American Movies Centered On Cars

Why are cars so important to the American narrative? Perhaps because America was built on travel: the voyage from the homeland to the land of opportunity; the trek across the vast, unexplored land, creating new settlements and new opportunities along the way. Building roads of steel and asphalt to encourage and speed the westward push. People travelled across America first by horse, then by train, and eventually by automobile.

As modes of transportation, cars have unique traits that make them so much more attractive than many other methods of travel:

* Cars in the USA are accessible. Nearly everyone can afford to own a car.

* Motor vehicles let people travel where and when they want to.

* A car does not have to be shared with anyone else if the driver so chooses. It becomes a personal space, allowing people to travel in comfort and solitude.

* Automobiles confer status on their owners. They can be an outward representation of the owners’ personalities. Fast, sporty cars, family vans, or luxury sedans all create an image in our minds about the drivers.

Cars have truly become an extension of self. It’s no wonder Americans were quick to embrace the car as a symbol of freedom and choice.

Movies are as much a part of American culture as cars. Movies function to show us what life is like, or what it could be like. They epitomize freedom and possibility, just as cars do. It seems only fitting that movies and cars should come together to create entertainment. A look at American films show just how enmeshed in the movies cars really are.

Many movies resonate with viewers because of the cars they feature. In “American Graffiti” (1973) a 1932 Ford coupe, a 1955 Chevy, a 1958 Chevy Impala, a 1951 Mercury coupe, and a 1956 Ford Thunderbird are all part of a special night of car cruising for a group of high school friends. This movie also depicts another strong element of American car culture, the teenage driver.

Getting a driver’s license at the age of sixteen has become a rite of passage for American youth. The ability to drive and to express their identity through their cars has anchored the car as a symbol of freedom for teenagers. This teenage freedom has been documented in film after film, “American Graffiti” being just one fine example. Another in this genre is “Grease” (1978).

Car movies can be categorized by the role that the car plays in the film. There are movies that, while not actually about cars, contain vivid scenes where cars are essential to the story. In “Back to the Future” (1985) a 1981 DeLorean is the time-travel machine. What would Batman (“Batman Begins” 2005) be without the Batmobile, or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) without the Ferrari belonging to Cameron’s father? “Heart Like a Wheel” (1983), about racing car driver Shirley Muldowney, adds romance to the mix. In a more recent movie, “Drive” starring Ryan Gosling, the main character is a driver-he drives stunt cars in movies and getaway cars in robberies.

To truly be considered a car movie, however, the plot must revolve around the cars in it. Some not-to-be-missed car movies are:

* “Le Mans” (1971), which stars a Porsche 917 and a Ferrari 512S (and Steve McQueen as an American driver in the Le Mans auto race).

* “Gone in 60 Seconds” (1974), a movie based on the premise that a car thief has to steal forty-eight cars in a week, all beautiful, high-end vehicles.

* “Mad Max” (1979), a grim look at the future where the population chase each other down in supercharged hot rods, looking for the last remaining gasoline.

* “The Fast and the Furious” (2001), where an undercover cop in a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T joins the street races in an attempt to break a ring of thieves.

* “Days of Thunder” (1990), where Tom Cruise gets to show off his driving chops as a NASCAR racer.

* Taking the idea even further, in the animated feature “Cars” (2006), the vehicles are the characters.

It’s clear that there is no lack of car movies, or cars in movies. A car movie epitomizes freedom, rebellion, and youth, just as a car itself does. What could be more American than filling your car with family or friends and riding to the drive-in movie theater, another creation of car culture? Watch the movie from the comfort and privacy of your car. If you’re lucky there will be a classic car movie on the bill.