Flashy, high-performance cars have long been stars of movie franchises such as James Bond and The Fast and the Furious, while ultra-luxury models often feature alongside the rich and powerful in news reports. But history has also thrown up some much more modest and unlikely “auto celebrities” which, by accident or design, have found their own places in pop culture.
Here are 10 surprisingly famous mundane motors.
THE POPE’S RENAULT
True to his humble image, the notoriously frugal Pope Francis took delivery of a surprisingly spartan new “popemobile” in 2013, when he accepted the gift of a 1984 Renault 4 from an Italian priest. A throwback to the clunker Francis drove back in his native Argentina, the white, dashboard stick-shift five-door showed 186,000 miles (albeit with a new engine). With its 800 cc, 30-horsepower mill and stark interior, the symbolism of the Pope’s choice would not be lost on his worldwide audience, as the model was produced for more than 30 years and in 17 different countries.
GET SHORTY’S SILHOUETTE
Surely the most unlikely vehicle to make this list, the first-generation Oldsmobile Silhouette was a DustBuster-shaped effort that, while stylistically prophetic of today’s similarly large-windscreen minivans, sold poorly in the early 1990s. Both nerdy and obscure, it made an incongruous rental ride for John Travolta’s tough loan-shark character in ‘95 movie Get Shorty, who insists that – despite all appearances to the contrary – his Silhouette is “the Cadillac of minivans”. Yet the short-lived Silhouette has the last ironic laugh in Shorty, when a wealthy movie star is bamboozled into buying one.
O.J. SIMPSON’S BRONCO
For an A-list star with a famously high-rollin’ lifestyle, a stock 1993 Ford Bronco made an improbable ride for O.J. Simpson’s televised “low-speed chase” through Los Angeles in ‘94. Watched by 95 million viewers, the former football legend tried to evade police seeking his arrest on suspicion of murder at 40 mph. The white Bronco, which actually belonged to Simpson’s former teammate Al Cowlings, reportedly sold for $200,000 in 1996 and later for $75,000 to porn entrepreneur Michael Pulwer, before re-emerging in near-mint condition in its current owner’s California garage earlier this year.
WAYNE’S WORLD’S PACER
Forever immortalized as the cramped setting for Wayne’s World’s uproarious “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along scene, the 1992 movie’s AMC Pacer was an ungainly economy car with delusions of limo-like grandeur. At the hands of the film’s hesher heroes, Wayne and Garth, it was “upgraded” with a dash-top bar tap, a headliner-mounted licorice dispenser, and tacky flame decals. The resulting, sky-blue “Mirthmobile” echoed its owners as something very ordinary trying valiantly to escape the everyday. Yet so iconic is this tasteless ’76 Pacer that it featured on TV’s Pawn Stars reality show just last year.
TED BUNDY’S BUG
Volkswagen’s super-distinctive, much-beloved original Beetle (1938-2003) is a car with many happy connotations, including starring in Disney’s humorous Herbie movies and association with love-and-peace hippie culture. But with more than 21 million produced, inevitably some of these rear-engined Ferdinand Porsche masterpieces fell into evil hands. Suave American serial killer Ted Bundy lured many of his victims into his 1968 tan VW Bug during his sick ‘70s spree. Mentioned on Bundy documentaries to this day, his VeeDub was even controversially displayed at the now-defunct National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C. in 2010.
JIM ROCKFORD’S FIREBIRD
Jim Rockford’s private investigator gigs sometimes required dramatic driving, including his signature “Jim Rockford turn-around”. Yet he lived a hand-to-mouth existence in his seafront trailer home in the hit Rockford Files TV series. Rockford’s car was carefully chosen to encapsulate all this – a sporty, second-gen Pontiac Firebird, but in the down-market “Esprit” trim (actor James Garner actually drove a disguised “Formula” model, which offered higher performance for chase scenes). But ol’ Jim can’t have been too broke – he got a new model-year “copper mist” Firebird each season for most of the show’s 1974-‘80 run.
OSAMA BIN LADEN’S LAND CRUISER
For all his self-inflicted austerity, Osama bin Laden had a taste for one relative luxury. The late terrorist figurehead was repeatedly spotted riding in a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV. Whole convoys of these burly eight-seaters, usually white and with flags flying, snaked through Afghanistan’s dusty countryside during al Qaeda’s dreadful heyday, commonly augmented by Toyota Hilux pickups for more lowly acolytes. Most of these vehicles were donated by shadowy Gulf state supporters (or looted from NGOs) rather than officially imported, but their choice for such rugged terrain nonetheless underlines the Cruiser’s near-legendary durability and reliability.
MR. BEAN’S MINI
However tiny, the original Mini could still be cool, with its sporty Cooper variant earning cult status in the 1969 Italian Job movie. But in keeping with his ūber-dork persona, Mr. Bean (created and portrayed by Rowan Atkinson) opted for the utterly pedestrian, mid-1970s British Leyland Mini 1000. In fact, the hapless Bean drove three Minis during his popular TV series (one orange; two yellowish-green). The Mini became so synonymous with Mr. Bean that last year Atkinson toured London seated in an armchair atop one to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show.
ROBERT SMITH’S LADA
Defying the band’s indoorsy goth image, The Cure had a long-running thing for 4×4 vehicles and (usually drunkenly spontaneous) off-roading. While his bandmates bought Land Rovers and Jeeps as their 1980s royalty checks started rolling in, lipstick-smeared frontman Robert Smith went to the trouble of having an ultra-utilitarian ‘81 Lada Niva imported from Russia. Despite having driven fourbies for most of his adult life, Smith almost killed-off The Cure when he rolled the boxy Niva down a mountainside with all aboard during the recording of their Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me album in 1986.
STARSKY & HUTCH’S GRAN TORINO
OK, the Ford Gran Torino is not quite mundane – the upscale version of the Torino, its high-performance incarnations even qualified for “muscle” status. But its on-screen celebrity far outweighs the model’s inherent allure. A custom-painted 1975 Gran Torino starred in the hit ‘70s TV series Starsky & Hutch (and in the eponymous 2004 movie), while an extremely disheveled ’73 four-door is The Dude’s doomed ride in 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski. Capping it all was Clint Eastwood’s 2008 drama actually titled Gran Torino, in which a lovingly-preserved ’72 symbolizes a bygone America.