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Hollywood Horsepower: The 13 Best Car Movies of All Time

Break Out the Popcorn For These Automotive Cult Classics

best car movies

There are so many amazing car movies out there, but these thirteen, in no particular order, stand out from the crowd as our picks for the very best car movies ever.

In many ways, the development of both movies and cars as hallmarks of modern culture has occurred along an interwoven timeline. In the early 1900s, automobiles and movie theaters were concurrently becoming potent subjects of people’s attention and imagination. Drive-in movies, which combined both cars and cinema, are perhaps the ultimate symbol of American nostalgia.

As cars and movies grew in stature together, they inevitably merged together to form the ever-exciting car movie genre. Thanks to this rich history, car movies continue to perform consistently well at the box office, and many car movies regularly top the lists of critic’s best movies of all time. There are simply so many iconic examples.

For many movie lovers, the cinematic bliss of a high-energy car chase is wholly unrivaled in the entertainment space. An engine roaring from the sound system of a theater while an intrepid protagonist weaves through traffic in an iconic car offers a fantastic high that many cinephiles live for.

Best Car Movies To Watch Now

During the pandemic, many car movie fans have deeply missed the thrill of the big screen. Though the canon of quintessential car movies is long and it is difficult to select only a few, we hope this list of the best car movies will help quench your thirst for the drama and stunts of the motor vehicle genre.

Ronin (1998)

Three decades after directing the legendary car movie “Grand Prix,” director John Farkenhiemer crafted yet another high-energy thrill ride in “Ronin.” A script from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet and an excellent showing from Robert De Niro in the lead role further elevate the captivating experience of the film.

Though the plot of “Ronin” is multi-layered and structurally complex, its talented ensemble makes the story free-flowing and viscerally moving for the entire duration of the film. While the storyline revolves around a vague MacGuffin-esque briefcase, the car chase sequences are really the main event. Frankenheimer avoided using special effects for all of the chase scenes, so the actors were actually inside of cars that were hurtling across the set at 100 mph. Formula One drivers were hired to handle the driving, and the final scene involved over 300 stunt drivers to pull off.

Four BMW 535is and five Peugeot 406s were used during shooting, and one of each was actually cut in half and towed at high speeds to create various scenes. Of course, the Audi S8 was the real star of the film, however. The film’s cars had their unique sounds recorded on a racetrack, which were then edited into the footage to maximize the realistic feel of each car chase scene. From start to finish, “Ronin” roars with relentless energy.

The Italian Job (1969)

Director Peter Collinson’s fourth film, “The Italian Job” is a classic heist film that paved the way for many subsequent eras of car-filled action films. Starring a young Michael Caine as Charlie Croker, this caper follows a cockney criminal gang as they plan to steal a pile of gold bars from an armored truck.

Without giving away any spoilers, the end scene of this film is one of the most discussed end-scenes in all of cinema. In 2003, a solid remake starring Mark Wahlberg offered a respectable homage to the original that is also worth checking out.

Aside from a smooth score from Quincey Jones and plenty of cheeky British humor, the real star of “The Italian Job” is a beautiful fleet of cars including an Austin Mini Cooper S and a Lamborghini Miura.

An interesting side note: the reboot of the film coincided with the reboot of the actual Mini Cooper in the early 2000s. For fans of cinema and automotive history, 1969’s “The Italian Job” is a fun and entertaining combination of both.

The Cannonball Run (1981)

Many car enthusiasts will already know the Cannonball Run as the name of the unsanctioned cross country automotive time-trial race. Participants typically depart from New York City and drive to Los Angeles in one long, continuous push.

When “The Cannonball Run” came out in 1981, the broader public was mostly unaware of the underground racing competition, and the film helped to popularize the phenomenon in mainstream culture. Starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Hal Needham, the film also features an all-star cast including Dom Deluise, Farrah Fawcett, and Jackie Chan. After a successful box office run, the film was followed up by a sequel titled “The Cannonball Run II.”

The film follows several teams as they prepare to try to set the cross-country driving record. As the race progresses, the teams work to evade law enforcement and navigate the logistics of driving for over 30-hours straight. Interestingly, a serious accident that occurred on set led to a law that now requires seat belt use in all stunt cars on movie sets.

If you’ve heard of the Cannonball Run (which you may have recently because many new records were set in 2020Lamborghini Miura) but haven’t seen the film, it is fully worth checking out. The urban mythology surrounding this unsanctioned race would not be what it is today without this iconic film.

Cars (2006)

Pixar’s 2006 animated comedy “Cars” is the perfect film to throw on when the whole family is craving some car movie entertainment. Set in a world populated entirely by anthropomorphic talking vehicles, “Cars” features an impressive cast full of heavy-hitters including Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, George Carlin, Bonnie Hunt, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The plot revolves around a rookie race car named Lightning McQueen as he prepares for the most important race of his young career. Voiced by Owen Wilson, McQueen learns important life lessons and gains perspective from a retired race car named Doc. Cleverly crafted characters such as a big rig named Mack and a car couple named Minny and Van round out this feel-good story.

For car enthusiasts, plenty of historic automotive references throughout the movie make great little easter eggs. When you’re sad to see the movie end after the heartwarming final scene, you’ll be glad to know that the Cars franchise continues with two sequels.

Fast & Furious (2001 – present)

Even if you are not especially into car movies, it is likely that you have heard of the Fast & Furious franchise. Consistently successful at the box office, the Fast & Furious saga has produced eight films to date.

The first film, released in 2001, stars Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, and Michelle Rodriguez. Based on the novel Racer X by Ken Li, the plot follows a gang of automobile hijackers led by Dominic, played by Diesel. An undercover police officer, who is tasked with apprehending the gang, ends up finding his way into a wild and lawless world of undercover racing.

The entire series has a non-linear timeline. As the franchise has grown over the years, new iconic characters have entered the mix including action film veteran Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For many car movie buffs, the Fast & Furious series represent the holy grail of the genre. Every film in the series offers numerous chase scenes complete with remarkable stunt driving and wonderfully cheesy dialogue.

There is no other Hollywood franchise that can compare to the sheer volume of car-based action that Fast & Furious has created over two decades. All eight films deserve a place on this list.

Bullitt (1968)

Nicknamed “The King of Cool,” Steve McQueen is perhaps one of the most beloved action movie stars in American history. Of his many storied roles, McQueen’s 1968 appearance in “Bullitt” stands as his best and most classic role.

In “Bullitt,” McQueen stars as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt as he hunts down the bad guys in a flawless green 1968 Ford Mustang. One particular scene involves an intricate car chase sequence that has gone down as the benchmark against which all high-speed chase scenes are measured.

As McQueen whips through the hilly city streets, his mysterious target drives a sleek 1969 Dodge Charger. During filming, McQueen, who at the time was a world-class race car driver, actually drove during the close-up shots. Though the director initially called for maximum speeds of only 80 miles per hour, both cars at times reached speeds of over 110 mph.

Without a doubt, the impeccable chase scenes of this action thriller will have a long-lasting impact on the car movie genre.

Gone in 60 Seconds (1967 & 2000)

There are two versions of “Gone in 60 Seconds.” The original, made in 1974, is a certified cult classic that is a bit convoluted but packed with classic cars. The 2000 remake, which features Nicholas Cage, stays true to the original and simplifies the plot significantly.

Both versions follow a band of car thieves who are tasked with stealing a huge fleet of cars. Tension arises when certain vehicles prove to be much more difficult to steal than anticipated. In the original film, the thieves work to steal a yellow 1973 Mustang, but various hiccups in the plot force them into a series of sticky situations. In the remake, police chase down the thieves in a gripping sequence that involves a 1967 Shelby GT500.

In both versions, you might find yourselves rooting for the bad guys as they defy the odds with their spectacular driving skills. Both iterations of “Gone in 60 Seconds” feature an incredible variety of awesome cars.

Smokey & The Bandit (1997)

This 1977 classic features movie stars Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason in major roles. Directed by stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, this film is exactly what you’d expect a movie directed by a stuntman to be: a non-stop sequence of awesome and risky scenarios.

Reynolds plays Bandit, a fourth-wall-breaking charming bad boy who accepts a bet that he can smuggle a massive load of beer from Texas to Georgia in 28-hours. Along the way, Bandit attracts plenty of unwanted police attention and must utilize his charm to slip away and stick to his deadline.

The black Pontiac Trans Am featured throughout the film helped to cement a global love affair with American muscle cars in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. After Needham saw a newspaper ad for the Trans Am while developing the film, he knew right away that it had to be Bandit’s car. Needham thought of the car as an actual character and borrowed four of them from Pontiac to shoot the movie. All four cars were badly damaged during production, and one was nearly destroyed during a bridge jump scene. To shoot the fateful jump, Needham himself stepped in to serve as the stunt driver.

“Smokey & The Bandit” famously influenced many Hollywood blockbusters, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood.” Of all the films he starred in, Reynolds said that the Bandit is the character that he most enjoyed playing.

Days of Thunder (1990)

In “Days of Thunder,” Tom Cruise stars as Cole Trickle, a rookie NASCAR racer who makes up for his lack of experience with charm, confidence, and a special spark of natural talent. Robert Duvall plays Harry Hogge, an elder pit crew manager who steers the young Cole down the right path and helps him hone his raw skills. Director Tony Scott kindles the underdog spirit in this story about the competitive world of NASCAR.

Of the many cars featured in Days of Thunder, a souped-up Chevrolet Lumina takes center stage. Though Cruise expressed interest in doing his own driving stunts, this was not allowed due to insurance reasons. Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, was loosely based on several real-life NASCAR drivers including Tim Richmond and Geoff Bodine.

The score for Days of Thunder was composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer. Cruise himself requested that the movie’s theme song be sung by David Cloverdale of the band Whitesnake. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound.

For NASCAR fans, “Days of Thunder” is a must-see. It is basically “Top Gun” but with cars instead of planes — and that’s more of a compliment than a complaint.

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Though it was recently released in 2019, “Ford v Ferrari” has already solidified a place in the pantheon of great car movies. Directed by James Mangold and starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, the film traces the true story of Ford Motor Company’s quest to win Le Mans and put Ford on the map as a symbol of victory.

Iconic auto designer Carroll Shelby and British driver Ken Miles are historic figures that many car movie enthusiasts will already be familiar with. To see these characters portrayed in a contemporary Hollywood film is special, especially for those interested in the history of motor vehicle racing.

To prepare for the film, Bale went to racing school to help him accurately play the part of Miles. Alongside Bale and Damon, a major star of the film is the blue and red Ford GT40 that Miles drove in the actual 1966 Le Mans. Two replica models of the car were built for the film.

A great script livens up to the quality of the cast. And, of course, the racing scenes are loud, impressive, and exhilarating.

The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019)

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is narrated from the perspective of a golden retriever named after Enzo Ferrari. Enzo’s owner, Denny, is a race car driver who often includes Enzo in his high-speed escapades.

Based on a best-selling novel of the same name, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” features plenty of emotionally touching scenes. Throughout the arc of the moving story, Denny stays grounded through his love of driving cars and competing as a driver.

The auto racing scenes in the film were shot at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Ontario, Canada. For those who have a particular soft spot for Italian sports cars (or dogs), you will find a lot to relate to in this 2019 film.

Grand Prix (1966)

“Grand Prix” is a classic 1960s film that inspired many of the other must-see car movies on this list. Directed by car movie specialist John Frankenheimer, “Grand Prix” includes real-life racing footage and cameo appearances by actual Formula One champions such as Phil Hill, Jim Clark, and Jack Brabham.

The film takes place during the golden age of Formula One in the 60s and follows four fictional racing drivers as they each navigate a competitive season. The main racer is played by Hollywood superstar James Garner, whose character is attempting to overcome his reputation as an impulsive second-rate driver. As the character tries to find the balance between competition and his personal relationships, he pours himself into preparations for the Italian Grand Prix.

During production, the studio struck a deal with Bruce McLaren’s newly formed McLaren racing team to have his personal McLaren M2B repainted to appear in the film. The driving ability of the movie’s actors varied wildly, and many scenes had to be filmed with stunt drivers due to the lack of skills of certain actors. Since Garner was too tall to fit in a contemporary Formula One car, his car had no seat to accommodate his size.

As the winner of three Academy Awards, “Grand Prix” definitely earns a spot in car movie history, and Formula One fans should consider it a mandatory watch. One of the best car movies ever, we think so!

The Transporter (2002)

“The Transporter” was the move that propelled actor Jason Statham on to his action film career which has since included many excellent car movies including “Death Race,” “The Italian Job,” and the “Fast and Furious” franchise. In “The Transporter,” Statham plays Frank Martin, a driver for hire who will deliver anything to anyone with no questions asked — all for the right price.

The film opens with a comedic and well-choreographed car chase featuring Statham’s character driving a black BMW 735i off of an overpass onto a passing cargo truck. Later in the film, a sleek Mercedes-Benz S-Class stars as a stealthy and speedy getaway car. With an engaging soundtrack packed with hip hop of the early 2000s, each chase scene has a hint of contemporary swag that is unique in the greater car movie genre.

The lead role was written specifically for Statham, and the actor did many of his own stunts. For more signature Transporter action, check out “Transporter 2” which features a pristine Audi A8.

About Austin Beck Doss

Based in Salt Lake City, Austin Beck-Doss contributes to GearJunkie, Gear Hungry, AutoWise, and more as a Lola Digital Media Staff Writer. Outside of writing, Austin can be found camping at the base of various rock climbing areas in a 2005 Honda Element.