Iron Man goes zero emission as Robert Downey Jr 'eco-mods' his classic cars into EVs

We are what we drive, says Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr, who has made a TV series charting his journey as he transforms his classic car collection of gas guzzlers into environmentally friendly 'eco-mods'. He talks to Kerri-Ann Roper

Robert Downey Jr is making his collection of classic cars eco-friendly
Robert Downey Jr is making his collection of classic cars eco-friendly

His on-screen character Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has been a firm fan favourite, swooping in to save the planet.

But beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe and off screen, what many may not know is that Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr is channelling the same good energy into fighting climate change.

The Avengers star (58), who rose to fame as part of the ‘Brat Pack’ in the 1980s and whose films include Weird Science, Chaplin, Zodiac and Sherlock Holmes, is fronting a new eco-mod motoring series called Downey’s Dream Cars for discovery+.

Throughout his career, he’s been a lover and collector of classic cars, but the new series sees Downey bringing those old classics into the current climate, making them more environmentally efficient and friendly, while still maintaining their classic integrity.

“What I am is a red-blooded American boy who grew up in New York watching the French Connection and Bullitt,” Downey explains of his motivation for the new series.

Robert Downey Jr's Chevy K10 pick-up - a monument to the internal combustion engine - before its transformation
Robert Downey Jr's Chevy K10 pick-up - a monument to the internal combustion engine - before its transformation

“Forty-two years later, I amassed a collection (of cars), which is what I thought you were meant to do when you become successful. You’re supposed to collect things, you’re supposed to have artefacts of your success.

“You are supposed to be able to drive these symbols of how you’ve succeeded in America.”

But he concedes: “My priorities are in a completely different place now, and yet, I still love these cars.

“I feel like they represent something uniquely beautiful about the past, so I want to bring them into the present, maybe even the future.”

His own personal collection over the years has been rumoured to feature a 2009 Audi R8 (the model also driven by his Tony Stark alter ego), a custom 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302, a Ferrari California T and more.

Engineers Charles, Dave and Nick plan how to modify the Mercedes
Engineers Charles, Dave and Nick plan how to modify the Mercedes

In Downey’s Dream Cars, the first transformation effort on the show is an electric conversion on his Chevrolet K10 pick-up truck.

“We called it the Thanos Thumper because it’s big, it’s loud, it’s purple, it looks like it could eat the world – and it definitely eats a lot of gas,” he explains, with a nod to the aubergine-tinged super-villain in Marvel’s Avengers series.

“And so, when I got the idea to eco-mod some of my car collection, it wasn’t long till I was looking at this beast of a truck and thinking, ‘What if I went electric with that – is it even possible?’.”

“I can tell these guys think I’m crazy for me to be messing with the car, it’s already been immaculately restored and now I’m going to be re-restoring it.

“But here’s the thing – that truck is insanely loud, insanely powerful, pumps out an insane amount of exhaust. It’s like the ultimate monument to the internal combustion engine.

“Now, I want to tear it down, and make it into another type of monument: quieter, zero emissions but just as powerful. Turn it into the strong and silent type – just like me…”

Over the six episodes, the actor will also get behind the wheel of stand-out electric car models, including “the world’s fastest-accelerating production car”.

A Mercedes-Benz from the actor's collection got the eco-mod treatment
A Mercedes-Benz from the actor's collection got the eco-mod treatment

Downey Jr, who battled substance abuse problems in the ’90s and spent time in both rehab and jail before turning his life around, has followed in the footsteps of his billionaire tech industry character Stark, by putting his star power into founding the venture capital initiative FootPrint Coalition.

Read more: Three 'eco-mod' EVs more interesting than a Tesla

In a statement in May on the official FootPrint Coalition website, announcing the car series, Downey Jr said: “We are what we drive, and having amassed a formidable collection of classic cars over the years, I was a petrol-spewing mess.

“And a hypocrite, as I’d founded the FootPrint Coalition in 2019 to scale technologies that mitigate climate change.”

“The last three years have been an experiment in hope as I engaged the best and brightest minds to evaluate, educate, elevate, and decarbonise these vehicles in a way that demonstrates the limitless potential of creative problem-solving.

“It was a huge challenge and an enlightening journey.”

He says of founding the FootPrint Coalition, which focuses on investing in ventures that promote sustainability around the world: “I was wrapping up my Marvel contract and so I kind of made all the similarities between my journey in the Marvel universe along with what’s really happened with AI and robotics over the last 10, 15 years, and then I thought while I was doing this, ‘I honestly should make some sort of commitment to the environment’.”

“I got together with a bunch of super-geniuses and they said with AI and robotics we probably could clean up the planet in the next two years.

“I said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s get it done’ – immediately they started backtracking and I felt p***** off by the inefficiency of the human experience, and so I thought, ‘I’m just going to see if I can do something about this’.”

And do something he has.

An Instagram post on his official account in January this year stated: “New year, new gear. Time to take my car collection on a journey away from fossil fuel dependency and towards eco-friendly alternatives. Stay tuned… I have a DREAM.”

Downey Jr’s car collection is another dream that has materialised over the years.

“I don’t know if it’s nostalgia for the cars, or if it’s the nostalgia for that time, but to me they are like touchstones to memories, it’s a way to not have them fade. It’s so soothing, it’s comforting to me,” he says.

His love of cars and driving is inherited from his mother, Elsie Ann, an actress who died in 2014.

“My mom loved to drive and she was a really good driver, 20 times better than my dad,” he says.

“She could drive any type of car – a truck or semi if she had to. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had watched her enough that no matter what car I wound up in, I could get it going.”

Downey Jr’s other upcoming projects include Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s film about the Manhattan Project which was the US plan to develop nuclear weapons during the Second World War.

He stars as American businessman Lewis Strauss, who was the founding commissioner of the US Atomic Energy Commission. The film also sees Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy playing J Robert Oppenheimer, the man credited with the creation of the atomic bomb.

Downey’s Dream Cars is on discovery+