Back to the Future in 88 seconds

How far back is Marty’s 88mph starting line in the clock tower climax?

Let’s say you wanted to recreate Marty McFly’s finale run in the DeLorean, riding the lightning in 1955 and exploding back to the future. Let’s say you want to do it in modern-day San Francisco, using the Ferry Building clock tower as your destination, and cruising down an empty Market Street. The orchestra is arranged on bleachers just outside the Embarcadero Center, playing Alan Silvestri’s famous score. Where would you you need to start your car to match the scene’s crescendo and arrive at the Embarcadero just when lightning hits the flux capacitor?

Back To The Future (1985). Clock tower scene.

The final sequence is embedded from YouTube here. Director Robert Zemeckis plays with time and space for maximum dramatic impact, making it a memorable sequence in 1980s film. The car takes a lot longer to reach speed than a real one would, but it’s not an impossible course to chart.

We get several clues: Marty starts driving, and then we cut back periodically from Doc Brown’s shenanigans to see him shifting gears and we get a few glances at the dashboard speedometer and the time-machine LED one.

We watch Marty start the car and accelerate off the start line (time zero). Over twenty seconds later, we see him shift into fourth, then fifth gear. (The Delorean’s manual shifter pattern looked like this.) We’re at 44 seconds of screen time when we see the first speed reading of 61mph. Ten seconds later, we watch the analog speedometer swing past 75mph. (Fun fact: the stock DeLorean speedometer capped out at 85mph. The one shown in the film has a carefully altered dial.)

The DeLorean finally hits the magic 88mph at… 88 seconds of screen driving time. Was that a coincidence? Or were Zemeckis and his editors having a little fun?

Lightning hits the clock tower at the 100 second mark and because this is a movie, it takes four more seconds to flare down the cable, through Doc Brown, and across the overhead wire. Only then does Marty’s DeLorean suck in the full 1.21 gigawatts, disappearing in flaming skid trails.

So how far back was the starting line? The area under the graph above (which you can do with calculus but I forget how so I did it with geometry and Excel) is about 1.72 miles. This doesn’t seem very far for a sports car flying down a straight road for a minute and a half, and it’s not. Marty wasn’t driving very fast!

A regular DeLorean could have accelerated up to 88mph in under 25 seconds. This one has the time machine junk all over it so maybe it would be a little slower. But not that much.

Back to the real question though: When we close San Francisco’s Market Street to all traffic, get the SF Symphony out on the bleachers by the Ferry Building to play the music and have a carefully-directed, vest-wearing stunt driver in a DeLorean, where does the car have to start from?

In front of the Hotel Whitcomb, on Market Street near 8th Street behind Civic Center:

(Does “Twitter HQ” feel like sponsoring this very promising stunt?)

Of course, if you did this and you were not driving an actual time machine, you would plow clear into the Ferry Building, but you could get some nice chocolate and coffee while you’re there. How much is the permit fee from SFMTA to close off this section of Market Street? I’ll find the DeLorean.

Pedal to the metal.

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