When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrives in theaters in a few weeks, the answers to many of the decades-old mysteries related to the space saga will finally be revealed. But there’s one mystery even director J. J. Abrams doesn’t have the power to solve.
Following the launch of the original film in 1977, Toyota teamed up with 20th Century Fox to give away a “Star Wars Celica” in a sweepstakes. The two-door Liftback GT was customized with bodywork inspired by Toyota’s Formula One pace cars and had the iconic “Star Wars” movie poster airbrushed on its hood, along with images copied from authentic film cells along its sides.
The contest kicked off in September and ran through December, with a winner to be chosen in early 1978. But that winner, if there was one, remains unknown. The company that did the work, Delphi Auto Design of Costa Mesa, Calif., was caught up in a string of drug, kidnapping and murder charges and went out of business shortly after the car was created.
The contest fell off of the radar, too, possibly because the corporations involved wanted to distance themselves from any controversy. The winner’s name wasn’t publicized, and, in those pre-Internet days, didn’t become widely known.
The car never reappeared in any type of media since then, but it wasn’t forgotten. “Star Wars” fans made several efforts over the years to track it down, and a promising one is now under way.
Any search for the car starts at Marden-Kane, the New York-based promotions company that ran the sweepstakes. The company’s general manager, Alan Richter, told us they no longer have records from back then, but he also said we weren’t the only ones who had recently inquired.
Dean Shada, an indie screenwriter and producer who researches and tracks missing vehicles in his spare time, is searching for the car on behalf of an interested party in the film business. He’s been on the trail for about four months now, and he’s arrived at many of the dead ends that stymied so many before him. But he has likely made it further through the maze than any of them.
The problem, Shada says, is that just about everyone who was involved with the contest has died, and all the records have been either destroyed or buried so deep that no one knows where to find them. Still, he says, he’s spoken with everyone imaginable.
That includes the widow of the man who designed the car, John Sladek. Sladek ran Delphi Auto Design but wasn’t implicated in any of the scandals. He died in 2013, but many of his files and photos documenting the work on the car remain.
What’s not among them is anything that shows the prize car’s Vehicle Identification Number, which is the key to unlocking the mystery. Get that, and finding out where it ended up becomes a whole lot easier.
To this end, Shada has enlisted the help of some folks at Toyota HQ who are exploring every avenue their archives provide. Meanwhile, Marden-Kane says it has some new ideas involving old tax returns that, if found, could point to the big payout the car would have represented.
But is the car still worth anything, including the trouble to find it?
John Kraman of Mecum Auctions says 1977 Celica GTs go for up to $15,000 in good condition, but the “Star Wars” car would likely sell for at least twice that amount. Hagerty Insurance currently has a $50,000 policy on a “tastefully modified” example.
Still, when you’re talking “Star Wars” memorabilia, the sky may be the limit right now. But that memorabilia needs to exist, and there’s a good chance the car no longer does.
Shada spoke with the two men who did the airbrushing, and they told him there were problems with the clear coat they used. It deteriorated quickly, and without proper care the artwork might have faded fast, turning the car into little more than a tacky 1970s relic fit for a re-spray – or a junkyard at a time when “Star Wars” wasn’t so “in” as it is today.
But Shada is confident that someone out there knows something, or maybe even has the car parked in his garage, and that just reading an article on the Internet may jog their memory and bring it out of hiding. If so, he’d be happy to hear from you. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who knows? The reward may be more than you can imagine. If nothing else, you’ll probably own the Internet for at least a day.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.