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Cars crashed, smashed and trashed in 'Fast & Furious 6'

It didn't have to be like this. In the age of green screens and VFX houses, filmmakers responsible for the sixth installment of the "Fast & Furious" franchise didn't have to actually destroy hundreds of cars.

They didn't have to run over a custom 1969 Ford Mustang with a tank. The 2008 BMW M5, one of several demolished, didn't need to be thrown through a building. And the 1970 Ford Escort Mark 1 — beloved in the United Kingdom — didn't need to be tossed 70 feet in the air over a freeway divider with a live stunt driver behind the wheel. Twice.

"He likes to use as little CG as possible," said Dennis McCarthy of "Fast & Furious 6" director Justin Lin, referring to computer-generated imagery. From his sprawling shop in Los Angeles' Sun Valley neighborhood, McCarthy has assembled and modified millions of dollars of cars for each of the last four "Fast" films Lin has directed. The latest installment opens on Friday.

PHOTOS: The cars of 'Fast & Furious 6'

Fans of the "Fast" franchise are more eager to see two tons of steel with 600 horsepower on the big screen than they are to hear Vin Diesel growl one-liners or see Michelle Rodriguez and mixed martial arts fighter-turned-actor Gina Carano throw each other down a flight of stairs.

This means the computers play only a minor role as hundreds of cars — and the souls brave enough to drive them — become the true heroes and villains of "Fast & Furious 6."

Which explains why audiences are treated to the memorable sight of a small, blue Ford Escort hurtling through the air like an errant metal softball.

The stunt was a product of a messy trial-and-error process, McCarthy explained as he stood over one of the only examples of the Ford Escort Mark 1 to survive the shoot. The sheer number of stunts left little time for planning.

The scene calls for Paul Walker's character to jump the median of a highway in his car, to come to the aid of Tyrese Gibson's character, whose Ford Mustang is quickly being overrun by a tank.

The first live attempt at jumping the car didn't go as planned. With too much speed carried off the ramp, the car overshot its landing and came down nose-first, flipping violently onto its roof and destroying the car.

PHOTOS: The cars of 'Fast & Furious 6'

"It really rung the driver's bell," McCarthy said, chuckling.

After making some quick adjustments to a second car and hitting the ramp at a few mph slower, the crew was able to get the shot we see. Barely. Though it landed and successfully drove out of the shot, the impact left the car "shaped like a banana," McCarthy said.

Although American audiences may not appreciate the significance of the petite Ford being set airborne, car fans across the pond likely will. The lightweight, rallye-inspired sedans were as deified in the U.K. as American muscle cars were in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Collecting numerous copies of such a car wasn't a cheap proposition. And each of the characters favors at least one specialized car in the film.

Diesel's Dom is an American muscle aficionado. He lands behind the wheel of a 1969 Dodge Daytona, a 2010 Dodge Challenger and a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.

Walker's character is an import guy, and pilots two late-model Nissan GT-Rs and the aforementioned Escort. Tyrese has his 1969 Mustang, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has a mammoth Navistar MXT truck, and Rodriguez spends most of her time in a rare 1973 Jensen Interceptor.

There's also a custom-built faux tank riding on a heavy-duty truck chassis, 2012 Dodge Charger and Alfa Romeo Giuliettas that were part of a product tie-in with Chrysler, and the villain's custom-built "flip car" that looks and drives like an exoskeleton of the modern Batmobile.

REVIEW: 'Fast & Furious' is one sweet ride

Many of the older cars were heavily modified for the rigors of the stunts and several examples were needed for each car. Given the prohibitively high cost of buying pristine, original versions of cars like the 1969 Daytona or Mustang, close replicas were built.

Although these copies would be identifiable as fakes to the naked eye, they are still fully capable cars with around 800 total horsepower.

"We definitely mistreated the poor thing," said Ben Collins of the Daytona. Collins, who gained notoriety as the mysterious Stig test driver on BBC's "Top Gear," was the stunt driver for several breathtaking chase scenes in "Fast & Furious 6."

One is a street-race scene through downtown London, which gave Collins the opportunity to drift the Daytona through the city's famed Piccadilly Circus with six inches of clearance on either end of the car. Not to mention a live crowd full of camera-wielding fans ready to document a screw-up, Collins recalled.

But it was the film's opening that Collins found most memorable. In it, a modern-day Dodge Challenger races a Nissan GT-R on a winding road high above the coast of Tenerife, in Spain's Canary Islands. Collins was the driver of the Dodge, and even though he's driven stunts on other films, including several from the current "Bond" franchise, he says this "was one of the most exciting bits of filming I've ever done."

Using cars that were actually capable of the stunts they're used in was crucial.

"That's always my goal with these movies: Keep the cars being the real deal," McCarthy said. "You can drive this Daytona down San Fernando Road and grab third gear and light up the tires for 70 or 80 feet."

In addition to this deep roster of cars playing a lead role in "Fast & Furious 6," countless bit players were destroyed in several extended chase and action sequences throughout the film.

The most dramatic scene involves a military convoy and was also filmed on Tenerife. It's here that the tank makes its appearance, as well as the high-flying Escort. McCarthy said the crew lost track of how many cars were eventually run over or crashed for the sequence but estimated it was between 300 and 400.

All told, the final price tag for the cars in "Fast and Furious 6" cracked the eight-figure mark.

Because the first five movies in the franchise grossed more than $1.5 billion, the producers are willing to invest in the cars to make the films feel authentic.

"I don't know of any other film that will spend this much money on cars," McCarthy said.

With this success in mind, production has already started on the seventh installment, which is an inevitability given the final scene of this sixth film. McCarthy already has his eye on a few cars he'd like to use.

"Who knows?" McCarthy said cryptically of films' relationship with Chrysler. "Maybe the next one will have some [SRT] Vipers in it."

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david.undercoffler@latimes.com

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