Since 2001, the Fast & Furious films have been the go-to for racing action spectaculars. They’re wildly popular, and justifiably so, though not to everyone’s taste. Maybe you’re riding the high of the latest, F9, or maybe you’re looking for a racing movie with something different to offer.
Even within the series, there are hints and homages to the different styles of car movies that have been popular for decades. Starting out as a series specifically about street racing, F&F evolved first into heist capers, and then into action spy dramas, and then into something approaching science fiction — all while keeping a focus on fast cars and product placement, and never afraid to veer into a little soap-y drama just to mix things up.
As moviegoers, we love fast cars (the faster the better), and we’re not at all averse to seeing fast cars destroyed in front of us, especially knowing that we (generally) don’t have to worry about anyone actually getting hurt. In the very best car movies, the off-the-road drama is at least as compelling as the driving action, but there’s also a special artistry in movies that keep things simple: speed, slick cars, and the occasional well-choreographed crash to keep the stakes up. The point being: there’s no one type of car flick.
The Big Wheel (1949)
OK, “thrilling” might be going a bit far by modern standards, but The Big Wheel is a solid example of a car-race movie from an era just before muscle cars took over, and before film technology really met the challenge of capturing high-speed driving. There’s some impressive action centered around the post-WWII Indianapolis 500, with special-effects shots and actual old-time formula racing footage blending to create an engaging spectacle. The plot, about a young driver (Mickey Rooney!) who teams up with his father’s old mechanic to score Indy 500 gold — is pure sports-movie melodrama.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Sometimes you want your car chases with a side of cheese, and that’s what you get here as one of the greatest casts ever assembled sets out on a chase with a $US350,000 ($448,910) payoff. Legendary director Stanley Kramer (Judgement at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind) wanted to make a comedy, for once, and so gathered names like Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, and about a million others playing mostly normal people whose greed gets the better of them in their increasingly outlandish efforts to beat the others to the cash (buried in a state park).
The chases are mostly played for laughs, but there are plenty of them — and there’s no rule that says a car movie can’t also be wacky. The movie’s deceptively simple “gather stars, send them on a race” formula would prove highly influential.
Grand Prix (1966)
1966 would prove to be an important year in racing — in real life, but also in the movies. The much more recent Ford v Ferrrari involves the 24 Hours of Le Mans from the same year, while John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix was filmed and is set during a fictionalized version of the Formula One season. The plot sees four racers at different stages of their careers dealing with the toll of the sport on their personal lives, but the film excels in its commitment to verisimilitude.
Frankenheimer weaved in and out of actual F1 events for the filming, blending real footage with on-location stunt driving, often disrupting events to get the movie made. F1 stars of the era show up in cameos, giving the movie’s racetrack scenes a near-documentary feel. The movie took home three Oscars for its technical achievements in capturing the action — it also represents the beginning of a more recognisably modern era in car movies.
Steve McQueen was already well on his way to earning the title “king of cool” by the time he starred in this absolutely essential car movie, earning that reputation with one car chase through the streets of San Francisco — a sequence that lasts over ten minutes, some of which sees real-life race-car enthusiast McQueen behind the wheel of a memorable 1968 Mustang GT 390.
It’s easy to say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” but in this case, it’s true: The film avoids special effects and explosions in favour of some genuinely thrilling stunt driving and a plot that raises the stakes. It feels real in a way that’s hard to replicate in our era of CGI trickery and an ever-greater hunger for spectacle.
The Italian Job (1968)
The 2003 remake is quite good, as well, but if you’re only doing one Italian Job you’ll want to stick to the original cross-Europe comedy caper. It stars Michael Caine with a score by Quincy Jones, and it’s also the only car-based action movie to co-star both Noël Coward and Benny Hill. For all that, it’s the much-imitated climax in Turin for which the film is justly famous: Two teams of drivers set off in Mini Coopers packed with gold amidst a traffic-light outage in order to evade the police. It even inspired an annual, real-life charity event in which drivers visit the film’s settings in similar cars.
Vanishing Point (1971)
Kowalski doesn’t need sleep. The car delivery driver is just gonna pop a coupla bennies and drive on through. It’s Friday night, and he’s got a bet going that he can get a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T across the country by Sunday when it’s not due until Monday. What follows is pretty much one feature-length, drug-fuelled chase scene, broken up only by gay hitchhikers, a nude motorcyclist, and a helpful soul, DJ, played by the great Cleavon Little (of Blazing Saddles fame).
The over-the-top action and much-debated ending have made it the very ideal of a cult classic, inspiring both Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, who referenced it heavily in 2007’s Death Proof. More on that one later.
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Though less-well known than the Nicholas Cage-starring, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced remake, the 1974 original was a box office success at the time — and has a reputation as, perhaps, the most destructive car film ever. The movie’s about a group of car thieves challenged to steal 48 cars in a matter of days, but it’s the 40-minute chase scene that makes it a landmark car movie. The lion’s share of the independent film’s budget went into buying the cars (over a hundred of them) that would then be destroyed onscreen in action set-pieces that were created with, perhaps, less care than would be taken today to protect drivers and bystanders.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Before there was a Mad Max, David Carradine starred in this dystopian car-themed film set in the dark future world of 2000. When the totalitarian government of the United States can’t provide the bread, it provides the circus: a transcontinental road race in elaborately decked-out cars starring celebrity drivers with names like Frankenstein, Machine Gun Joe, Matilda the Hun, Nero the Hero…you get the idea. Like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Carmageddon” long before those games existed, drivers are encouraged to take out the competition in increasingly gruesome ways, scoring extra points for killing pedestrians.
The plot centres around rebel Thomasina Paine (GET IT?), determined to put an end to the race and to the regime, but director Roger Corman mostly has brutal action on the brain.
C’était un Rendezvous (1976)
The best car movies place the action amidst characters and plot that heighten the stakes when the engines rev. That’s not always the case, though, and sometimes you just want to get to it, something no car movie does better than prolific French director Claude LeLoch’s 1976 short film.
Shot in a single take with a camera attached to the bumper of a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 (a tip-top-of-the-line model), LeLoch himself drove through the streets of Paris on an early morning in August — speeding past the recognisable landmarks of the city while definitely skirting or ignoring traffic laws. According to LeLoch, he topped out at around 201 km per hour, and the resulting eight-and-change minutes is thrilling. It’s been recently restored, and LeLoch directed a follow-up in Monaco just last year.
The Gumball Rally (1976)
It might be less well-known than some of the films that it inspired (perhaps because it lacks Burt Reynolds), but Gumball Rally kicked off an entire sub-genre of comedy road race movies popular in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, Convoy, etc.). The premise is simple: a wealthy candymaker gathers friends and fellow auto enthusiasts with a variety of vehicles (an AC Cobra, Ferrari Daytona, Porsche 911, and many others) for a coast-to-coast race with no rules whatsoever — and the police hot on their trails. There have been dozens of real-life races across the globe inspired by the movie, presumably with some rules.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
In the 1970s, people would do literally anything for a case of Coors. So, Burt Reynolds and his unexpected partner Sally Field set off from Texarkana to Atlanta in a Pontiac Trans Am to distract attention away from the truck loaded with bootleg beer. Jackie Gleason is in hot pursuit. Most famous among the film’s action set pieces is a jump over an obsolete bridge, a stunt accomplished by strapping a literal rocket to the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am. Director Hal Needham himself did the driving and the movie has, for better or for worse, one of the catchiest theme songs ever.
Greased Lightning (1977)
Professional racing has, I think it’s safe to say, not always been seen as the most diverse of sports. There are many reasons for that (including plain old racism), but it’s also true that some of the giants of racing have been Black Americans, starting with Wendell Scott, Hall of Fame inductee and the first Black racer to win a Grand National race at NASCAR. Greased Lighting, starring Richard Pryor (in a relatively rare serious role) alongside Beau Bridges and Pam Grier, tells the champ’s story. It’s a relatively loose adaption of Scott’s life, with an emphasis on off-track drama, but there are still plenty of impressively dramatic set-pieces amidst a story worth telling.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Director William Friedkin’s neo-noir thriller isn’t a car movie per se, but it earns a spot on the list for including one of the most impressive car chase sequences of the 80s. Friedkin challenged his stunt coordinator, Buddy Joe Hooker, to devise an action sequence that would rival that of the director’s earlier classic, The French Connection. The result is an extended getaway chase in an Impala on the Los Angeles freeway. Going the wrong way. Weaving in and out of hundreds of oncoming cars, Friedkin even had actor William Petersen do some of the stunt driving himself, resulting in some entirely convincing reaction shots.
Days of Thunder (1990)
It shouldn’t be surprising that Days of Thunder plays like Top Gun on the NASCAR track: it reunites that 1986 film’s director, producers, and star in the story of Tom Cruise as cool open-wheel racing champ Cole Trickle. Trickle’s interested in moving up to the Indianapolis 500 (not unlike Mickey Rooney in The Big Wheel), but he’ll need a really good car and the support of the neurosurgeon (Nicole Kidman) who helps him recover from a massive crash. The crew raced actual cars (with professional drivers) on the real tracks in order to get some of the racing footage, making those scenes quite a bit more realistic than most of the dialogue.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Less a “car” movie than a classic road movie, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise makes the list for not only being a great buddy crime drama, but also for co-starring an iconic vehicle: the 1966 Ford Thunderbird that Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon drive in the flight across the desert. If there’s not a ton of high-speed driving action, the movie still contains one of the most visceral, memorable moments in American movie history with Louise’s final push of the accelerator in the closing moments.
Once again proving that some of moviemaking’s best car chases don’t involve a ton of special effects, director John Frankenheimer was determined to do things the old-fashioned way, refining the style and techniques that he’d developed in filming Grand Prix back in 1966. For the very realistic chase scenes set around Paris and Nice, Frankenheimer insisted that the film’s stars (including Robert De Niro and Jean Reno) take lessons in high-performance driving prior to the shoot, and filmed them inside the cars even when they were driven by professional Formula One drivers. The plot, about special operatives hired to steal a mysterious briefcase, is pretty engaging in its own right, but the movie is best remembered for those high-speed chases involving BMWs, Peugots, and a Mercedes-Benz 500 E.
Initial D (2005)
Tofu-delivery driving action! It isn’t the typical setup for a high-octane action movie, but that’s the basis of Initial D, an adaptation of the popular Japanese manga from Andy Lau, director of the action classic Infernal Affairs (the movie’s still set in Japan, although made by a Hong Kong-based crew). There’s a fair bit of teen drama here, so mileage may vary, but the street-racing action is exciting and tightly focused on downhill drifting. And tofu delivery.
Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the crunchy, low-budget exploitation films of yesteryear (which, OK, is pretty much all of his movies), Death Proof is particularly effective for its sheer simplicity. A serial killer known as ‘Stuntman Mike’ has fortified his 1971 Chevy Nova SS with a roll cage and other adaptions that ensure the survival of the car’s driver in almost any circumstances, allowing for increasingly elaborate stunts/vehicular homicide attempts. It’s all going well for Mike until he meets his match in a trio of women that includes two equally daring movie stunt drivers.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn pulled off a neat trick with 2011’s Drive: He constructed a crime drama that satisfied critics (many of whom considered it one of that year’s best), as well as action fans. Harkening back to the days of an effortlessly cool driver like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, Ryan Gosling plays not a cop but a criminal, known only as “Driver,” a Hollywood stunt performer by day and getaway driver (of a custom 1973 Chevy Chevelle Malibu) by night. Softening toward the woman who lives next door, he becomes involved in the type of heist-gone-wrong scenario that’s a noir staple. The film’s unique retro style and impressive stunt work have made it a modern classic.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
In the spirit of his own earlier Mad Max films, George Miller made an improbable masterpiece with the story if the instantly iconic Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), lieutenant-gone-rogue to Immortan Joe, who flees across the apocalyptic landscape in massive War Rig with Joe’s unwilling brides in tow. In a sense, it’s one of the great westerns while also being one long car chase. As outlandish as it all looks, the cars are real: The “Gigahorse,” for example, is two 1959 Cadillacs welded together atop a giant truck chassis. Either the movies are getting better, or critics are becoming more open-minded, because this is another in recent string of car-themed movies that have topped critics’ lists — this one got a well-deserved Best Picture nomination.
Ford v Ferrari (2019)
It’s the newest film on the list, and also only the second one to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, Ford v Ferrari manages to provide plenty of auto-racing action while simultaneously telling the engaging, real-life story of auto designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), tasked by the Ford company with building and perfecting Ford GT40 and, hopefully, using it to defeat the long-dominant Italian racing team at Le Mans in 1966. A wide range of classic cars fight it out in the racing sequences, complicated by the need to re-create specific moments from the actual event.
Baby Driver (2017)
Despite a cast that has become a bit, uh, problematic in the years since the film released (lead Ansel Elgort was accused of assault on Twitter; the less said about Kevin Spacey, who has a supporting role as the villain, the better), Edgar Wright’s car-centric 2017 heist film is undeniably thrilling. Elgort plays the titular “Baby,” an expert getaway driver who can do anything behind the wheel provided his earbuds are supplying him with the right tunes. Aside from it’s engaging plot, which follows Baby as he attempts to get out of the driving game and settle down with the woman he loves (Lily James), the film features a standout six-minute opening car chase featuring frankly unreal stunt driving — except it was all shot with real cars in real locations. One reviewer called it “the car chase opera we never knew we needed.”