The "old, cool car" that is commented upon at the beginning of the movie once belonged to Cassville businessman Jim Craig. It was Craig who had the 1972 "muscle car" restored to mint condition, which ultimately caught the attention of a Warners Brothers' production crew.
Throughout the movie, the beautifully restored, dark metallic green Gran Torino becomes another character in the powerful redemption story told by Eastwood and his talented young cast members.
One of the primary relationships that develops in the film is between Eastwood's character, Walter Kowalski, and his neighbor, Thao Vang Lor, a Hmong teenager who moves in next door. Their complicated friendship begins and ends with the Gran Torino.
Craig said he went to see the film this weekend after he received a call from a Vernell, Utah, classic car dealer who purchased the Gran Torino from Craig on E-bay back on Aug. 8, 2007.
"Gary (Showalter) called me last Sunday night at home," said Craig. "He said that he was calling to tell me how famous my car had become. I couldn't believe it. It was pretty exciting news."
Within a week of Showalter's call, Craig and his wife, Diane, were sitting in a movie theater waiting to see their former car on the big screen.
"The initial glimpse of the car could have been anyone's Gran Torino," said Craig. "It was a bit into the movie when you actually saw the whole car, and it wasn't until the barbecue scene that they showed a profile shot of the car. I looked at the dark metallic green car with the yellow laser stripe and the black vinyl top and said yeah, that's my rig."
Prior to Showalter's call, Craig said he had been receiving phone calls and e-mails from family and friends who had seen Gran Torino and thought the car in the movie looked a lot like the Gran Torino Craig once owned. Area residents would have had the opportunity to view the now famous car at the Dogwood Car and Truck Festival and the Cassville Christmas Parade.
"All of this has made me feel really good," said Craig. "I've always loved old cars, and I like to put them back to the way they came out."
The history of this particular Gran Torino has additional ties to the Barry County area. Craig initially purchased the car from Ray Dodson who bought the car from a man in Purdy. When Craig took possession of the vehicle about nine years ago, there was an old Jumping Jack Shoes employee sticker on the back windshield.
Craig describes the car as a "barn find." It had been parked inside a lean-to shed outside the Purdy couple's home for about 10 years before Dodson discovered it. The car also had received a stock engine rebuild right before the owners' stopped driving it.
"Mechanically, the car was straight as an arrow; the air conditioning even worked," said Craig. "It ran well, but cosmetically it needed everything. In the classic car world, we would describe the car as all there but needs everything."
The car stayed in Craig's garage for five years before restoration work began. Ray and Donnie Dodson tuned up the engine, Brad Arazmus did the body work, an upholsterer in the Madry area completely restored the interior and Don Stouder detailed it.
"The car drove great, showed great and turned heads," said Craig, who decided to place it up for sale after finding a "1964 and a half" Mustang convertible that he and Diane decided they had to have.
Production notes that can be found on the Gran Torino movie website are very complimentary of the condition of the car.
"The prized Gran Torino was played by the real thing," said Larry Stelling, the movie's transportation coordinator. "We got lucky right off the bat, because it was one that worked. It was completely maintained and Clint really liked it."
The only modifications made to the car for the movie involved replacing the bumpers and "sparkling it up a bit." Even though the film has been released, the production company still owns the car.
Craig said he was initially drawn to the Gran Torino for the same reason Eastwood's character considers the car one of his prize possessions in the movie.
"It's a touchstone back to an earlier time," said Craig. "In the movie, the car points back to a time in Walt's life that represented the pinnacle of his success. His world was complete the day that car came off the assembly line, and since that time, the world around him had changed dramatically, and the Gran Torino was his return to that perfect time in his life.
"The car was my touchstone also," Craig continued. "I can relate to that. There's something special about being able to reach back and touch another time, to go back to simpler times, younger days."
As more and more local residents see Gran Torino, Craig says he has been asked whether he wishes he had held onto the car.
"If I had, it would never have been in the movie," said Craig. "My only claim to fame is that I was able to see the vision of what the car would become. I could see what it would be like, which is how it looks in the movie."
Editor's Note: Gran Torino is well worth the price of admission. It's the best movie I've seen in over a year. The story is one of redemption, and its message stays with the audience long after the lights go up in the theatre. The movie also has local significance, because Eastwood's neighbors in the film are Hmong. The movie provides insight into the Hmong culture, which is important for those living alongside the Hmong who now call Barry County home. Movie goers should be warned that the language in the film is sometimes harsh, but it is never gratuitous.