Sonoma’s Dave Bonbright on autos and animation

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Thanks to Sonoma car historian and mechanic Dave Bonbright, the Hudson Hornet finally got the accolades it deserved decades after the last model was manufactured.

The classic car’s ever-growing fan base now spans generations, thanks to its big-screen appearance in the “Cars” films.

Bonbright, 70, consulted with Pixar Animation Studios to accurately bring Doc Hudson, also known simply as “Doc,” to life in the 2006 summer blockbuster “Cars.” The Academy Award nominee was the first of three CGI-animated films set in a world populated by anthropomorphic automobiles. A series of animated shorts and spin-offs followed. Bonbright’s role in the development of the character that made Hudson a household name started with his own family ties.

From an early age, Bonbright’s daughter Kelly formed a close bond with “Cars” co-director John Lasseter and his family. Now 36, she currently works as a script supervisor for Pixar, and recently completed work on the 2018 film, “Incredibles 2.”

“John was a huge creative influence during my teens and 20s,” said Kelly. “I was born a creative and he always pushed me to work hard to bring out the best of my talents. Some of my fondest memories of my adolescence were with the Lasseters.”

Knowing that Lasseter wanted to make a movie about cars and stock car racing, Bonbright suggested the filmmakers begin their research in 1951, the year that the Hudson Hornet was named car of the year.

With a racing team comprised of drivers such as Dick Rathmann, Tim Flock and Jack McGrath, the Hudson Hornet championed 13 wins in 1951, 49 in 1952, and 46 in 1953. The car’s design with a step-down chassis and recessed floor gave it a lower center of gravity. As a result, it handled better. For three consecutive years, the Fabulous Hudson Hornet won the coveted NASCAR Cup.

Mirroring the historical events of the early 1950s, Doc was portrayed in the motion picture as one of the most famous racecars that ever lived with three Piston Cup wins those same years. But, Bonbright did more than just help imagine Doc on the silver screen.

The car historian found a rare two-door 1951 Hudson Hornet in Ventura. The vehicle was in bad shape. After securing the pink slip, Bonbright towed it back to Sonoma with hopes of executing a full restoration.

During the years that Pixar ironed out the details of the fictional racecar’s film image, Bonbright followed suit on restoring the real-life Doc Hudson.

“The filmmakers decided Doc (voiced by Paul Newman) should have reddish, orange (racing) wheels so my car got “reddish, orange (racing) wheels,” he said. The end result was a real life Doc nearly identical in every way to the film.

One notable difference between the two vehicles is visible under Bonbright’s driver’s side visor. There, the late Paul Newman happily signed the real life Doc at his request. (Newman was notorious for refusing to sign autographs; he thought the concept was silly.)

Many Sonoma locals participated in the two-door’s restoration. Rick Eichler did the car’s navy blue paint job. Tommy Thomas completed the upholstery. The late Earl Turner completed the hand decals.

“Earl was a well-known Sonoma sign painter, a heck of an artist, and my best friend,” says Bonbright fondly.

With its aerodynamic design, classic chrome accents, and slick graphics, both on and off the big screen, the 1951 Hudson Hornet is a rolling work of art.

On the rare occasions Bonbright now takes his Hudson Hornet out for a spin, the owner can’t drive down the street without a smile and a wave or an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “People get a real kick out of seeing the car.” And, his car’s popularity is universal – even among celebrities.

A few years back, Bonbright met a crewmember from the Maserati racing team and the two talked shop. And, at the end of the night, Bonbright accepted an invitation to bring his classic car to Sonoma Raceway the following day.

Bonbright lightheatedly recalls the Maserati team’s reaction to viewing the real life Doc.

“They were dumbfounded because they are so used to the high-tech stuff.” He adds, “They were quite impressed.”

Actor and racer Patrick Dempsey (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Enchanted”) briskly walked onto the track to marvel at Bonbright’s car. “You’ve got to appreciate this car!” Dempsey exclaimed to his crew as he took pictures.

Bonbright was recently featured on the NBC series “Jay Leno’s Garage.” With Leno at the wheel and Bonbright as co-pilot, the two cruised around in the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” for an hour and a half. Their mutual love for the make and model bonded them instantly. “Leno himself has a ’53 Hudson Coupe and ’51 Hudson Four-Door.” Bonbright adds, “He’s an all-around car guy, but also an all-around Hudson guy, too.”

Bonbright’s love for cars and all things automotive started at a young age. In grade school, he worked on lawn mowers and chainsaws for pocket cash. He worked at Wilson’s Saw Shop where he purchased a go-kart kit. And, so began his own racing story.

“I was in go-karts back when karting first started in 1957,” he said. “From the mid-1970s until 1997, I drag raced VWs.” In the quarter-mile drag, he proudly boasts, “I was highly competitive.”

Bonbright holds a world record for the fastest Volkswagen engine ever built for drag racing. He also has a few U.S. patents.

Today, Bonbright focuses on air-cooled restoration cars and, mostly, engines.

When asked if he would ever write a book about his adventures in racing, his wealth of classic car knowledge, or his experiences with industry executives and A-list celebrities, Bonbright laughs. “I probably would, but I am always working on other people’s projects.”

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