Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road
Robert Mitchum as Lucas “Luke” Doolin, moonshine driver and Korean War veteran
Rillow Valley, Tennessee, Fall 1957
Film: Thunder Road
Release Date: May 10, 1958
Director: Arthur Ripley
Wardrobe Credit: Oscar Rodriguez
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
There’s a Treasury agent down the line someplace with three bumpers hangin’ on his car.
For the first Car Week post of this year, and just in time for the fourth of July, BAMF Style celebrates the all-American tradition of car-racing and its moonshine-running origins with the 1958 action film Thunder Road.
Based on an original story by producer and star Robert Mitchum, Thunder Road would establish the “good ol’ boy” genre that featured the fastest cars – and women – that the South had to offer. In addition to the countless Burt Reynolds films that can trace their origins to Thunder Road, the film directly led to the production of the shoestring-budget Moonrunners in 1975, which in turn became the long-running series The Dukes of Hazzard. (For what it’s worth, the lobby card for Thunder Road was said to inspire Bruce Springsteen to pen his song of the same name… despite having never actually seen the film at the time.)
Thunder Road stars Robert Mitchum and his son James Mitchum as brothers Lucas and Robin Doolin, two sons of Rillow Valey, Tennessee who spent their days and nights on either side of a souped-up Ford’s hood. (Despite the many references to Kentucky and Tennessee, the film was clearly filmed in and around Asheville, North Carolina.)
A successful moonshine runner who remains independent and true to his ideals, Luke becomes a target of the ruthless syndicate boss Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), a.k.a. a much less funny Boss Hogg, who will stop at nothing to either hire Luke…or take him out for good.
What’d He Wear?
Like his spiritual successors the Duke boys, Robert Mitchum’s Lucas Doolin spends almost the entirety of Thunder Road wearing the same outfit (with one exception), even though it’s set over the course of multiple days.
With one exception for a quiet night in with his girlfriend Francine (Keely Smith), Luke exclusively wears a dark windbreaker, striped shirt, and pleated khakis.
While many jackets marketed as windbreakers today are unlined rain jackets made from paper-thin synthetic polyester or nylon, the jacket originated during the 1940s as a hardwearing but relatively stylish structured jacket. It was John Rissman & Son in Chicago that trademarked the name “windbreaker” to describe its revolutionary line of casual gabardine zip-up jackets. The windbreaker was a casual style staple for gents in postwar America, eventually leading to the development of the Harrington jacket and similar garments.
Luke’s daily outerwear is a dark gabardine windbreaker that zips up to a large, flat collar with a wide throat latch tab extending from the left collar. The buttonhole on this tab fastens to a button under the right side of the collar to ostensibly protect the wearer’s neck from the elements, though Mitchum always wears the windbreaker totally open.
The jacket also has large patch hip pockets with slanted jetted openings. The set-in sleeves have a short tab at the cuff with a single button that Mitchum wears unbuttoned most of the time. A straight-bottomed storm flap extends across the back of the jacket’s shoulders.
Luke Doolin’s primary shirt throughout Thunder Road is candy-striped with a shadow-striped dark color against a light ground. (Much of the film’s promotional artwork colors this shirt in a blue-and-white stripe, but I can’t attest to how accurately that reflects the actual colors of Robert Mitchum’s screen-worn clothing.)
The shirt has a slim button-down collar, which Mitchum often wears with both collar leafs unbuttoned and somewhat flattened to resemble a camp collar. The shirt also has a plain front, a breast pocket for Luke’s unfiltered Viceroy cigarettes, and squared single-button cuffs.
Luke also wears a white cotton short-sleeve t-shirt as an undershirt, with a slight v-neck that barely pokes out above his striped shirt’s second button.
While many of the younger drivers in his set wear denim jeans, a more “old-school” moonshiner like Luke Doolin sticks to his slacks. These double-reverse pleated trousers are likely made from khaki-colored gabardine, with an era-appropriate medium-high rise, straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms. Through the belt loops, Luke wears a slim dark leather belt with a single-prong buckle.
Although Luke doesn’t bother to change his jacket, shirt, or trousers for most of the film, he does switch between a pair of tall work boots and dressier black derby shoes.
The work boots are best seen when Luke heads into the woods to help his father Vernon (Trevor Bardette) manning the family still. These appear to be dark brown leather boots with contrasting taslan laces through ten eyelets up the shaft, similar to this pair of 1950s vintage moc-toe Red Wing Irish Setter hunting boots. Looking for something similar? Check out the Red Wing Heritage Men’s Moc 8″ Boot.
For other scenes of Luke heading into Memphis (in reality, Asheville), he wears a pair of what appear to be black leather derby shoes with black socks.
Luke pulls into a garage while making a run near Memphis and exchanges his windbreaker for a dark suit jacket that he keeps in the car. The suit jacket is subtly striped dark wool with notch lapels that roll to a low two-button front, wide shoulders, and three-button cuffs.
Luke also keeps a satin silk skinny tie in the suit jacket’s outer left pocket, ensuring that he’ll be properly dressed when popping in to see his nightclub singer girlfriend Francine (Keely Smith) that night.
Luke wears a metal round-cased wristwatch with a light dial on a worn leather strap, fastened to his left wrist. Mitchum was a known Rolex aficionado in real life, though this doesn’t appear to be a model produced from that august Swiss brand.
Never seen on screen but worth mention for their cool factor are the wide tortoise sunglasses that Robert Mitchum wore on the set of Thunder Road.
What to Imbibe
Although he makes his money from moonshine, Luke Doolin’s drink of choice appears to be bottled Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“Well, this one’s gone,” confirms ATF agent Troy Barrett (Gene Barry) via phone to his supervisor. “I lost him and he’s loaded. He’s driving a 1950 Ford two-door coupe, and he’s got a racing mill under the hood.”
Agent Barrett may be right about the racing mill, but he’s a nudge off about the year as Luke Doolin’s legendary moonshine-running tanker for speeding through the hills of Rillow Valley is actually a gray 1951 Ford Custom, fitted with the moonshiner’s tools of the trade like a button that sprays oil out from the back of the car to send any pursuing vehicle spiraling off the road.
“You can always tell it’s him when you hear those pipes of his grumbling down the road,” grumbles fellow driver Jed Moultrie (Mitchell Ryan), who ends up buying the tanker.
The 1949 Ford was a massive step forward for American carmakers after World War II. Civilian car production had been suspended following the 1941 model year as all United States industries had been focused on the war effort. Following the war, the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) picked up where they left off, refreshing their prewar models. It wasn’t until 1949 that Ford broke the mold by introducing the first all-new model from the Big Three in almost a decade.
Known as the “Shoebox Ford”, the 1949 Ford’s slab-sided design, modern drive shaft, and spacious passenger compartment would continue across three model years until the next refresh in 1952. Available options were more powerful versions of the 226 cubic-inch straight-6 and the 239 cubic-inch Flathead V8, rated at 90 horsepower and 100 horsepower, respectively.
The 1951 model year saw external redesigns of the grille and bumpers as well as the Ford’s first automatic transmission, the three-speed “Ford-O-Matic”, offered as an option for the first time in the marque’s history.
To convert the 1951 Ford driven by Robert Mitchum into a “1950 Ford” per the dialogue, the redesigned “dual bullet” grille of the 1951 model was replaced with a 1950 grille. However, the dashboard, steering wheel, and external V8 and “Ford Custom” emblems are all indicative of the ’51 Ford.
Body Style: 2-door hardtop sedan
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 239 cid (3.9 L) Ford “Flathead” V8
Power: 100 hp (75 kW; 101 PS) @ 3600 rpm
Torque: 187 lb·ft (254 N·m) @ 1800 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Wheelbase: 114 inches (2896 mm)
Length: 197.3 inches (5011 mm)
Width: 71.7 inches (1821 mm)
Height: 63.2 inches (1605 mm)
A scene of Luke servicing his “1950 Ford” at night includes a shot purportedly of the car’s engine. The shot reveals a 312 cubic-inch Ford “Thunderbird” Y-block engine with three Holley two-barrel model carburetors, a substantial boost of power over the 100-horsepower 239 cubic-inch flathead V8 that would have been stock in the 1949-1951 generation of Fords and would have explained Agent Barrett’s surprise at the “racing mill” under Luke’s hood.
I’m not sure if this was:
- an intentional error by the filmmakers, trying to convince us that the Doolins swapped out Luke’s engine for a more powerful engine
- an unintentional error by the filmmakers, who accidentally used a shot of the engine of Luke’s ’57 Ford
- a genuine appearance of a 312 Thunderbird V8 engine placed in a ’51 Ford
I’ve heard arguments for the latter, particularly by some who have heard from James Mitchum himself that the car was fitted with a 312 Thunderbird. The debate rages on at places like Jalopy Journal where dedicated car guys offer opinions much more expert than mine.
Regarding color… After Luke returns the car to his garage, Robin comments that “you got yourself a new car,” but Luke just confirms that it was a “repaint job,” as the black Ford from the opening scene had been repainted gray. The gray color is confirmed in additional dialogue, such as when Agent Barrett receives a call concerning a “1950 gray Ford, proceeding north on State Street.”
1957 Ford Fairlane 500
Roxanna explains to Mrs. Barrett that Luke Doolin got himself “a new Ford” after his last got too much police attention, and she has every reason to be impressed. Luke shows up in Rillow Valley behind the wheel of a sleek 1957 Ford Fairlane 500, the top of the line of Ford’s offerings that year… though the car’s looks don’t last long as it’s soon damaged when he attempts to run a roadblock on the way to Memphis, forcing him to hole up in Henderson City.
The difference in style between Lucas Doolin’s first Ford and his ’57 Fairlane, produced just six years later, highlights the dramatic degree to which American automotive design evolved through the 1950s. This evolution was fueled by competition among the Big Three automakers as GM’s Chevrolet marque was particularly surging ahead with its unique Jet Age-inspired designs that remain emblematic of “the fabulous fifties”.
The Fairlane was introduced for the 1955 model year as the top-of-the-line full-sized Ford. In addition to its luxury features, the Fairlane was instantly recognizable with its stainless steel “Fairlane” stripes along the sides, which dipped into a “V” on the driver’s door and right-side passenger door.
As the aesthetic of the 1950s gradually grew sleeker and Detroit embraced the short-lived but iconic “tailfin era”, the Ford Fairlane joined its GM and Chrysler brethren by sporting a set of short but stylish chrome-accented tailfins. Another innovation for the 1957 model year was the introduction of the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner with its retractable “hide-away hardtop” that would convert the stylish coupe into a convertible in a manner of seconds. The Skyliner was the second hardtop convertible to be introduced in automotive history, though its massive production numbers of 48,394 over the course of its 1957-1959 production history dwafed the numbers of the earlier Peugeot 402 Éclipse Décapotable in the 1930s.
All of Ford’s standard production engines were available for the 1957 Fairlane, from the 223 cid “Mileage Make Six” straight-6 up to the 292 cid Thunderbird Y-block V8 rated at 212 horsepower. High-powered options included the standard 312 cid Thunderbird V8 making 245 horsepower and the supercharged “Police Interceptor” Thunderbird Special rated at 300 horsepower, either of which being a fine option for the modern moonshiner on the go.
Body Style: 2-door hardtop coupe
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 312 cid (5.1 L) Ford “312 Thunderbird” Y-block V8 with Holley 4-bbl carburetor
Power: 245 hp (182.5 kW; 248 PS) @ 4500 rpm
Torque: 332 lb·ft (450 N·m) @ 3200 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Wheelbase: 118 inches (2997 mm)
Length: 207.7 inches (5276 mm)
Width: 77.5 inches (1969 mm)
Height: 56.2 inches (1427 mm)
As with the earlier Ford, there appears to be some technical discrepancies in accurately reflecting the car’s power on screen. One thing that particularly grinds the gears of some (forgive my pun) is the use of sound effects from a six-cylinder engine dubbed over the proper sound of this powerful ’57 Ford with its 312 V8.
Regarding color… No dialogue cues to help us out here. However, the car detectives on the Jalopy Journal message boards have shared their takes, with strong evidence suggesting that a two-tone color combination of “Cumberland Green” and “Willow Green”.
Luke Doolin’s service in the Korean War is mentioned, so it’s fitting that his sidearm is the M1911A1 semi-automatic pistol that was standard United States military issue for most of the 20th century. This .45 ACP pistol makes its only appearances when Luke sleeps next to it while holed up in his Henderson City motel room.
Another of Luke’s guns that makes a brief appearance is the Browning Auto-5 semi-automatic shotgun that he places into his first Ford’s back seat. His brother Robin calls out this curious choice of armament for one of Luke’s solo moonshine runs. “You can’t fire that thing and handle the wheel at the same time,” Robin notes.
Designed by John Browning in 1898, the Browning Auto-5 was the first commercially successful semi-automatic shotgun and remained in production for nearly a century. The Browning Auto-5 was named for its recoil-operated semi-automatic operation and total capacity of five shells (four in the tubular magazine under the barrel and one in the chamber). It took primarily 12-gauge or 20-gauge ammunition with 16-gauge models also available.
John Browning also licensed the design to Remington Arms after Winchester had refused his terms, and the Remington Model 11 was an American-produced variant for more than 40 years. The high “humpback” rear end of the Browning Auto-5 differentiates it from the otherwise similar Remington.
The Auto-5 saw wide usage by the U.S. military from World War I through the Vietnam War, and both the Browning and Remington variants were often used by gangsters and lawmen alike during the Depression-era crime wave. In fact, Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) even had a customized Remington Model 11 with a barrel and stock cut down for the 4’11” woman to adequately handle.
How to Get the Look
Per his personality, Lucas Doolin’s daily outfit is very practical, putting function before form, though Mitchum’s swagger adds star power to an otherwise common dressed-down look from the era. The outfit’s versatility is also put to the test when he is able to add a jacket and tie to go from casual to club-ready in mere seconds.
- Dark navy gabardine zip-up windbreaker with flat collar (with wide single-button throat latch tab), large patch pockets (with slanted openings), and set-in sleeves (with adjustable button cuffs)
- Navy-and-white shadow-striped shirt with slim button-down collar, plain front, breast pocket, and single-button cuffs
- White cotton v-neck undershirt
- Khaki gabardine double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Dark leather belt with single-prong buckle
- Dark brown leather work boots with moc-toe and 10-eyelet taslan lacing
- Black crew socks
- Metal analog watch with light-colored dial on dark leather strap
Colors mentioned above are guesses based on the era’s trends and promotional artwork.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Maybe you can do what you say. But first, you got to catch me… if you can.
Though he’d showed up in a few earlier films, James Mitchum made his credited film debut in Thunder Road after Elvis Presley was unable to accept the role due to the salary demanded by his legendary manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Mitchum had just turned 17 years old two days before the film was released on May 10, 1958.
Seventeen years after Thunder Road, James Mitchum would go on to star in the film’s spiritual successor, Moonrunners (1975), that would form the basis for The Dukes of Hazzard.
Elvis Presley and Robert Mitchum in the same movie…..Wow!…..
I would have loved to have seen Mitchum as Philip Marlowe in the 1950s. He had the right look back then. Mind you, he was great in “Farewell My Lovely” in 1974 though a bit long in the tooth.
Thanks, LS. I’ll have to keep an eye out for “Thunder Road”.
Thunder road was a bad ass movie and I learned how much you can see out of the rear view mirror in motion . Mitchum was COOL