We're being squeezed at the gasoline pumps, but this doesn't have to mean that our long love affair with the automobile is on the skids. Join the creators and the characters of Pixar's new movie for a fun-loving journey.

OK, maybe the summer of 2006 doesn't look like the best time to debut a movie that celebrates cars.

After all, North Americans are being walloped by high gasoline prices at the pumps, there's widespread concern about instability in the world's oil centers, and Detroit automakers are struggling with financial problems.

Just don't lay all that on Oscar-winning movie director John Lasseter. If Lasseter has his way, moviegoers this summer will find themselves loving cars as much as he does. That's "cars" in general and "Cars" with a capital "C", this summer's new movie from Disney's Pixar Animation Studios.

Lasseter was behind such blockbuster animation films as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo." His new comedy adventure film is set in an unusual world where there are no people, only vehicles. And these vehicles are alive, with memorable, even touching, personalities.

"I can't think of a better PR ambassador for the auto industry (than this film)," said Leonard Maltin, veteran movie critic who appears on TV's "Entertainment Tonight."

"This whole movie is about a time when people loved their cars, they loved motoring," Maltin said. "This movie is a hymn to that time and maybe will inspire young people."

Getting Help from the Experts

The 49-year-old Lasseter, who's a car buff and NASCAR racing fan, said he knew for years that he would do a movie about cars, someday, somehow.

But it wasn't until he took a two-month, cross-country, road trip vacation with his family in the summer of 2000 that the movie's story line started to develop in his mind. Having recently viewed a documentary about the rise of interstate highways decades ago, Lasseter's travel vacation goal was to stay off interstates as much as possible. The trip forced him to slow his whirlwind pace, something that also occurs for the movie's main character, the race car called Lightning McQueen.

Returning to Pixar, Lasseter said he "realized that I knew what the film needed to be about. I discovered that the journey in life is the reward."

So, in 2001, he and some company colleagues toured parts of historic Route 66 with historian and author Michael Wallis, who introduced them to people who could serve as resources for the movie. For example, Lasseter took to lunch staff members of the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma.

Riding in four white Cadillacs for nine days on the initial Route 66 trip, Lasseter and his team also viewed special places along the route that could serve as interesting backdrops. They took in the landscape detail, even the color and texture of the dirt.

They wanted, as Producer Darla Anderson put it, to visualize how the landscape would look to cars, not humans, and capture that perspective in the film. "John does a lot of research," she remarked.

And, of course, Pixar officials had to get a peek at the inner world of the auto industry.

Asking Ford Motor Co for help in his early automotive research in 2000, Lasseter struck up a friendship with design chief J Mays, who brought him into Ford's design and decision-making process. The two men went to auto shows together, and over the years, Mays visited Lasseter's Pixar facilities in Emeryville, Calif., to see how the film was moving along.

"The relationship with Ford has been very special; the two (men) completed each other," Anderson said. "John and J talked about how behind each car is a story."

Thus, in the film's final version, a 1949 Mercury police cruiser that's the town sheriff is the most prominent vehicle that's identifiable as a Ford product on the screen.

But Pixar officials declined to identify the make and model of the main character, Lightning McQueen. The bright red car has a generic look, Pixar publicity coordinator Amanda Sorena confirmed. "It's a Pixar design (not any one single car model)" she said.

Asked why, she replied: "I think they wanted to make him `the best'" and thus not peg him to any one model.

Porsche's Starring Role

But Porsche's only car in the movie has a clear identity.

While Mays was working with Lasseter, Howard Buck from Studio Services of Van Nuys, California, was visiting with Lasseter and his group, too. Buck handles movie product placement for Porsche.

It turned out Lasseter's team had decided from the beginning that a German-made Porsche would be in the film, Buck said. Indeed, they had first wanted an old-model Porsche, but Bob Carlson, Porsche's manager of automotive media, recalls shifting Pixar's attention to the then-current generation Porsche 911 sports car.

Thus, in the film, Sally, the prime female character who is Lightning McQueen's friend and romantic interest, is a light blue 2002 Porsche 911.

Buck noted that he was the one who suggested to the studio that Sally have a last name: Carrera. It stuck.

"Normally, (when a studio is working on a movie and wants cars in it) we get a script, but in this particular case, none of that existed," he said. "We listened to John (Lasseter) and what he was showing us about what he had in mind. From that, we were very happy to work with him."

During the film's development, Buck personally delivered 911 coupes to Pixar's offices three times. Once, it was so animators could "crawl all over" the car, as Buck put it. Animators bring the car characters to life by carefully creating their movements and facial expressions, among other things.

About six to eight months later, Buck brought another 911 that went to Pixar's modeling department. The modellers wanted Sally to look on film "as authentic as possible," he said.

A later Porsche 911 delivery at Pixar went to a nearby abandoned military air station where staff from Lucasfilm Sound, a Pixar subsidiary, recorded engine and exhaust sounds for use in the movie. "They drove the car and recorded the sounds; even idling and backing up," Buck said.

Actress Bonnie Hunt, who starred in remakes of "Cheaper by the Dozen" this decade, was excited to be tapped as Sally's voice, Buck said. Speaking to the press at a red carpet Hollywood event before the movie was completed, Hunt joked that by being the Porsche's voice, "I finally have a sexy body (on screen)," Buck related.

Changing Story Lines

Lasseter, whose father was a parts department manager at a Chevrolet dealership in California years ago, and his team also visited General Motors Corp. in the early 2000s.

Steve Tihanyi, general director of marketing alliances at GM, said Lasseter met with GM designers and, while visiting the GM Design Center, was among the very first people to see the then-new-design Chevrolet Corvette.

Lasseter "showed up wearing a Corvette shirt and he's into the whole (automotive) scene," Tihanyi said. "We brought him into our inner sanctum."

But Lasseter's movie story line kept evolving. "Back then, there was a reason we showed them the (new) Corvette," Tihanyi said. "… The story line originally was much different from what they wound up with. It changed pretty significantly."

He declined to provide details, but Pixar producer Anderson confirmed that the story "changed a lot" as the movie developed.

Still, there are several GM vehicles, new and old, in the movie. For example, the character Ramone, a car customizer in the movie's small town of Radiator Springs, is a 1959 Chevy Impala low rider.

Tex, a big-time race car sponsor in the film, is a 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

A green, modern-day Hummer pops up now and then on the screen, and Tihanyi believes that Mater, a beat-up tow truck that's a main character in the movie, is based on a 1950s Chevrolet pickup.

"You can't have a Route 66, car-based, NASCAR-type movie without General Motors being reflected in it," Tihanyi said. But GM wasn't interested in an early Lasseter idea that would have portrayed an old-model Chevrolet stock car as a movie villain, Tihanyi said.

Indeed, the ruthless Chick Hicks character in "Cars" is a generic Pixar design, roughly "a stock 1980s American car" and not an identifiable make and model of car, according to Pixar publicity coordinator Amanda Sorena.

Attention to Detail

Lasseter has stressed to automakers the level of detail that went into the film for car fans.

For example, Lasseter said, the group researched the stock colors of paint that were put on the 1951 Hudson Hornet and made sure the dark blue on the animated car is the exact same color.

He noted that he made sure the Model T in the movie had the "same wonderful whine from the transmission" that's in real Model Ts.

And he shared his sorrow that America lost something precious - thriving small towns and special small-town culture - in the building of interstate highways after World War II. Many small towns on Route 66 "died overnight," he noted.

Viewers may find it intriguing that the usual way of presenting autos in animation, with the headlights doubling as the car's eyes, isn't followed in "Cars." Lasseter said his team decided that the windshields should serve as the eyes of the characters so the rest of the car can express body and facial movements more realistically than if the headlamps were the eyes.

"We thought the eyes are the windshield to the soul of the character," Lasseter said. "(From that), the whole hood becomes the nose and the grilles become the mouths."

Generally speaking, each character is a make and model of vehicle, but it's exaggerated in some ways to help demonstrate animators draw out the vehicle's personality.

Producer Anderson put it this way: "These are car guys who made this movie."

Character Details

Lightning McQueen

Lightning McQueen

Lightning is a hotshot rookie race car that's a Pixar design, not any one make and model of car. But some observers see a bit of the Chevrolet Corvette in the front styling of McQueen, and a life-size version of the car, being used for movie promotion, started with the body shell of a Pontiac Trans Am. Owen Wilson, who starred in 2005's "Wedding Crashers" movie and in 2004's "Starsky and Hutch," supplies the voice.

Inside scoop: Movie-goers might think that the bright red McQueen car is named after the late actor Steve McQueen, who enjoyed racing cars and motorcycles. But Pixar officials say the car really is named after Glenn McQueen, a Pixar employee who died at age 41 of a melanoma during the development of "Cars".

Doc Hudson

Doc Hudson

A 1951 Hudson Hornet living with a mysterious past in the small town of Radiator Springs. Actor Paul Newman, who has been racing cars for years, supplies the voice.

Inside scoop: Lasseter's research for this film was so exacting, the dark blue paint color on the animated Doc Hudson is identical to the stock color that debuted on the 1951 car.

Sally Carrera

Sally Carrera

A bright blue, 2002 Porsche 911, Sally left California for a quieter life in Radiator Springs. She is the proprietor of the town's Cozy Cone Motel and is a town booster. Actress Bonnie Hunt, who starred in both "Cheaper by the Dozen" remakes in recent years, is the voice of Sally.

Inside scoop: Porsche's Hollywood placement official, Howard Buck, gave Sally her last name. Also, Porsche encouraged Pixar officials, who at first were interested in using an old-model Porsche in the film, to use the latest model, which at the time was the 2002 version of the legendary 911.

Mater

Mater

A rusty, good ol' boy tow truck, Mater has the quickest tow rope in Carburetor County. Pixar doesn't identify the make and model of Mater, but the truck's design is reminiscent of a mid-1950s Chevrolet pickup. Voice is supplied by Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Lawrence Whitney) from the Blue Collar Comedy group.

Inside scoop: The name Mater comes from Mater's business called "Tow-Mater Towing and Salvage."

Sarge

Sarge

Sarge is the1942 World War II Willy's Army jeep that runs Radiator Springs' Army surplus store. Sarge's voice is supplied by actor Paul Dooley, who was in 1979's "Breaking Away" and in television shows such as "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

Inside scoop: In an ironic twist, Dooley was a cartoonist in his youth.

Fillmore

Fillmore

Radiator Springs' resident hippie, Fillmore is a 1960 Volkswagen bus. Appropriately, his voice is that of Baby Boomer comedian George Carlin.

Inside scoop: Fillmore brews his own organic fuel and offers visitors a taste in his geodesic dome home.

Ramone

Ramone

A 1959 Chevrolet Impala low rider with a flashy paint job, Ramone is bored with waiting for paying customers to come through Radiator Springs. He re-paints himself daily and wants to customize McQueen. Comedian and actor Cheech Marin (formerly of the famous Cheech & Chong duo) provides the voice.

Flo

Flo

Ramone's wife and a 1950s show car of indeterminate make and model, Flo runs Flo's V8 Café, which offers up "the finest fuel in fifty states" and is a popular gathering spot for town locals. Actress Jenifer Lewis, who has been in several episodes of TV's "Girlfriends," provides Flo's voice.

Inside scoop: Lewis was the voice of Motown Turtle in Pixar's 2004 animated movie hit, "Shark Tales."

Luigi

Luigi

A 1959 Fiat 500, Luigi runs the local tire shop, which is home to the "Leaning Tower of Tires." An avid racing fan, Luigi is biased toward Ferraris. Actor Tony Shalhoub of TV's "Monk" provides Luigi's voice.

Sheriff

Sheriff

A1949 Mercury Police Cruiser, Sheriff likes to nap behind Radiator Springs' billboard, where he also lies in wait for speeders. The voice is supplied by author Michael Wallis, who wrote the book on Route 66 called "The Mother Road."

Inside scoop: Wallis and his wife, Suzanne, took director John Lasseter and Pixar officials on a personal tour of Route 66 as the movie was being researched.

The King

The King

The King is a 1970 Plymouth Superbird that has won more Piston Cup races than any other car in history. NASCAR racing legend Richard Petty, who is known to fans as "The King," provides the voice.

Inside scoop: Petty's wife, Linda, is the voice of another car, the Queen, in the movie.

Tex

A big-time sponsor of race cars, Tex is a 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. You can't miss Tex, because he wears a big animal horn, appropriately from a Texas Longhorn, on his front. Humpy Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway, provides the voice for Tex.

Inside scoop: Wheeler's Charlotte, N.C., speedway makes history on May 26 when it hosts the public premiere of "Cars" on large movie screens set up at the track's Turn 2. All NASCAR drivers and their families are scheduled to attend, along with some 30,000 guests.