We love movies because, at the core, we like to be entertained. But for most people, a good movie is more than just pure entertainment, it’s about a great story and great characters. We all tend to gravitate towards the films that capture our interests as well.
For those that have gasoline in their veins, a great car movie should have lust-worthy cars, plenty of action and a good story. If it’s based on a true story or tells the tale of our racing heroes, so much the better.
Here are the greatest auto films of all-time that should get your motor running!
Bullitt – 1968
Bullitt is THE car chase movie and the bar by which all other car chases are measured. Featuring one of the coolest dudes to ever grace the silver screen, Steve McQueen was a bonafide “car guy,” real-life racer and a darn good actor.
The whole reason to watch the movie is to see the epic car chase between McQueen’s character in the 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback and the black Dodge Charger driven by the baddies. The chase happens through the streets of San Francisco and is a true masterpiece. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the film features a lot of great cars including a Porsche 356 driven by McQueen’s love interest in the film.
Ronin – 1998
Directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer and starring Robert DeNiro, Ronin is a crime thriller about a group of former intelligence officers who are hired to steal a mysterious case from the Russians.
It’s a great action-thriller with a solid storyline, but the best parts of the film revolve around not one, but three car chases. The first is an escape by the crew in an Audi S8 through Paris, the second is an ambush featuring a bazooka and a brown Mercedes-Benz and the final is a chase involving a BMW 5-Series and a bunch of French sedans through the streets and main roads of Paris. A must watch for fans of car chases.
The Italian Job – 1969
In possibly the greatest opening sequence in all of history, a mobster is seen driving his Lamborghini Miura through the Italian Alps before meeting his untimely demise at the hands of the Mafia.
The movie revolves around an elaborate plot to steal a bunch of gold in the middle of a traffic jam and features some super-sexy cars like the Jaguar E-Type, Aston-Martin DB4 and Alfa Romeo Giulia TI. The apex of the movie is the escape through the city of Turin with a trio of Mini Coopers. It’s an elaborate chase that’s exciting, funny and will go down in history as one of the best.
Rendezvous – 1976
C’etait un Rendezvous is a short 8-minute film shot in Paris by Claude Lelouch. 8-minutes isn’t a whole lot of time, but what Lelouch manages to stuff within that time is something truly exciting.
At 5:30 AM on an August morning, Lelouch strapped a 35mm film camera to the front bumper of a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 and drove at full speed through the mostly empty city. Running red lights, driving the wrong way on one-way streets and narrowly missing a garbage truck, it was shot in a single take on public roads with no closures. Lalouch dubbed the sound of his own Ferrari 275GTB over the film to give it an extra sense of excitement.
1:42.08 – 1966
In 1966 George Lucas, yes, THAT George Lucas, was a film student at the University of Southern California. With a 14-person student crew, Lucas shot the 7-minute long film, 1:42.08, at the Willow Springs Raceway just north of Los Angeles.
The film features no dialogue, no acting, just real-life auto legend Peter Brock and a Lotus 23 race car driving at full speed on the track. George Lucas is an avid car enthusiast and was obsessed with racing in his youth. It’s often said that some of the scenes in Star Wars featuring Tie-Fighters and X-Wings were inspired by Formula 1 racing.
Mad Max Fury Road – 2015
Mad Max Fury Road is a 120-minute long post-apocalyptic car chase through a desert wasteland featuring some of the best movie cars ever created.
The movie is a reboot of the original Mad Max films and features the iconic V8 Interceptor in the opening scene. The cars are the real star of the film and the Gigahorse, War Rig and Doof Wagon stand out as the best. Based on real cars, the vehicles embody the post-apocalyptic aesthetic perfectly and there’s so much variety in the vehicles that everyone is bound to find one that they can relate to.
The Fast And The Furious – 2001 to Present
No car movie list would be complete without mentioning The Fast and the Furious movie series. Granted, the more recent films have devolved from car-based stories and morphed into unending strings of improbable car chases, crashes and stunts, but the originals (1-4) are worth a watch and are still influencing tuners, enthusiasts and racers to this day.
The first film is arguably the best, and while some of the stunts are unrealistic, it’s a great look into the tuner, street-racer, and import racing scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Enthusiasts are still building replicas of those cars, and many of the vehicles featured in the films have become highly collectible and valuable.
Love The Beast – 2009
Love The Beast is a documentary film by Eric Bana that logs his love of cars and specifically his first car, a 1974 Ford Falcon XB. The film charts his history with the car along with the role that cars and racing have played in his life. The documentary also looks into how “car guys” can form an emotional attachment to their vehicles and the importance of it in their lives.
Jay Leno and Jeremy Clarkson are interviewed in the film for some additional insight, but it’s really the story of Bana’s Falcon that is center stage. The racing footage is definitely worth the watch.
Le Mans – 1971
1970 Le Mans 24 Hour Race, Factory Porsche 917 race cars, Factory Ferrari 512 race cars and 106 minutes of high-speed racing action. The film Le Mans is a racing film like no other. Set at the Le Mans race and using actual race footage from 1970, the goal was to make the film as realistic as possible.
The racing action is phenomenal but the film was such a battle to complete that it nearly broke Steve McQueen. McQueen was a prolific racer, but once filming was completed at Le Mans, he never raced again. One of the great all-time racing films.
The French Connection – 1971
The French Connection is not about cars, racing or hero drivers, it’s a crime story based on the real-life massive bust of an international drug ring. The story itself is compelling and the film is fantastic having won five Oscars and numerous other awards.
Within the movie lies one of the greatest car chase scenes of all-time. The main character, played by Gene Hackman, chases an elevated train through the streets of New York in a Pontiac LeMans. The sequence was shot without closing any of the roads and the public was largely unaware that filming was happening. It’s hyper-realistic and director William Friedkin shot large portions of it while holding the camera in the backseat of the car at speed.
Taxi – 1998
Taxi is a French action-comedy that features a wickedly fast taxi driver who ends up having to ferry around a cop that cannot drive. Together, they take down a group of bank robbers, receive police medals for their heroics and the taxi driver moves on to pursue a racing career.
Don’t confuse this film with the tragically horrid film of the same name featuring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah, this is much, much better. The car chase scenes are some of the best in recent times and they are exciting to watch without being over-cooked or completely improbable.
BMW’s The Hire Series – 2001 – 2002
In 2001 and 2002, BMW released a series of short (10 minute) films featuring BMW cars, high-speed driving and directed by some of the best and most famous film directors in the business. All of the films feature Clive Owen as “The Driver” and each of the eight films has a different premise, featured car and feel to it.
One of the best is Guy Ritchie’s short film, “Star,” featuring a BMW M5 drifting through the streets of Chicago while transporting Madonna to a concert venue. It’s exciting and funny at the same time. All are worthy of repeated watching and the varying styles of each film are incredibly well done.
Grand Prix – 1966
The 1966 film Grand Prix is a sweeping 3-hour-long epic drama surrounding Formula 1 racing during the late 1960s. Directed by John Frankenheimer and starring James Garner, the film follows the life and racing of several fictional F1 racers. The on-track filming used real Formula 2 racing cars and several Shelby Cobras were employed to act as camera cars. Naturally, they needed something fast to be able to keep up with the film’s race cars.
The on-track racing action is epic, especially at Monaco, and the film drafted real Formula 1 drivers to play some of the roles and to drive the cars. Sweeping, epic and a must-see for anyone who loves racing.
Dust To Glory – 2005
Dust to Glory is a documentary film about the famous Baja 1000 off-road race and the challenges it poses for teams and drivers. Filmed during the 2003 season, the film is a behind the scenes look at top-tier off-road racing in both cars and motorcycles.
The Baja 1000 race is one of the longest, non-stop, point-to-point races in the world and also one of the most prestigious. The race draws amateurs and professionals from all forms of motorsport and has included: Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, James Garner, Rick Mears and Robby Gordon, among many others.
Initial D – 2005
Based on the popular Japanese anime series of the same name, Initial D follows 18-year-old Takumi Fujiwara as he builds his driving skills and gets involved in the Japanese street-racing scene. Featuring some great Touge racing, drifting and street racing, the film and the anime series have influenced countless young drivers, tuners and custom car builders.
The main car in the film is the Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86, which has since gone on to become iconic and highly sought after. Like the Fast and Furiousmovies, the street racing scene and tuner car culture are not for everyone, but the on-screen driving is worth a watch along with getting a glimpse of the Japanese street-racing scene.
Death Proof – 2007
Director Quentin Tarantino’s horror-film Death Proof follows stunt-driver Mike McKay, played by Kurt Russell, in his 1970 Chevrolet Nova modified to keep the driver perfectly safe in a crash. Mike is targeting young women and killing them with his car, and in typical Tarantino fashion, it gets bloody.
The two cars that feature prominently in the film, the Chevy Nova and a 1970 Dodge Challenger, are the real stars of the show. The stunt driving is great and you won’t go wanting for action. The movie pays tribute to a few great muscle car movies of the 1970s, but in a way that is quintessentially Tarantino.
Senna – 2010
Arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of modern times, Ayrton Senna was an icon while he was racing and became a legend after his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The documentary, Senna, follows his life, his racing, and his unfortunate death. It looks at what made him a legend and on the massive impact he had on others and his home country, Brazil.
The documentary goes a long way to reveal the real man behind the helmet and gives fans of Senna and Formula 1 an insightful look at who he really was. The in-car action and race footage are top-notch and this film is pretty much required viewing for F1 fans everywhere.
Drive – 2011
Starring Ryan Gosling, Drive, is a film about a getaway driver who’s hired for a series of robberies. A robbery goes awry and the Driver gets caught up in the drama after trying to help out his neighbor.
The movie itself is pretty solid. There’s plenty of action, drama, and suspense. But, the parts that you really want to see are the getaway case scenes. The chases are excellent with lots of drama and action without feeling fake, over-done or unrealistic. The film also features a number of great cars including Mustangs, a GTO, a Ford Thunderbird, Plymouth Roadrunner, and a NASCAR stock car.
Rush – 2013
Directed by Ron Howard, the film Rush is based on the real 1976 Formula 1 season which saw James Hunt and Niki Lauda challenge each other in one of the greatest racing seasons in history.
The two drivers are complete opposites with Hunt being the wild womanizing hard-partying bad boy and Lauda is the dedicated, methodical and focused master. The film sticks closely to the actually circumstances and events of the 1976 F1 season and the on-track racing action is some of the best. There’s genuine drama in the races and the movie does a great job of portraying it.
Vanishing Point – 1971
In the film Vanishing Point, the Vietnam War hero Kowalski is a drug-addicted transport driver for hire. He’s hired to drive a Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California and bets his drug dealer than he can make the journey in under 15 hours. Unfortunately, his recklessness results in an extensive police chase that gains huge attention thanks to a local radio DJ who turns Kowalski into a symbol of freedom.
The car in the film is one of the all-time great American muscle cars. A 1970 Dodge Challenger. The actual car in the film was an R/T spec with the 440 cubic inch V8 and a 4-speed manual transmission. Required viewing for every car enthusiast.