The CAR Top 10: Important car movies

Published: 11 December 2015

► Top 10 important car movies
► From Cars to American Graffiti
 And Bullitt to Back to the Future

Forget the Italian Job – here’s our choice of the 10 most important car movies ever made, the ones that actually changed the world’s automotive perspective. Watch the trailers (well, mostly trailers…) here, then go get the DVDs.

Wait. Do people still buy DVDs? Anyway, enjoy!

1) Vanishing Point

Easy Rider on four wheels: as much about US-counter-culture in the late ’60s and the death of the American dream as it is the machinery. But let’s not over-intellectualise it, the action is great, as are the stars: Barry ‘Petrocelli’ Newman and the 7.2-litre, 375bhp Dodge Challenger 440R/T. ‘Hey Kowalski, you out there?’

2) Cars

How can a cartoon cost $120m to make, or take half a billion at the box office and many times that when you include the DVD sales and merchanise? Pixar, founded by Steve Jobs, doesn’t do flops: it had to draw itself a truck to haul all its cash to the bank.

3) American Graffiti

No film has ever captured the importance of cars as well: to America, to teenagers everywhere, to the pursuit of freedom and sex. A slow burner, it became one of the most profitable films ever in percentage return, but director George Lucas wasted the millions he made on a terrible flop called Star Wars.

4) The Speed Merchants

Amazing, criminally uderrated Michael Keyser documentary on the ’72 World Sports Car championship. The Mario Andretti voiceover flirts with being cheesy, but the opening sequence with its haunting music and the scenes of journeyman racer (and total hero) Brian Redman at home with his family in a quiet northern village are artfully done.

5) The Driver

Seems like everyone has now seen Ryan Gosling in Drive, and it’s a fine film. But the Walter Hill/Ryan O’Neal effort that partly inspired it is better (I’d say): short, tight, pared-back, violent and with some terrific action, despite being made in post-muscle car 1978.

6) Le Mans

An obvious choice, but you’ve got to respect the fact that for the first 30-odd of its 104 minutes there is virtually no dialogue: just cars. McQueen would have had no script at all, but the studio knew that average cinema audiences were not as obsessed with Porsche 917s as he was, and insisted upon a love interest.

7) Senna

Okay, so Ayrton’s drive at Donningtonin ’93 barely features, and you know how it’s all going to end, but the producer’s real achievement lies in making something that stands up to cinema viewing from mostly crappy period TV footage, minus the Murray. And you’ve got to love those Brazilian F1 commentators: ‘Ayyyyyyy-rton Senna do Brasil!

8) Back to the Future

The DeLorean wasn’t much of a sports car; underpowered and underwhelming to drive, it didn’t stay afloat long enough to benefit from the publicity from its role in Back to the Future. But it’s going Back into Production, with a very ‘Doc’ EV powertrain, and we doubt that would have happened without the movie.

9) Bullitt

Steve McQueen’s Solar Productions prepared two of each car for the filming of The World’s Best Chase Scene(tm) thoughthey were largely standard. Both Chargers and one Mustang were destroyed in filming. The other Mustang has been locked away by its secretive owners. Worth millions!

10) The Sweeney

Out in September, this homage to the kipper-ties-and-sexism ’70s cop show stars Ray Winstone and the Ford Motor Company. We know the action will be blinding: some of the stunts are performed by CAR’s own Mauro Calo, a regular driver in our big tests. And watch out for our Chris Chilton crashing a Kia during one chase.

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features