The biggest motoring icons are of course fully-fledged racing cars: heroic vehicles with an immaculate pedigree, meticulously prepared and tuned to perfection, that have been driven up to and beyond their limits by dashing drivers to win events like Le Mans, the Formula 1 World Championship, Targa Floria, Mille Miglia or the Monte Carlo Rally. Cars like Stirling Moss’s Mercedes SLR, or James Hunt’s ‘76 McLaren, Hopkirk’s Mini Cooper, Birkin’s Blower Bentley…
I’d wager that the majority of people reading this haven’t heard of any of the above. Excellent cars though they are, they’re the preserve of the motoring geek. Yet when I mention McQueen’s Mustang, Bond’s Aston Martin or Herbie the Love Bug people even people with no apparent interest in cars whatsoever can be overcome with misty-eyed nostalgia. For true motoring iconography you have to turn to the cinema and television.
I quite like a good car chase. Ok, I’ll admit it… I’m ever so slightly obsessed with cars on film. I didn’t spend my childhood standing around rainy racetracks cheering for Stirling Moss and Jim Clark, I served my motoring apprenticeship in front of the TV watching Roger Moore trying to squeeze his quiff into the low-line Volvo P1800. Or in the cinema marvelling at how 007 was able to retract the wheels of his submersible Lotus into the engine compartment.
And I’m not alone; millions of people gain their car lust from the big screen. Years before they’re able to drive, people of every age, gender, race, class, height, width or ability who might never see a race or flip through a single page of a motoring magazine will sit in front of a film and live vicariously behind the wheel.
They don’t have to be chases; some of the best car moments were filmed while not chasing anyone, exploding, being shot at or leaping over anything, but the cars portrayed on film are, for me, the pinnacle of the automotive pedestal (do pedestals have pinnacles?).
Of course this idolatry is deeply, vacuously, shallow, populist nonsense. These vehicles never really achieve anything other than to drive past a camera; they didn’t take anyone to victory or survive an epic feat of endurance – often they didn’t even fulfill the events portrayed on screen – their ‘achievements’ (the leaps, tumbles, spins, drifts and crashes) merely a product of individual short takes edited together to make a seamless whole.
Although some cars are immaculately prepared to withstand a particular film scene, the majority are quite shoddy when viewed up close. Morse’s Jaguar was rescued from a scrapyard and in its early outings required members of the crew to push it into the scene. More than one of Bond’s Astons have been hastily cobbled together and re-painted a week or so before filming with pieces of string to operate some of the gadgets.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the cars generally aren’t individual vehicles either; usually a minimum of two are required for filming but I’ve heard cases of up to 30 identical cars being prepared to achieve the feats portrayed on screen – perplexing for future collectors and museum owners. This is shocking. A lie. A travesty. Why would anyone be seduced by such a blatant fraud?
And yet we are seduced. We’re prepared to suspend disbelief just as we are when the film’s hero runs on top of a train and narrowly escapes death in a hail of bullets. We know that a single car can’t survive the abuse it’s subjected to on screen, yet we want to believe.
Unfortunately that belief is often our undoing as the halo effects of a film appearance induce irrational desires for a vehicle that can never be fulfilled in real life: Connery once stated his opinion that the DB5 was ‘a lady’s car’ with pedals that were too small – the Bond films bestowing it with a reputation it never truly deserved. The VW Beetle is certainly charismatic but also wheezy, slow and ill-handling. If I drove a ‘60s or ‘70s Mustang today I’m sure I’d find it a big wallowy marshmallow of a car. And criticising the early Lotus Esprit would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
But as with movie actors who can’t possibly live up to their screen images, this is hardly the cars’ fault. The philosopher Jaques Lacan termed this the objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire… a case of never meeting your heroes. But let’s not be iconoclasts, let’s just enjoy the moments for the great entertainment they are.
So what makes a truly outstanding car ‘moment’? Well a lack of CGI for one. It’s bad enough that it can take several vehicles to achieve a great scene, but at least they prove that – given perfect conditions, a bit of preparation and as few Hail Marys from the stunt driver – that particular car really could achieve the feat it was portraying. Once you get pixels involved everything goes out of the window: “You want your flying car to turn invisible? No problem!”
I was going to exclude humour, then remembered several films which are silly yet still have desirable cars – What’s Up Doc and The Gumball Rally are still a guilty pleasures.
I was going to exclude the car’s availability: harking back to Lacan, if I can’t (even theoretically) walk into a showroom and buy a Batmobile or a time-travelling DeLorean, how can I desire it? And yet I do.
But there’s one last consideration I can’t ignore. I’ve left many great film scenes off my top 10 that feature in other people’s ‘all time greats’ (The French Connection, The Seven Ups, Fear Is The Key and many more) because they lack one vital ingredient…
They didn’t raise the car itnvolved to iconic status.
My top 10 will not be the same as yours, but it’s my Blog so there. Go and write your own list.
10 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
No it wasn’t a real Ferrari, it was a Corvette with a plastic California body. But that’s a good thing, as no Ferraris were harmed in the making of this picture. And like a girl with fake breasts… most men still would.
10 The Graduate
(Hang on… two number 10s? I just couldn’t decide between them… it would be like choosing between my children). The Alfa Duetto is pretty but underpowered, cheaply made, had heavy steering and soggy suspension. But the combination of Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack and Mike Nichols’ visuals is irresistible… I really wanted one of these.
9 Herbie the Love Bug
Not one chase or even one film. The frequent speeded-up footage is terrible, the continuity gaffs appalling, the humour leaden. And yet I can’t help the urge to rush out and buy an identical VW. The sum of Herbie’s achievements gains him a worthy place on the list.
8 The Spy Who Loved Me
Bond’s Lotus Esprit looked fantastic and the driving stunts were breathtaking and believable. Right up until the point where it turned into a submarine.
7 Bond’s Aston DB5
Unlike the Top Gear team I’m willing to overlook the DB5’s outstanding performance against Xenia Onatopp’s Ferrari… it had Bond at the wheel. I always found the gadgets a bit silly and I can’t get past the fact that the burden of the bulletproof glass and armaments would easily bring the weight to over 2 tonnes; how is it so sprightly? But when a car looks this gorgeous you’ll forgive it almost anything.
6 Two Lane Blacktop
What is it about the Chevy in Two Lane Blacktop? The film is miserable and I really wouldn’t want that enormous antiquated, ugly lump sitting on my driveway. But this film is a unique example of what the car represents that counts: the primer paint, the lightweight fibreglass panels held on with pins, the slicks in the boot, the supercharger sticking out of the bonnet with its crudely made cover… this film captures the spirit of the truly obsessed petrol head better than any other in its representation of two guys who spend every cent they earn on making their car go faster.
5 Gone In 60 Seconds (1974)
The original HB Halicki B-movie classic, not the dire Nicholas Cage, CGI, re-make travesty. I sat through two consecutive screenings of this on it’s original cinema release, then impatiently waited thirty years for it to be released on DVD. Supposedly only one Mustang was prepared for filming and many of the scenes were filmed illegally. A truly terrible film which suffers from and abundance of crashing police cars, but the theft scenes leading up to the big chase are pure car porn and it’s still one of the all time great chases.
4 The Italian Job (1969)
The chase scenes are undermined by the humour and the knowledge that the little Coopers could never withstand the abuse, but it’s a stunning combination of car choreography and music that has never been bettered.
I would really like to have put Ronin at number one: I still think John Frankenheimer nailed it in his intention to make the ultimate car chase movie. And it’s not just one chase but two, both outstanding and realistic. But despite the action it’s somehow cold and clinical: is it the vehicles or the actors who lack charisma? Whatever it is, the true test for me is whether the scenes elevate the cars themselves to iconic status – I’d wager most people can’t even remember what the cars were. Or seen the film.
It’s a terrible cliché – Bullitt is at the top of everyone’s list because we all know Bullitt features the best car chase ever made so that’s an end to it. Isn’t it? Well maybe: it certainly has some great cars that everyone remembers, the best star to have appeared behind the wheel on celluloid, one of the best locations ever chosen for a chase scene and a great soundtrack. But the cars are unbelievably indestructible, the continuity’s iffy and… well anything else would be nit-picking. It’s still one of the best cat & mouse chases ever filmed, Bullitt really is that good.
1 Against All Odds
What’s this? Bullitt not at number one shock! And to be replaced with a dodgy 1980s film that hardly anyone remembers? Well take a look at the chase scene on YouTube: no cars crashing, nothing leaps from a handy trailer, nothing explodes, no special effects and no-one gets shot. It’s just two guys who are old enough to know better, driving two fabulous cars as fast as they can through traffic. With a dog.