The 5 Best Car Movies of All Time

by Rick Kopec (5/31/10)

Now there’s a topic that is sure to start an argument whenever a bunch of car guys get together. We can probably all agree on the top four (although maybe not in the order you see here) but nobody will agree on the fifth one.

(Move your mouse over the movie posters to enlarge them.)

1. It’s got to be Bullitt. The chase scene is only nine minutes and 42 seconds long and anybody who has seen this movie more than three times (and that’s probably you) knows that the Dodge Charger sheds six hubcaps during the action. And what about all those green Volkswagen Beetles? No matter: the chase is 50% of what puts this movie at the top of our list. The Mustang is responsible for another 25%. Of course, some of us (or probably most of us) would have loved it if McQueen had been driving a Shelby. But there has never been even a hint that a GT350 or GT500 was ever considered. Ford was instrumental in getting a Mustang in the film and provided two of them as part of a promotion/loan-agreement (their engines, brakes and suspensions were heavily modified by Max Balchowsky). A Galaxie was originally intended to be driven by the hitmen (again, two were required) but the production company found the car was just too heavy to take the pounding from the jump scenes. A pair of brand new, Tuxedo Black ‘68 440/375 h.p. Dodge Chargers were purchased outright from Glendale Dodge in Glendale, California. Balchowsky upgraded their suspensions and brakes but the engines were left untouched. Stunt driver Bill Hickman doubled as an actor at the wheel of the Charger.

BullittThe other 25% of what makes this movie the best all-time car film is Steve McQueen. He is the personification of “cool” and everything else in the movie supports that: the tight script with his clipped dialogue; his wardrobe with the turtleneck instead of a necktie, and the quick-draw shoulder rig; the original music score written by Lalo Schifrin, a balanced mix of jazz, brass and percussion; McQueen’s character — the rebellious, borderline-insubordinate detective who knows his stuff and is backed by his captain while being pressured by a smarmy, overbearing politician. It all works.

The role cemented McQueen’s reputation for “cool.” The plot is a little difficult to follow but the chase and the ‘68 Mustang became legends. There was more, too. McQueen did some of the driving himself. He would have done it all and, in fact, fought to, but the producers couldn’t take the chance. Had the star gotten injured, production would have to be shut down and the movie’s backers would have taken a financial bath. Not to mention the crew losing their jobs. McQueen’s motorcycle pal Bud Ekins handled the dangerous driving.

So, Number 1 has got to be Bullitt.

Grand PrixNumber 2 on our list is Grand Prix. The movie was made in 1966 and James Garner drives a GT350 Hertz car in a couple of scenes. That’s cool, but it’s not enough to bump it into #2. Garner’s association with race cars and the real drivers used as walk-ons (Phil Hill, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Jack Brabham, Richie Ginther, Bruce McLaren, Juan Manuel Fangio and Bob Bondurant who also served as technical consultant) led him to do some off-road racing and form a race team with Bondurant, but that doesn’t do it, either. There’s a typical, soap opera story line, drivers with differing nationalities battling in Formula One for the world championship—weak, but not enough to disqualify it.

So, where’s the magic? It’s John Frankenheimer’s car-friendly direction and the unique cinematography. The beginning scene, with the camera peering into the exhaust as a Formula One engine fires up is unlike anything ever done before. Then it’s a split screen. Then four. Then eight. Then sixteen. And it works. The sound is amped up and it’s not out-of-the-box Hollywood soundtrack stuff. It’s real. “Grand Prix” won Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Sound in 1967. There’s also real G.P. race footage convincingly spliced in. The movie is a classic.

Le MansNumber 3 – LeMans. McQueen again, and still cool. He was set to make a racing movie (to be called “Day of the Champion”) at the same time Frankenheimer’s movie was in production. The market would accommodate only one racing movie and “Grand Prix” would get to the theaters first, so McQueen wisely dropped out. Five years later he gave it another try, and five years later he was a mega-star so on the strength of his name, alone, his project went forward. And make no mistake—this was McQueen’s project from beginning to end. It wasn’t just scraps of racing film spliced together; McQueen actually entered a car in the 1970 24 Hours. He had intended to enter a 917 Porsche with Jackie Stewart co-driving but his entry was not accepted. Likely the French didn’t want their event to take a back seat to McQueen and his movie.

McQueen had raced at the Sebring 12-Hours just three months earlier in a Porsche 908/2 with Peter Revson and they finished second. A motorcycle accident prior to the race left him with his left foot in a cast, which had to be wrapped in asbestos because the heat of the race car’s floor was being transmitted to his skin through the cast. The plan was to race at Sebring to demonstrate to the powers at LeMans that he would be a serious entrant in the 24-Hour race. They were not convinced. McQueen’s Solar Productions entered the 908 at LeMans with Porsche factory driver Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams driving. The car was equipped with heavy cameras, so it was not competitive; but it wasn’t there to win. They got priceless race footage—especially a shot of the crowds along the pit straight during the first lap. The car stayed in the race, and ended up finishing 9th overall and 3rd in class but was not listed in the official finishing positions due to LeMans’ arcane rules; the car had not covered the minimum proscribed distance—because of frequent stops to change film reels. Additional footage was shot after the race, using genuine race cars painted to look like the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s that raced and were choreographed to replicate the actual race and the film’s script.

In the movie, there was very little dialogue to push the story along (none at all for the first half hour), but that hardly mattered. It was a story about the race and those who drove in it were as much props as the cars. McQueen’s magical on-screen presence is enough to put this movie into third position. And then there’s the movie’s most memorable line, offered by McQueen’s character, Michael Delaney, near the beginning of the film. “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after… is just waiting.”

American GraffitiNumber 4 – American Graffiti. Where were you in ’62? This movie, co-written and directed by George Lucas (pre-Star Wars), is a snapshot of one night in August of 1962 and revolves around Mel’s Drive-In, a burger spot in Modesto, California (where Lucas grew up). It depicts cruising, the sedate (compared to today) teenage culture and the importance of the automobile and the AM radio to it, street racing, dating, and just about all of the experiences young Lucas had as he was coming of age. It is one of the first mainstream movies to use rock and roll as the soundtrack. What is shown on the screen happened, to a lesser or greater extent, in just about every small to medium-sized town in this country between 1960 and 1965. By the end of the 1960s it passed out of existence, replaced by the sex, drugs and rock-‘n-roll permissiveness and rebellion that captured a large segment of the baby boomer generation.

As a movie, no matter how old you are—whether you were part of this generation who took part in it as a shared experience, or one of those who came along after it—it envelops you. For a little under two hours, it grabs you and holds your attention until the very end. It’s hard to believe that the neat cars in the movie are the kind that prowled the streets in 1962 in Anytown, U.S.A. If you were a teenager at that time, this is almost a documentary. If you weren’t, it’s just a really good story. Even though it’s hard to believe it could have been real.

Number 5. Well, here’s the nut of the problem. If you are limited to only five, which one will the last one be? Obviously there is no right or wrong answer. In no particular order, here are some strong candidates.

The Gumball RallyGumball Rally. It’s an ode to the 427 Cobra. Forget everything else. This movie is pure escapism; made before Cobra replicas so two real 427 Cobras were used. Just knowing that makes a big difference when you’re watching this movie. It’s a take-off on Brock Yates’ original Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a New York to California race without rules (any car, any equipment, any route and whoever gets there fastest wins). It’s a comedy, bordering on slapstick, but all you have to do is pay attention to the cars. Distilled down to its basics, it’s a cross-country race between a Cobra and a Ferrari. Don’t try to find anything else in it.

Two-Lane BlacktopTwo-Lane Blacktop. Little known and under-appreciated, this is your basic road trip flick. Two drag racers, singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, move from one small town to another, drag racing locals to pay for food and fuel. Their 1955 Chevy, looking evil in black primer, has a Corvette engine and large rear tires. They encounter Warren Oates, playing another itinerant drag racing drifter in a ’70 GTO Judge in Needles, California. They challenge him to a cross-country race to Washington D.C. and the rest of the movie follows them through small towns along Route 66. Again, it’s all about the cars.

Vanishing PointVanishing Point. The basic story: After arriving in Denver from San Francisco in a black Chrysler Imperial, a delivery driver named Kowalski (no first name) is assigned to drive a 1970 440 Challenger back to San Francisco the next day. Instead he leaves immediately and he takes a bet that he can make it from Denver, at 11:30 pm on a Friday, to S.F. by 3 p.m. the next day. That’s the part of the movie we don’t get because it sounds like a sucker bet to us. Denver to San Francisco: 950 miles in 15 hours. That’s an average of 63.33 miles per hour. We could probably do that in a Pinto. What are we missing? No matter: it’s all about the Challenger. The car is in almost every scene. Barry Newman plays an antihero: a decorated Vietnam vet, an ex-cop, ex racecar driver and ex-motorcycle racer who is likely an adrenaline junkie. It’s one long chase that is now a classic. So much so that a remake was made in 1997, using another white 440 Challenger with Viggo Mortensen as the driver.

Gone in 60 SecondsGone in 60 Seconds. Another movie with two versions; one made in 1974 and one made in 2000. Basic premise: a gang of car thieves must steal a large number of specific cars (depending on the version, 48 or 50) within a brief period of time (depending, 5 days or one night). The earlier version contained the mother of all chase scenes where 93 cars are crashed in 34 on-screen minutes. The thieves give a woman’s name to each car as a sort of code. The “star” of the movie is the last car they need, a 1973 Mustang Mach I named “Eleanor.” In the 2000 picture, “Eleanor” is a 1967 Shelby GT500. Lots of suspension of disbelief is required but hey—they weren’t making a documentary.

We can think of others but this is a good start. What’s your #5?


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