Maindrian Pace (H.B. "Toby" Halicki) is a respectable insurance investigator who runs an automobile chop shop in Long Beach, California. He is also the leader of a professional car theft ring, who steals and re-sells stolen cars; using the vehicle identification number (VIN), engines, parts, and details (such as parking decals and bumper stickers) sourced from legitimately-purchased wrecks. As an insurance industry insider, Pace does have one small idiosyncrasy: All vehicles stolen must be insured.
Pace is approached by a South American drug lord who offers $400,000 in exchange for the theft of 48 specific vehicles, to be delivered to the Long Beach docks within five days. The list includes limousines, semi-trailer trucks, vintage cars, and exotics; rendering the order difficult to fill within the time limit. Nevertheless, Pace is confident that the order can be filled by the March 2, 1974 deadline.
Mapping out a basic strategy, the thieves scout out their vehicular targets; all of which have been given female code names. The plan goes smoothly – with even some of the more eclectic vehicles acquired with relative ease – but obstacles mount. Chief of these difficulties is a yellow, 1973 Ford Mustang, code named "Eleanor." The first "Eleanor" they come across is occupied; they locate this car again but stealing it results in a chase as its drunken owner pursues Pace. A second "Eleanor" is acquired seemingly without issue.
Further tension enters into the picture when a white Cadillac – stolen as part of the order – is found to contain several kilos of heroin stashed in its trunk. Pace's brother-in-law, Eugene, sees the heroin as a profitable side business; Pace disagrees, viewing the heroin as a threat to the security of the operation. Against Eugene's vehement protests, Pace does not relinquish the heroin, and has the Cadillac and its contents burned at a remote location – unbeknownst to Eugene.
The theft of all 48 vehicles is soon completed, but the second "Eleanor" is discovered to be uninsured within hours of delivery to the docks. After pleas from fiancée Pumpkin Chase, Pace agrees to return it – only because he is aware of a third match for "Eleanor" at the International Towers in Long Beach. At the same time, Eugene learns of the Cadillac's fate and attempts to start a brawl; ultimately leaving the office in a rage.
Pace prepares to steal the third "Eleanor", unaware that Eugene has anonymously tipped off the police. As a result of the tip-off, two detectives (Butch Stockton and Phil Woods) in an unmarked Mercury corner the disguised Pace as he exits the International Towers. A 40-minute car chase (in which 93 vehicles are destroyed) ensues, covering 6 California cities from Long Beach to Carson. Eluding the police with speed and driving skill, Pace keeps from being caught by police – but not without causing irreparable damage to the car.
Pace is now desperate; police blockades and surveillance surround the areas. Pace spots another "Eleanor" Mustang pulling into a car wash. Realizing an opportunity, Pace drives the abused Mustang up to the wash entrance, leaves it with the staff, and then dupes the owner of the fourth Mustang (under the guise of being the manager of the car wash). After a quick license plate swap and removal of his disguise, he subsequently leaves the car wash with the intact Mustang.
Meanwhile, the duped owner is inquiring with the manager of the car wash as to the whereabouts of her Mustang – and faints at the sight of the wrecked car as it exits the wash bay. The police, spotting the wrecked Mustang, quickly descend upon the scene to arrest the manager of the car wash, who matches the description of Pace.
The film ends as Pace clears a police roadblock, driving the fourth "Eleanor".
Gone in 60 Seconds is classified as an independent film. H. B. Halicki wrote, starred, directed, produced and even did his own stuntwork in the film. In a contemporary context, the portions of the film preceding the chase sequences are generally seen as on par with a period B-film. Halicki employed family and friends (instead of professional actors) to play parts in his movie to keep the budget low. The characters depicted as being members of the emergency services were actual police officers, firemen, or paramedics. The then-mayor of Carson, California, Sak Yamamoto, also appears as himself.
All of the police cars damaged in the film, the garbage truck that overturns, three fire trucks (including two waiting for the cars to clear, and another one stopping to put out a fire) were bought at city auction by Halicki in 1972, for an average price of $200 each. Everything sat in an empty lot for over a year until production began in 1973. The fire trucks seen on the Vincent Thomas Bridge during the main chase were real Long Beach FD units on their way to an actual emergency call. The "crash" staged for the film blocked both lanes, preventing the trucks from proceeding until the cars were cleared. Halicki asked the camera crew to film them in case he found a place and time to fit the shots into the movie.
There was no official script, apart from several pages outlining main dialog sequences. Much of the action/dialog was improvised and ad-libbed by the cast and crew as they went along. This caused many problems for the editor, Warner E. Leighton, who never knew what footage was being dumped on him or where in the movie it belonged. In the DVD audio commentary, he described the script for the construction site scenes of the main pursuit as a piece of cardboard with a circle on it. Halicki pointed at it and said, "That's the dust bowl. We went around it twice. There's your script."
The pursuit is the longest car chase (40 minutes) in movie history and takes Pace through five cities as he attempts to lose police. Nearly every civilian vehicle seen in close proximity to the main chase (especially in downtown Long Beach) was owned by Halicki. This resulted in several cars appearing multiple times in the 40-minute sequence. The intact "Eleanor" used for beauty shots and the white Ford used by Pace and Stanley can be seen parked in a few Long Beach sequences.
The workshop scenes at Chase Research were filmed at Halicki's real-life workshop. Occasionally, filming would stop for several days so he could repair cars to earn money and continue production. The building on the waterfront where the vehicles were apparently stored was only used for the outside shot of the building.
In one scene at the construction area, a patrol car roars up a hill in pursuit and overturns. This was not planned; the driver inside was nearly crushed when the siren "can" on the roof caved the roof in. The scene was left in the finished film.
J.C. Agajanian Jr., who plays a detective in the roadblock sequence at Torrance Mazda Agency, was almost killed when Halicki missed his mark, hitting one of the unmarked Plymouth Belvedere patrol cars, sending it careening towards Agajanian, who missed it by quick reflexes and luck. The near collision was left in the film and is very apparent.
The scene where "Eleanor" is rear-ended by a Cadillac Eldorado on the highway and spins into a light pole at 100 mph was a real accident. Halicki was badly hurt and filming was stopped while he recovered. According to people on the set, the first thing Halicki said when he regained consciousness was, "Did we get coverage?" Likewise, the film's opening scene captures the aftermath of a real-life train derailment that was not part of the original shooting script; when Halicki heard about this, he wanted to incorporate it into the film.
The Ford Country Squire station wagon that flips during the earlier night-time chase in Torrance was overturned by six men lifting it up from one side. The film was later skip-framed to create the desired effect.
The garbage truck that overturns was pulled by cables attached to two tow trucks. The cables attached to the top of the truck are clearly visible as it topples.
To achieve the effect of cars sliding into each other at Moran Cadillac, an oil slick was placed under the tires of the first car to assist it in sliding. According to the commentary track on the DVD, the film company owned the first two Cadillacs in the row; the remainder were the dealer's. When it came time to do the stunt, the oil trick worked too well – many of the agency's own Cadillacs were badly damaged. Halicki had to purchase all of them.
The jump scene at the end of the chase is notable and set the standards for a number of subsequent pictures. Acting as the climax to the lengthy chase sequence, the "Eleanor" jump managed to achieve a height of 30' over a 128' distance, a feat rarely attempted today without CGI or a gas-driven catapult (as was used to jump the General Lee in the 2005 film remake of "The Dukes of Hazzard)."
Halicki compacted ten vertebrae performing this jump. The injury was not serious, although director of photography Jack Vacek claims that Halicki never walked the same again.
With the exception of a few cast extras, the bulk of the bystanders in the movie are the general public going about their business. This caused several incidents wherein people assumed a real police pursuit was in progress, with many trying to help the accident "victims". For example in the scene at the Carson Street off-ramp, where the two cars collide after Maindrian drives against traffic, a pedestrian can be seen in the background shouting angrily at the passing police cars for not stopping to help the occupants. Much of the crowd at the gas station, where Harold Smith is pulled over after the nighttime Torrance chase, were part of a real biker gang who verbally abused the police officers "arresting" the actor and demanded they leave him alone.
Ronald Halicki, the director's real-life brother who played Corlis Pace in the film, operated the crane that lifted "Jill", the red Challenger, to its fate in the car-crusher at the junkyard.
When Maindrian is first telling Atlee about the new contract, a message on the blackboard behind them says, "Sgt. Hawkins called about Vacek case" — a reference to director of photography Jack Vacek. The license plate of the Rolls-Royce outside the airport reads, "HBH," the initials of the film's star/director/writer, H. B. Halicki.
When Pumpkin tells Maindrian that they have to give "Eleanor" back because the car is not insured, Maindrian reads the owner's address from a newspaper: 18511 S. Mariposa Ave, Gardena. This was, in fact, Halicki's home address at the time.
Early in the film, when the boys are stripping down the Challenger, they are conversing about how Atlee became a "professional". Atlee says, "Butch Stockton was a professional and he got caught." Butch Stockton is the driver of 1-Baker-11 in the film.
In 1977, a follow-up of some sorts, titled Double Nickels, was released featuring most of the cast and crew from Gone in 60 Seconds including Jack Vacek, Ed Abrams, George Cole, and Mick Brennan, who would work for Halicki in his next two films, The Junkman and Deadline Auto Theft. Tony Syslo was the same cinematographer who later worked on those films, as well. Halicki received a special thanks credit in the film.
In 2000, Denice Shakarian Halicki and her business partner Michael Leone, under the banner Halicki Films, released the 25th anniversary remastered edition on DVD and VHS to American viewers. This special remastered edition contained a restored digital print of the film from the original 35mm masters, however all of the original music was replaced, due to rights issues, as were the sound effects and some dialog was even modified, the original version had been released on video in the early 1980s, twice, by Full Throttle Video and again by Media Home Entertainment. This is deemed a collector's item and goes up for a lot of money online. In May 2005, a Region 2 DVD was released in Europe.
The pre-release version of the movie can be seen (albeit in still frame form) on the 25th Anniversary DVD. By accessing the hidden "Easter Egg", one can watch an older version of the film, which contains many deleted scenes in the film's first half. At this time it is unknown whether this version will ever be released to the public in full form.
In the Speed Channel broadcast of the movie, a 2002 documentary, hosted by Denice Halicki, is shown before the beginning of the film. The documentary described the production processes of the movies produced by H.B. Halicki as well as his life.
On October 16, 2012, Denice Halicki and Leone, under the banner Halicki Films, released the Gone in 60 seconds DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. It includes a rare interview with Lee Iacocca.Locations seen in film