But first let me explain. Favorite car movies are not just movies with cars in them, or just movies with car chase scenes, although that helps. The movies that stand out should stand out because of how they treat cars and driving. Smokey and the Bandit, the re-make of the Italian Job, some of the 007 films do not make my list. When there are chase scenes they should be believable chases. Its not that I don’t appreciate special affects and some of the clever gags that stunt drivers have done, its just that when they are too contrived it loses something.
Ranking these movies is tough, but I’ll give it a shot.
1) Bullitt – 1968
Peter Yates directed this classic. The story was very tough to follow, but there was no doubt that the cars did steal the movie. The Dodge Charger was as sinister as the hit men and the Mustang had its unforgettable growl. Who else could have competed with being upstaged by a car except Steve McQueen. When audiences sat in the theatre and experienced the shots from the inside of the cars going over the hills of San Francisco they gasped and felt their stomachs tighten. This was a chase scene made for the big screen. It was ground breaking.
2) The Italian Job – 1969
Michael Caine in the original version held his own against the Mini Cooper rally cars that were used to liberate $4 million. The opening scene with the Lamborghini Muria tooling about the Italian Alps was perfect. I remember seeing my first Muria in Hyannis that summer and trying not to drool on it. This did not have the gritty reality of Bullitt, but provided a lot of fun with driving out of the city of Turin, including the most dramatic cliff hanger ending in history.
3) Gone in 60 Seconds – 1974
Perhaps the longest car chase scene ever. Forty minutes and 93 cars mangled. This was a classic that the remake just did not even come close to. Showing the tricks of the trade in swapping VIN numbers and stealing cars was done with real style.
4) Vanishing Point – 1971
Kowalski was his name, but the white Challenger was the movie. The chase sequences hold up 35 years later. The story is a bit dated but who doesn’t appreciate seeing the last of the muscle car era go out with this movie.
5) Grand Prix – 1966
OK, maybe this deserves first place for a lot of reasons. It predates Bullit and has the fantastic John Frankenheimer directing. Steve McQueen was the original choice to star in this film but they sent the wrong guy to ask him and Jim Garner ended up in this classic. Steve would later make his own racing movie. His son Chad had to beg Steve to take him to see this. Afterward they dropped by Jim Garner’s house (he lived next door) where Steve grudgingly told Jim it was a good movie.
This is almost a documentary and the creativity of the director is amazing. This was filmed at a pivotal time for formula one racing. The transition from front engine to rear engine had taken place and they had doubled the displacement of the engines. Still, drivers did not use seat-belts and there were no aerodynamic aids. Do see this film.
6) LeMans – 1971
McQueen wanted to make a documentary and the director, Lee H. Katzin, was trying to make a drama. It produced and interesting combination that used every Porsche 917 LeMans car in existence. This is an excellent film that shows racing the way it should be seen.
7) To Live and Die in LA – 1985
I bet you never thought of this one, but it contains one of the most exciting and fantastic chase scenes with cars ever. The start is a shock and it holds you on a very believable edge through the entire chase. It is an interesting movie about counterfeiters and the secret service that has a great feel to it.
8 ) Ronin – 1998
Of course you were waiting for me to list this one. This is not a car movie, but the director, John Frankenheimer (remember Grand Prix?) loved cars and it shows in the driving that was done and the cars he used. In order to get film of the actors at the wheel John used right hand drive cars with false left hand drive dashes set up to make it look like the actors were at the wheel when the actual driving was done by stunt drivers and race car drivers. That is why Robert looks so tense in many of the scenes when he is at the wheel. This is where America found out about the Audi S8
9) The Bourne Identity – 2002
Much like Ronin, this one has a great car chase scene that is so well integrated into the rest of the movies pace that it is like a piece of music. The Mini Cooper (the original) holds its own and comes off superbly.
10) Mad Max -1980
What took me so long to mention this one? These top ten lists are tough. Many of these movies could be in the number one spot, or very close. This one is another ground breaker. The regular cops drive cars called Pursuit, but Max drives the Interceptor! Australia is the perfect setting and…
11) The Road Warrior – 1981
Starts off where Mad Max ends in a bizaro world of a future with a queer logic that we can accept. Max is the anti-hero that allows a group to survive the onslaught of the wacko road groupies that prowl the anarchy of the future.
12) THX-1138 – 1970
Director George Lucas loved the automobile. He was also a gifted mechanic who could listen to a car’s engine and provide a diagnosis on the spot. His American Graffitialso belongs on this list, but THX-1138 was his first film and has a very exciting chase scene that takes place in a future. The editing and quick cuts provide all the excitement a good chase requires.
13) The Blues Brothers – 1980
Unbelievable, but only the Belushi Aykcroyd duo could pull it off and make it believable.
14) Gumball Rally – 1976
This was a low budget, yet successful movie that did a much better job of reflecting the Cannon Ball Run than the namesake movie that Brock Yates wrote. Brock is an great guy and it was astounding of him to organize and pull off the real Cannon Ball Run with Dan Gurney co-piloting a Datona Ferrari. Brock wanted Steve McQueen in the movie he scripted, but instead it was turned into a farce that appears to have just been an expensive vehicle for a bunch of actors to screw around in.
15) Thunder Road – 1958
Robert Mitchum, how can you go wrong. Certainly not an “A” movie the cast includes his son.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry didn’t make my list, but is a car film you should see anyway. Repo Man is kind of a car film in its own weird way. Easy Rider is, well, a motorcycle movie, but really broke ground. The Worlds Fastest Indian is a must see and crosses both the motorcycle and the automobile film.
Now – if you are looking for documentaries that are worth finding here a just a few gems:
Super Speedway– originally filmed in imax this provides true insight into how modern championship cars are developed and driven as well as a nostalgic look back at the days when roadsters were the brutes of Indy racing. When Mario drives a restored race car the music they play is from the opening of the Italian Job and very appropriate.
Mischief 3000– Millionaires get to drive the way we all wish we could afford to. Cross country in a contemporary version of the Cannon Ball. It is amazing to see what a beating these cars take just from the miles driven. Fun film.
Lime Rock Park, the Secret Valley of Racing – If you’ve ever been to Lime Rock it will bring back those great memories. If you have not, after this you will want to see the place in person.
A Gullwing at Twilight – This is the Bonneville ride of John Fitch. Do you think you would try the salt flats at 87? Great film.
You can find out more about these films at: http://www.szwedo.com/
These are my personal choices. Tell me where I’m wrong – You know you want to!