Pop Culture

Ghostbusters Anniversary: 30 Years of Ectomobiles

Photos courtesy of studios. Cover photo by Doug Kline.

When Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz first brings home a stray, the Ghostbusters aren't too sure about it. “Everybody relax: I found the car,” he says, pulling up in a grey-primered old 1950s relic, “Needs some suspension work and shocks. Brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear-end.”

Happily, it was only $4,800. Wait, $4,800? In 1984 money? “Also new rings, mufflers, a little wiring.” This is going to be a complete disaster.

Thing is, it wasn't. In fact, the resulting vehicle vies with the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, and the Back to the Future DeLorean DMC-12 as one of the best-loved star cars of all time. Any time anyone makes a list involving movie cars, it's on it. Any time anybody mentions the '80s, up it pops. It looms in the imagination, and just like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man, you can't keep it out of your head.

Ecto-1 will forever be immortal, thanks to cinema, and this year it celebrates its thirtieth birthday along with the rest of the Ghostbusters franchise. This Friday, August 30th, fans first watched the colossal white and red beauty roll on-screen, lights flashing, ghost-traps armed and at the ready.

It's not the usual movie car story you find nowadays, what with embedded advertising, product placement, and behind the scenes sponsorship deals. Instead, the car the production team picked and built was almost a one-of-a-kind already, a 1959 Cadillac hearse/ambulance coachbuilt by Miller-Meteor.

Even before Ectoplasm and Proton Packs show up, here's where things start getting a little weird. Right through until a law was passed regulating requirements for ambulances, Cadillac had a nice little sideline in building cars for ferrying the sick and the dead around. And, slightly more rarely, massive flower arrangements too. Even if you couldn't afford to buy a Cadillac, there was every chance you might get a ride to the hospital in one and, if you were lucky (or not-so-lucky, come to think of it), one last ride to the gravesite as well.

Cadillac provided the front clips of their cars, along with beefed-up suspension and brakes, to custom coachbuilders who would make the cars to order for various funeral and ambulance services. The 1959 car on which the Ectomobile is based is one of only several hundred outfitted to be both a hearse and an ambulance, and would have been used in the sort of small rural town where everybody had two jobs.

Universal Studios only bought the one car for conversion, a rarity in movie making, where a backup is almost always required (there were three Back to the Future DeLoreans, for instance). Preliminary sketches were drawn by John Davekis, and then the car was built by a single man, Steven Dane. Dane would also design the Ghostbuster's Proton Packs and other accessories, using the Ectomobile's sliding gurney as a storage device.

Ackroyd's script called for Ecto-1 to be darkly brooding, weirdly lit by purplish lights. It would have changed the tone of the movie entirely. Instead, owing to the difficulty of shooting a black car at night, Ecto-1 ended up cheerily white and red – more an ambulance than a hearse. It jived perfectly with the bumbling do-gooder image of the Ghostbusters team, and instantly became a classic.

Moreover, while it was a one-of-a-kind machine, it wouldn't be the last. Ghostbusters was so popular, it spawned a sequel, a video game, comic book series, and a well-loved cartoon series that ran until 1991. The sequel would see an upgraded version of the custom Cadillac dubbed Ecto-1a.

Fans of bustin' ghosts would see vehicles like Ecto-2, a gyrocopter that you could eventually buy in toy form thanks to Kenner. If your pocket money wouldn't quite stretch to the full-size Ecto-1a playset, there was Ecto-3, a little go-kart of a thing with twin pincers to help trap ghosts. In the cartoon show, Ecto-3 was also a folding motorized unicycle and sidecar.

Essentially, almost any vehicle can be turned into an Ectomobile by the simple application of white paint with red accents, that famous no-ghosts badging, yellow and black warning stripes, flashing lights and a heap of paranormal equipment. Numerous tribute cars have been made out of everything from similar-age working Cadillacs to Subaru Outbacks and Mercury Sable Wagons. There's even been a custom Little Tykes Cozy Coupe outfitted to fight the paranormal.

If the idea of suiting up everyday and heading to work in your own Ectomobile doesn't fit the reality of your office job, then at least you can get an Ecto-1 for your desk. There are multiple faithful diecast models, but for maximum fun, why not build one yourself out of LEGO? Coming from the same series that recently produced a LEGO Delorean complete with minifig Marty McFly and hoverboard, the Ghostbusters set features a 20 cm long Ecto-1 and our four intrepid heroes, each with a mischievous grin and a Lego proton pack. It's perfect, no matter if you're currently a kid, just want to feel like one again, or are a full-on AFOL.

As for the original movie cars, I'm afraid the news is not so good. According to reports, both the original Ecto-1 and the sequel's Ecto-1a are sitting outside on a back lot somewhere in Hollywood. The latter is reported to be in pretty miserable shape, while the former was at least restored five years ago for the silver anniversary. They should both be in a museum, not baking in the California sun.

But even if both were crushed tomorrow and went to the great scrapyard in the sky, the spirit of the Ectomobile would go on. Even though it was built to take down those who would not go gently into that good night, a spectral Ecto-1 is one phantasm we'd never bust. As Peter Venkman would say, “Nice thinking, Ray.”