The Rocket Auto Awards: Best Movie Cars
David Collins7-minute read
March 23, 2022
Cars and movies. These are two of America’s great contributions to world culture, so it’s inevitable that from time to time cars and movies come together for some memorable moments.
Cars have always been a part of movies—any action movie almost is required to have a car chase montage, for instance. Cars are just so important to everyday life in America that any depiction of it must include people riding around in cars at some point – whether it’s Clemenza and his men driving out to the Meadowlands to whack Paulie in “The Godfather” (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”), or even a superhero bragging on his car in “Batman Forever” (“It’s the car right? Chicks always dig the car.”).
Cars and movies really came around at about the same time. While the earliest inventions for automobiles and film date back to the late 1800s, both emerged as huge American industries in the early 20th century. So it’s really no surprise that the paths of cars and movies keep crossing. And in some movies the car actually becomes one of the key characters in the story. Some of these films are true classics – not always entirely due to the car, but in each a car is a supporting actor at least, and in many the car steals the show.
Springtime is awards season for the Hollywood crowd, from both the television and movie industries. The Golden Globes, SAG and Critics Choice have already passed out their trophies. With the big one –the Academy Awards – set to take place later this month, we thought we’d pay homage to some of the great car characters in American films from over the years. We’ll call them the Rocket AutoSM Awards.
The Nominees Are …
1984 Ford Econoline – “Dumb and Dumber” (1994)
Source: K.A - stock.adobe.com
Harry Dunne was a visionary. His mobile dog grooming business Mutt Cutts was a pioneer of the industry. But for Harry and his sidekick Lloyd Christmas, the Mutt Cutts customized ’84 Econoline van, which was adorned with shag carpet inside and out, was known as the “Shaggin’ Wagon.” It had a nose, ears, tail and a wagging tongue — and you had to pull the back leg up to fill the gas tank.
The Econoline itself was a very reliable and versatile vehicle from the ’70s to the ’90s. It could be set up to handle everything, from a plumber’s work van to a delivery truck to a sweet, home-on-wheels, hippie love machine for the guy you did not want dating your daughter. With no windows and double side doors, the Econoline could look a bit shady as well. Literally everyone knew not to park next to one in the mall parking lot.
For Harry and Lloyd, it served them well on their cross-country trip from Rhode Island to Aspen to return Mary Swanson’s briefcase. It almost made it all the way too — despite the urine smell — but with gas money running low, Lloyd had the brilliant idea to trade it in for a sweet minibike, “straight up.” Along the way, the Econoline’s unspectacular engine was still savvy enough to outrun some tough guys, a mob hit man, and the cops. After Lloyd and Harry eliminate the gangster with the old “pack his burger full of hot peppers” trick and hightail it out of town, the cops announce that the suspects are “headed west in an ’84 sheep dog.”
1964 Aston Martin DB5 — “Goldfinger” (1964)
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This was the first and best James Bond car. It was introduced in “Goldfinger” and then made curtain calls in “Thunderball” and “GoldenEye.” The car reappeared in later Bond films such as “Skyfall,” but as a prop car and not the real DB5. As sexy, stylish, and elegant as the British secret agent was (as played by the original Bond, Sean Connery), 007 needed a car that was his match, and the DB5 delivered. This was a grandly styled touring coupe with a 4.0-liter aluminum engine that could reach 145 mph. For 1963 the list of what must have seemed like futuristic features is mind-boggling: reclining seats, electric windows, chrome wire wheels, full leather interior and a magnesium alloy body.
Of course, while James Bond was a gentleman, he also happened to have a license to kill. For that, the DB5 was also keenly equipped by agent Q, the cantankerous Mi6 Quartermaster, who was rightly suspicious of Bond’s ability to keep the expensive Aston Martin in one piece. For Bond’s takedown of the evil villain Goldfinger, Q outfitted the car with an ejector seat, a bulletproof screen, a rear-wheel-mounted tire shredder, and a pair of front-mounted machine guns. “Ejector seat, you’re joking!” Bond said. “I never joke about my work, OO7.”
1977 Pontiac Trans Am — "Smokey and the Bandit” (1977)
Source: Sergey Kohl - stock.adobe.com
The 1970s was a great decade for American cinema. There were some fantastic sweeping epics and smaller character-driven films. This was before a lot of the big breakthroughs in special effects technology, so movies still had a kind of un-self-conscious grittiness to them. Movies were also allowed to be fun, and few were more so than “Smokey and the Bandit.” Not only was “Bandit” one of the earliest “buddy-road” movies, but it also takes place in the deep South, not a typical setting for a big-budget movie. The film starred Burt Reynolds at the height of his good ol’ boy charm, alongside Sally Field, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason in a fantastic turn as Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
Taking backstage to none of these legends was the black and gold ’77 Trans Am driven by the Bandit (Reynolds). After accepting a bet that they could not bring 400 cases of bootleg Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta in 24 hours, the Bandit and his trucker buddy load up a semi-trailer and start tearing across the South, with the Bandit running cover in the Trans Am. When Sherriff Justice gets on the scent, the hilarity ramps up and the car stunts get more and more outlandish. Faster and better handling than the more famous Corvette of that era, the car leapt its way over bridges and into Americans’ hearts. The year after the movie, Pontiac sold 30,000 more Trans Ams than the year before, most of them in black and gold with a T-top.
While the ’77 Trans Am was undoubtedly a star in its own right, the comedy power of Reynolds and Gleason definitely helped. After learning that the Bandit is riding off with the woman who just jilted his son at the altar, Sheriff Justice sets down the gauntlet to all law enforcement on his CB radio: “Ah’m in pursuit of a black. Trans. Am.”
1979 Ford LTD Country Squire — “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983)
Source: K.A - stock.adobe.com
The iconic wood-paneled American family station wagon was etched into silver screen history by the 1983 film comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” The station wagon that ruled suburban America’s family road trips in the 1960s and ’70s was a long wheelbase battleship with a cavernous bench backseat and deep-but-shallow rear cargo area. The cargo area in some models featured a fold-down third seat that faced backward — and might possibly have placed the children who sat there in real peril in a rear-end collision. But it was all good, because families were really large back then and Mom and Dad needed to get everyone to Ohio for the weekend.
Hollywood car customizer George Barris built five Wagon Queen Family Trucksters for the movie, using the Ford LTD Country Squire wagon as the base model. The Griswold family’s bumbling patriarch, Clark, had actually ordered a much sleeker model, but when he goes to pick it up ahead of the family trip to California, he falls for the old bait and switch. In a small but breakout role as the classic sleazy car salesman, actor Eugene Levy talks Clark into taking the Family Truckster instead of the car he’d ordered. Placing his arm around Clark’s slumping shoulder, Levy deadpans: “If you think you hate it now, wait ’til you drive it.”
Once on the road, the Griswold Family Truckster is subjected to the kind of abuse that only Clark and his family can dish out. It has its hubcaps stolen in St. Louis, struggles to keep up with a red Ferrari driven by siren supermodel Christie Brinkley in middle America, soars 50 feet through the air and crashes when Clark drives off the road in the desert, and finally becomes a hearse when Aunt Edna dies and has to be strapped to the roof until they can drop her off in Arizona.
And the Rocket Goes To …
1981 DeLorean DMC-12 — “Back to the Future” (1985)
Source: Erin Cadigan - stock.adobe.com
The story of how visionary auto executive John DeLorean broke off from the Big 3 to form his ill-fated DeLorean Motor Company is itself the stuff of a great Hollywood tale. While incredibly ambitious and visionary, as a company DeLorean was beset by problems from the beginning — it turns out it is really difficult to mass-produce a new car from the ground up — and the company went bankrupt in 1982 after less than a decade.
But that car. The Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed stainless-steel body with gullwing doors still looks futuristic today. The car was destined to be a star, and it became one in Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 movie “Back to the Future” starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. In a Rocket Award-winning performance, the DeLorean is transformed into a time machine.
Ironically, despite its rocket ship appearance, the DeLorean had a very pedestrian 3.6-liter V6 engine. It’s been rumored, however, that the movie car was bolstered up to a V8 thanks to a donor Porsche. How else was it to achieve exactly 88 mph when the lightning bolt struck? In the movie, teenager Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time in his friend Doc Brown’s time machine, which is a DeLorean DMC-12 outfitted with Doc’s ingenious plutonium-fueled flux capacitor. Finding himself in Hill Valley, California in 1955, Marty encounters his yet-to-meet parents, who are just teenagers themselves. He quickly discovers that they are extremely unlikely to fall in love (Dad is a wimp, and the girl who would become his mother actually starts coming on to Marty himself). If he can’t bring these two together, Marty will cease to exist. Meanwhile he meets the younger version of Doc Brown, and the two of them must figure out how the DeLorean works so that Marty can get back to the future.
The original “Back to the Future” was the #1 box office hit movie of 1985, and it spun off two sequels in 1989 and 1990 which were also blockbuster hits. As for the DeLorean, while the company took a dive, the car has developed a big cult following at car shows. With only about 9,000 original DeLorean cars ever built, and a shortage of replacement parts, the car will continue to grow in value as a collectible because it will become rarer and rarer as the decades pass.
Cars and Movies: You Couldn’t Script It Any Better
Any list of the greatest movie cars is going to be subjective. There are many worthy vehicles that could have been mentioned here, enough to fill another discussion in the future, perhaps. But for now, these cars stand out for becoming something more than a machine — for becoming characters themselves and a part of American culture.
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