Like so many of us, I was saddened to hear that Paul Reubens, better known to most people as Pee-Wee Herman, cycling enthusiast and noted Big Shoe dancer and one of the few people brave enough to prove to the world that the Alamo does not, in fact, have a basement, has died. Reubens’ 1985 movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was a significant part of my cultural upbringing, and I’m sure there are plenty of obituaries and reflections you’ll see online that cover the deceptive importance of his body of work wonderfully. But we’re a car site. Fortunately, I think the cars that can be seen featured in much of Reubens’ work demonstrates that he at least appreciated cars on some level, as the ones that he chose to use were absolutely selected with care. Let’s take a look at some of them, as you indulge this mildly thin pretense to honor Pee-Wee.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure did seem to populate background cars and incidental cars with older ones that fit Pee-Wee’s 1950s-ish aesthetic; in 1985, roads were pretty well filled with Honda Accords and VW Rabbits and Chevy Citations and that sort of thing, but when cars are shown in the movie, it’s pretty clear those cars were curated:
Even back in 1985 the roads weren’t exactly crawling with 1950 Plymouths or Volvo Amazons. There were some, sure, but these cars fit a certain tone that was clearly important.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was the first movie Tim Burton ever directed by the way. It was fundamentally a road trip movie, and as such is full of cars, and carefully chosen ones. Most significantly is the 1959 Edsel Corsair driven by an escaped convict that Pee-Wee gets a ride with. As a kid into cars, Pee-Wee’s unashamed glee at being told to take the wheel was hilariously familiar:
There was another inspired car casting choice later in the movie, for a character obsessed with Paris and who later migrated to France, only to return for a visit at the end, and seemingly managing to source one of the most intensely French cars possible, a 1963 Citroën ID décapotable by Chapron, also an extremely rare version of this Citroën, with only about 1,700 examples built.
They could have just shoved these actors into a LeCar and called it a day, but they didn’t, and that matters, at least to me.
When Reubens revived Pee-Wee for a new movie back in 2016, there was even more careful and inspired car casting, including finally showing Pee-Wee’s very own car, a ’64 Fiat 600, which also was shown performing the baddest-ass stunt driving of a Fiat 600 that had been seen in Western cinema in likely half a century:
There’s also a Morgan three-wheeler in that film and a number of other great cars, including a very specific and strange and appropriate one:
That’s not just some random toy car, that’s a 1959 Thunderbird Junior! These were built by the Powercar company from 1955 to 1967, and could be had in either electric form (allegedly powered by an actual Ford starter motor) or a gas-powered version intended for adults. These weren’t cheap at all, costing about $4,000 in equivalent dollars today.
These were said to be capable of up to 40 mph! Who was buying these as adults? Well, if any adult was likely to buy one to drive around as a normal car, aside from a Shriner with processional goals in mind, I think it would be someone like P.W. Herman. These were also sold as promotional items for Ford dealers, as this add suggests:
All of this is just to say that I think, at least on some level, Paul Reubens was one of us, and I don’t just mean a goofball, I mean a gearhead. He was an original, silly and funny and there was more sophistication under that plastic, back-of-the-comic-book-ad surface than you’d realize at first.
Let’s pour some Tequila and do the Big Shoe Dance for Pee-Wee one last time: