Why take on a dangerous international mission with a high chance of death if you don’t get to drive an amazing car while you’re doing it?
From the very first novel to the most recent films, James Bond has been defined as much by his cars as by his martinis, women, and gadgets. In some movies, the car was more memorable than anything else seen on 007’s mission! Although often associated with Aston Martin, Bond has driven a surprising variety of cars over the years with widely varying abilities and technology. Though the makes, models, and secret capabilities of Bond’s cars have changed, the public fascination with 007’s rides has only deepened as more and more exciting machines have become associated with him.
The Rarely Seen Bentley: Bond’s First Car
Although Bond has become deeply linked in the popular imagination with Aston Martin and the DB5, Aston was not the brand originally associated with author Ian Fleming’s 007. In the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, Bond drives what was a vintage car even at the time of the book’s publication, a 1930 Blower Bentley. This car was a special racing modification of the Bentley 4½ Litre, associated with wealth and prestige. The car sold to a very exclusive clientele on the strength of its connection to Bentley’s racing program, which included participation in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans. Prior racing Bentleys were naturally aspirated, but the Blower brought the innovation of a supercharger to the Bentley’s inline-4 cylinder engine. Only 55 copies of the Blower Bentley were ever produced, making it one of the most sought after cars around the world, to the point that Bentley began to build them again in late 2020 to capitalize on the collectors’ market.
With its British heritage, racing background and incredible rarity, the Blower would appear to be the perfect Bond car, but it had an important difference from future 007 vehicles. Bond’s first car was not issued by the Q Branch at all but was his own property and a “personal hobby.” The only “gadget” the car had was a revolver Bond kept in the glove compartment. Bond only drove the Blower in the first three novels until it was destroyed in Moonraker. Bond drove a couple of other Bentleys in Fleming’s novels published afterwards: a Mark VI at the end of Moonraker and a Mark II Continental in Thunderball. Neither lingered in memory the way the Blower did. Bond’s very first car in the movies was a Bentley, too, but not the legendary Blower; he can briefly be seen driving a Bentley 3½ Litre in the opening scene of From Russia With Love. Unlike the Blower of the novels, this Bentley did have a special gadget--a car phone, which was extremely rare at the time.
The Iconic Aston Martin: The DB5
Bond’s association with Aston Martin predates the films, but he became inextricably linked to them. The first time Bond drove an Aston was in the novel version of Goldfinger, although this car was the DB Mark III rather than the iconic DB5. Referred to as a “DB3” throughout the novel, the Mark III was Bond’s first car to have true gadgets, including steel bumpers for ramming, the ability to change the color of the head and taillights, and a homing device. Unlike the Bentleys, this car was provided for 007 by Q Branch and would set the template for all his future cars. They would feature sophisticated technology, secret abilities, and tricks far beyond a regular car’s capabilities.
When it came time to adapt Goldfinger to film, the Aston Martin was kept but the model was changed. The producers convinced Aston Martin to allow them to use the prototype of their latest model, the DB5, as Bond’s new car. The DB5 would have all the capabilities of the novel’s Mark III and many additional useful ones as well, including a revolving license plate, an ejector seat, and an oil slick on demand. From a car originally only equipped with a smokescreen in the first Goldfinger film script, it became the first “hero car” on film, equipped with many ingenious features for almost any dangerous situation. The DB5 has been featured in more Bond films than any other car, from Thunderball to Goldeneye to Spectre, and you can see it in the upcoming No Time to Die.
The DB5 lodged in the collective memory like no car before on screen. It became an early success in movie merchandise, as British toymaker Corgi Toys recorded massive sales from its diecast version of the DB5. Countless diecasts and other models have been produced, often in Goldfinger-inspired silver paint, ranging from Hot Wheels to elaborate LEGO sets that reproduce the DB5 in great detail. For Aston Martin, the only drawback to the DB5 was that it utterly eclipsed any other car they made that Bond drove. Cars such as the DBS driven in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the Vantage Volante from The Living Daylights couldn’t linger in the imagination the way the silver DB5 from Goldfinger did. Bond may be forever associated with Aston Martin, but he is also bound to that first exhilarating hero car of decades ago, the DB5, no matter how much the automotive landscape around him changes.
A Lotus Blooms, Briefly
In the 1970s, a rare challenger to Aston Martin would ride into the series, and Bond would be briefly associated with a different British automaker. Lotus Cars, a maker of sports and racing cars, approached the Bond producers differently. Whereas Aston needed to be persuaded to allow the use of the DB5, Lotus PR boss Don McLauchlan extensively lobbied Eon Productions to make their new car, the Esprit, Bond’s next ride. Eon was looking for a car that could transform into a submarine for a memorable underwater combat sequence, and McLauchlan managed to sell them on the Esprit, with its futuristic “Italian wedge” styling. The mid-engineered Esprit looked nothing like the DB5, but this would be a point in its favor as far as giving it a distinctive screen presence.
Since The Spy Who Loved Me was filmed long before digital effects became used regularly, a physical Esprit submarine would have to be created for the film’s underwater sequence. In order to create the effect of the Esprit transforming from car to submarine, a fully submersible prop called “Wet Nellie” was created by Perry Oceanographic for $100,000, and shells of two other Esprits were used for images of the wheel covers converting to fins. Budget limitations and the effects crew’s desire to keep the prop as simple as possible meant that Wet Nellie was not sealed to keep out water, meaning that the sub would have to be manned by two people in wet suits at all times. Filming the Wet Nellie was made more difficult by the fact that the sub, powered by four electric motors, could only move forward; to move the sub in other directions, it had to be completely stopped and lifted to its next location by a team of three divers. Though the prop Wet Nellie was not the amazing amphibious supercar of the film’s story, the effect was utterly amazing onscreen and fooled many a young viewer (including myself) into thinking that a car had really driven underwater onscreen. An Esprit appeared in only one more Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, but the transformation sequence of Wet Nellie was so memorable that the car became second only to the DB5 in terms of cars the public associated with 007. Don McLauchlan’s lobbying paid off; the Esprit’s Bond connection helped keep the car in production until 2004, and Lotus offers a free printable version of the Wet Nellie on its own website to this day.
The German Wave: BMW and the Brosnan Years
The Bond film series went on a long hiatus in the early 1990s, as the end of the Cold War changed the political climate and made it more difficult to interest audiences in a classic Bond story. When 007 finally returned in 1995, it was to a changed, globalized world--and with a non-British car company. German luxury car maker BMW made deals that allowed three of its cars to be Bond cars during the Brosnan era, although these have never quite become associated with Bond to the extent of the DB5 and Elise.
The first Bond BMW was a BMW Z3 that appeared in GoldenEye. This convertible looked like it would be a worthy ride for Bond and was hyped in-film as having “all the usual refinements,” including missiles, a parachute, and a self-destruct system, but ended up being driven for roughly 30 seconds in Cuba and not getting a chance to showcase any of these. As a result, some fans felt they had been ripped off by the hype the Z3 had gotten as Bond’s new car both before and during the film. The next film, Tomorrow Never Dies, would feature a BMW 750iL as Bond’s car. Unlike the Z3 before it, this car would get an action scene to showcase its features, which included the ability to be operated by remote control, tear gas emitters, re-inflating tires, and a rocket launcher. Although this car had the lengthiest action sequence of any of the Bond BMWs, large BMW sedans have not become associated with Bond, and the car has made no appearances in 007 media after this film.
Bond’s final BMW was the BMW Z8 in The World Is Not Enough. Like the 750iL before it, this car did receive an action scene showcasing its gadgets, which included a remote control, surface-to-air missiles, and titanium armor. Its screen time was brief, and it ended up being quickly bisected by a saw blade from a helicopter. Unlike the other Bond BMWs, the Z8 had an exclusive mystique (less than 3000 were made!) and the car has appeared in a few licensed videogames as a result and is perhaps the best remembered of Bond’s BMWs, despite appearing in only one film.
A Legend Returns: the DB5 and No Time to Die
When Daniel Craig took over the Bond role from Pierce Brosnan, the series was rebooted and many things changed. There was a darker, harder-edged atmosphere, as Bond reverted back to his more ruthless original characterization favored by Ian Fleming. The action scenes became faster and more kinetic, and Bond’s car reverted back to the Aston Martin DB5. When he first won the car in Casino Royale in the new continuity, it would have been 40 years old, nearly double the age of the Blower Bentley of the novel when it was originally published in 1953! The DB5 remained 007’s preferred car through the Craig years, appearing in Skyfall and Spectre. The final film of Craig’s Bond run, No Time to Die, is scheduled for release on October 8, 2021, and will feature the DB5 once more. Also appearing will be the Vantage Volante last seen in The Living Daylights, a current generation DBS, and the Valhalla, a car yet to be released.
Though an Aston wasn’t Bond’s first car, the company is so deeply linked with 007 that no matter the adventure or the danger, seeing Bond in an Aston remains an image trapped in the mind’s amber forever.