I recently rented the Tarantino/Rodriguez 'Grindhouse' drive-in double bill movie tribute Death Proof and Planet Terror, and without commenting on the worthiness of the subject matter, if the goal really was to make the ultimate B-movie drive-in double-bill, they succeeded. Their love for the genre is clear, as is their talent.
It was the first of the two, Tarantino's Death Proof, that left me the most conflicted. It seemed to be the product of a misogynist with a torture fetish who somehow still likes empowered women.
Equally clear, though, is the director's genuine love of muscle cars. Especially those that have become motion picture icons. This, Tarantino shares with the ultimate protagonists of Death Proof, car crazy stunt drivers Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe (Zoe Bell).
He's hardly alone, of course. Guys and cars have a near-unnatural relationship that goes back as far as Rudolph Diesel, and the link to the movies goes back just as far, with the first-ever car chase taking place in The Runaway Match, released in 1903.
What is it with guys and cars? Even I, a certified bookworm with only slightly less mechanical aptitude than a rhesus monkey, can confess to utterly adoring the '97 Jeep Wrangler I was recently forced to give up (by my wife, at gunpoint -- but that's another story).
Certainly, women rarely 'get it' (at least outside of Tarantino movies), as exemplified by this 'He Said - She Said' column in the The Virginian-Pilot.
I've been driving 25 years and I still can't figure out men and cars. Sometimes I can't figure out the difference between the two.
Most women are satisfied with a car that starts when they turn the key. If it gets them to their destination without stalling, so much the better.
We do not want to drive something better looking than we are, or cleaner than our kitchens.
Not so with men.
For me, an essay by Tom Kiske sums up very neatly "every young boy's fascination with...automobiles [and] what it took to be cool; a cool car."
One way or another, the indefinable male obsession with automotive esoterica is real; and the existence of a genre of filmdom known as 'guy movies' is equally testable, now that it's finally been quantified by the good folks at Men's Journal:
At first there were no hard and fast restrictions; we just knew one when we saw one. But over time basic criteria emerged. Violence trumps sex, war beats peace, and you better have a very good reason to oppose anything with Steve McQueen in it.
We believe that a true guy movie is a movie only a guy can love. A crucial distinction. Pop one into the DVD player and your wife or girlfriend should run screaming from the room. We frown upon films that are too serious or sensitive. The Deer Hunter got KO'd despite lengthy elk hunting and torture scenes because Meryl Streep was in it. Sure, she's a great actress, but rules are rules: no films with Meryl Streep.
Guy films can be watched in groups, over and over, and you should be able to recite yards of dialogue from memory. Great lines stick in your mind forever, like old pop songs, and when you blurt one of them in public ("Say hello to my leetle friend!" "Don't ever take sides with anybody against the family again"), women and children should give you odd looks, while other guys -- total strangers -- glance over and nod with respect and understanding."
Naturally, then, in the opinion of this column, there should be some kind of award for the the all-time greatest movie hot rods. After all, if guys and cars is a 'thing', and if guy movies are a 'thing', well...it just stands to reason that the greatest car movies -- and the greatest movie cars -- deserve special recognition in the annals of entertainment.
Maybe a series of stars on Hollywood Boulevard. Not on the sidewalk, like pedestrian movie stars. Right out on the street. Where the rubber hits the road, as it were.
If there were such a thing? I would call the award 'The Loftin Award', after the legendary Hollywood stunt driver Carey Loftin. Because, let's face it, anyone who did stunt work on movies from 1950's Don Daredevil Rides Again (1950) to Spielberg's Duel to Vanishing Point to Bullitt, well...they clearly deserve more than just an entry in IMDB, the Internet Movie Database.
So, in reverse order, the following are my nominations for the first Loftin Award:
No. 10 - The 1977 Trans Am from the first Smokey and the Bandit
The 1977 Trans Am driven by Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit is probably not the most distinctive movie hot rod ever driven, but this second generation '50th Anniversary' special 'Bandit' Trans Am had to be included on this list for a few reasons:
It's impossible to separate movie cars and car chases...and this whole movie is one long car chase; it enabled Burt to deliver a load of beer to a dry county in less than 28 hours...and we're always in favour of bringing hope to those less fortunate; hey, it has it's own fan club for pete's sake; we hadda put Burt in here somewhere, and in White Lightining, he drove a '71 Ford LTD. That would never have done.
No. 9 -- The 1958 Plymouth Fury in Christine
Christine was a truly evil '58 Fury, with a carburetor so dark at her heart that she relished killing all who crossed her or her owner. Christine had to be included on this lust not only because she was so 'Fury-ous', but hey, who wouldn't want a car that could magically fix itself! Or one that could still take part in a car chase, even when on fire. In the movie as in real life, Christine sported a 350 cubic inch Golden Commando V8 with a dual four-barrel carb, and an exclusive speedometer that went to 150 mph.
No. 8 -- 'Eleanor', the 1973 Mustang Mach I from the original (1974) Gone in 60 Seconds
The '73 Mach 1 was a larger beast than the thoroughbred ponycars of the late 60s. In fact, some referred to it as 'The Clydesdale'. Even with the so-called 'NASA' hood scoops feeding a ram-air Boss 351 Cleveland, this heavyweight would have been unable to lost in the quarter-mile against the sweet '68 version with the 428 Cobra Jet. But still, this venerable fastback was still a major presence in the original version of Gone in 60 Seconds, with enough character to warrant it's own name -- Eleanor -- so it merits a place on this list at number 8.
No. 7 -- The '34 Ford from The California Kid
'34 Ford driven by Martin Sheen's Michael McCord in this 1973 made-for-TV revenge thriller is so iconic that it features a cliched flame paint job. Except, this Ford Coupe is one of the orginal hot rods, so the flames aren't hackneyed at all -- they're fully archetypal. In the movie, the engine from the equally famous '32 Ford from American Graffitti does stand-in duty for the plain 302 that the '34 actually sported, so in some ways I feel like I'm ticking off two birds with one stone on this entry.
No. 6 -- The '69 Charger from Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry
One of Rotten Tomatoes' reviewers says about this film:
"nothing new to anyone who's caught five minutes of an episode of Dukes of Hazzard"
And, while I'd be hard-pressed to disagree, since this is one of the movies that set the standard for later pale imitations like Hazzard, I'm still going to give props to Mary and Larry. Besides, this is a movie that features pretty much the same ending as the hippie counterculture with which star Fonda was associated, so it's kind of a groovy metaphor for the passing of an era, man...
Finally, the '69 Charger is just a really boss car, inspiring everyone from the Dukes to Stuntman Mike to Dominic Torretto in The Fast and the Furious, and so it, too, had to be on the list somehow...
No. 5 -- The modified Lincoln Mark III in The Car
I vowed I would include no Chuck Barris creations in this list. No Batmobile, no Black Beauty. But the more I worked the list, the more I felt as though I couldn't leave 'The Car' from the movie The Car off it. My reasons are as much personal as anything, but the long, lean lines of The Car bespoke a Satanic menace even more fearful than that of Christine, and I always felt that this was a vehicle that far outclassed the movie in which it appeared. For that reason, I'm determined to give it a life beyond the relatively miserable James Brolin vehicle in which it met its untimely end...
No. 4 -- the '70 Dodge Challenger R/T from Vanishing Point
Like the Charger, this automotive work of art was mentioned in the movie that inspired this article, and so in some ways I thought about leaving it off. But its omission would have made the whole piece a farce, since there are very few movies that captured the romance of the car (or the alienation of the 70s, for that matter) better than Vanishing Point, I had to put it on the list, and in a fairly prominent spot, too. There are those who feel that V-Point has not held up, but I would argue that it holds up easily as well as other so-called counterculture classics from the era. And even conceding the 'dated' point, any film focusing on driving a 440 six pack-equipped '70 Challenger cross-country with a headfull of amphetamines needs to be included on the list.
No. 3 -- The '55 Chevy from Two-Lane Blacktop
I'm going to cheat just a little bit and let film-maker Richard Linklater give just a couple of the many reasons why Two-Lane Blacktop the highly existential 1971 road film starring James Taylor (known only as 'Driver'), Dennis Wilson ('Mechanic') and Warren Oates ('GTO').
Because it's the purest American road movie ever.
Because it's like a western. The guys are like old-time gunfighters, ready to out-draw the quickest gun in town. And they don't talk about old flames, but rather old cars they've had.
Because Warren Oates has a different cashmere sweater for every occasion. And of course the wet bar in the trunk.
I'm going to add that the movie vehicle's pedigree puts it over the top for me. Three '55 Chevys were built, and their entire lifespan has been tracked through a long and involved saga that saw them play roles not only in this film, but also in two other hot rod classics from this list, American Graffitti and Smokey and the Bandit, which also recorded the Chevy's 454 big block to use as a stand-in for the less muscular sound of the Bandit Trans Am.
No. 2 -- 'Mad Max' Rockatansky's 'Pursuit Special' 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe from Mad Max and The Road Warrior movies
"There she is, Max...the last of the V8 interceptors." So says The Mechanic when the Main Force Patrol Pursuit Special is unveiled to Max, as an enticement by Fifi Macaffee to keep him from quitting the force after his run-in with the Nightrider turns fatal for the psychotic gang-member.
"Any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, y'know? – a terminal crazy – only I have a bronze badge to say I'm one of the good guys."
(Max to Fifi about wanting to quit The Bronze).
Any vehicle awesome enough to serve as bait for Mad Max is sufficiently badass to earn a place on this list. And besides, it looked really really awesome with that muscular supercharger poking out of the hood. Props, too, to George Miller and customizer Murray Smith for managing to take a pretty vanilla musclecar and turn it into something that could survive the end of the world as we know it.
No. 1 -- The Bullitt '68 Mustang GT390
Simply put, the Mustang piloted by Steve McQueen in Bullitt is the most iconic movie car ever, and is featured in what many even today -- 40 years later -- think of as the best car chase ever filmed. McQueen was no fake driver, either. Arguably the coolest American actor of the 1960s (sorry Marlon!), McQueen participated in 20 major national and international racing events, including representing the U.S. at the International Six-Day Trials in 1964 and the Baja 1000 (1969). The car itself was a Highland Green 1968 Mustang GT390 right off a car lot. Mechanic Max Balchowsky added some undercarriage modifications and mag wheels, but left the engine stock. Balchowsky remembers for Muscle Car Review magazine:
"It ran good, needed just a few little adjustments. I changed the distributor and all, but basically never had the engine apart on the Ford."
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for how iconic the Bullitt Mustang became is the excitement that greeted the
unveiling of the 2008 Bullitt Mustang tribute car produced by Ford Motor Co. Chad McQueen, the actor's son and a highly respected driver in his own right test-drove the new Ford Bullitt for
Motor Trend Magazine, saying:
Ford has really done a good job here. It looks just right, and sounds bitchin'. Well damped. Pretty torquey, too. This car really feels like a modern 1968."
In time, there may be a car movie -- or a movie car -- that can eclipse Frank Bullitt's Mustang. In time.
But in Bullitt's own words, "time starts now".