Quest for RB 928
There's a time for playing it safe and a time for risky business
Story by Greg Hudock
Photos by James O. Thompson
The dream is always the same. In the mid-1990s, Lewis Johnsen began searching the internet for pictures of the 928 used in Tom Cruise's breakout film, Risky Business. Johnsen, who talked his older sister into taking him to see the film when he was but 14 years old, had always dreamed of owning the shark-nosed Porsche from the film.
Talking with Johnsen today, it's obvious that the film left a lasting impression on him. Says Johnsen: "Among other things, the movie inspired me to strive for college." Johnsen would go on to earn a degree in Communication Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder and then land an internship at the local NBC affiliate. Later, he hosted and produced a home-improvement show in Denver for the now defunct PAX network. Eventually, Johnsen ended up in corporate marketing, but a certain silver 928 was always on his mind: "Being a car enthusiast, I always wondered what happened to the 928 from Risky Business.
"I assumed it was in a car museum somewhere," continues Johnsen. "But I couldn't find anything related to the car on the web." After ten years of periodic online searches, Johnsen got serious and set out to find the Risky Business 928 in late 2005 -once and for all. He also considered the search an excellent oppor-tunity to produce a documentary, something he'd always wanted to do. John-sen's first move was tracking down Risky Business producer Jon Avnet.
"After a few phone calls and e-mails, Jon accepted my request for an on-camera interview for the documentary," says Johnsen. Shortly thereafter, Johnsen was on a plane to Los Angeles. "I was in awe at first, being in Avnet's office. It took a while before I felt normal around him." After the interview, Avnet offered to help with the documentary, giving Johnsen the green light to go through the film's production records, wardrobe, and raw cuts. "I was given access to the movie's production files, which took a lot of trust on Avnet's end." Avnet even helped Johnsen attain interviews with several of the cast and crew members from the film.
Johnsen spoke with the film's writer and director, Paul Brickman, next. Brick-man said he chose Porsche's 928 as the film's luminary in lieu of other high-end GTs initially considered because he felt a Ferrari or Lamborghini would be far too exotic for the main character's father to drive as a daily car. Brickman initially considered Porsche's iconic 911, but ultimately dubbed it "too mundane." He saw the 928, on the other hand, as exactly the type of car a successful Windy City businessman would drive to work every day. The 928 was one of the most contemporary cars available at the time Brickman wrote the script. It was fresh, different, and exotic - yet in a subtle way.
Through his conversations with Avnet and Brickman, Johnsen learned that he wasn't after one 928, but several 928s. The idea that one 928 would have been used for filming, ultimately being totaled after being dumped into Lake Michigan for the sinking Porsche scene after every other scene was in the can, might make sense. But, through his research, Johnsen found there were four different 928s used for filming, as well as two more cars used in the film's post-production phase.
What's more, none of the four 928s used for the production of Risky Busi-ness exactly match the car as it is actually portrayed on film. The cars present a mix of years, wheels, transmissions, and original colors -all similar yet slightly different from one another. RB 928, as portrayed in the film, is a 1981 Platinmetallic 928 with a five-speed manual transmission, offset "Phone-Dial" cast alloy wheels, a gold interior, and Illinois State license plate tag number N2Z 264. And the primary 928 used for filming in real life was a Platinum Metallic 1981 928, but with an automatic transmission, flat-face 15-inch "Phone-Dial" wheels, a brown dash, gold seats, and a non-reflective prop Illinois license plate, number N2Z 264.
The Risky Business crew sourced its "primary driver" from Lee Klinger Porsche in Chicago - the same dealership that appears in the movie. At the time, more 928s were sold through Lee Klinger - known as the Porsche Exchange today - than anywhere else in the country. Says Johnsen: "Before they began production, they asked the service manager, Bruce Semersky, still an employee at the dealership today, if he had seen any Platinum Metallic 928s recently. He looked through his records and found two." The first contact they called had no interest in renting the car. The second contact - Ted Kohl, a stock broker from Chicago - did.
When the film crew called Ted, his son Scott answered. They initially offered $100 per day to rent the car for a movie, according to Scott. Knowing his father would never do that, he said no thanks. Says Johnsen: "He put the phone down for a moment, got back on the line, and offered the car for $500 per day." Scott then went down to the trading floor of the stock exchange and told his father about the deal he had just made. His dad said, "For $500 a day, they can keep it!"
Kohl's 928 would be used for a total of twelve days of filming. Since it had 15-inch instead of offset 16-inch wheels, it was only used in scenes shot above the car's beltline. It was used in all of the driving scenes as well as the chase scene, which took its toll on the car. Kohl quickly realized that his car was being abused. It was being pushed to the limit every time it was being filmed -especially for the chase scene. In other words, the 928 he would get back wouldn't be the same car he rented out. In the midst of production, Kohl decided to get out of the car. As it turned out, Kohl's lawyer - James Schlifke, the same guy who had helped him draft the rental agreement in the first place - took over the lease on the car.
After the title changed hands, Schlifke continued to rent the car to the Risky Business production, eventually buying the car outright from the lease. He initially took over the payments, thinking he might actually make some money. But, in the end, he lost about $1,500 on the deal. Said Schlifke: "The head gaskets were blown, the radar detector and jack were missing, the brakes were shot, and the engine was in need of a tune-up."
The production crew took care of the brakes and the tune-up, mainly because Schlifke said they couldn't continue to use the car unless they did. Even so, Schlifke would end up paying for the rest of the required repairs himself. As Johnsen puts it, "He didn't seem too happy, looking back on things." Not long after, Schlifke put the famous 928 up for sale. Quietly.
"Schlifke said he didn't tell the eventual buyer about the car being used in the movie as he thought it would only devalue the car. After all, most people thought the car was dumped into Lake Michigan, Tom Cruise was still an unknown actor, and there was no hype surrounding the movie at that time. So Schlifke thought it would have only been a negative thing." Thus, the "primary driver" RB928 was sold in Glenview by Schlifke in 1984. The buyer, according to Schlifke, was foreign.
The second of two 928s used for driving scenes was a 1979 928 with a five-speed manual transmission, 16-inch alloy wheels, and an all-gold interior. Avnet claims to have taught Tom Cruise how to drive a stick-shift in this car. Since it was a pre-1981 model, it didn't come with factory Platinum Metallic skin, and thus had to be repainted to match the others. Used for just three days of filming, the '79 car can be seen primarily in driving scenes with wide shots where the whole car is in view, as well as in portions of the chase scene. It was dubbed the "fill car" because it was used to fill in the gaps in the driving scenes during the editing process.
"The paper trail in the production files suggests that the late Jim Riccio, the film's transportation captain, rented it from a props or movie-car broker in California -where it was returned after the filming commenced," says Johnsen.
The third RB 928 was used for just one scene. It is the car Rebecca DeMornay's character, Lana, knocked out of gear just before it began to roll towards Lake Michigan with the keys locked inside. This, too, was a 1979 five-speed 928, but it was unlike the main five-speed driver in that it had a cream-colored interior. Says Johnsen: "The five-speed åfill car' from California was likely not in Chicago yet when that scene was shot and that is why a different five-speed was used," based on Brickman's recollection. Further confirmation that this car was sourced at the last minute came when Johnsen went through the film's production files at Avnet's office in Los Angeles, where he found no official documentation for this car.
The fourth and final RB928 used for filming was the result of the previous said car being knocked out of gear with the keys locked inside. Car four was rented from a production props broker in Cali-fornia and dumped into Lake Michigan. The "dump car," as it's referred to, started life as a brown 1979 928 automatic with 16-inch Phone Dials. It was re-sprayed in Platinum Metallic to match the others after it arrived in Chicago. To comply with state pollution regulations as well as to "preserve" the drivetrain and electronics, the dump car was gutted. The missing V8 is obvious on film, as the front ride height is several inches higher than normal when it teeters on the rickety wooden pier. After it was pulled from the lake, it was reassembled and sent back to the California prop broker. Johnsen did find documentation of the "dump car" in the production files, but no VIN number was found.
The fifth and sixth RB928s were used in the film's post-production phase. Car number five was either a 1978 or 1979 928, though it is not clear. It didn't appear in the film, as it had a sunroof - a feature absent on all of the film cars. It played a significant role in the film's publicity campaign, though. It was the car used in the film's movie-poster photo session. While American and Japanese posters had an illustration of the 928 with DeMornay sprawled across the hood, the French version of the movie poster used one of the pictures from the photo session. It was only after another conversation with producer Jon Avnet that Johnsen discovered a sixth car - sort of: "The sounds dubbed for the cars were from a 928 in California. So, just for the record, I guess you could consider that to be the sixth car."
Now that Johnsen knew exactly how many 928s were used for the film, he set out to track down the "primary driver," the 1981 automatic car -with VIN number in hand. After a total of eight rejection letters from the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles and countless unsuccessful internet searches - including Carfax - he tried another, albeit extreme, avenue. He hired a private investigator.
The PI learned that the primary 1981 automatic driver, #WP0JA0921BS820312, had indeed been sold to an unknowing foreign buyer. It had been shipped out of the country in 1984, as Johnsen had initially speculated. Since finding the '81 "primary driver" was no longer plausible, Johnsen's only other option was to find car number two -the 1979 five-speed "fill car," #9289201213. The four other RB928s may be forever lost, because the '81 "primary driver" and '79 "fill car" are the only 928s for which there are VIN numbers in the production records.
Through the use of his private investigator, Johnsen obtained the phone number of the then-present owner of the five-speed "fill car" - which was now painted white and living in Cathedral City, Califor-nia. Remembers Johnsen: "I ended up making several calls to him and, in the process, I came to realize that he actually wanted to sell the car. He owned several other project cars and had grown tired of the 928!" The owner said he had purchased it three years earlier from someone who had had it in storage in California for twelve years. That made sense, as the car was shipped back to California after production commenced.
"I was still skeptical, though," recalls Johnsen. "I didn't want to buy a car and find out it wasn't the one I was looking for." After a few phone conversations, John-sen felt sure it was the real car and negotiated the purchase. "I paid fair market value for the car and had it shipped to Colorado sight unseen, other than the few pictures he had sent prior." When John-sen got it home, he began scraping back a few small areas of paint, searching for the confirming gold paint. "I eventually found what I was looking for on the front grill and right front fender. There were traces of gold under that white paint, both literally and figuratively speaking. I slept well that night. A long, hard part of my journey was now complete." That said, something was nagging at Johnsen, something only a phone call would fix.
"After I had the title transferred to my name, I called the guy I bought it from to relieve some guilt I had and told him the truth about the whole thing," admits Johnsen. "Surprisingly, he thought the whole thing was pretty cool and looked forward to reading about it in the magazines. He seemed happy to have gotten rid of it -regardless of its history." That was probably because the no longer lost Risky Business928 could hardly be called pristine, after 102,000 miles and multiple paint jobs. Its fuel tank was leaking and it was obvious that its bodywork would need some attention.
"I didn't have much money left to spend, so I brought the car to a local Maaco paint place and had a single-stage paint job done on it," says Johnsen. "It kind of worked out, though, because it only had a single-stage paint job on it when it was in the movie. So, in a way, this cheap paint job is more true to how it really was in the film than if I had an expensive two-stage base/clear paint job done - which wasn't an option anyway!"
Now that Johnsen had, in fact, found one of the cars he was documenting the search for, he focused on putting together the rest of his documentary, which includes interviews with Curtis Armstrong - who played Miles in the film - as well as producer Avnet and writer/director Brickman. He is also in the process of booking interviews with Rebecca DeMornay as well as the elusive Tom Cruise. While the latter may prove tough to pin down, Johnsen got what he was really after: the car. Funny thing is, he's no longer sure he'll keep it.
"I realized that what I was really chasing was an illusion, and you can't drive one of those home and park it in your garage," says Johnsen. "The only way to really have the RB 928 is to buy a DVD of Risky Business -as the car only truly exists there. I merely have an artifact left over from a great movie."
Cruise would probably look back on it as a great movie, too. He netted a Golden Globe nomination in 1984 for his performance as Joel Goodsen -considered by many as the role that launched his career -and Risky Business went on to become one of the biggest cult classic films of the 1980s. It also exposed the Porsche brand to a whole new generation of future buyers. Many first-time Porsche owners today were teenagers sitting, with mouths agape, in a dark theater 20+ years ago.
Johnsen was one of them. For now, he has put the sole known RB928 survivor on display in the Forney Museum of Trans-portation in Denver while he finishes up his documentary. But the car will be used for promotional purposes at least once more. Upon acceptance, Johnsen hopes to bring the RB928 to the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2008 -to promote The Quest for RB 928's world premier.
UPDATE: 11/4/2014, A 928OC member reported that the car had been sold again in 2012. More Details.
UPDATE: 9/24/2021: Risky Business sells for $10.9M. More Details