Under the Influence

A hot air balloon towing a car went missing over Uxbridge

A 1980's shoot for a Chevrolet Cavalier TV ad involving a brand new car and a hot air balloon went terribly awry.
A hot air balloon towing a brand new Chevrolet Cavalier went missing in the wind. ( Gilles Boudreau/Radio-Canada)

Pat Bryan was one of Canada's top ad writers.

He wrote many famous campaigns, including the slogan, "Mr. Christie, you make good cookies." Bryan also wrote a funny book called What Else You Got? 40 Years of Mis-spent Youth in the Ad Game. "What else you got?" is the dreaded question ad men and women get asked when presenting ideas to clients. It means, "I don't like anything so far." In Bryan's book, he tells a lot of funny only-in-advertising stories.

Back in the '80s, he was given the assignment to launch the new Chevrolet Cavalier.

Hot air balloons were all the rage back then, so Bryan came up with an idea of delivering a brand-new Chevy Cavalier to a family via hot air balloon. The commercial would show a hot air balloon towing a Cavalier under the basket and slowly lowering it onto the driveway of an excited couple.

It was a big idea and there were a lot of logistics to figure out. Like, could a hot air balloon lift a car? How much did a Cavalier weigh? Could they maybe reduce the weight by taking out all the heavy bits - like the engine, transmission and spare tire?

Eventually, they figured it all out.

A hole was cut in the floor of the Cavalier so the pilot could have visibility when landing. The balloon's controls were connected in such a way that the pilot could control the balloon from the driver's seat. Now all they needed was a suitable site and good weather.

A site was found in Uxbridge, north of Toronto, where a small circle of homes had been built in a subdivision, surrounded by tall maple and pine trees. It was perfect. But one big question remained: How do you guarantee to land a balloon - toting a car - perfectly right in the middle of a driveway?

Answer: You can't.

The solution was to shoot the commercial backwards. In other words, start with the car positioned nicely in the driveway, with the balloon looming over it, then have the balloon lift off and float away. Then when the commercial is put together, run the film backwards so it looks like the balloon materializes over the trees and appears to land the car right in the appointed spot.

On a sunny day not long after, a hot air balloon was brought in, a car was attached to it and three cameras were ready to roll. The director called "Action," and the hot air burners roared. There was a huge pause as the cables took the strain of the car. Then the whole thing lifted up like a slow-moving rocket leaving Cape Canaveral.

The hot air balloon slowly rose and drifted out of sight. Suddenly everyone realised that a fifty-foot balloon toting a thousand-pound Chevy Cavalier was missing somewhere over Uxbridge, Ontario. That was the one part of the plan they forgot to talk about.

The TV crew and the ad agency folks all jumped into their cars and started chasing the balloon. They'd catch sight of it, then lose it. Up one concession road and down another.

Eventually they all ended up at the parking lot of a golf course. They commandeered several golf carts and went roaring off across the course. Sure enough, they spotted the balloon, which had come down, car and all, on the fourth green. The situation completely shocked a foursome who never, ever thought in a million years that a car would land on a green, right where they were putting.

It was triple bogeys all around.

Sources for this episode include:
What Else You Got? by Pat Bryan
I Can't Believe I Lived The Whole Thing by Howie Cohen
Integrity And All That S*** by Terry O'Malley

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)