There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what exactly this vehicle is. Often times it is described as a Chevrolet Impala. This cannot be the case, however because Impalas have been imported to Australia in 1965, six years after the release of the model seen in Mad Max.
The 1959 Chevrolet Bel Airs made for the Australian market were built from components imported from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada and assembled locally by hand on the GMH Holden assembly lines in Australia. Complete rolling chassis were supplied from Canada, whereas the bodies were assembled in Australia, painted and fitted with glass and leather trim. The right-hand drive dashboard was a mirror image of the 1959 Chevrolet panel and shared with equivalent right-hand drive Pontiac models. Australian built Bel Airs were easy to identify by factory installed amber indicator lights under the rear wing and behind the grille, their color mandated by Australian law. Holden build plate was also visible on the firewall. 1959 Impalas later imported to Australia lack those features.
The vehicle was powered by a 235 hp 6 cylinder engine and a Powerglide automatic transmission.
Before Mad Max was filmed, the '59 Bel Air briefly belonged to Ken James.
"Back in 1977, after catching a train from Melbourne to Sydney to visit my parents, I quickly grew to hate trains and intended to buy a car to make the trip back to Melbourne. A very quick look in the newspaper and I found a Chevrolet advertised for sale on that weekend only. I telephoned the owner who informed me that the car was too big for him in the city and he wants to get rid of it. 2 hours later I was standing there looking at a '59 Impala (sic) 4-Door. It was the original Grey in colour and appeared to be in immaculate condition. A deal was struck and I purchased the car on the spot for $120."
- Ken James
Ken quickly realized the cost of owning such a fuel hungry vehicle and decided to trade it in for a Holden with an extra $250 bonus. Upon realizing how rare the Bel Air was, Ken went to buy the vehicle back from a car yard, but it was already too late. A movie production company bought the car. Having connections in the TV business, Ken found out that the car was used in Mad Max and was destroyed. The only consolation was that its destruction was immortalized on film.
Movie modificationsThe vehicle was roughly painted red with orange flames on the sides and the bonnet. The paint was applied quickly and in a sloppy fashion which is visible in certain shots in the movie, revealing paint drips and poor quality of the paint job. Eight pipes were riveted onto the bonnet to give it a 'hot rod' style exhaust, but the illusion is quickly shattered when Toecutter and his gang easily knock the chrome pipes off. The fact that the car was powered by a six cylinder engine did not help in maintaining the buff custom car image.
Ken James remembers this vehicle as being in almost pristine condition, which is contrary to what movie makers George Miller and Byron Kennedy had to say about it. According to them, the vehicle was on its last legs and was difficult to keep running. Some proof of that can be found in Mad Max after the vehicle's rusty fluids spill on the road.