By Mark Misercola
Old cars and Hollywood have been a classic combination for a long time. What would John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel, Christine, be without a deliciously evil 1958 Plymouth Fury? American Graffiti would be just another coming of age movie about the teenagers in the ‘50s if not for the showcase of classic Chevy’s and roadsters cruising the streets of Santa Rosa, California. And what would Tucker: The Man and His Dream be like without all those surviving early production Tuckers? (Tucker: The Man and His ____).
The classic car hobby owes a lot to the movies. This is just a hunch and not based on any scientific research that I’m aware of, but I suspect Hollywood has done more to endear collector cars and the notion of owning a classic than just about anything else, except for our own personal connections to the classics.
When we were kids, cars were often portrayed with warm, cuddly human characteristics and child-friendly personalities. Think Herbie in Disney’s Love Bug classics and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang in the movie by the same name. It’s no coincidence that both cars are loved and nurtured by loving families including impressionable children who adore them like pets. And if memory serves correctly, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (the car) is brought back from the grave to lead a magical, super-human life. Talk about planting the seeds for restoring classics at an early age!
Biting the Bullitt
As we grew older, cars became everything we wanted them to be – fast, furious and still pretty badass in Bullitt; demonically terrorizing in The Car; a place to make out, racing backwards, and fight aliens in The Blob; the stuff that nightmares are made of in Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first real feature that was technically a made-for-TV movie; and a hysterically care-free thrill ride in Smokey & the Bandit. Each in their own way featured classic cars that evoked heart pounding moments, heart aches and heart breaks, and endeared them to us even though time had long passed them by.
It’s a shame that the hobby doesn’t do more to embrace the connection. It’s not unusual for collector car clubs to have cruises and shows at local car-hops and drive-in restaurants. But in Connecticut, the local Pontiac club sponsors a classic car night at one of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the state. The feature film has a classic car theme, and the drive-in is packed every year for the event.
Classic car movie festivals would draw a lot of eyeballs in theaters or on TV, and I’m surprised Velocity or American Movie Classics haven’t picked up on this.
So what are my favorite classic car flicks?
Every movie that I’ve referenced so far would be in the top 10, with Christine and American Graffiti being close to the top. But I also have a few sleepers that I would watch over and over again just because of the cars, and because of my special interest in certain brands.
For example, Coupe de Ville, a 1990 comedy-drama, is a great piece about three brothers reluctantly coming together deliver a 1954 Cadillac from Michigan to Florida in time for their mother’s 50th birthday. There are several heart-tugging scenes in this film, and the ’54 Cadillac is the platform that holds them all together.
Next is W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, starring Burt Reynolds (as one online fan put it, “think Smokey& the Bandit except set it 1957”) and this time he’s driving a 1955 “Golden Anniversary” Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It’s a four-door sedan painted gold with a black hood and side accents, with chrome trim. And in the film, Reynolds says only 50 were made. As Olds aficionados will quickly attest, there was no such special car in 1955. But it doesn’t matter. They’re stunning, and would welcome either of the two survivors in my garage. One was destroyed in a fire scene that I am still traumatized over. The rest of the movie isn’t bad either.
My final favorite sleeper is Flash of Genius, a heart-wrenching story about Robert Kearns, a college professor who invented intermittent windshield wipers and won multi-billion dollar lawsuits against Ford and Chrysler, both of which do not come across in the movie as warm and fuzzy as some of their cars. Kearns’ attempts to license his invention to Ford and the resulting legal battle alienated him from his family and nearly bankrupted him in the process. The film got mixed reviews but Greg Kinnear plays the part of Kearns well. Some of your favorite classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s are central to the story as well. I’ve watched it several times, if only to remind myself that the auto industry – even back then – was a rough business that didn’t cater to outsiders.
What are your favorite classic car movies? Send them to me and I’ll feature them in an upcoming blog entry. Meanwhile, happy motoring.