Little Mistake Sunshine

Movies have never been kind to automotive authenticity. From the earliest days of cinema to the latest blockbusters, it is apparent that screenwriters are very much against spending time and money on basic automotive research.

All too often I’m struck by a glaring automotive mistake in the middle of an otherwise decent piece of entertainment. Usually it’s a passing remark, visual flub or stretch of reality that indicates the crew simply didn’t catch some otherwise irrelevant part of the flick.

“Little Miss Sunshine” might take the award for the most egregious automotive blunder in a motion picture. I watched this on cable last week and was absolutely dumfounded by the screenwriter’s complete lack of automotive understanding.

Without going into great plot details, the characters find themselves piling into a VW van for a road trip. At one point in the trip, the wife switches to drive and finds she cannot get the selector into first gear. The husband jumps back in and discovers he can’t get past the grinding either.

At this point I say to myself “clutch is out.”

The scene immediately switches to a mechanic telling the family that the clutch is out, making me feel happy about my split-second mechanical diagnosis. The mechanic then explains that a replacement clutch will take several days to source. Given that the fictional shop’s location somewhere in Bumfrick, New Mexico, this also makes sense.

When the family explains they have to be in California for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant posthaste, the mechanic states that they really only need the clutch for first and second, and that they can shift from third to fourth without the clutch. He then says that if they roll down a hill they can start the VW in neutral and slide it into third gear without the clutch.

Of course, one character questions what happens if there’s no hill, which leads to the predictable next scene of the family pushing the van and all piling in as it starts going under its own power. This gag is used repeatedly throughout the remainder of the film.

So what’s wrong with this all? It’s unnecessary and incorrect!

Anyone who’s ever lost a clutch knows that it’s true that first gear is inaccessible with the car running, so that is accurate. Second, third and fourth are all fundamentally the same, meaning one should be able to get into second without a clutch if they can get into third or fourth. Even if first and second were both unsynchronized (having no synchromesh) that actually makes it easier to get into second gear, rather than a synchro-ed third and fourth. In any event, it’s possible to get into any gear once the car is rolling.

But the most important part here is that any mechanic understands that pushing the car is completely unnecessary unless the starter is kaput. The solution this family would have gotten from anyone with an ounce of car-sense would have been “put it in first gear, then start it in gear.” The van will lurch in gear on the starter, then will run normally once the engine fires.

Yes it works. Even if the clutch is out and the vehicle has a clutch safety switch, simply depressing the clutch pedal will allow the vehicle to start.

Of course, this means that one must turn off the engine at stop signs and lights and repeat the process. This is why when I purchased a Porsche 944 with a bad starter and bad clutch slave cylinder (rendering the clutch useless) my friend opted not to drive the car 70 miles back to the house in rush hour. Shifting was fine, but not having a reliable starter for every time I5 came to a stop was more of a hassle and risk than taking the time to put the car on the trailer.

Starting a VW van in gear would certainly not have the same comic effect as having famous actors push the thing, but at least car fans around the world wouldn’t have choked on their popcorn.

And just to show how little Hollywood cares about reality…”Little Miss Sunshine” was nominated for Best Picture. I’d like to think a few car enthusiasts on the committee banded together to ensure this film didn’t win, but it might be wishful thinking.

I have a lot of respect for film and television writers who take that extra time to ensure their work is accurate. I recently helped a writer/producer with automotive technical content for a television pilot. We worked together to ensure that issues of this nature are nowhere to be found in his automotive-related show.

It was a great experience…and shows that some in the industry are still dedicated to delivering realistic screenplays.


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