Exclusive! How Robert Downey Jr. Is Reinventing Classic Cars

As I walk through the massive, vaultlike door to the Team Downey production office, I’m invited to take a seat. Immediately to my left stands the Mark I suit from the first IronMan film. A few minutes and no less than four offers of water later, I’m told he’s ready. Stepping onto a balcony overlooking Venice, California, I’m greeted by Hollywood A-List star Robert Downey Jr.

Your understandable knee jerk reaction here may be to wonder what the hell MotorTrend wants to talk to Downey about. The answer is simple. At the height of the 58-year-old actor’s tenure as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s franchise player, he amassed a large collection of high-end modern and classic cars.

Following his farewell turn as Iron Man in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, Downey decided he wanted to devote effort and resources to help the vulnerable blue world we call Earth. He founded the Footprint Coalition, a venture group that invests in companies dealing in environmentally friendly technologies. He also changed his diet and started a rescue farm with his wife, Susan. Realizing his walk needed to better match his talk, he acknowledged he couldn’t be the overlord of a warehouse filled with some not-so-eco-friendly vehicles. That realization led to Downey’s Dream Carswhich premieres June 22 streaming on Max.

“I just woke up one morning with, ‘How can I reconcile the fact that I’m committed to developing and scaling sustainable technologies and I have this, not massive, but pretty suzable collection of cars that are just doing the environment no favour?'” he says. “And then I was thinking how to be literally self-sustaining for the coalition. What’s the end game for all these cars? The end game can’t be for me to have Max pay to make them cooler and do a show [about it]and pay me to do the coolshow. This has to be about these cars winding up somewhere else.”

Each of the six roughly hourlong episodes sees Downey select a car from his personal collection; he then finds a team to “eco-mod” the car to make it more environmentally friendly. In some cases that means a switch to electric power. For others, such as Downey’s 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SE originally owned by his late mother, it means a biodiesel conversion. In the end, he plans to give away the vehicles in a sweepstakes. He knows he could send each one to the auction circuit and probably rake in a ton of cash, but he wants to give everyone a chance to own one of his cars, not just professionals and wealthy bidders and speculators.

“They all have to be given [away],” Downey says. “Everyone needs to get a chance to spend five or 20 or 50 bucks [to acquire one]. Not some Barrett-Jackson or Mecum thing, which I love and where I’ve gotten a fair amount of my cars in the past, but that’s a pro game. That’s like high-stakes poker. I want anybody to be able to get a chance to own one of these cars.”

His words recall an interview Downey did with Sam Jones, during which he spoke of learning about “aesthetic distance,” a principle that teaches new actors to separate their own psyche from the characters they portray. Downey says it was one of the first lessons taught to him by his theater arts teacher, Mr. Jealison, at Santa Monica High School. Yet here he sits on a quest to leverage technology to better the planet. Sure, he isn’t actually Tony Stark, but it’s difficult at the moment to not see the similarity.

“I mean, look, you know, life is doing something and it doesn’t matter if you resist it or embrace it, it’s pretty much going to fall where it’s going to fall,” Downey says. “It’s been more other people telling me that my life is imitating art. My life is my this and that. I’m kind of like, I’ve never had any qualms going back to my missus and my kids. You know, they ‘re under no illusion that I’m anything like [Tony Stark]. Yet I think we tend to do best in the roles, in the jobs, that we have a natural affinity toward.

“If anything, I just took from that kind of storytelling, you know, technology, threats, and creative problem solving being kind of the answer. I think these are just existential things.”

Is he bothered by the notion that some people may oversimplify the situation and attribute his present mission purely to his past role as the genius armored superhero? That some might perhaps not give him credit for making his own choice to do what he can for the environment’s betterment?

“Well, it’s hard to know how much of it is accurate or not,” he says. “And by the way, why? Why would I be bothered by it? I tend to do the same shit as everyone else. I didn’t think I’d be on the cover of MotorTrend magazine for it,” adding an inflection as if to say, “Who would’ve thought?”

“As it happens, I think there’s a couple things, right?” Downey says. “Look what’s going on just in this massive business of entertainment, media content, and just things that we can put our eyes on. Why is this Dream Cars show interesting?

“I love watching all these other shows,” he continues. “You name any one of ’em, I spent an afternoon watching ’em [on the] MotorTrend channel. I’m there. I get it. I love it all, but I almost feel like nowadays you want to try to add something that’s counterprogramming to everything else if you can, right? Because sometimes I want to watch a thriller, and sometimes I want to watch an anti-thriller just so that I’m not so easy to stick to what my own interests are as a consumer. Like, what are my interests? Well, they vary.”

It’s easy to understand Downey’s reasoning when you look at the automotive TV landscape. Despite how massively popular build shows are, there is always a portion of the potential or existing audience that’s looking for something different. At the same time, it doesn’t matter who you are, creating any form of mass entertainment is a difficult road to navigate, let alone find success along. With all his resources and all the things he could do, what he did Downey’s Dream Cars worth his bandwidth?

“My MO was if I did the show and the show was good, who knows?” he says. “If I [could] do other seasons, I probably would, but if all of this is just to bring attention to these cars that in a sweepstakes situation could help me get X amount to make good on what I’ve said my intentions are with this coalition’s mission statement, then it’s good.

“You know how sometimes everything is in our mind, no one can ever really figure it out? It’s like on the back of a napkin in my head, like, ‘If this can connect to thatthen I know the why.’ As long as you have a whyyou can get through any what. What kind of tone should it have? What level of exposure are you willing to offer if this is supposed to be so personal to you?”

Downey also hints he is looking downfield when it comes to car collecting; part of his outcome with Downey’s Dream Cars may be to find a better end for his vehicles rather than him eventually becoming a curator to a museum of automotive relics.

“I just had this little equation that as long as one of the integers isn’t, ‘I keep it,’ it makes sense, and I can feel good about my entire history with conspicuous consumption,” Downey says. “And it is a loser’s game, this car collector thing. Remember in The Color of Money when [Paul] Newman finally gets hustled? It’s like this is a game where there are people who are so invested in this and so much more of a purist in this area than you are.

“The best thing is to do what only you can do in this space and make it entertaining, but most of all make it have some heart and meaning to it. Which means it can’t be about you personally keeping anything material at the end .”

One particular thing Downey can do is bring the big attention that comes from being one of the planet’s most famous people, along with a non-purist approach to an automotive show—especially a show that features more than a few EV conversions. Anyone who’s visited a Reddit page or seen an Instagram post about converting a gas-powered car to electric knows just how vitriolic the responses can be to such a thing. Downey, always prepared, offers his take on people who believe ripping the V-8 out of a classic C2 Corvette is sure to remove its soul.

“Well first, before I agree with them in a vacuum, I’m gonna ask, where does the soul of the car reside?” he says. “To me, it’s in a couple areas. It’s definitely the engine and the way it feels, the drivetrain, everything about it, the smell. It’s also the steering wheel and the ergonomics.

“But it depends. For episode two, the soul of [the Mercedes 280 SE] is in the right front seat, which is where my mom sat.” Downey wants to play fair, though, so he also looks from the other side.

“To play devil’s advocate for them, absolutely right. Also just practically speaking, in a drawdown ‘environmentally what’s best?’ way, yes, it is probably true that the best thing you can do with a classic car is nothing. Because as soon as you start making changes, you’re burning energy to do that.” On top of seeing things from the opposite perspective, he actually isn’t completely sold that electric cars alone are the answer to one of automobility’s greatest challenges.

“I don’t hate on internal combustion engines,” Downey says. “That whole period of time got us where we are. So now to just cancel it out of hand? I think there’s still room for internal combustion. Maybe there will be different fuel sources?”

Similarly, each installment of the show features its own message, but what does the actor hope the main takeaway will be after completing the final episode?

“A habitable planet for future generations ultimately is not in the hands of some government agency or some tech unicorn,” Downey says. “It’s each and every one of us. And because we’re all so individual and specific, we have to trust that our own contributions come from our own intuitions of what to do is really what’s important. That was what the show came out of. It was literally like a dream of how to demonstrate a start, you know?”

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