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Peter Cullingford with his 1985 Mercedes-Benz Unimog, the first vehicle he rented to a film production.

Photography by MATT BUBBERS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Peter Cullingford is an unlikely curator of history, a keeper of ordinary objects once so ubiquitous they were essentially invisible. Since nobody bothered to keep them, these objects are now rare, and Cullingford is giving them a second life.

In a large dirt lot at the end of a dead-end road in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, is Picture Vehicle Specialties Inc., of which Peter Cullingford is the founder and owner. It is one of a handful of companies across Canada that specializes in supplying what are, essentially, automotive extras for film and television. His vast collection of carefully selected, extremely ordinary old cars – the kind that tend to evoke a sense of place and time – help to make Toronto look like New York City in 1972, or Washington in 1993, or Russia, or Europe.

You’ve probably seen some of Cullingford’s cars in television shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Boys, or in movies that include Total Recall, The Shape of Water, Robocop and The Incredible Hulk – the 2008 reboot starring Edward Norton, Cullingford clarifies. That was the first production to which he rented a vehicle.

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Picture Vehicle Specialties specializes in supplying what are, essentially, automotive extras for film and television.

Walking through the front gates of Picture Vehicle Specialties, the place feels like something between a scrapyard and a museum. There are approximately 200 vehicles in varying states of mechanical health – from pristine muscle cars to unrestored family haulers to burned-out wrecks – all parked nose to tail around a huge dome-shaped silo, inside of which are the more precious and/or rust-prone machinery.

There are station wagons and coupes from the 1960s, the interior of a Boeing 737 jet and a Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter that looks as if it just barely survived the zombie apocalypse. (It did, sort of, in the Resident Evil movie universe.) An on-site garage and paint shop, plus a team of full-time mechanics, keep most of the cars in good running order. The lot itself is in an industrial neighbourhood that, like the cars it houses, is slowly disappearing.

Despite the fact they were once parked on every street in this country, ordinary old cars are the hardest ones to find now.

In addition to cars, the shop also has the interior of a Boeing 737 jet and a Bell UH-1 'Huey' helicopter.

“It’s the unwanted history, or, not unwanted, I shouldn’t say that,” Cullingford corrects himself. “It’s the forgotten history.” Nobody collects the “boring cars,” as he calls them: the base models, the four doors, the family cars. “It’s your [Hyundai] Ponies and your [Ford] Pintos and your crappy cars that we all lived with as kids that are now gone,” he says. “They were the workhorses and that was it; they were disposable.”

Almost all of the minivans, station wagons and cheap little cars – just like your first, or the one your parents had – have vanished. Once, they were everywhere. Now they’re nowhere. That’s tens of millions of tons of steel, cassette decks and window winders, all gone and, for the most part, never missed. But because so many people had these vehicles, everyone remembers them.

Even if you know nothing about cars, the mere sight of a brown, first-generation Ford Taurus sedan brings to mind shoulder pads, big suits and bigger hair. Between 1986 and 1991, Ford stamped, welded and assembled more than two million of them. You’ll never see one on the road today, but Picture Vehicle Specialties has one in time-capsule condition.

Most productions have a picture car co-ordinator, whose job it is to go through the script and gather all the vehicles that will be on camera, Cullingford explains. Some third-party suppliers specialize in hunting down very specific cars, while others, like Picture Vehicle Specialties, keep a lot stocked with taxi cabs, police cars, military Humvees and ordinary cars from every decade. There are movie-car lots in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, all the major filming hubs.

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Business is good at the moment. Cullingford’s shop is working on six productions, which is a welcome change from last March, when all the staff were laid off and the business temporarily shut down. “There was no work,” Cullingford remembers, “and I think it’ll probably take us another year to catch up from that because the bills don’t stop coming.”

The cost to rent a vehicle for a day of filming is anywhere from $350 to $1,500, depending on its value. A major Amazon production recently requested “weird ’90s cars,” so Cullingford tracked down a rare Suzuki X-90 – picture a Jeep that shrunk in the wash – and added it to his fleet. The business has been growing, slowly, but maintaining so many misfit vehicles eats up much of the revenue.

Cullingford recently bought a 1985 Plymouth Voyager minivan after a long search for a 1984 Dodge Caravan.

Cars of the 1980s are in high demand for film and television work now, but they were, unfortunately, some of the worst cars ever made, Cullingford says. That explains why he was probably the only person placing wanted ads for a 1984 Dodge Caravan recently. How many soccer practices did these first minivans get to? How many trips to the mall? And yet, after a long search, he only managed to find a broken-down 1985 Plymouth minivan with a smashed grille. He bought it and will get it working again, eventually.

The truth is that old cars don’t vanish, and they don’t often get a Hollywood ending. By weight, 80 per cent of a vehicle gets reused in various ways, according to Automotive Recyclers of Canada, an industry association. After all of the valuable parts have been picked off, the end of the road for many old cars is the metal shredder, a hungry machine that eats vehicles whole and spits them out like confetti.

Just because an old car manages to escape that fate and end up on a movie-car lot, there’s no guarantee it won’t still meet a violent end.

“For blowing up luxury vehicles, the Range Rover is my favourite,” Cullingford says, matter-of-factly. “Full-size Range Rovers, 2006 to 2010, are dirt cheap and they blow up spectacularly.” But, before you can “blow the bloody doors off,” as Michael Caine put it so bluntly in The Italian Job, all the fluids need to be drained and much of the plastic has to be removed so as to avoid sending thick clouds of toxic fumes into the air. As we speak, the crew in the garage is getting cars ready for a big shoot in downtown Toronto. They’re for The Boys, a show about superheroes gone bad. “We’re blowing up a lot of stuff,” Cullingford says.

Cullingford says full-size Range Rovers 'blow up spectacularly' on film.

Unlike most other curators of history and keepers of rare objects, he has learned not to be too precious about most of the things in his collection. If they’re not blown up, they’re banged up by camera rigging, drilled full of holes and occasionally set on fire. “I just kind of resigned myself to it,” he says. Nobody can save all the old cars.

Even so, he is still occasionally prone to nostalgia. For example, he’s not about to let anyone blow up the 1982 Datsun 280ZX he just rescued from a scrapyard and restored to its original, fecal shade of brown. It reminds him too much of his own first car.

An old Datsun or Ford Taurus is not likely to land a starring role as the hero’s chariot. They’re no Batmobile, but then, most cars aren’t. Ordinary vehicles lead thankless lives, but they’re the cars we remember most fondly. On screen, these workhorses get one more chance to be useful – before perhaps being blown sky high.

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