The Wraith Car (based on the Dodge M4S Turbo concept)
The Wraith (the movie) was dreamed up featuring a mysterious character and an even more mysterious car. Executives in Hollywood started searching for something sleek and menacing, something that few people had seen before.
At the time, Dodge was rolling out the M4S Turbo concept as an Indy series pace car. The concept car reportedly cost Dodge and PPG around $1.5 million; it was powered by a 2.2 liter four cylinder engine engine with twin turbochargers (Garrett T25) and a twin-cam 16-valve cylinder head worked on by Cosworth. The car was designated M4S for being a mid-engined 4-cylinder sports car.
When producers approached Dodge about using the car, Dodge was more than willing to go along with the plan at first, but the chief designer (Bob Ackerman) didn't quite see eye to eye with the plan.
Ultimately an agreement was reached, and Dodge agreed to ship the M4S (along with a special team) to the movie set for a couple of weeks. Dodge also provided molds to make six exact copies of the M4S body for stunt cars and dummy cars used in the film. Four shells were made and placed on a towable frame for all of the crash and explosion scenes; two driveable stunt cars were made for race scenes. These were built over a tube frame and had little more than a seat, a few instruments for the driver, steering, and engine for power.
The original M4S sat on the set for several weeks before it was used in one or two close up scenes. In the movie, there is a scene where one of the gang members instructs the Wraith to open its hood, to attach a device to its engine. When the rear engine bay opens, he finds a bizarre looking engine rocking back and forth as the car idles. That shot was mostly movie magic, but the overlying shot of the car itself was the actual M4S, as you can tell by the construction of the frame around the imposed engine. This may have been the only scene where you could see the M4S for what it was in the film. Mr. Ackerman said that the car generally sat on the movie set, under guard, while production was going on.
After the movie was completed, the two driveable props were sold off the set. The location of one is unknown, but the other went to Gene Winfield, who had built them. Gene is well known in the custom car world; he has built many movie props over the years, and he used Chrysler’s molds to build the six props.
Over time, he decided to part with the prop that he acquired. It was originally sold to Bob Butts of the Fantasy Car Ranch in California. Later on it was them sold to John Watson. John was active, for some time, in the kit car industry and planned to make a modified kit called the Wraith II, but his plans ultimately fell through.
The Wraith II was pulled from molds made off the movie car; at some point, the Wraith prop had its original frame discarded and replaced with a custom chassis to fit the body. We believe that Watson had this frame built to make the Wraith more practical as a street-legal car.
Ultimately the car found its way to McPherson College in Kansas, which has an auto restoration program supported by many classic and custom car names — Jay Leno, Dennis Gage, and Craig Jackson, to name a few. Lyle Suhr had been trying to track down any information about the movie cars and their history. He had written several letters to Dodge, and a few to people in Hollywood to try and find a trail. This took some time, but it paid off. He found his way to McPherson to see what was left of the car in person, and made an offer to the school to take the car back with him and they settled up with him. The rest is history.
Restoration of the movie prop has taken several years. In early 2010, the car was essentially completed, at least on the outside. We've decided to keep the replacement frame and build around it. The prop cars had Volkswagen engines, but the existing engine was missing pieces and in poor shape. Lyle replaced it with a Pontiac V6 and built around that. He made it his work to restore the car to how it appeared in the movie, but wanted to keep the paint a bit lighter as a throwback to the original paint scheme of the M4S, to hopefully tip his hat to both Hollywood and Dodge.
Over the course of restoration, Lyle made more calls to people involved with the film and people involved with the M4S itself. He caught the attention of Bob Ackerman, who was very excited about his project and was willing to drop by from time to time to help give some pointers on how the car was built. Lyle had been relying on a lot of trial and error over the years, so the help from its designer was welcome.
Another perk that Bob offered was to meet with Lyle in Detroit and get him into the Chrysler Museum to see the original car up close and personal. This was like giving a kid the key to a candy store. Lyle was given permission to crawl around the car to inspect it and take photos. Chrysler also allowed him access to a few of the original engines built for the M4S. After much consideration, and several offers, Dodge parted with a 2.2 (which apparently was never fired) and Lyle has it stored in his warehouse. It's my understanding that he will install it in the prop car in the near future.
It's hard to say what will come of the project. Lyle had the car advertised as being for sale for several months. He had been getting offers, but were far less than he had anticipated for the car. He's considering keeping the car now and caring for it as best as he can. There was also a lot of demand for a kit car; Lyle has assured people that he would like to make a kit, but as busy as he is, he's put that project on hold. In the meantime, we will be showing the car at shows and other events, and we're working with Bob Ackerman to sell some posters of the pace car from his collection. They should be available this spring.
Stephen Maki wrote, “Did you recognize the young Joe Pappas of Mopar Missile fame in the photos? He was the Project Manager at S.V.I. for the Dodge M4S PPG Pace Car, and my boss.” Graham MacRae, pictured below, was the test driver who reached 195 miles per hour on the Chelsea test track in the M4S.
Concept cars are often made so a car’s feel can be evaluated, problems can be foreseen, and reactions of the public can be judged. Some concepts test specific ideas, colors, controls, or materials — either subtle or out of proportion, to hide what’s being tested. Some are created to help designers think “out of the box.” The Challenger, Prowler, PT Cruiser, and Viper were all tested as production-based concepts dressed up to hide the production intent.