Thanks to his father, John McDaniel knows his way around cars and motorcycles.
Since a child McDaniel has been tinkering with what some would call junkyard finds. But those finds and McDaniel are finding their way into roles in shows like “Stranger Things” and movies such as “Shaft.” While McDaniel’s appearances on the scene are from the last six years, his tinkering goes back decades.
“This goes all the way back to the 70s when my dad decided to stop being a chemical engineer and start being a mechanical engineer when I was in middle school,” McDaniel said. “He is a brilliant guy and engineer. He bought a machine shop.”
McDaniel and childhood friend Ron Johnson would work in McDaniel’s father’s shop. Johnson would become a machinist and McDaniel would go into IT. But something besides electronics rubbed off on McDaniel.
“Growing up with him is why I am mechanically inclined even though most of my career was in tech and computers,” McDaniel said. ‘He made sure when it was time for me to get a car, that I bought one that wasn’t new and when it broke, I was the one who fixed it.”
Johnson was there too, taking apart cars and putting them back together.
McDaniel remembers learning to ride a motorcycle and wanted his son to have one too.
“I thought I could fix up a motorcycle,” McDaniel said. “There is not a whole lot to them. I called a friend of my sisters. He hooked me up with a 78 Honda CM 400. I restored it, got it running, taught my son how to ride a motorcycle and learned a little about painting and bodywork. I’m not a good bodywork person but on a motorcycle all you really got is the gas tank. I was tickled that I did that on my own, really. It was before I got into the movies.”
McDaniel was living west of Atlanta near where he grew up and his sister was into theater and the movie scene in Atlanta. She had a 1980s Volkswagen bus being used in “Stranger Things” when she helped connect McDaniel and the motorcycle with casting of the hit TV show.
“She got me started into it as far as the movies,” McDaniel said. “She made a phone call and next thing I know I’m on ‘Stranger Things’ with the motorcycle — the rest of season two filming.”
McDaniel would explore getting his motorcycle into other shows and movies but soon discovered there wasn’t much need for motorcycles. He also discovered he had an itch to stay in the business. McDaniel would search for another vehicle with hopes of getting in front of the camera again. It was October 2017 and McDaniel found a 1980s Toyota Celica on Craigslist. McDainel and Johnson went to work.
“It ran poorly,” McDaniel said. “Somebody had put a Holley four-barrel carburetor on it and it had closed off half of it.”
It would be selected to be in the background of a scene of “Shaft,” starring Samuel Jackson.
“It was an all night shoot,” McDaniel said. “It was so cool. There were like five of us parked on the street and we had to stay in our cars. This scene we weren’t driving, but every 15 minutes we had to move out of the lane for the MARTA bus. They rented a whole city block for the night to do this scene in the movie.
“I watched Samuel Jackson do this scene all night long. I was just right across the street.”
Now McDaniel has a Triumph TR7 and a Dodge D-50.
The TR7 was on McDaniel’s radar for more than a year. The original asking price was too much but McDaniel left an offer to call when the seller was ready. The call came a year later.
“I’m in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a Mother’s Day Cruise with my mom,” McDaniel said. “The owner called and sold it to me. I bought it while on the cruise ship.”
But the wait was worth it.
“Dad had a TR8, it has the same body style,” McDaniel said. “My brother drove it in high school. I thought my father might like it.”
Johnson has helped along the way with rebuilding transmissions, suspensions, brakes and even some bodywork and pinstriping.
The collection now resides in Tallassee where McDaniel moved about 18 months ago from Georgia. The pair even built a shop to do their work.
There are two early 2000s Mercedes SLKs, a 2007 Cadalic and the next project is Johnson’s 1982 Volkswagen diesel Rabbit pickup that Johnson bought from his sister.
“I just put a new head on it,” Johnson said. “Just got it running for the first time in 13 years. I remember driving it. It gets 52 miles to the gallon. I’m going to drive it daily.”
But it's not just the cars that Johnson and McDaniel get in front of the camera. They serve as extras too. McDaniel especially recalled extra roles in “Just Mercy” and “Richard Jewell” directed by Clint Eastwood.
“If you know in advance you can prepare for these things,” McDaniel said. “I went and got my haircut — 90s cop style. I wanted to be in this movie, not necessarily for the car but to be able to say I worked alongside Clint Eastwood and say ‘Hey, I was in a Clint Eastwood movie.’”
McDaniel was one of the law enforcement officers in the film.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed McDaniel’s appearances in front of the camera but said things are scaling back up in production.
“About a month ago I did something,” McDaniel said. “I guess I will be doing movies and shows starting in early spring. It is pseudo retirement for me.”