Commentary

Shaffer: ‘Godfather’ death car survives in Pittsboro amid collector’s gems

jshaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 30, 2013 

— The same bullet that busted out the car’s passenger window would have hit Sonny Corleone square in the chest, right at the top button of his coat.

The shots that pierced the side panel likely sprayed Sonny from his shoulders to his middle, causing him to do a tap-dance of agony outside the tollbooth.

Another 200 shots peppered this black 1941 Lincoln Continental in the bloodiest scene from “The Godfather.” This sleek mobster chariot starred in what might be the most famous gangland murder ever filmed, gorgeous and grotesque, harrowing yet irresistible. Somehow, its whitewalls stayed inflated.

Now it sits parked in Billy Eubanks’ Pittsboro garage, its windshield smashed out – the only non-restored car in Eubanks’ collection of restored classics. When he bought it, Eubanks gave brief thought to fixing up the Lincoln where James Caan dripped fake blood.

“He said it was a shame to put all these holes in such a nice car,” said his wife, Carolee.

For Eubanks, “The Godfather” car’s appeal lies more in the curve of its fenders than the drama it witnessed. The son of a mechanic, he restored a 1933 Ford at age 16 and drove it to a show at the Charlotte Coliseum, where he took the top prize.

He keeps garage after garage full of beauties he has collected over his career as a “body man.” Plymouth Superbird. Pontiac 2 + 2. Dodge Charger Daytona. Split Window Corvette. Jaguar 120.

He has the 1955 Chrysler Imperial he drove in high school, which he drove back for his 50th reunion. He’s got a Lincoln Continental hand-built on wooden molds, which he won another trophy rebuilding. He’s got another once owned by Ann Sothern, Oscar-nominated star of “The Whales of August.”

He’s also got a Toyota Prius.

“That’s the best car I ever had,” said Eubanks, 72. “It does everything better than my hot rods.”

Whether to fix the car

So “The Godfather” car, parked behind a tractor, is the only vehicle in Eubanks’ fleet remarkable for what is wrong with it. The torn upholstery and Swiss-cheese decor. Eubanks drove it a little in the yard. He once loaned it to a guy in Sanford, who showed it in his pool hall.

Forty years ago, when the movie was young, when horse heads and special-delivery fish were unfamiliar to moviegoers, the car would tour theaters nationwide – a blockbuster with its own side show.

Twenty years ago, it had ended up in storage in Cary, where “Paramount didn’t want to fool with it,” Eubanks said. As a collector, he naturally heard about it and bought it with the idea of plugging all the holes. But no. If you bought the Titanic, you wouldn’t patch the hole in its side.

“He’s done worse,” his wife joked. “It’s valued at $50,000. Why don’t we sell it?”

I’ve watched Sonny Corleone die on the Jones Beach Causeway 431,912 times since the eighth grade. Every time, I tell him he’s being trapped, set up by his loutish brother-in-law. Curb your temper, Sonny. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Whatever you do, don’t take the toll road.

He never listens.

So I wondered, how did they shoot the car full of holes and keep James Caan alive and intact to star in “Elf”? Eubanks explained. First of all, his Lincoln isn’t the only Lincoln used in that scene. Paramount apparently had the car shot full of holes in advance, then puttied them over and set off explosives at the moment Sonny discovers the down side of the family business.

So I put my finger into one of the holes, cold and metallic, and traveled in my mind to that 1940s mob landscape, remembering that a young Michael Corleone asks, “We’ve got newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we?”

It could have been me, Fredo. I could have broken my mother’s heart.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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