RCN Magazine’s Top 10 Car Films

Posted October 21, 2019

Thunder Road (1958)

Smokey and the Bandit owes everything to this quiet, cult classic road movie starring Robert Mitchum as a Korean War veteran turned moonshiner in Appalachia. Rumor has it the film crew bought Thunder Road’s cars off real-deal ’shiners in the Carolinas — including Mitchum’s classic 1951 Ford sedan with a flathead V8 and triple-barrel carbs. Thunder Road is Southern-fried drive-in fare that set the table for countless other tales of bootlegging road warriors. — Carly

Vanishing Point (1971)

Billed as the ultimate car chase movie, Vanishing Point delivers a second-to-none drive from Denver to San Francisco with Kowalski (Barry Newman) behind the wheel of a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. Working for a car delivery service, Kowlaski kicks off his return trip to ’Cisco with a handful of uppers and a friendly bet to make the trip in 15 hours. With zero consideration for speed limits, pursuing officers or road blocks, Kowalski leads police on one of the top two car chases ever filmed — in my humble opinion.

Like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, Vanishing Point is really a film about America, highlighting tensions and counterculture movements going on in the early ’70s through the eyes of an outlaw hero. With a good ol’ soul music soundtrack and gratuitous wide-angle shots of the star car, Vanishing Point is a treat for the senses and a well-guarded cult classic. — Dean

American Graffiti (1973)

No movie better captures the teenage joy of driving around town with your friends, the windows down and the radio cranked than George Lucas’ classic American Graffiti. Gravelly-voiced radio legend Wolfman Jack lays down the soundtrack as a group of recent high school graduates, armed with the keys to a 1958 Chevy Impala, cruise around on the lookout for two blondes — a mysterious woman and the legendary “piss-yellow deuce coupe” driven by one John Milner (Harrison Ford in a slick 1932 Ford Coupe with a piston gearshift knob). — Carly

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

If you can’t stand open endings, Two-Lane Blacktop is not a film for you. It’s another counterculture classic filmed a style that modern movie-goers wouldn’t really understand. We start off with a pair of determined street racers — James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys — who go town to town racing for coin in their primer gray, hopped-up tri-five Chevrolet. Eventually they meet up with a fella known as GTO (played by Warren Oates), driving (you guessed it), and they agree to a race to Washington, D.C. With pink slips and a young female hitchhiker on the line, the racers and GTO let it all hang out, leading to some hairy situations on the street. The plot will keep you guessing, but the scenery and big-block soundtrack will bring you back for repeat viewings. — Dean

The Blues Brothers (1980)

There is an unsung hero in this demolition derby of a car-chase movie masquerading as a musical comedy: Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne. I’ve always wondered if, in writing The Blues Brothers, Dan Akroyd and John Landis fully expected to film in miniature the scene where the Illinois Nazis drive a 1977 Ford Pinto off a freeway ramp but pulled the permits “just in case.” Meanwhile I imagine Byrne, unbridled by her unpopularity with the voting public, looked at the proposal to drop the Pinto via helicopter into the downtown area and thought, “Why not? These boys are on a mission from God after all.” And with that, one of the best uses of a Ford Pinto was forever captured on celluloid. — Carly

Bullitt (1968)

Yes, Bullitt is really a crime-based action thriller from the late ’60s that moves pretty slow at certain points. But with Steve McQueen starring in the “the greatest chase scene of all time,” you’re not a real enthusiast until you’ve checked this one off the list. In the climactic chase scene, Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in his iconic 390 ci 1968 Ford Mustang GT, chases down a pair of criminals driving an all-black ’68 Charger R/T across San Francisco.

No music, no dialogue, just the goosebump-inducing sounds of two pinnacle muscle cars at wide-open throttle with loads of glorious double-clutching (and a requisite number of flying wheel covers as well). If muscle cars didn’t get you going before, there’s nothing like this scene to make you wish you were born decades earlier.

Although other car journalists have commented that "Bullitt wasn't a great movie [other than the chase scene]," I'd challenge you to watch it again, and have some damn patience. — Dean

xXx (2002)

Set aside Vin Diesel’s wooden acting skills, the Cold War-era throwback plotline and over-the-top Eurotrash aesthetic (which admittedly I love); now gaze upon the glory that is the 1967 Pontiac GTO driven by xXx’s antihero Xander Cage. This Eddie Paul-built beauty was the first car to stop me dead and I’ve had a love affair with mid-’60s GTOs ever since. Never mind the GTO’s mid-movie, James Bond-worthy spy gadget makeover, it’s Paul’s attention to detail that brings me back for repeat viewings. From the shaved door handles, to the custom House of Kolors Blueberry Blass paint job and the kittenish purr of the idling 6.6-L V8 that morphs into a full-throated roar upon acceleration; this car resurrected the best of Hollywood style. — Carly

Rush (2013)

In an era where Hollywood can’t afford to invest in real-deal car films, Ron Howard’s Rush stands as a landmark achievement. The movie covers one of the greatest stories in motorsports ever, and it’s a real story, not some drug-smuggling, street-racing Fast and the Furious nonsense.

Covering the dramatic Formula One rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the big-budget film had its work cut out for it. But Rush delivered, expertly portraying how these two very different competitors developed an intense rivalry, only topped by their respect for one another.

Even though the movie follows real events, I hesitate to give any more away, as this is one you really should see. The film has been called roughly 80% accurate, but if it’s good enough for Niki Lauda (which it was), then it’s definitely good enough for me. —Dean

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Name one car movie from the past 20 years that relied as heavily on practical effects as Mad Max: Fury Road. I’ll wait. Now, name another car movie that upon viewing left your pulse pounding and adrenaline rushing like you’d just exited the race track and not a theater. I’m still waiting. While others might carry on about the Pursuit Special in the first three Mad Max movies, for me it’s George Miller’s use of big rigs here that inspires my awe. Two vehicles standout: First is the War Rig, an homage to Miller’s native Australia, where supply trains of oversized and overloaded semis keep sheep stations and towns in the Outback alive. Second is the Doof Wagon, a surrealist’s sonic nightmare built on a repurposed MAZ 543 Soviet artillery truck. How else is a dystopian warlord going to drum on his War Boys other than with a hellish take on a Viking fleet’s drumming tempo-keeper? And the resulting Doof Wagon absolutely shreds. —Carly

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)

So this one’s not really for everyone, but as a muscle car and a Mopar guy, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is going to make my list every time. Peter Fonda and Adam Roarke play a driver and mechanic, respectively, looking to come up on the NASCAR circuit with capital acquired in a well-executed robbery. They make their initial escape in a sedate 1966 Chevrolet Impala four-door, but there’s just one snag, Crazy Larry’s (Fonda) one-night stand Mary Coombs (Susan George) comes along for the ride. Tensions rise in the three-person getaway party as the police inch closer scene by scene.

The highlight in this one is an extensive chase scene between Larry’s lime-green, 440-powered ’69 Charger and all the patrols the department can muster. Don't expect to sell your girlfriend or wife on this one, but in terms of spectacular muscle car chase scenes, this one makes the grade. — Dean

Honorable Mentions

The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Don't quote this movie near me. You'll regret it for the next four hours.

Death Proof (2007)

It's bad, it's good, I just can't decide. As a movie, Death Proof falls a bit short, but it somehow still has that Tarantino flare. The Nova, Challenger and Charger are nothing to scoff at either.

Goldfinger (1964)

While there have been many a spy car throughout James Bond’s 24-film run, the Aston Martin DB 5 featured here might be the Bond-iest.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

And while we’re at it, who other than Bond would drive a Lotus Esprit S1 that converts into a submarine and is named Wet Nellie?

The Last American Hero (1973)

Also released as Hard Driver, this rough-hewn classic is based on the story of Junior Johnson. Jeff Bridges stars as the titular racing hero as he comes of age, moving from homegrown demolition derbies to the big time.

Back to the Future (1985)

“Wait a minute, Doc. Ah … Are you telling me that you built a time machine … out of a DeLorean?” With that the already notorious stainless steel, gull-winged monstrosity was cemented into the pop culture pantheon.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Admittedly, it’s not my favorite film, but I wanted to give a shout out to the Louis Zborowski fans and their aero-engined ilk. Plus, the primer it offers on British racing history is truly scrumptious.

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