A decade before some British hooligan stripped the bodywork off his balled-up sportbike to create the first streetfighter, a pair of Australian filmmakers went the other way, transforming naked standards into post-apocalyptic superbikes. And the results were no less badass.
In October 1977, George Miller and Byron Kennedy took a meager budget, a cast of virtual unknowns and a bunch of high-powered bikes and cars and headed off to desolate, dusty, rural Victoria. There they created Mad Max, a high-adrenaline film about a dystopian society. The movie is remembered for its stunning action scenes—largely created using nerve and seat-of-the-pants techniques—and its menacing motorcycle gang sporting stripped-down, customized bikes. So how did this vision come together?
“We had a budget of just $350,000,” explains director Miller. “Byron and I were photocopying scripts and distributing them off the back of my bike. After stunts, we swept glass off the road ourselves.”
With next-to-no money, the crew had to be inventive when it came to creating the right look for the chaotic wasteland Max Rockatansky (played by a young Mel Gibson) and company inhabited.
“The producers secured 10 KZ1000s from Kawasaki Australia, which had high-rise handlebars and looked very ’70s,” remembers actor Bertrand Cardart, who played Crank. This was totally inappropriate, so Miller and Kennedy approached accessory dealers to try to score parts to modify the bikes. But with little influence, their efforts fell flat.
Cardart owned a company called La Parisienne, which often took him back to his native France for motorcycle shows and races. Inspired by the endurance racers he’d seen at the Bol d’Or, he bought a few molds and was learning to laminate fiberglass from a book. “It was amateurish stuff,” Cardart explains, “but I was working on several fairings on the side.” Miller came by his house one day and saw a bikini fairing Cardart was working on. “George couldn’t afford his own design, so we used what I was building.” That work eventually made its way onto Goose’s and Toecutter’s iconic bikes.
Much like the costumes in the film, detailing on the bikes was equal parts duct tape and movie magic. “The only set of mag wheels that George could afford were the ones on Goose’s bike,” Cardart remembers. “We bought one set of Lester wheels, which in those times were sh*t-hot. All the stunts were done with a bike with spoked wheels. I wrapped foil around the spokes to make them look like mags!”
To get in character, actor Hugh Keays-Byrne (who played gang leader Toecutter and previously starred in Stone) plus several others rode the 550 miles miles from Sydney to the shoot in Melbourne dressed in their costumes. “It was a good rehearsal,” Keays-Byrne remembers. “It was about three days, and we took the coast road. One of the most pre-occupying thoughts I had was not to look like those cowboys in the Westerns who are never carrying enough kit to camp where they stopped. I had enough kit, bags and that huge axe—all that had to be slid into the structure of the bike and not f*cking kill me!”
Local motorcycle club The Vigilanties made up the rest of Toecutter’s gang. Actor Tim Burns recalls working with the bikers: “They all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.”
Dale Bensch was a member of The Vigilanties. He saw an ad for the shoot in a local bike shop and became a key member of the stunt team. “There’s an urban myth that a stuntman was killed, and that was me,” Bensch clarifies. “The scariest thing was dropping the bike on that bridge. They took the speedo and tach off because they didn’t want to damage more than they had to. They wet the surface to make it easier, but I hung onto the bike too long and it flipped me over with it; that’s why it looked bad. But it’s a famous scene, so it worked out all right!”
In addition to the stunts, the bikes were instrumental in the actual filming. Cinematographer David Eggby, a lifelong motorcyclist, was literally strapped onto a bike for parts of the shoot. “I couldn’t wear a helmet because you can’t operate a camera with one; it gets in the way,” he explains. “Terry Gibson was the president of the Vigilanties. He was riding, dressed as Goose. They put a seatbelt strap around both of us and we went for it, and you can see on the speedo that it’s cracking 180 kilometers per hour [about 110 mph]. The camera was quite heavy. I relaxed once, the map box got caught in the windblast and I nearly lost it!”
The low-budget film came out in ’79, went on to become a cult classic and spawned two follow-ups, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in ’81 and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in ’85. But whatever happened to the bikes? “Byron Kennedy offered us the surviving motorbikes for five grand for the lot; all seven of them,” recalls Cardart. “He said, ‘One day they will be collectors’ items,’ and we said, ‘Yes, Byron, sure.’ So the bikes were taken to a wrecker; some of them got wrecked and some got put back to bog-stock and sold. Not a single one survived in its Mad Max incarnation.”
Miller sums up the experience: “Mad Max is obviously very special to me. It was the first film, and after all these years it still means something to people. So even though it was a very hard film to make, we must have done something right!”