TopSpeed’s 10 Best Car Movies
The other day, Topspeed posted a reprint of "The 10 Greatest Car Movies Ever," originally put together by "The Jennings Motor Group." According to the internet, Jennings is a group of Ford, Kia, Mazda and SEAT dealers in Northeastern England. They promise customer satisfaction, and we’ve got every reason to believe them. But as to their taste in car movies...employing that grandest of all British social commentaries...
Don’t get me wrong: I do appreciate that fully more than half the list is made up of American movies. Thank you, England. We also make excellent bacon and drone robots. Three of the 10 also make our Top Ten list, most notably the First Place entry. But come on, mates. Bullitt? That wasn’t a car movie. It was a detective story that had one good car chase, and only then because everything with Steve McQueen has a car chase. Same with The Italian Job and American Graffiti. Good movies involving cars, but not good car movies. Two cars, one race or one chase does not a car movie make.
Car movies are about the love of the machine; driving it, building it or just being around it. Of course character and story are important — they are in any movie. But a car movie is one where the culture of the characters is framed around the cars; not one where cars make a cameo appearance. More than anything else, a great car movie needs to remind us of what we love about automobiles: mechanical beauty, power, speed, sex appeal, rebellion and freedom.
With that in mind, here’s Topspeed’s list of the REAL Top Ten Car Movies of All Time.
10) Transformers (2007)
I know. Not the best start; but this is here primarily as Topspeed’s "talking car" answer to Jenning’s mention of Cars. My editor and I actually argued this one a bit, on the basis that I thought Cars was a great car movie. While he, being an editor, hates all things childlike and innocent. Not his fault; it’s just that children refuse to learn correct usage of compound modifiers. But, since Topspeed is a team effort, Editor wins.
In retrospect though, I sort of agree with him. Even though the action sequences were no less CGI than Cars, at least Transformers featured real automobiles. Notably, Bumblebee, who was utterly sick in both new- and old-Camaro forms. The new Corvette Stingray concept showed up as Sideswipe in the second movie. Then there was the Ferrari 458 Italia and Merc SLS AMG in the third movie. The fourth had a Veyron, a Pagani Hyuara, a Lamborghini Aventador and yet another Stingray concept. And on top of it all, an SR-71 Blackbird. Find another "car movie" with that selection of mechanical beauty, and Michael Bay will buy you an explosion.
9) Gone in 60 Seconds (2000 Remake)
The original, 1973 Gone in 60 Seconds did make Jennings’ movie list, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a gearhead who doesn’t like it. It’s a great movie if you like car chases, mostly owing to the fact that 40 minutes of the 105-minute movie is nothing but one, huge car chase.
But as good as the original was, the remake is better. Sorry, it just is. First, because it’s ’90s Nic Cage at his ’90s Nic Cage best. Second, Angelina Jolie. Third, it heavily emphasizes the love of the machine as a machine; see Nic’s speech "It was about the cars." But more than anything else, of course: Eleanor. Even if you don’t like the movie, there’s very little doubt that it gave us one of the most iconic movie cars ever. A car which many credit with saving the Mustang itself by directly inspiring its 2005 retro redesign.
8) Deathrace 2000 (1975)
Yes, there was a remake of Deathrace with Jason Statham in 2008, and I personally loved it. But the original was better in every non-Statham way imaginable. David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone help make up for that. But otherwise, it’s almost nonstop insane driving stunts and over-the-top cars. It’s even got a fairly interesting plotline, which I sincerely believe Suzanne Collins lifted wholesale for the Hunger Games series.
So, why Deathrace instead of Cannonball Run, the contemporary and equally great car movie that Jennings chose? Because I like Grand Theft Auto, and nothing says "randomly running over pedestrians" like Deathrace 2000.
7) Grindhouse: "Death Proof" (2007)
It’s Tarantino. Doing an old-school car movie. Does anyone need a better reason than that?
6) The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Good choice by Jennings, though it’s hard to single any one movie out of the F&F series as truly great. Some of them were flops, but a lot of them are truly great car movies in their own rights. At least as good as the first, which most credit with leading the modern gearhead renaissance. It also preceded a weird blending of cultures between import and domestic types. Younger readers might not remember, but there was a time not long ago when the two camps were pretty bitterly divided. What really united the community was the respect that FF1, laden as it was with neon-stickered ricers, paid to the films Ultimate Weapon: a black 1970 Dodge Charger.
You could argue that several of the more recent films were leagues better than the original — and you’d be right. But FF1’s greatness was in its incredible impact on car culture. That’s an honor it will always get to keep, stickers and all.
5) Le Mans (1971)
If you’re going to put a Steve McQueen movie on your "Car Movie" list, how can you not use the ultimate Steve McQueen car movie? Objectively, Grand Prix from 1966 was probably the better of the two films, and it certainly made more money. But Le Mans (1971) featured more real driving, was more realistic, the footage was better, and the cars themselves took a more central role. Additionally, Le Mans used very few stunt drivers; McQueen, himself a well-known racecar driver, had the most camera time, but other actors had to pull their weight as well.
What makes this film fun is remembering that those cars on the track are real, the speeds are real, the danger is real, and half the people driving really didn’t know what they were doing. Imagine signing up for an acting gig, then being told you’ll have to keep up with Steve McQueen in a Ferrari race car around Le Mans two weeks later. Oh, and hope you don’t end up like David Piper, who lost half of his leg in a crash while shooting. That’s when you know **** just got real. And that’s what makes Le Mans a great movie.
4) Vanishing Point (1971)
This is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. There’s something very gothic about the post-hippie era; a kind of lost place, where all glory is past and the future is best remembered through psychedelic dreams. Vanishing Point is commentary on an era; a speed-fueled vision quest, light on dialog, heavy on action and way heavy on surreal imagery. If you’ve never done acid in the desert, you’ll have some approximation of the sensation after watching Vanishing Point.
By the way, it also features a "supercharged" 1970 Dodge Challenger, and a silent Barry Newman who has for some reason taken a bet to drive it halfway across the country "by 3 p.m. tomorrow." What ensues is a lot more akin to — well, the name "Odysseus" comes to mind. What a long, strange trip it’s been. This is Super Soul, signing off.
3) Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
Think "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," but with cars. This story of two wannabe NASCAR drivers (Peter Fonda and Adam Roarke) starts with a supermarket heist. The two plan to use the stolen money to finance their jump into the big leagues. Things start to go awry when they take the store manager’s wife and daughter hostage. A former one-night stand of Peter Fonda’s shows up while the two attempt to escape in their hopped-up Chevy and later a Dodge Charger R/T. The cops can’t keep up, and even the sheriff’s Bell JetRanger helicopter gets left in the dust.
In terms of chase scenes and mayhem, Dirty Marry, Crazy Larry is all but a match for the original Gone in 60 Seconds. But it also has a bit of that random, post-modern, nihilistic undertone from Vanishing Point. Spoiler: It also ends about the same way.
2) Rush — Ron Howard (2013)
After Sylvester Stallone’s hilariously bad Driven, most people assumed that the concept of a Formula 1 movie was all but dead. To be fair to Sly, there are only so many ways to make modern F1 watchable. The cars are safe, power-limited and high-tech to the point of being irrelevant, and most of the drivers are made of wood chippings and Prozac. It’s not Sly’s fault F1 is boring, and real drama is hard to come by.
That wasn’t always the case, though. Rush takes place back in 1976, and is based on the real-life rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Back then, F1 cars were little more than psychotic, anything-goes go-karts. Some of them actually had six wheels. Back then, safety cages were a joke, aerodynamics worked on a trial-and-error basis, traction was poor; and if you hit a wall at 200 mph, odds were good they’d clean you off of it with a hose. Ron Howard didn’t have to try very hard to make 1976 F1 racing look dramatic and insanely dangerous, or the drivers seem to live as though they were a heartbeat from death. Easily one of, if not the greatest professional racing movie of all time.
1) Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981)
On this very website you’ll find a preview for the new Mad Max movie, Fury Road. One of the best things about this long-awaited followup to Thunderdome is that it seems to follow very closely in the footsteps of the greatest car movie of the series. That would be The Road Warrior.
In terms of acting, character and story, the original Mad Max was better all around. No doubt. I really had to put some thought into this one. But as a car movie, The Road Warrior had more action, better stunts, debatably cooler vehicles and just more overall focus on the vehicles themselves. The whole plot of this installment was Max looking for gasoline — if that doesn’t make it the definitive car movie of the series, I don’t know what does.
And the No. 1 Car movie of All Time is...
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
You want to know the real reason why Cannonball Run got left off this list? Not just because Deathrace 2000 was better. It’s because the movie was based on a real cross-country race called the Cannonball Run, organized by NASCAR driver Brock Yates. And Yates organized the Cannonball Run after watching Two-Lane Blacktop. Yeah. That’s how great this movie is.
The first thing to know about this movie is that none of the characters have names. Literally the only proper nouns you’ll hear the entire movie are the names of cars, states and roads. Singer James Taylor plays "The Driver." He roams America like a lost Ronin with Warren Oates, "The Mechanic." Along the way, they pick up "The Girl," who jumps into the backseat of their Chevy without so much as a "please."
That grey-primered 1955 Chevy, by the way, was the exact car Harrison Ford later drove in American Graffiti. Not the same model — the same car. Which is another reason American Graffiti didn’t make this list: Because Han Solo was only borrowing James Taylor’s car.
The plot of the film is so perfectly 1970s. Ostensibly, it starts out as a race "for pink slips" with a guy driving a new Pontiac GTO. A guy who is never really identified, but who gives more versions of his back-story than Heath Ledger does for his scars. Along the way, though, that fantastic 70s meandering nihilism just sort of...happens. Slowly, quietly, everyone seems to forget about the race, where they’re going, or why they even cared about getting there. There’s a feeling throughout that every character but The Driver slowly realizes they’re just nameless entities in the Void, eternally drifting through one life to the next. Just ghosts in the machine.
The Driver, of course...he had never been anything but.
So, there it is — Topspeed’s official list of the Ten (Technically 11) Greatest Car Movies of all time. One that didn’t make the list, but which I very badly wanted to include, was The Wraith (1987). It got left off only because the list was already at 11, and I couldn’t justify bumping any of these or hitting a dozen just to include my personal favorite. Next to Two-Lane, obviously. Don’t you worry, though, fellow Wraith fans. With the 30th Anniversary of the movie coming up, I’m working on a very special article on it and the world-changing Dodge Turbo Interceptor it featured. Keep an eye out for that. Should be fun.
In the meantime, though, here we are. I know there’s a lot of ’70s stuff in here, and I hate everything ’70s as a general rule. But even I can’t argue that that decade produced some of the greatest car movies of all time. Including the greatest of all: