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5 Films with Some of the Most Iconic Car Scenes in Cinematic History

Ryan McLachlan
Photo Credit: Film Publicity Archive / United Archives / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Film Publicity Archive / United Archives / Getty Images

No action movie is complete without a high-adrenaline car chase. Sometimes, these car chases are so thrilling that the car actually becomes a character film in its own right. From iconic chases that were not originally meant to be in the film to those that helped drive car sales, here are five films with some of the most iconic car scenes in cinematic history.

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt is a renowned American crime thriller film released in 1968. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen in the titular role, the film is best remembered for its groundbreaking car chase sequences and its gritty portrayal of the crime-ridden streets of San Francisco.

Still from Bullitt (1968)
Bullitt (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. – Seven Arts / movienutt / MovieStills DB)

The story follows Frank Bullitt, a no-nonsense and dedicated police detective, who is assigned to protect a witness in a high-profile case involving organized crime. When the witness is murdered, Bullitt becomes determined to uncover the truth and bring the culprits to justice. As he delves deeper into the investigation, he finds himself entangled in a web of conspiracy and deceit, leading to a thrilling climax.

One of the film’s most memorable aspects is its iconic car chase scene, which is considered one of the greatest in cinematic history. The adrenaline-pumping pursuit takes place on the hilly streets of San Francisco and showcases McQueen’s skillful driving as he maneuvers his Ford Mustang GT through narrow alleys and hairpin turns, pursued by the relentless villains.

This car chase wasn’t even in the original script. The film is based on a novel by Robert L. Fish called Mute Witness. In the book, there is no chase; it only came about because McQueen wanted to do it. We can honestly say we are happy he did.

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection is a crime thriller film released in 1971. The film, based on a true story, is known for its gritty realism, intense action sequences, and stellar performances.

Lobby Card for The French Connection (1971)
The French Connection (Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox / movienutt / MovieStills DB)

The story revolves around two New York City detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, portrayed by Roy Scheider. The detectives become obsessed with taking down a French narcotics smuggling ring operating in the city. As they relentlessly pursue the criminals, they face numerous challenges and dangers, including corrupt cops, violent encounters, and a race against time to stop the illegal trade.

One of the film’s most iconic moments is its thrilling car chase scene, which takes place on the streets of Brooklyn. The heart-pounding sequence, featuring Doyle chasing an elevated train in a commandeered car, is another of the greatest car chases in cinema history. What is unique about the chase is that the streets it took place on were not entirely closed, and it was shot without proper permits. In a way, that makes it even more exciting.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

The Man with the Golden Gun is the ninth installment in the James Bond film series. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the film stars Roger Moore as the suave and sophisticated British secret agent, James Bond.

Still from The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).
The Man with the Golden Gun (Photo Credit: Eon Productions / United Artists / DrrnHarr / MovieStills DB)

The story centers around Bond’s mission to locate and eliminate Francisco Scaramanga, a notorious assassin known as “The Man with the Golden Gun.” Scaramanga possesses a unique golden gun that is both deadly and symbolic of his lethal reputation. Bond’s investigation takes him from the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the exotic landscapes of Thailand, where he encounters a host of dangerous adversaries.

While in Thailand, Bond steals a 1974 AMC Hornet X from a dealership and chases after Scaramanga. At one point, Bond finds himself on the other side of a river from Scaramanga, with the closest bridge seemingly unusable. Bond still gives it a go, and driving up one half, the car leaps into the air, does a full roll, and lands on the other side.

Despite the horrible slide whistle, the stunt is incredible. Scientists with the Calspan Corporation aided the production by figuring out the physics behind the roll, helping make the memorable scene happen.

 Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point is a cult classic American action film released in 1971. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, the film tells the story of a car delivery driver named Kowalski, played by Barry Newman, who takes on a high-stakes bet to deliver a Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time.

Still from Vanishing Point (1971)
Vanishing Point (Photo Credit: Cupid Productions / manderlay / MovieStills DB)

As Kowalski embarks on his adrenaline-fueled journey, he encounters various obstacles and confrontations along the way. The film follows his relentless pursuit of speed and freedom as he pushes the limits of both himself and his car. Throughout the narrative, Kowalski becomes a symbol of counterculture and rebellion, defying societal norms and authority.

Fans who went out to buy a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum like those seen in the film didn’t just buy a car that looked the same; they bought the same car. The stunt coordinator for the film actually chose the Dodge Challenger because modifications didn’t have to be made for it to be in the film.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Smokey and the Bandit is an action comedy film released in 1977. Starring Burt Reynolds, the film follows the wild and humorous exploits of the Bandit, played by Reynolds, as he accepts a high-stakes challenge to transport Coors beer across state lines illegally.

Trans Am, as featured in Smokey and the Bandit at Long Beach Comic Con, 2013.
Trans Am at Long Beach Comic Con, 2013. (Photo Credit: Pat Loika / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

The Bandit teams up with his trucker friend, Cledus “Snowman” Snow, portrayed by Jerry Reed, to undertake the risky bootlegging mission. Their goal is to deliver 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta, Georgia, within a tight timeframe. However, they soon find themselves pursued by Sheriff Buford T. Justice, played by Jackie Gleason, and his bumbling son, Junior, portrayed by Mike Henry. The two men are determined to catch the Bandit and enforce the law.

More from us: This Unusual Feature Made Burt Reynolds’ Failed Nightclub One of a Kind

Throughout the film, Bandit drives a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am. Smokey and the Bandit not only made the car famous but hard to buy. Following the release of the film, the Trans Am had become so famous that there was a six-month waiting list to purchase one.

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.