his character get to shine in the filmâ€™s denouement.
But honestly, who cares about that? The real reason â€” the deeper reason â€” for the extended Karmann Ghia scene is the same as the reason Tarantino made homages to hard-boiled crime novels (â€œPulp Fictionâ€) and to blaxploitation films (â€œJackie Brownâ€); a revenge fantasy about Nazis (â€œInglourious Basterdsâ€); and a vampire Western (â€œFrom Dusk Till Dawnâ€). Itâ€™s the same as the reason he chose to cast the likes of John Travolta, Pam Grier and Christopher Walken in leading roles. Itâ€™s because he is a fan.
Tarantinoâ€™s main talent is and always has been the exuberant expression of fandom. He is a sort of hyperactive curator of personal pop obsessions. Heâ€™s just like you and me in this sense, only more so.
He tells stories, yes. But original plotting is not where his energies go. His real talent is to bring the irrational wildness of fandom to stories and subjects that in other hands feel exhausted, cliched, or just dated.
Tarantinoâ€™s fandom is so uninhibited, itâ€™s infectious. Spotting the references to his various obsessions is part of what makes his films so fun. But he is generous on this score: If you get his allusions, great. If you donâ€™t, heâ€™ll make sure you have a good time anyway. …
Tarantino is happy for you to know that his father owned a blue Karmann Ghia. But the mental connection he would probably prefer you didnâ€™t make when you see â€œOnce Upon a Timeâ€ is between the Karmann Ghia and a trauma experienced 15 years ago by Uma Thurman â€” a trauma for which Tarantino last year publicly acknowledged responsibility.
In the final stages of shooting â€œKill Bill: Volume 2,â€ Tarantino had asked Thurman, the filmâ€™s lead, to drive a blue Karmann Ghia down a sandy road at a speed with which she was uncomfortable. She had been told the car was not operating correctly after its manual transmission was changed to automatic. She asked Tarantino to get a stunt double to do it instead.
Tarantino insisted she drive, and the upshot was awful. The Karmann Ghia, with Thurman at the wheel, plowed into a tree. Thurman, who is convinced she could have been killed, has since described the incident as â€œnegligent to the point of criminality.â€ She forgave Tarantino (he describes the incident as the biggest regret of his life). But Thurman maintained that the alleged attempt by Harvey Weinstein, Lawrence Bender, and E. Bennett Walsh to cover it up was â€œunforgivable.â€
And, how do you like this? Quentin couldn’t actually put up with a true Ghia’s anemic power, and had the original VW engine replaced with a modern Subaru boxer engine that puts out at least four times the power of the stock German 1500 air cooled flat-four.