(first posted 6/22/2014) “Wax on, wax off.” One of the most famous movie lines of all time, first shown on the silver screen exactly 30 years ago on June 22, 1984, these words from The Karate Kid are a reminder of a too often forgotten truth: that this iconic movie of the 1980s featured cars almost as much as it featured karate. Waxing cars being central to the education of the young novice is a reminder that cars and karate were each inseparably part of the story.
The first look at Mr. Miyagi’s yard told the audience that classic cars were as much a part of his life as karate. A hidden karate master, he was also a hidden car collector and presumably master of restoration. His daily driver was the 1942 Chevrolet pickup truck parked at the center. As if the pickup was not interesting enough, he also had a yellow 1947 Ford Super Deluxe convertible, a 1951 Cadillac sedan, a 1951-53 Pontiac woodie wagon, and smallest but not least of all, a blue and white Nash Metropolitan. Like where he learned his karate, where Mr. Miyagi got the cars is unclear. “Hey, where did these cars come from?” asked Daniel “Daniel-san” Russo during his first lesson. “Detroit!” was the reply.
The eye-catching yellow Ford was the most noticeable of Mr. Miyagi’s cars, and it is the one that most people have remembered. Many of the film’s pivotal scenes occurred around it. Daniel-san gawked at it before his first lesson, and Mr. Miyagi delivered the memorable “wax on, wax off” lesson in front of it. The Ford went on to feature prominently in several later scenes. Alas, the Cadillac and the Pontiac never moved or got any attention.
The Nash Metropolitan got its turn at stardom, although the camera angle showed few of its features, and most likely no one remembers its presence. The Metropolitan was the main object of Mr. Miyagi’s waxing instructions and the first car that Daniel-san transformed from dust-covered to shiny and pristine, in the process unknowingly learning his first karate lesson. Thus, the Metropolitan was a key player in Daniel-san’s transformation from a helpless boy to a student of karate. Why the movie makers chose the Metropolitan for this role is unclear, but it quite likely was because as by far the smallest and lowest of the five main movie cars, the Metropolitan made average height (5 feet 9 inches) Ralph Macchio and rather short (5 feet 3 inches) Pat Morita look much taller in this scene.
The 1942 Chevrolet pickup was the main vehicle for Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san, and it conveyed them to all of the places where they trained. A 1942 model year vehicle was an unusual choice, as the cessation of civilian vehicle manufacturing after the attack on Pearl Harbor made 1942 cars and trucks rare. Using a 1942 as Mr. Miyagi’s main vehicle may have been purely coincidence, occurring only because the producers wanted an old pickup truck and their movie car broker happened to have a 1942. If the choice was intentional, it was inspired, because 1942 was the year that Mr. Miyagi the movie character and Pat Morita the real-life person each went to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. It would have been a perfect match between character, actor and car.
Daniel-san’s car also was a match for his character. A high school senior with no driver’s license at the start of the story, he arrived for his first date with Elizabeth Shue’s character Ali Mills in his single mother’s decrepit 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu wagon. Merely a 15 year old used car in 1984, not a classic worth restoration or resto-modding like today, it had to be push started in front of Ali’s skeptical affluent parents. “Loser,” they no doubt thought.
Fortunately, Ali saw beyond Daniel-san’s mother’s car and early haplessness, and she fended off advances by an anonymous acquaintance in a new white 1984 Corvette (first year of the C4) and the thuggish kids of Cobra Kai in an Avanti II convertible with wire wheels. Wire wheels on their Avanti were a clear sign that those kids were no good.
The parking lot in this scene displayed an array of cars of the Malaise Era that were the cars that many of us grew up with as used cars during the period of the movie. Vega. Mustang II. Camaro with cowcatcher bumpers. Granada. Along with a few yuppie-mobiles such as a Mercedes W126 sedan and several BMW E21 3-series, they provided a reasonably accurate depiction of the cars that would have appeared in the parking lot of a suburban center for teenage entertainment during the early 1980s.
Daniel-san overcame adversity to win in the ring and outside of it, of course, and as part of his transformation into a winner who had absorbed Mr. Miyagi’s lessons on karate and life, he got his driver’s license and Mr. Miyagi’s permission to use his Ford on a date with Ali. Ali’s belief in Daniel-san was rewarded as he let her drive the Ford. Daniel-san was rewarded with a classic car guy’s dream: a girl who not only knows what a three on the tree is, but also can drive one without a moment’s thought or hesitation. This moment of movie magic was a fitting culmination to the growth of the main character in a film in which classic cars were essential parts of the story.