My Favorite Cinematic Moments in Automobile History

Cars in the movies – what a novel idea!

If you are a car person, then you probably have some inkling towards enjoying the movies. Why not? They provide some of the most exciting frames ever shot on film – car chases, mainly. Today, a big budget film would be empty if it did not have a product placement by some automotive brand. Chrysler hit the spot back in 2012 with the reboot of Total Recall and The Dark Night Rises – another addition to the Batman canon. Lexus, Audi, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, BMW…these are some of the brands with some impressive credits on the silver screen.

Before it became big business for product placement on big budget products, cars had a prominent cultural affect when they are featured in a movie. Some of which are listed in this edition of the Five Favorites.

What I look for a film where an automobile made a greater impact on the story. Whether it is a memorable chase or a distinctively prominent vehicular character, the car is factored in the star power and story impact of the movie.

While you were self-quarantining and social distancing, hopefully you were binging on every movie made ion the past 120-plus years of cinematic history. Maybe you forgot a few films to watch? This holiday season, may I suggest a few favorites films of mine? These are not just for the automotive folks on here – but, anyone who likes a well shot, excellently acted and directed piece of cinema.

…and, if you're looking for a great gift for the holidays, why not get a copy of one of these films for someone who might appreciate it? (Or, a subscription to a streaming service that may have these films in their library to view on demand?)

By Robert Huhardeaux(compte Flickr : Michel Huhardeaux) – 1966 Royat, tournage du film Grand Prix, Yves Montand, CC BY-SA 2.0,

GRAND PRIX (1966): In an era before KERS, multiple diffusers, ever changing engine specifications and the absolute greed that spawned contrived racing arenas in various far-flung places – there was real Formula One racing. This film captured what it was like to simple rely on a monocoque tub and an engine behind you. To do so, John Frankenheimer stretched the rules and gave you some of the most amazing frames on film as the cars raced by. It was the cinemaphotography of Saul Bass that gave you a perspective never seen before – from the car's perspective. A racecar driven by Phil Hill was used to shoot footage from the front and back. The plot was not that important, really. Though James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune and others in the cast were central to the story developing between rival racers – one making a comeback in the circuit. The film did not just put you on a track and leave you there. This was almost a full season – with notable stops at Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps, Zandvoort, Brands Hatch, Monza and Watkins Glen. If you really have the need for speed – 179 minutes of this should do the trick.

THE GRADUATE (1967): "Well, here's to you…" Dustin Hoffman. A younger Dustin before the multitude of roles he garnered since this film. While falling in love with Katharine Ross, he is seduced by Anne Bancroft. You know the plot, the twists and turns and how it ended. What was more memorable – the plot or Dustin's red Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider? Dustin’s character does a lot of driving to try to find himself and the triangle he wound up in. The way this Mike Nichols' film was shot, along with the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, it seemed that the red Alfa was indeed the star – if not an appropriate co-star. It was Hoffman, going through the motions of back-and-forth trip between his parent’s home in Southern California, Berkeley, Mrs. Robinson's house and the wedding scene in Santa Barbara. The legacy of the Duetto was so strong years after the movie that Alfa Romeo created a model of the Spider for the USA market called the Graduate. Who would rather be seduced by: Mrs. Robinson or Ben's red Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider?

Photo courtesy of the Ford Motor Company

BULLITT (1968): Steve McQueen was everyone's hero in the 1960s. He was dashing, daring and a true automotive enthusiast. In this movie, McQueen is a San Francisco Police Department Lieutenant named Bullitt who was assigned to protect a key witness against the mob. When things begin to unravel when the witness all of the sudden disappears. With pressure from everyone, Bullitt tries to find the witness he was protecting. In pursuit of a lead, Bullitt drives in his Ford Mustang GT only to see a Dodge Charger on his tail – with two hitmen inside. Eventually, Bullitt would find a way to turn the tables on the hitmen in the Charger. In the end, Bullitt wins – the Charger loses with its occupants killed. The hills of San Francisco provided perhaps some of the most exciting stunts ever devised for film at the time. The jumps alone are worth watching the entire scene sequence. Though this Peter Yates classic was full of intrigue, suspense and action, we all can recall above all the chase scene between McQueen, the Mustang and the Charger. It certainly made the movie memorable.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971): "Popeye" Doyle is not the kind of cop you want to investigate anything. He has no qualms getting the case solved at any cost. So, it came as no surprise that one of the best chase scenes in the 1970s involved Detective Doyle – played by Gene Hackman – and a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. The story has Doyle and his partner Detective "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) staking out a drug transaction in Brooklyn, only to have chaos ensue. A mole was found and the detectives learn of a huge shipment of heroin coming into New York. Along the way, Doyle goes after a hitman who just boarded an elevated train. Doyle takes the mid-sized Pontiac – belonging to a law-abiding citizen – in pursuit of the train and its noted passenger. Underneath the tracks, Doyle's lack of driving skills creates one a lasting sequence of accidents and other crazy stunts you could only see in a William Friedkin film. At the end of the chase, Doyle scampers out of the Pontiac, finds his target heading down into a subway entrance and shoots him in the back. In any Friedkin film, you will find a degree of chaos and mayhem.To top it all off, it won five Academy Awards.

Photo by Randy Stern

CANNONBALL RUN (1981): It would be easy to wrap up all of Burt Reynolds' movies involving cars – two "Cannonball Run" and two "Smokey and The Bandit" films all told. But, if I had to pick one – the original "Cannonball" movie would do. It is a replay of Brock Yates' famed New York-to-The Portofino Inn run once documented in the pages of Car and Driver. This time, Hal Needham threw the biggest and fastest party ever produced for the screen. The cast is best described as "everyone." The cars range from the Dodge ambulance of Reynolds, Dom DeLuise and Farah Fawcett to the Lamborghini Countach of Adrienne Barbeau and the Ferrari 308GTS of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Terry Bradshaw teamed up with Mel Tillis in one of the funniest and memorable moments of the film – driving their NASCAR-spec Chevrolet Malibu Laguna/Monte Carlo into a motel pool. If you know the story, the humor is another huge layer on top of it.

RUSH (2013): If you knew the story, then you know what happened. If not, let me take you back to 1976 when a lot of safety regulations were not in place in Formula 1. It was also the year that the heated rivalry between Austrian champion driver Niki Lauda and the British playboy James Hunt reached its peak. This film takes you through the 1976 F1 season and the events that lead to Lauda’s near-fatal crash on the Nurburgring during the German Grand Prix. And…spoiler alert…Hunt wins the 1976 driver’s championship., With this context in mind, you will find a well-produced, shot, and acted film depicting the events that fueled this rivalry, the crash, and all of the drama of 1976. All of done through the lens of Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Lauda. 

Photo by Randy Stern

FORD V FERRARI (2019): This is more than just the retelling of the great rivalry in the mid-1960s between Enzo Ferrari and the Scuderia against the “upstart” Ford team lead by Carroll Shelby and the GT40. It is everything you did not expect from this biopic. What it did was to bring out some of the internal animosities that a lot of us did not occurred at Ford or between them and the Italians. It did focus on Ken Miles and how he had to navigate through the animosities, his own demons, and his brilliant driving en route to his eventual win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One would argue that Matt Damon played a decent Shelby and that Christian Bale was as intense as he usually is as Miles. Nonetheless, this is a film worth watching for racing fans and enthusiasts. 

Cover photo by Randy Stern

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