The automobile has become an essential part of American culture, representing freedom, independence and a sense of expression for young men coming of age. The 1960s and 1970s cemented an iconic era of the muscle cars – American made 2-door sports cars with powerful engines for high-performance driving, delivered through your friendly local auto dealership at relatively affordable prices. It’s only natural that these vehicles would be prominently featured in films, especially exploitation films, celebrating their popularity and helping to add an element of cool to the cinematic proceedings.
Focusing on – but not entirely limited to – the 1970s, here is a list of films that prominently highlight muscle cars and, in a number of cases, the women associated with them.
BULLITT (1968) – A notable predecessor to this list of 1970s films is Steve McQueen’s BULLITT, featuring a lengthy car chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco between McQueen’s highland green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. Arguably, it is this 10 minute stretch of film that makes BULLITT so memorable, with the automobiles providing the iconic images that are cited nearly 50 years later.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969) – This movie’s official London premiere was December 18, 1969, so I’m effectively counting it as a 1970 release for the sake of this article. The film is most discussed for Australian model George Lazenby’s one time portrayal of James Bond. Bond’s classic 1963 Aston Martin DB5 makes an appearance but Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo’s red 1969 Mercury Cougar convertible has a prominent presence in the film. This Cougar was popular enough that toy company Corgi featured it in a series of Bond related toy car releases. Beautiful, talented actress Diana Rigg (best known for her role as Emma Peel in British television’s The Avengers) plays the Contessa and, as cool as the car is, it’s even better with her behind the wheel.
VANISHING POINT (1971) – Actor Barry Newman’s portrayal of troubled car deliveryman Kowalski sets the stage for a race across the American Southwest as he attempts to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco from Denver in record time to win a bet. Kowalski’s troubled past combined with police pursuit for speeding make for an interesting character study, culminating in a nihilistic finish punctuated by the constant presence of the white Challenger.
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) – Another James Bond film makes this list as the red 1971 Mustang Mach 1 Fastback owned by Bond girl Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) was featured prominently in a number of high speed action sequences set in the city of sin Las Vegas before it became a bloated spectacle of excess.
TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) – Director Monte Hellman provides opposition to the film’s main protagonists in the form of racer wannabe GTO (the always engaging Warren Oates) who drives – what else – a yellow 1970 Pontiac GTO. This film centers around two drifters (musicians James Taylor & Dennis Wilson) travelling historic Route 66 and challenging locals to drag races with the GTO character obsessed with racing the duo to prove his chops as a driver.
DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (1974) – When two NASCAR hopefuls Larry and Deke (Peter Fonda & Adam Roarke) rob a grocery store to finance their jump into professional auto racing, they use the V-8 horsepower of a lime green 1969 Dodge Charger R/T 440 to escape the persistence of a local sheriff. Along the way, they pick up Mary (a sexy Susan George) who joins their cause before another spectacular 1970s nihilistic movie ending.
GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974) – Directed, produced, written and starring cinematic auteur H.B. Halicki, the original GONE IN 60 SECONDS provided low budget exploitation thrills by challenging a posse of thieves to boost 48 cars in a matter of days. Each car to be stolen is designated by a female name with “Eleanor” being an elusive 1971 Ford Mustang Sportsroof (redressed with a 1973 grill to keep it current with the film’s production year and an updated paint scheme to resemble the Mustang Mach 1 body style). This film was remade in 2000 with Nicholas Cage taking lead and Eleanor transformed into a custom 1967 Ford Shelby GT500.
CANNONBALL (1976) – In 1933, Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker raced from New York to Los Angeles, setting a 53.5 hour record that stood for over 40 years. In honor of Baker’s accomplishment, an illegal coast-to-coast contest, the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash (aka the “Cannonball Run”), ran 5 times during the 1970s. These events inspired CANNONBALL, starring exploitation favorite David Carradine as Coy “Cannonball” Buckman. Buckman is attempting to get his racing career back on track after a series of professional setbacks by participating in the illegal Trans-America Grand Prix. He favors a red 1970 Pontiac Trans Am that plays prominently throughout the film. Directed by Paul Bartel who also did DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) with Carradine, CANNONBALL features performances by Robert Carradine (David’s brother), Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Veronica Hamel (in her first film role).
THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976) – Also inspired by the Cannonball Run, this film was directed by Charles Bail and features solid performances by Michael Sarrazin, Norman Burton, and a stand out performance by Raúl Juliá. Sarrazin’s character drives a spectacularly impressive 1966 Shelby 427 Cobra. Both this film and CANNONBALL provide a variety of American muscle as well as European sports cars in their contests, but this Shelby 427 Cobra is the crown jewel amongst them all.
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) – Second only to STAR WARS (1977) in box office receipts for the year, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was an action comedy that delivered dumb fun. A sassy Sally Field plays against a charismatic Burt Reynolds behind the wheel of a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am (in reality, a 1976 model with a 1977 front end – the 1976’s rounded headlights were updated to the 1977’s four square headlights). Director Hal Needham is on record stating the Trans Am was intended to be a character in the film. Supported by solid performances from Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed, Mike Henry (a three time 1960s movie Tarzan), and a catchy theme song “East Bound and Down” (sung & co-written by Reed), this film has remained popular for decades with cars related to the movie (sometimes just loosely related) selling for record sums at auction.
CORVETTE SUMMER (1978) – Actor Mark Hamill’s first appearance after STAR WARS was CORVETTE SUMMER. For his shop class project, Hamill’s high school senior lead builds a customized 1973 Chevy Corvette with right hand steering. It’s stolen and he spends the remainder of the film tracking it down with the help of a spirited, self-described “prostitute-in-training” played by Annie Potts. It’s a road movie, a fish out of water picture, and an odd romantic comedy that positions the showcase Corvette the main prize. Potts makes a memorable impression and was nominated for Golden Globe for her performance.
American muscle cars are featured prominently in many films from 1980 forward but the 1970s are where you see them represented in their purest form. They were new, readily available, self-serviced by their owners, and targeted at a demographic that embraced them as part of their day-to-day life – not collectible objects, investments, or status symbols. All of the movies on this list have merit and you’ll find the presence of the muscle car an important element for their success.
Contributed by: Drew Beckmann