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SYFY WIRE Rod Serling

How The Twilight Zone Created a Self-Driving Car in the 1960s for “You Drive”

One of The Twilight Zone's most memorable images is a Ford sedan driving... by itself.

By Matthew Jackson
Rod Serling holds a lit cigarette.

The original iteration of The Twilight Zone (regularly airing on SYFY) remains one of the most important and influential sci-fi series in genre TV history, and it's still finding new fans today. There's something timeless about the show and its many genre concepts, despite sometimes dated visual effects and delivery styles, that makes it endure, but sometimes even those 1960s visual effects can strike modern audiences as incredibly effective.

How The Twilight Zone Predicted the Self-Driving Car in "You Drive"

"You Drive," the 15th episode of the show's fifth and final season, is not one of the most instantly memorable Twilight Zone installments. It doesn't rank up there with "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" or "To Serve Man" or "Time Enough at Last," but the episode does have its own chilling charms. Today, it's best remembered for its use of a car that seems to drive itself, something that was quite striking to 1960s audiences, and holds up even today. 

The episode follows a man named Oliver (Edward Andrews), a businessman who commits a hit-and-run with his Ford Fairlane Sedan that seriously injures a child riding a bicycle. When Oliver refuses to own up to what he did, even letting one of his coworkers take the fall, his car rebels against him, doing everything it can to drive its owner to confess. 

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This means the Fairlane does things throughout the episode like playing news broadcasts about the accident spontaneously on the radio, honking its own horn, and even dropping its own hood on top of Oliver. Eventually, things progress to the car driving itself a la John Carpenter's Christine, chasing Oliver down and, at one point, nearly running over his head. 

So, how did an episode of TV produced in 1963 manage these convincing effects? According to producer William Froug, it was all a matter of cleverly hiding who was really driving the car.

"We had a man under the dashboard with a tiny periscope that stuck up through the hood of the car, and he drove with special controls," Froug said in The Twilight Zone Companion, as unearthed by Slashfilm. "I remember watching it, because I was on location when it was filmed, and I was astonished. This car would come driving by and it was spooky because you couldn't see this little periscope sticking up."

But even these "special controls" and a periscope weren't precise enough for the episode's most harrowing moment, when the car stops just inches from Oliver's head on the pavement. For that, the crew had to rely on a simpler, older technique to make the shot look as convincing as possible. 

"You do it in reverse," director of photography George Clemens said in The Twilight Zone Companion. "Start the car right at him and pull it back. Those things always work well when they're done right."

The Twilight Zone airs regularly on SYFY. Check the Schedule for more info.