The 12 Most Iconic Car Movies Ever

By: jwilder

What Makes a Car Movie Iconic?

Iconic doesn't necessarily mean leg slapping fun (it does help).

So, without overthinking this, a car movie may be considered "iconic" if they possess certain endearing qualities.

At minimum, it must be a car movie (not a movie with cars).

In addition, it should possess at least a few of the qualities listed below.

  • Tells a true story.
  • Tells a good story.
  • Great cinematography.
  • Historically significant.
  • Culturally significant.
  • Became a cult classic.
  • Epic driving.
  • Epic acting.
  • Romance chemistry (bonus).

So, thats my criteria.

And here's my list of the 12 most iconic car movies, ever.

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Finally, a real car movie! With real actors! Starring Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Jon Bernthal and RACE CARS!

Ford v Ferrari is the true story of the battle between Ford and Ferrari to win Le Mans in 1966.

In 1963, Ford was in talks with Ferrari to buy the company. With contract ready to sign, Enzo Ferrari said, "never mind."

Ford took offense, said "hold my beer," and vowed to kick their butt on the race track.

Thing is, they didn't race, and they had no car.

Now, my friends, you have a story.

Ford frantically looked for a starting point and found a British designed race car, the Lola Mk6 GT. The Lola was a mid-engine design, had an aluminum framed chassis, and used a small-block Ford V-8 engine. How convenient!

Of course, when Carroll Shelby got the car, he tossed the small-block and stuffed it with a 427 cubic-inch big block. Much better.

The rest is history.

You will appreciate the cinematography. Director James Mangold drew from classic racing movies Le Mans (1971), and Grand Prix (1966). A lot of close up face shots and point-of-view shots from the cockpit.

The film was originally titled "Go Like Hell," based on a book by the same name. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were considered for the roles.

Ford v Ferrari won Oscars for Best Achievement in Film Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. And that means a lot for a car movie.

Rush (2013)

Rush, directed by Ron Howard, is a true story about a long-time rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The title of a movie should give you some hint about what to expect.

One can safely assume that "Rush" refers to the addictive surge of adrenaline that humans get when in dangerous, "living on the edge," situations.

Living on the edge is the key to racing.

"If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough." -Mario Andretti

This story takes place in 1976, ten years after Ford v Ferrari at Le Mans.

These two cats had polar opposite personalities and approaches to racing.

James Hunt was a charismatic ladies man. He relied on his natural abilities to win races.

Niki Lauda was reserved and calculating. He relied on detailed analysis and statistical probabilities.

For those not immersed in Formula One history this movie is a good start.

Watch Senna next.

Senna (2010)

An awesome movie documentary on Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna.

This movie covers Formula One racing from 1984 to 1994.

And of course there is a rivalry, with a fellow driver, Alain Prost.

Senna had a strong belief in God, and strong moral convictions. He felt the closest to God when he raced.

He was deeply admired by his fans and respected by his peers. In 2009 he was voted "greatest Formula 1 driver of all time."

He was also outspoken regarding racing safety. In 1994 he tried to organize a Grand Prix Drivers' Association in order to more effectively address racing safety.

On 1 May 1994, Ayrton Senna was killed after his car crashed into a concrete barrier while he was leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy.

Incredibly, this documentary movie was created entirely with archive racetrack footage and home video clips provided by the Senna family.

Bottom line, Senna is a great documentary and a great movie.

Death Proof (2007)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Kurt Russell, Death Proof Nova.

Death Proof was part of a double feature called Grindhouse, which was released in 2007.

The first movie was Planet Terror, a zombie movie written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. The second movie, Death Proof, was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Grindhouse was conceived to be a tribute to 1970s double feature zombie and slasher B movies.

Death Proof starred Kurt Russell as "Stuntman Mike", a psychopath that stalked women in his "death proof" stunt car. The film has all the gore you would expect from Mr. Tarantino, but it is isolated to two parts of the movie.

The first part of the movie takes place in Austin. It starts out with some ladies cruising Congress avenue, which seems to go on forever, much like the dialog.

The video is scratchy and the scene transitions are choppy at times - a deliberate throwback to the low budget filmmaking of the time. Other Austin scenes take place at Guerros restaurant and the Texas Chili Parlor.

The other half of the movie takes place in Tennessee, where Stuntman Mike is up to no good again. And as fitting, the movie culminates to a car chase scene that tries to rival the classics.

The movie also stars three cars: two reinforced, "death proof" stunt cars - a 1970 Chevy Nova and a 1969 Dodge Charger (both flat black), driven by Stuntman Mike. The other star was a white 1970 Dodge Challenger, another tribute to the movie "Vanishing Point". There are loads of references to movies with great car chase scenes such as Bullitt (1968), Vanishing Point (1971), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) and White Line Fever (1975).

If you haven't seen the Death Proof, I would definitely check it out for the following reasons:

  • Half of the movie was filmed in Austin, Texas.
  • It pays tribute to the classic car movies.
  • It has a good car chase scene at the end.
  • You can check it off your list of car movies you haven't seen.

I think this is one of those moves where the trivia about the movie is better than the movie itself.

Death Proof makes it into the "Iconic Car Movies" canon due to its cult classicness.

Cars (2006)

There are a handful of movies that both children and adults can enjoy. Cars is the best!

The real reason this movie is outstanding is its tribute to the Mother Road, Route 66.

Texas is represented rather well!

"Ramone's House of Body Art" was based on the "U-Drop Inn" in Shamrock Texas. The "U-Drop Inn" is the most treasured Art Deco gas station in Texas. The building was constructed in 1936 and has always been a gas station (called the Tower Station) and cafe. The U-Drop Inn now serves as the Shamrock Texas Visitor Information Center.

"Cadillac Range," near Radiator Springs, is a range of mountains shaped like Cadillac tailfins. Of course this is based on Cadillac Ranch, an art istallation and roadside attraction just west of Amarillo, Texas.

Luigi's "Casa Della Tires" shop has a "leaning tower of tires" in the parkinglot. One might assume that it is a symbolic of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. No way! It's certainly based on the Leaning Tower of Groom, Texas.

The "Glenrio Motel" in Radiator Springs was one of the old closed businesses that represented the remnants of the good days. The "Glenrio Motel" is nearly identical to the long-closed Little Juarez Cafe in Glenrio, Texas. Glenrio is a ghost town on old Route 66, located right on the Texas-New Mexico border. At the end of the movie it was converted to a racing museum devoted to Doc Hudson.

I highly recommend this post by Route 66 News that lists many of real life locations, buildings and people in the Cars movie.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Directed by Hal Needham. Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed, Pat McCormick aul Williams and Mike Henry.

Featuring Pontiac Trans-Am! CB Radios! Beer! Road trip! Romance! Car chase! Great cast!

Wealthy Texan Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams) are looking for a truck driver willing to bootleg Coors beer to Georgia for their refreshment. The Burdettes discover legendary trucker Bo "Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) competing in a truck rodeo at Lakewood Fairgrounds in Atlanta and made a deal to haul 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta (about 670 miles) in 28 hours.

Why bootleg Coors? At the time, Coors beer was a regional product and its marketing area was confined to the American West. Texas was part of the 11-state distribution area, but it could not be legally sold east of the Mississippi River. This gave it mystique and made it a novelty, particularly on the East Coast. Visitors returning from the western states often brought back a case.

What do the Hollywood critics think?

Hollywood: "Smokey and the Bandit is basically a series of excellent comedy and action scenes that fail to come together as a satisfactory whole. — Ron Pennington, originally published on May 18, 1977"

Me: Hold my beer. Smokey and the Bandit was, The Best Gol'dern, Car Movie, Ever.

Universal Studios bankrolled Smokey and the Bandit for $5.3 million. Just two days before production was to begin, Universal cut the budget by $1 million. With Reynolds' salary at $1 million, Needham was left with only $3.3 million to make the film.

The film eventually grossed $126,737,428 in North America.

It was the second-highest-grossing film of 1977, second only to Star Wars, which was released two days earlier. Smokey and the Bandit even out-grossed two other iconic movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saturday Night Fever.

Smokey and the Bandit had all the ingredients that made this car movie a legend. The sexy powerful Pontiac Trans-Am! Stud actor Burt Reynolds. CB Radios! Beer! Road trip! Romance! Car chase! Great cast!

Academy Awards nomination for Best Film Editing.
Golden Globes nomination, Sally Field, for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical.

My favorite scene, at the 15:18, is when the Bandit drives slowly, looks into the camera, and smiles.

What makes this even more classic is looking into the camera is considered "breaking the fourth wall," an imaginary wall of separation between the audience and the actor.

And for those of us that hate to take off our hats, I'll leave you with a favorite quote from the movie.

Carrie : Don't you ever take off that hat?
Bandit : I take my hat off for one thing, and one thing only.
Carrie : Oh... Take your hat off. If you want to...
Bandit : I want to.

C'était un Rendez-vous (1976)

"C'était un Rendez vous" (it was a date) is a short film by French director, Claude Lelouch.

The film is about 8 minutes of high-speed driving through the streets of Paris, at 5:30 am.

Red lights won't stop this rendez-vous.

Soon, she would be in his arms.

It was filmed in one take, at 5:30 AM, in the streets of Paris in 1976.

Claude Lelouch was the driver and director.

This high speed drive was completely unauthorized. There was no traffic control. What you see was real traffic and real pedestrians.

Insane? Yes!

But wouldn't you like to do the same? Yes!

When I first saw this film, and found some background information, I assumed this was a young film student wanting to make a name for himself.

Turns out Lelouch was thirty-nine when he filmed it.

According to one story, Lelouch finished shooting Si C’était à Refaire with Catherine Deneuve. The movie was released in 1976, so the timing would be right. According to the story, there was 1000 feet of film remaining. Why waste it?

The film was shot with a camera strapped to the front of his Mercedes 450SEL.

The Ferrari engine sound was added during the editing process.

In 2009, Lelouch said in an interview: "I made the movie as a gift of this moment of madness. The movie is very symbolic of my life. We did many forbidden things, as I often have in life."

Rendevous C'était un Rendez vous 1976

American Graffiti (1973)

Starring Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack.

In January 1973 the Selective Service announced the end to the draft and instituted an all-volunteer military. President Nixon signs the Paris Peace Accords, ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Maybe we needed to go back to a time when the most stressful things were dating and deciding if you're going to college.

The movie trailer starts off with Wolfman Jack asking "Where were you in '62?" A clear sign of a nostalgia movie.

On a side note, the movie, Vanishing Point (1971), had a blind DJ named Super Soul that acted as a guide for Kowalski.

American Graffiti was the first good movie about the 1950s car culture. Well cast, written, acted, filmed and produced.

This is a movie directly about youth car culture. Drive-ins, Cruising, custom cars, racing. No politics, just a night of cruising in a small town.

In small towns, the traffic was light, especially at night.

You feel like you own the town.

Cruising amplified life. It filled you with a serene sense of cool, interrupted by bursts of adrenaline from potential confrontations, showoff driving, or spontaneous pranks.

The 1955 Chevy Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) was one of three used in Two Lane Blacktop (1971).

American Graffiti makes it into the "Iconic Car Movies" canon because it was the first good movie about 1950s car culture. It was well cast, written, acted, filmed and produced. This is a movie directly about youth car culture, drive-ins, cruising, custom cars, hot rods, and racing.

Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two Lane Blacktop is a road movie starring, singer-songwriter James Taylor, the Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, and Laurie Bird.

Also starring, '55 Chevy, '70 GTO, and some real LA street racers!

First, let's address the obvious...

How did James Taylor end up in this movie, having never acted before?

Director, Monte Hellman, had auditioned many actors, but he was unsatisfied. So, as fate would have it, Hellman saw a picture of James Taylor on a billboard on the Sunset Strip. He asked James to come and do a screen test.

Now, what about Dennis Wilson, another non-actor?

It was the same story for the role of the mechanic. Hellman was looking at actual mechanics but couldn’t find anyone.

With four days left before shooting, a friend of the casting director suggested Dennis Wilson, a genuine car guy.

OK, now the movie...

Two Lane Blacktop is a road movie with no real plot.

In an interview with director Monte Hellman he was asked about the plot of the movie. Hellman laughed and said, "I was hard-pressed to find one."

As one movie poster proclaims:

"Their world is a two-lane blacktop. No beginning... No end..."


There was certainly thought put into the movie.

At least for the cars. (Right on. Fistbump)

Screenplay writer Rudy Wurlitzer explains, "The GTO is the consumer car par excellence, a metaphor for the consumer culture. It's absurd, but in a great way. The Chevy is the artist's car, made and created by people who are in love with the process of building a car."

Consumer, versus the purity of the artist builder.

Sound familiar?

Or maybe it's like a cup of coffee.

No plot. Just drink it, and enjoy.

Two Lane Blacktop makes it into the "Iconic Car Movies" canon due to its cult classicness.

Vanishing Point (1971)

As the title hints, the "point" of the movie "vanishes" at the end.

But make no mistake, this is a car movie from start to finish line. It features the powerful 1970 Dodge Challenger 440 R/T, and flat-out-driving by a man known only as, Kowalski.

The movie starts out with Kowalski delivering a car in Denver Colorado.

He inquires about delivering another vehicle. Sure enough, he gets the keys to a Dodge Challenger that needs to be delivered to San Francisco.

One can assume that Kowalski has developed a trustworthy reputation for delivering cars.

But you know, a powerful car is a tempting force. Things can get out of hand.

No time is wasted in getting to that point.

Who is Kowalski? We learn along the way.

We learn through various flashbacks that he's a Vietnam War veteran, a Medal of Honor recipient, a former racecar driver, and motorcycle racer.

More is revealed as the police dig up his past. A shocking discovery! I won't reveal any more.

The twists and turns in the movie are mainly delivered by Kowalski's driving.

Maybe Vanishing Point is deeper than a car chase.

Maybe we can identify with Kowalski. Life didn't go as expected. What happened.

Sometimes, on a long road trip, you have time to sort things out.

Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

And maybe, movies without a clear point become cult classics for that very reason.

Who knows?

Vanishing Point makes it into the "Iconic Car Movies" canon due to its cult classicness. It features the iconic Dodge Challenger. It's a car movie from beginning to end.

Le Mans (1971)

Directed by Lee H. Katzin. Starring Steve McQueen.

Le Mans is a 1971 film depicting a fictional 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race. It was filmed on the Le Mans circuit between June and November 1970. The movie features racing footage captured during the 1970 Le Mans race.

McQueen was as much a race car driver as he was an actor. In 1970 he finished second at the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida. This race is considered preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

McQueen was passionate about racing and he wanted to capture that passion in the film.

This movie is so much about the racing experience that no actor speaks a scripted line for the first 37 minutes.

Le Mans should have been a masterpiece. McQueen had his own production company and had full control of the movie.

However, that control led to chaos. They were filming without a script. When they did have a script McQueen would constantly challenge it. His director finally quit out of frustration. At one point the studio threatened to pull funding. Filming stopped for two weeks, but resumed in order to finish the movie. At this point, McQueen backed off.

The mood of the entire crew turned sour. On the last day of filming there was no party or celebration. Everybody just walked away.

Clearly, McQueen was not mature enough to bring his passion project to perfection. However, he did what he set out to do - convey the passion, and reality of racing to an audience. He truly avoided making Le Mans a Hollywood film, at high cost, personally, professionally, and financially.

McQueen didn't go to the premiere of Le Mans, and he never raced in a car again.

Le Mans remains popular today as a historically accurate depiction of its era.

The best quote from the movie: "Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting." -Delaney, McQueen's character in the movie.

Le Mans makes it into the "Iconic Car Movies" canon due to its historic value and intense effort by McQueen to attempt to make the most epic racing movie of all time.

Grand Prix (1966)

Directed by John Frankenheimer. Starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter and Antonio Sabàto.

Grand Prix is a fictional story that follows four racers through a Formula One season. There is plenty of racing as well as the human drama of affairs and struggles with self-confidence.

The movie conveys realism by including actual racing footage.

What also sets this movie apart is the visual creativity.

Director John Frankenheimer recruited graphic designer Saul Bass to plan, direct and edit almost all of the racing scenes in the movie.

The most brilliant scene in this movie, and cinematic history, is where one car overtakes the other, portrayed as a shark slowly devouring its prey. This is how you visually tell a story!

Racing fans will enjoy cameo appearances by drivers including Formula One World Champions Jim Clark, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jochen Rindt and Jack Brabham.

Other drivers that appear in the film are Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Joakim Bonnier, Bruce McLaren and Jo Siffert.

Toshiro Mifune, legendary Japanese actor, had a supporting role as a race team owner, a strong reference to the real-life Soichiro Honda.

Grand Prix was one of the ten highest grossing films of 1966. It won three Academy Awards for its technical achievements.

Grand Prix makes it into the "Iconic Car Movies" canon due to director John Frankenheimer enlisting Saul Bass to handle the racing scenes, ensuring its timeless legacy as a masterpiece of racing cinema.

More Car Movies

Recently I have been a bit more interested in seeing Texas grow its car culture into the realm of movie making. If you enjoy videography, why not go further, and make a car movie!

James Wilder

James Wilder is the owner, writer, photographer, designer, and developer for MOTOR Texas.


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