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Cars that captured our imagination

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

Being in movies is a great way to get exposure. James Bond’s Aston Martin and Lotus Esprit. The Trans Am of Smokey & the Bandit. There are some cars that influenced entire generations, changed car culture around the world, and became the stuff of dreams for kids and adults alike. They are the cars that eclipsed the flesh-and-blood actors of the movies they were in.

Today we travel down memory lane to look at some of the most favorite movie cars in pop culture history.  Along the way, we might dig up a few “did you knows” about some of your favorite movie and television vehicular co-stars.

1977 Pontiac Trans Am – Smokey And The Bandit

smokey-and-the-bandit-trans-amHaving Burt Reynolds sliding around curves and leaping over broken bridges was fantastic for Pontiac sales.  Sales of the “T/A” doubled over the next two years as people fell in love with the idea of a Trans Am in their garage.  They especially loved the t-top roof and the Starlight Black Special Edition paint job.  Burt Reynolds was eventually given the 1977 promotional car from the film as a gift. Years later, he put it up for auction and got a cool $450,000 for it. Not a bad little gift.

Did You Know… The movie’s director Hal Needham only originally wanted to make a low-budget B movie. He envisioned Jerry Reed as the Bandit. But he was also friends with Burt Reynolds, who read the script and claimed the lead part for himself, leaving Reed to play his sidekick Snowman.

Seeing as Reynolds was the biggest box office star in the world at the time, Universal Studios greenlighted a budget of $5.3 million for the film. But just a couple days before production started, Universal informed them that their budget was being trimmed by $1 million. Since Burt was already making $1 million in salary, that left them with just $3.3 million to make the rest of the film. (Image Credit)

1981 DeLorean DMC12 – Back To The Future

backtothefuture-deloreanNo list of great 80s Movies is complete without Back To The Future, the movie that spawned two highly-successful sequels and became the highest grossing movie of 1985 (ahead of Rambo II and Rocky IV). Michael J. Fox was the star catalyst for the film but a close second was Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine with the flux capacitor that kicked in once the car got up to 88 mph.

The DeLorean’s futuristic good looks (with the doors that open up in the air like wings) made it a perfect choice for the film. Under the hood, it was less spectacular, with just a 2.9L V6 engine running 130 hp – about the same as a 2015 Toyota Corolla.

Director Robert Zemeckis and the production team decided this would not do and swapped out the sluggish V6 engine with a V8 from a Porsche 928. Now that’s more like it.

Despite the high profile movie boost, DeLorean car sales did not take off after the movie came out. The 1981 model was actually the only one made, and the car company was in the throes of bankruptcy due to John DeLorean’s arrest on drug trafficking charges. Back To The Future did not save the company. All the parts were sold off and some of the car’s body casting dies may even be found in use as anchors for nets at a fish farm in Ireland.

Did You Know…Michael J. Fox was the first choice to play Marty McFly but was committed to his hit TV show Family Ties and the producers would not give him time off to do the film (partly because the show's mom Meredith Baxter Birney was on maternity leave).  So they went with Eric Stoltz as the second choice.  Four weeks into film, they realized Stoltz just wasn’t right for the part - he was giving a great dramatic performance, but that's not what they needed.  He didn't have the right spirit for the Marty McFly character.  They were able to negotiate with the Family Ties producers on a schedule that allowed Fox to work on both projects at the same time. 

Michael J. Fox ended up spending three months doing double-shifts: filming Family Ties during the day, then working on the film from 6.30pm to 2.30am…every…single…night.  He averaged five hours of sleep a night. (Image Credit)

1968 Mustang GT – Bullitt

bulitt-ford-mustang-GT-fastbackIt’s an immutable fact that anything associated with Steve McQueen is automatically cool. McQueen’s Mustang from the movie had (probably) the greatest car chase in movie history and probably won editor Frank Keller the Oscar for Best Editing.

The association with McQueen and the movie has so elevated the Mustang in pop culture lore that it is one of the few cars that has had two limited editions produced.

Unlike the DeLorean, the Mustang has endured long after the film it starred in.

Did You Know…The iconic car chase featured the 68 Mustang GT chasing a 68 Dodge Charger.  The chase starts in Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, and ends in Brisbane, California.   It’s notable that the chase route in the movie is geographically impossible if attempted in real time. The Dodge Charger was  originally supposed to be a Ford Galaxie sedan, but was determined to be too heavy to execute the jumps over the hills of San Francisco.  They did do a little upgrading to the Charger suspension to help it better cope with the demands of the stunt work. And of course, the Mustang itself was modified by a race car driver to execute its own part in the chase.

The entire scene lasted 10 minutes and 53 seconds and took three weeks to film.  The screen play called for speeds of 80 mph for the chase, but the cars actually got up to 110 mph.  For those that care, if you pay attention to the continuity of the movie shots, you can notice some out of order scenes where damage on one or more of the cars in certain areas appears in a different area in different shots. The film’s editor, Frank Keller, did groundbreaking work on cutting and forming three weeks worth of film into a masterpiece that not only put the Mustang GT square into the nation’s imagination, but also made the streets of San Francisco another character in the film.  (Image Credit)

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This post was published on September 15, 2015 and was updated on September 15, 2015.

Topics: Classic Cars