Car Parks: Petrolhead Temples

Car Parks: Petrolhead Temples

Call me an anorak, but there’s something beautiful about an underground car park. Roll slowly down the ramp and you’re thrust into a strange, slightly portentous environment — echoes of distant footsteps, the odd scrawl of graffiti, the hum of dying neon tubes and the tick of beetles buzzing into them.

Sometimes the combination of these elements throws me into my own personal TV drama. All of a sudden I’m no longer a member of the masses off on another banal shopping run. Nope, I’m a seasoned reporter here to meet an informant in the murky shadows of an ignored corner — or a professional driver picking up a brown leather suitcase from a gold-toothed Russian on Level 4.

And if the scoundrel tries anything, my test car will morph into a Pontiac Le Mans and we’ll gun it the hell out of there — one hand on the enormous steering wheel and the other on my .38 Special. Throughout their concrete-cast existence, these enormous automotive lairs have made perfect meeting places for the less principled members of society.

Popular culture cottoned on to this fact and giant car parks soon became the background staple of many gritty crime flicks. Reel back a few decades and you might recall Michael Caine in the epic Get Carter. The vengeful cockney gangster is driven to the top floor of the grimy Gateshead multistory by a dishy redhead in a Sunbeam Alpine.

It’s here that he meets a crooked gambling tycoon named Cliff Brumby, who might have had something to do with Carter’s brother’s untimely death. The film, filled with images of decaying ’70s Newcastle, is bleak but beautifully atmospheric. On the other side of the pond, the Americans gave us a good celluloid car-park fix in The Driver. After a dodgy bank job gone wrong, Ryan O’Neal briefly loses his cool and wrecks a Mercedes-Benz in a moment of blind vehicular destruction.

There’s burning rubber, clouds of smoke and the epic roar of an engine whose bellow is bounced off the cold, claustrophobic walls. Now, if this doesn’t give a car fanatic a big tingly thrill, then nothing will. But look beyond the mafioso-type gatherings and you will find that these structures can also harbour a fair number of automotive treasures.

Just as in the gloomy opening frames of Peter Yates’s cult classic, Bullitt — where you’ll spot a Chevrolet El Camino and Bizzarini 5300 GT Strada — the average underground parking garage is normally home to some interesting residents. Explore the bowels of the lower basement and you’ll probably discover a fleet of abandoned machinery — some long forgotten by neglectful owners, others used only on the odd weekend jaunt. Just recently during a quick trip to Los Angeles, I stumbled upon an old Volvo 122, a trio of semirestored Pontiac Firebirds and a BMW 2002ti.

Somewhere near the Santa Monica Pier I found a scruffy Porsche 928 with period gold paint and velour seats. Apart from the Beemer, all of these sightings were covered in a fluffy crust of dust and grime, a sign that they hadn’t seen the light of day for some time. Instead, they sat solemnly, expectantly, waiting for someone to get back in behind the wheel, key their ignition and rumble back up to the real world.

It is these kinds of finds, mixed with those dreamy cinematic vibes, that make the underground or multi-storey car park a temple, a catalyst of petrolhead fantasy.

Thomas Falkiner