Cars as Stars (and Co-Stars)

September 9, 2019
Ever since the 1920s, when it was clear that cars piloted by normal, everyday people were set to become a staple of polite society, people have been personifying and humanising their vehicles. It’s easy enough to do, because as complex machines that we interact with each day, cars tend to take on personalities of their own.

Maybe humans just can’t shake the idea that anything that moves and makes noise is, in some way, alive. Maybe it’s more soothing to think of mechanical issues as unfortunate personality traits. Either way, it is certainly a phenomenon that translates to Movies and Television.

It’s hard to think of a car that has a prominent role in a TV show or movie as simply a prop. Cars have the ability to captivate the audience beyond their core functions as modes of transportation. They become actors in their own right, playing a supporting role and usually driving the action scenes (along with driving the actors themselves).

Most of the cars we now recognise as iconic Film and TV cars debuted in the 1960s. As that decade continues to influence the world we live in, it’s no wonder that same effect extends to the vehicles popularised in that era.

The first iconic 1960s car that comes to most people’s minds is the beautiful Aston Martin DB5 from the James Bond classic Goldfinger. There are a few reasons behind the staying power of this car. Classic Aston Martins have increased in value steadily over the years and are now worth millions of dollars for well-maintained models. In fact, the actual movie car from Goldfinger is being auctioned off in the near future and is predicted to sell for around $6 million.

It’s also hard to beat the starpower of this one car, it is so popular that it was even brought back in the considerably more recent Skyfall with Daniel Craig. But keen fans of the spy genre may note that before Sean Connery was buzzing around in his Aston, Roger Moore was piloting a Volvo P1800 S in the TV show The Saint. This car was chosen specifically by Moore, as he thought it was a better looking car than the original car the production was set to use, a Jaguar XK150.

Reflecting the increasing weirdness of the 1960s themselves, the sleek and suave grand touring coupes of the early decade soon gave way to the surreal weirdness of the later decade. The Munster Koach, a grim looking car pieced together from several Ford Model T cars and a hearse, is still a source of influence for hot rodders today. Around the same time we also saw the Batmobile enter the scene. Based on a forgotten Lincoln concept car, the Batmobile is not only an iconic TV car in its own right, but it set the standard for future Batman rides in terms of weirdness and originality.

Once the Love Bug debuted in 1968, the three main genres of star-cars were established. They could be: sexy, usually a sports car with unrealistic reliability and durability (James Bond, Bad Boys, Miami Vice), quirky, usually something that wouldn’t be involved in a police chase (The Italian Job, The A-Team, Back to the Future), or just strange, something that would stand out in the real world or on-screen (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dumb and Dumber, Mad Max). They laid the foundation for the next few decades of cars in TV shows and movies.

The sexy starring-role cars of the 1970s were a bit more beefed up than the ones seen in the previous generation. This decade brought us the Mustang from Bullitt, the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard, and the somewhat underwhelming Gran Torino from Starsky and Hutch. These also reflected the decade known for excess and overcompensation that coincidentally also brought us cocaine and Hair Metal.

The 1980s revolutionised the car-star phenomenon and nearly drove the very concept into the ground. Movies like Ghostbusters and TV shows like Knight Rider pushed the limits of what audiences would tolerate in terms of automotive zaniness. Moderation also returned to the sexiest star cars, with Lamborghinis and Ferraris taking center stage in Cannonball Run and Miami Vice.

While the ’90s were pretty subdued in terms of car-mania, the end of the decade kicked off a whole new world of car fanatics with the remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds and the birth of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Say what you want about the thousands of needlessly loud exhaust sounds that have plagued the streets since, often produced by Hondas and other Japanese imports, because these movies influenced the next couple of decades in a fantastic way for the motorheads among us.

So what about now? The Fast and the Furious series had more staying power than anyone thought possible. Most car fanatics, though, have taken to YouTube and other streaming services to get their fix. And it’s easy to see why: there is a limitless amount of content to be had. You can see any combination of new, classic, custom, and concept cars in action. Netflix streams the fantastic Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which cars really do receive the focus of a co-star thanks to host Jerry Seinfeld. Long-running car show Top Gear saw all of its hosts jump ship for a new show on Amazon as well.

The future of cars as stars in TV shows and movies looks bright. If the last decade is any indication, we will see plenty of ambitious concepts make it to both the big and small screens. Hopefully even an electric star-car. Buckle up!

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