When the Car is the Star

With a new ‘Transformers’ movie this week, we look back on the most memorable cars in film history

Chevrolet recently announced that it would retire the Camaro, which is now in its sixth generation, with model year 2024.

Arguably, they would have dumped the Camaro some years ago had it not been for its inclusion in an instrumental role in 2007’s Transformers, wherein the car is Bumblebee. The Camaro used in that film was a fifth-generation pony car—but underlying its importance to Chevy, the actual production car didn’t appear in dealerships for two more years, not until 2010. Thanks to Bumblebee and the awareness that the movie created for the Camaro, it had additional life.

While the Camaro’s filmic lifeline is a one-off, there are several movies where the cars are absolutely essential to making them what they are.

The Love Bug (1969). Back in the 1960s, the Volkswagen Beetle experienced its largest sales in North America, although that was also the decade that saw the introduction of vehicles from Datsun and Toyota, which started a decline. What undoubtedly gave the car a bit of momentum was the Disney comedy, which introduced Herbie, a 1963 Model 117 Beetle. Oddly, it started a series of movies with the car participating in racing. The Beetle competed in some racing series, but much of it was post-1969 and it was most known for rally racing. But let’s face it: clearly there’s more visual interest in racing than commuting. The sequel, Herbie Rides Again (1974), has something of an anti-corporate development theme, which certainly seems unusual for Disney. In addition, Herbie assembles a group of similar sentient Beetles in the streets of San Francisco, which presages the recent clogging of the streets of that city by autonomous Cruise vehicle.

Herbie falls in love with a Lancia Scorpion in the next chapter of the series, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. The fourth movie, Herbie Goes Bananas, took Dean Jones out from behind the wheel of the car by Stephan W. Burns; this was Burns’ only lead role in a film. As the name implies, this time Herbie is on its (his?) way to South America to race in the Brazil Grand Prêmio. At this point, Herbie is clearly tired (pun intended). Finally there is Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005), which had the car back after 25 years with then-still-Disney friendly Lindsay Lohan driving it, although it was the sixth, and last, Disney film she was in. While one could argue that the movie (which heavily involves NASCAR, which is about as far from Volkswagens of any type as hotwings are from currywurst), has put an end to the franchise, you can never be 100 percent certain that IP is dead .

Goldfinger (1964). The Aston Martin DB5 is the quintessential vehicle of James Bond. It had its first appearance in Goldfinger and while not readily recalled, it also appeared in Thunderball (1965). Thirty years later, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond drove the DB5 in GoldenEye, and the car was in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997, although the most important car scene in that movie has Bond controlling a BMW 750iL with an Ericsson phone from the back seat of the car. Daniel Craig’s Bond wins a DB5 in Casino Royale (2006). That car gets another ride in Skyfall (2012), where machine-gun fire destroy it. ..but Q resurrects it in Spectre (2015).  And it probably goes without saying that the most famous car in the Bond canon is in Craig’s last outing as Bond, No Time to Die. On the subject of cars and Bond, it is worth noting that Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, was the author of a book that gave rise to a movie about a car: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Thelma and Louise (1991). There is a near-genre, the “road movie.” This is not to be confused with the seven “Road to” movies staring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, which started in 1940 (Road to Singapore) and ended in 1962 (The Road to Hong Kong). It arguably goes back to early picaresque novels, where travel, leading to adventures, is the way the plot moves forward. It seems unusual that the most famous picaresque novel of our era, Kerouac’s On the Road, didn’t become a film until 2012. Ridley Scott, who began his directing career in 1962 on a British TV show about the police titled “Z Cars,” made his road movie in 1991, Thelma and Louise. In it there are police who pursue the title characters, who are driving a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible. . .and who continue to drive it over an edge of the Grand Canyon. Two other films that featured a ’66 T-Bird were (1) a movie the likes of which Thelma and Louise would have been foursquare opposed to, Murderers’ Row (1966), starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm and (2) Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983).

The Fast and the Furious (2001). It has been more than 20 years since we first saw Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto and his street racing crew, with nearly as many notable actors appearing in the ten subsequent films, plus Hobbes and Shaw, as there are in the Marvel Universe. But whereas the Marvel Universe smells of broken concrete, the Fast world is all about burnt rubber. The laws of physics are more or less comparable in both realms. There have been hundreds of cars in the F&F films. The first seven episodes featured some 1,487 cars involved in some form of wreckage. That means some 212.5 vehicles per movie.

So if they continue that route, there will be more than 2,000 cars in the franchise. But there is really one car that matters most: a black 1970 Dodge Charger R/T. It is a near-quintessential example of American muscle. And more than merely a vehicle that Dom drives to save the day against seemingly impossible odds, it takes on something of a mystical aura through the saga. It’s not like he doesn’t drive an array of autos throughout the saga (many of which were from Dodge, which undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that the manufacturers used Vin Diesel as a spokesperson), that ’70 Charger matters most.

The Italian Job (1969, 2003). One of the things that the Mini brand touts about its vehicles is that they have go kart-like handling. If you think about a go kart, it isn’t the sort of thing that you’d drive to the grocery store because, well, it isn’t made for cargo. Arguably Minis aren’t, either. Rather, they are comparatively cute subcompact cars that one can zip around pickup trucks and SUVs in traffic. So were you to be interested in stealing a few million in gold, and know that gold bars each weigh 27.5 pounds, you’d probably be more interested in something like a pickup or an SUV.

Yet the conceit of both versions of The Italian Job, the first set in Italy (which makes you wonder why they didn’t use a Fiat 500, except it was a British comedy caper) and the second in LA, is that the Mini can even, ladened with gold, negotiate even LA traffic with aplomb, and seeing a group of them buzzing about is far more interesting than watching a cargo-appropriate vehicle do the job. (Here’s something to consider: Did Charlize Theron get her role in The Fate of the Furious (2017) because of her driving chops portrayed in The Italian Job?)

Bullitt (1968). Of all of the movies not named after a car (e.g., Christine, the 1983 film based on a Stephen King novel about a demonic ’58 Plymouth), Bullitt is the one that people remember most for a 10-minute, 58-second scene, as Steve McQueen, playing the title character, drives a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback in pursuit of a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum through the streets of San Francisco. McQueen, a considerably skilled race driver in real life, actually participated in the driving.

Arguably, it is a nearly forgettable film with the exception of the chase scene. But the car is something else entirely. Bullitt used two Mustangsfor the chase scene. In 2016 the owner of the car that McQueen had driven contacted Ford, and Ford authenticated that car with the Historic Vehicle Association. They restored it, and in April 2018 exhibited it in a glass case on the National Mall in Washington, DC, celebrating the 54th birthday of the Mustang and the 50th anniversary of the movie. What’s more, Ford built a 2019 limited-edition 480-hp Mustang Bullitt that it put on sale to the public in 2018. Ford produced the vehicle for two model years and today the Bullitt edition is so popular that used versions cost approximately what they did new (MSRP for a ’19 Bullitt: $46,595).

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Stephen Macaulay

Stephen Macaulay writes about the music industry for Glorious Noise (www.gloriousnoise.com).He began his career in Rockford, Illinois, a place about which Warren Zevon once told a crowd, “How can you miss with a name like Rockford?”

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