When America deems something a part of “pop culture,” it won’t be long until Hollywood finds a way to cash in. Such was the case in the 1950s when the automobile suddenly transformed from transportation appliance to speedy status symbol.
Actors like Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen were all too happy to oblige. Who could blame them? McQueen was a bona fide racer in his own right, and America was instantly smitten with the sleek machines and high-speed action that car films delivered.
Much has changed since the fifties, but the fact remains that audiences love a good car chase. Today, car flicks are more action-packed than ever. Here’s a trip through the proverbial gears of car cinema history.
The Early Days
In the post-war 1950s, America was living large and proud to make some of the world’s finest automobiles.
While some filmmakers chose to relish days gone by with films like Genevieve (1953), the story of a couple’s journey through England in a vintage motor carriage, real gearheads will tell you that Thunder Road (1958) can't be beaten for 50's blacktop action. Robert Mitchum plays the driver for an illegal whiskey ring and convincingly recreates the dangerously cool moonshine era.
Pontiac’s launch of the GTO in 1964 has been called the beginning of the muscle car age, and the dawning of this prolific era in automotive culture led to some of the best car content ever to grace the silver screen.
Bullit (1968) is often cited as the quintessential car chase film and helped solidify Steve McQueen as Hollywood's best leading man behind the wheel. Two years earlier, John Frankenheimer’s four-and-a-half hour epic Grand Prix brought audiences along for a firsthand look at the drama and danger of open-wheeled racing.
McQueen would follow up in 1971 with the grandiose project Le Mans (1971). Shot on location in Monaco, the film nearly killed McQueen. Some accuse Le Mans of relying too much on the shortened life expectancy of racers at the time, but it accurately portrays the risks drivers took in the early days.
All this international competition is just fine if you’re the worldly type, but blue-collar moviegoers wanted something more relatable. They found it in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Blacktop was to the 1970s what The Fast & the Furious was to the early 2000s—except with better acting courtesy of James Taylor and Warren Oates.
As the fuel crisis slowly crept in and muscle car culture lost momentum, American Graffiti (1973) and Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) gave us one last hint of the glorious smell of burning rubber.
Road Rallies and Barbarians: The 1980s
The late 70s weren’t a high point in car culture. Restrictive emissions laws left Detroit without an answer to consumers looking for exciting performance. The film industry was evolving too, leaving the happy-go-lucky stories of the 60s and favoring the over-the-top flavor that peaked in the 1980s.
After earning the Pontiac Trans Am a place in history running from the law in Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Burt Reynolds could do no wrong.
With the help of Farrah Fawcett, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Jackie Chan and Peter Fonda, Reynold’s take on the real-life road rally from New York to Los Angeles Cannonball Run (1981) inspired generations of rolling parties that are still trying to outsmart police today.
The same year, a young Mel Gibson delivered the second installment of the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series The Road Warrior, in which Max reminds us all that it's not truly a fuel crisis until spike-wearing barbarians control the fuel supply. Come for the V8 interceptor, stay for the retro-futuristic ridiculousness.
The Birth of the Modern era
Days of Thunder (1991) was the only good car film made during the early 1990s. It's just the unfortunate truth. With Tom Cruise bringing the star power of Top Gun to a track-themed drama, the plot may have been comically predictable, but Thunder does deliver realistic oval-track action.
Cruise practiced driving real racecars for the film and even attempted to break into the racing scene with help from Paul Newman, but he wasn't able to find success on the blacktop.
Fast-forward to 1998, and we have one of the all-time best car chase films. Ronin delivers nail-biting chases through narrow European streets and stars a tastefully selected cast of cars that includes an Audi S8, Mercedes-Benz SW116 and Peugeot 406 to name a few alongside the impeccable Robert De Niro. It even tries to have a plot—if an overcomplicated one—that’s admirable for a car movie.
Faster and Furious...er?
When you think of genre-defining films about cars in the ‘naughts, The Fast & the Furious (2001) is unavoidable. While the first film in the franchise had enough octane to spark a tuner revolution, Universal Pictures’ thirst for money has prompted a never-ending string of sequels that have taken the series far from its street-racing roots.
There have been some bright spots to keep morale high when F&F gets especially corny. Drive (2011) stars the talented Ryan Gosling as the soft-spoken stuntman leading a double-life as a getaway driver, and 2013’s Rush returns to the McQueen-era race track epic genre, delivering a heartfelt recount of one of Formula One’s most dramatic seasons.
Car movies seem to be making a comeback as the impending onslaught of boring autonomous cars raises nostalgia levels for enthusiasts everywhere. Next time you want to park yourself on the couch for a couple of hours, you'll know what to watch.
*Contributor Lexie Lu is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast. When she’s not typing at her computer, she is often binge-watching Netflix shows or reading a new novel. *