Action and thriller movies have always been lauded for their epic car chases and stunts. In every action film, it seems like directors and producers try to outdo their predecessors by using bigger explosions, more technologically advanced vehicles, and more over-the-top action scenes.
But sometimes, less is more. In recent years, cars are becoming less and less memorable in action films and TV series. Can you tell me what kind of car Tom Cruise drives in the Mission: Impossible franchise? Or Jack Bauer from 24? Once upon a time - about 30 to 40 years ago - the vehicles that our favorite heroes drove were often just as much of a main character as the heroes themselves.
That is why most of the most memorable cars in film and television were usually muscle cars of the late '60s, '70s, and '80s. They were simply more appealing than today’s run-of-the-mill sportscar. When Americans saw the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am in Smokey and the Bandit, everyone had to have one. There was a special appeal in these older cars that just isn’t emulated today. Here are 15 of the most memorable cars in movies and television.
15 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 - Back to the Future (1985)
Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the stunning DeLorean DMC-12 for John DeLorean, and with its wing-styled doors and sleek look, it was a visual masterpiece. The fact that it could travel time when it hit 88 MPH was even more stunning. Okay, so maybe the DeLorean wasn’t quite the supercar that it’s made out to be in Back to the Future, but there’s no doubting that it is one of the all-time iconic vehicles in cinema history.
The DeLorean flopped in the 1980s, despite its moviestar status, but it resurged and has since become a cult automobile, with its futuristic/retro design helping to bring back the DeLorean Motor Company.
14 1962 Volkswagen Beetle - The Love Bug (1968)
Disney’s string of Love Bug movies made #53 a star - #53 of course being the anthropomorphic 1963 Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie. One of the only films where the car really stole the show from the actors, Herbie was immediately loved by moviegoers, and especially for The Love Bug’s less violent/action-oriented subject matter, which made Herbie a racing-beetle for the whole family. Released in 1968, The Love Bug became the highest-grossing film of 1969.
13 1966 Ford Thunderbird - Thelma & Louise (1991)
Though the Oscar-winning classic Thelma & Louise was powered by iconic performances by Geena Davis (Thelma) and Susan Sarandon (Louise), some would argue that the real star of the film was the sleek, teal-blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible that unfortunately met its demise at the end of the film. The car was already a classic, but Thelma & Louise solidified the ‘66 Thunderbird’s place in car history even more by becoming the ultimate getaway car for the feminist buddies.
12 1982 Pontiac Trans Am - Knight Rider (1982 - 1986)
Knight Rider became a huge franchise, but the series that set it off in 1982 will always be the most memorable. Starring David Hasselhoff and his artificially intelligent, self-aware, nearly invincible Trans Am, KITT, the show was a huge success, and brought the anthropomorphic car back into the spotlight.
KITT was a customized 1982 T/A that cost about $100,000 to build (or $250,000 in today’s money), and was clearly borrowing from the hype of Smokey and the Bandit’s Trans Am from a few years earlier. At a time when the Trans Am was the most popular car in America, it only makes sense that producers would use that knowledge to their advantage, and thus, KITT was born.
11 1977 Ferrari 308 GTS - Magnum, P.I. (1980 - 1988)
During its first five years of airing, Magnum, P.I. consistently ranked in the top 20 U.S television programs, thanks to Tom Selleck, the crime drama hype during the time, and the awesome car that Selleck rode around in. Selleck drove three different red 308 GTS Ferraris throughout the eight season run (dubbed the ROBIN 1 line of cars), and it’s hard to argue that the car didn’t fit perfectly in the pristine Hawaii backdrop of this popular detective show. Selleck drove other cars, like Audi 5000s and Jaguars, but none were as iconic as the red 308 GTS.
10 1977 Pontiac Trans Am - Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham chose the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am to star in his legendary action-comedy, and America was sold immediately. After the movie debuted, sales for the car increased by about 30,000 cars from 1977 to 1978, and by 24,000 for 1979. Americans loved the “Starlight Black Special Edition” car because of what they’d seen in the movie: zipping and sliding around corners, leaping over broken bridges, and evading cops all over the countryside.
Besides its sleek appearance and handling (better than the Corvette of the same generation), Burt Reynolds’ appeal helped make the Trans Am an icon that Americans simply had to have.
9 1975 Ford Gran Torino - Starsky & Hutch (1975 - 1979)
Originally, Starsky & Hutch creator William Blinn was going to have Starsky drive a Chevy Camaro convertible, but Ford was the loan-car suppliers for the production company. So they went with the legendary “red tomato,” two-door 1975 Gran Torino (complete with white “vector” stripe), and never looked back.
Because of the popular cop thriller, the Gran Torino became one of the most popular cars in the '70s, and many different versions of the car were used during the original four season stint. So even though it might not have been the most elusive, stealthy car for cops to drive (quite the contrary), it’s clear that ABC was going for style over substance.
8 The Batmobile - Batman (1989)
This was a hard choice between the ‘60s-era Adam West Batmobile, and Tim Burton’s sleek car from 1989’s Batman. We went with the Michael Keaton-driven Batmobile because it just looks awesome, it most resembles the car from the animated series, and it was seriously badass in the movie.
Many have said that Burton’s Batmobile (along with Danny Elfman’s score) was one of the few redeeming factors of the film. In the film, it’s mysterious, and equipped with machine guns, bombs, and shields. It was the first new iteration of the Batmobile that fans had seen in nearly 30 years. The car’s body was custom built on a Chevy Impala chassis.
7 1966 McLaren M6GT Custom - Hardcastle and McCormick (1983 - 1986)
The cars during the ‘80s buddy films and TV shows were clearly testosterone driven juggernauts, and none of them were perhaps as unique and showy as the Coyote X from ABC’s Hardcastle and McCormick. The car that “Skid” McCormick drove was built from custom molds based on the McLaren M6, originally assembled for the show by Mike Fennel. The car used a chassis from a Volkswagen Beetle, and the engine of a Porsche 914. For the second and third seasons of the show, a different Coyote based on a DeLorean DMC-12 was used.
6 1970 Dodge Charger - The Fast and the Furious (2001)
One of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time (and Universal’s biggest), The Fast and the Furious could be considered this generation’s James Bond films, largely because of the awesome cars.
The first film had arguably the coolest in Vin Diesel’s customized, 1970 Dodge Charger, with its menacing black look, huge rear tires, and giant supercharger engine sticking out of the hood. Add to that the wickedly cool stunts and street races that the car did during the movie, and the 1970 Dodge Charger was revitalized as the coolest car out there for a whole new generation of moviegoers.
5 1932 Ford Coupe - American Graffiti (1973)
Before George Lucas became a household name with the Star Wars franchise, he wrote and directed this 1973 coming-of-age story, which starred some seriously nifty hot rods. The film takes place in Modesto, California in 1962, and centers around the rock and roll culture among post-WWII baby boomers. Produced on a budget of $777,000, American Graffiti became one of the most profitable movies of all time, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
The canary-yellow '32 Ford Coupe was the most iconic hot rod in the film, with the climactic drag race between John Milner’s coupe and Harrison Ford’s '55 Chevy being a highlight of the film , after the '32 Ford screams by the Chevy, and Ford’s car flies off the tracks and blows up.
4 1973 XB GT Ford Falcon Interceptor - Mad Max (1979)
Arguably the best film series to come out of Australia, the dystopian Mad Max series has always sported some sweet cars, but none more so than the original Ford Falcon “Interceptor” in 1979’s Mad Max, starring Mel Gibson. From 1980 to 1999, George Miller’s film held the Guinness record for the most profitable film.
Three sequels came from the film, including the most recent, 2015’s Fury Road, which is up for a Best Picture Oscar. Max’s “Pursuit Special” was the most memorable car in a film with a slew of memorable cars. It was a modified Falcon GT351 - a limited edition hardtop sold in Australia between 1973 and 1976 - with a supercharger protruding from the hood.
3 1969 Dodge Charger - The Dukes of Hazzard (1979 - 1985)
The '68-'70 Dodge Charger is clearly one of the most popular and iconic cars used in film, and The Dukes of Hazzard is really the show that started the craze. The #1 “General Lee,” as it was called, was an orange '69 Charger with a Confederate battle flag painted on the roof, which is apropro since it was named after the Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Throughout the show’s history, an estimated 309 Chargers were used, and 17 of them are still known to exist in different states of repair. Star John Schneider has owned and restored over 20 replicas of the car, and has auctioned off three separate cars for $230,000, $450,000, and $110,000 (the last being the first car filmed in the series).
2 1968 Mustang GT 390 - Bullitt (1968)
It’s been said that any car Steve McQueen drove, or even stood next to, became instantly cooler. That was the same with 1968’s Bullitt, in which McQueen drives around in a sweet ‘68 Mustang GT 390.
The high-speed chase through San Francisco’s hilly streets between McQueen’s Mustang and an equally impressive ‘68 Dodge Charger is considered one of the most heart-stopping, intense car chases of all time (especially for 1968). That single car chase, as well as McQueen's impeccable cool-factor, helped to make this ‘68 Mustang one of the most memorable cars in film history.
1 1964 Aston Martin DB5 Vantage - Goldfinger (1964)
Before there was Steve McQueen or Mel Gibson or David Hasselhoff, there was Sean Connery, as the British MI6 agent with the License to Kill - James Bond. The Bond films have always had the coolest, most technologically far-out cars in film, but the 1964 Aston Martin from Goldfinger takes the cake as the car that best epitomizes Bond’s coolness.
Goldfinger was the third and one of the most well-received Bond films. The ‘64 Aston Martin DB5 is the original supercar that all other 007 cars can be traced back from. It was also driven in Thunderball, and restored and driven in the final moments of 2015’s Spectre. Besides being visually stunning, the gadgets made this car spectacular: it came with machine guns, a ram bumper, ejector seat, smoke screen, oil-slick spray, and a map screen (foreshadowing today’s GPS).