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The best movie cars ever

Car Buyer logo Car Buyer 20/04/2017 Chris Haining

The Best Movie Cars of all time © Carbuyer The Best Movie Cars of all time

Cars have been appearing on the big screen ever since movie-making first began. In some cases, their presence is enough to outshine the lead actor, and many films have become memorable not just for the characters, but for the cars the characters drove.

Cars in films have varied from the fantastic to the prosaic. The Batmobile in Batman Returns is remembered for its fire-breathing, wall-climbing capabilities, while the Wagon Queen Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Vacation was the most extreme example of estate-car mediocrity.

Some of the dullest cars in real life have been given some credibility or even a sense of cool after appearing in films. A prime example is the AMC Pacer, which was owned by Garth in the film Wayne’s World. It had flames painted along its flanks, and seemed like a cool car in which to headbang to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but the oddly-proportioned American machine was somewhat maligned by the public in real life. It’s slightly quirky design and offbeat charm made it a great choice for the film.

Bringing together a countdown of Britain’s favourite movie motors is a hard task, so it was thrown over to readers of our sister title Auto Express to put it to the vote. To help narrow the field, we stayed loyal to the car, leaving out such iconic vehicles as the terrifying lorry from Duel and the outrageous atomic-powered coach from The Big Bus.

Of course, the more famous the film, the more popular its car star is likely to be. There are some obvious omissions in our list, such as the Plymouth Fury that played Christine in the film of the same name, and Charlie Sheen’s Dodge M4S from teen movie turkey The Wraith. You’re likely to have your own favourites, too, so let us know what they are in the comments section below. The top 10 cars may all have appeared in blockbusters, but that by no means detracts from their legendary status.

Click through to the next page for the top 10 of Britain’s most celebrated four-wheeled film stars...

10: ECTO 1 – Ghostbusters

10: ECTO-1, the converted Cadillac ambulance from Ghostbusters © Provided by Car Buyer 10: ECTO-1, the converted Cadillac ambulance from Ghostbusters Tenth place is remarkable for a car that actually had very little screen time, and this goes to show just how memorable Ray, Peter, Winston and Egor’s much-modified Cadillac ambulance actually was. ECTO 1 was the Ghostbusters' rapid response vehicle. In its first scene, Ray trotted off a long list of things needed to get the black-and-primer-painted Cadillac into shape and, judging by later scenes of the finished car roaring around New York, the team did a good job.

ECTO 1 started life in 1959 as a Cadillac Commercial chassis, before receiving ambulance bodywork by Miller-Meteor, a respected US coachbuilding company. The ample space at the back provided room for four bulky proton-packs and all the other essentials required for a group of professional ghost-catchers.

Use of the 1959 chassis meant that our heroes could go about their business in style, too – despite its ‘commercial’ nature, the nose has the same style as the famous and unforgettable Coupe de Ville and Eldorado Biarritz models, while the iconic ‘59 fins were integrated into the ambulance’s styling.

Only subtly updated between the team’s first and second outings, ECTO 1 was 25 years old when the first Ghostbusters movie was released in 1984. It’s perhaps ironic that the all-female 2016 franchise reboot used a 1984 Cadillac hearse in this vital supporting role.

9: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

9: Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, the fantastical flying car from the film of the same name © Provided by Car Buyer 9: Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, the fantastical flying car from the film of the same name One of the more outlandish creations ever to turn a wheel on the screen, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is particularly loved among those of a certain age. As the titular star of the film, this extraordinary creation was the fine friend of a family of inventive adventurers, led by Dick Van Dyke’s Caractacus Potts.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang began life as the star of a children’s novel by James Bond author Ian Fleming, who was inspired by the zeppelin-engined racing car of Count Louis Zborowski. When the novel was adapted for the silver screen, the car is first seen as a burnt-out ex racing car, rescued from the scrapheap after Potts raised sufficient capital using some of his strangest inventions. Potts then embarks on a comprehensive rebuild, using parts of an old boat for bodywork, and old chimney parts as an engine cover.

As the film unfolds, the Potts children are surprised by the unusual – and quite un-carlike talents that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang possesses – and that we’re not going to reveal yet. Inevitably, the actual car was rather less exotic, despite its astonishing appearance – it was custom-built in 1967 and fitted with a 3.0-litre V6 engine made by Ford. Several replicas have been built over the years, including one briefly owned by Chris Evans.

In 2002 the film was adapted into a West End play, and a new version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang became the most expensive theatre show prop ever built.

8: Ford Falcon XB – Mad Max

8: The Ford XB Falcon hardtop coupe interceptor from Mad Max and it's sequels © Provided by Car Buyer 8: The Ford XB Falcon hardtop coupe interceptor from Mad Max and it's sequels The Mad Max series has involved an impressive number of screen cars, but none are more widely recognised than Max’s ‘Pursuit Special’ Ford Falcon XB from the original 1979 classic.

The style of the Australian Ford Falcon XB and XC was more akin to an American car than its Ford Granada-like XD successor, and in two-door form the XB had a real muscle car look to it. This wasn’t lost on the writers of Mad Max, either; the movie car was customised with extra lights, concealed headlamps, wide wheels and raised suspension. It appeared in somewhat timeworn form in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2, before meeting its eventual demise in Mad Max Fury Road.

The Ford Falcon was discontinued in 2016, but retained its V8 engines and rear-wheel drive chassis to the end of its life. The Ford Mondeo is now the largest saloon sold by the company in Austraila, a far cry from the XB lineup that included saloons, estate cars, the two-door ‘hard top’ coupe, combo van and pickup ‘ute’ variants.

7: VW Beetle – Herbie (The Love Bug)

7: Herbie, the VW Beetle with a mind of its own, from Herbie and its sequels © Provided by Car Buyer 7: Herbie, the VW Beetle with a mind of its own, from Herbie and its sequels It takes a special kind of determination to cast the world’s most recognisable car in a hero role, but Herbie 'The Love Bug' achieved monumental fame despite being just another Volkswagen Beetle.

Of course, Herbie was alive, and this separated ‘him’ from all the identical Beetles built without anthropomorphic tendencies. The Herbie tale is the classic underdog story, where the plucky Herbie takes on all the, seemingly superior, competition and wins. In the first film, the humble Beetle is found to have a sufficient turn of speed to compete against thoroughbred opponents in an El Dorado road race, but this speed is all down to the car’s determined spirit, not its mechanicals.

And then there was love, too. Whether acting as a matchmaker between its owner and an attractive lady mechanic in The Love Bug, loyally protecting the interests of its custodians, or coming to terms with unrequited adoration of a Lancia Montecarlo, Herbie is a VW Beetle far more connected with its feelings than any other of Volkswagen’s products.

Today, Herbie’s impact on the motoring scene can be witnessed at almost any big car gathering, where there’s bound to be a Herbie replica in attendance. There are even those who insist on applying large ‘53’ decals to later, post-1999 ‘new’ Beetles. It’s good, clean, harmless fun, and there’s little doubt that Herbie will continue to delight young viewers for generations to come.

6: Ferrari 250 GT California – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

6: The Ferrari 250 GT California that played a major role in Ferris Bueller's day off. © Provided by Car Buyer 6: The Ferrari 250 GT California that played a major role in Ferris Bueller's day off. The eponymous Ferris Bueller was a character that every viewer wanted to identify with, but few genuinely could. Meanwhile, the Ferrari 250 GT California that he coveted, and which was owned by the father of one of his friends, is an object of desire that anybody can appreciate.

The Ferrari provides transport during the day off mentioned in the title, on which Bueller and his friends visit Chicago’s most celebrated landmarks while skipping school. While in the city, the Ferrari is left in the hands of parking attendants who take it on a 100-mile joyride, to the great consternation of Cameron, son of its owner. At the conclusion of the film, the car is destroyed following the failure of an ambitious plan to erase the extra miles the car has accumulated.

Of course, the cars used throughout the majority of the film, including the one destroyed, were replicas – a 250 GT California was worth around $350,000 at the time of filming. Since then, values have skyrocketed, with one selling at auction for over $15m in 2015. How much impact its film role film has had on the California’s value is debateable, though it’s undoubtedly added to its iconic appeal. Also impossible to doubt is the California’s beauty, which runs beneath the surface and includes its magnificent 3.0-litre V12 engine.

The California name was next seen on a Ferrari in 2012 when the V8-engined California T was launched with a hard-top retractable-roof. While fans of mid-engined V8 and front-engined V12 Ferraris were troubled by the introduction of a front-engined V8 with a heavy folding roof and a perceived focus on boulevard cruising, there’s no doubt that it would have suited Ferris Bueller’s perfectly on his day off.

5: Lotus Esprit S1 i– The Spy Who Loved Me

5: The Lotus Esprit S1 with a few 'optional extras', from the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me © Provided by Car Buyer 5: The Lotus Esprit S1 with a few 'optional extras', from the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me It’s with no little pride that we announce the Lotus Esprit as taking fifth place in this countdown, and the first of two Bond cars in the list.

Norfolk was the home of the Esprit - Hethel to be precise - and the Lotus was the culmination of 30 years of expertise in creating some of the sharpest, most responsive and intelligently engineered sports cars ever to hit road or track. By the late 1970s, Lotus cars were respected and adored by their followers but had yet to gain mainstream appreciation. The Esprit’s starring role in The Spy Who Loved Me helped get Lotus noticed.

That the Esprit turned into an extremely sporty looking submarine in the film was only a part of the trick; the undersea chase sequence was so skilfully done as to look plausible, making Lotus engineers look in even more brilliant. The Esprit was only used in the film after being deliberately parked outside the James Bond film set in the hope it would get noticed – a ploy that certainly paid off.

The Esprit was seen again in For Your Eyes Only in 1981, this time in Turbo guise, and by then Lotus sales had improved significantly. A pair of Esprits would later feature in Basic Instinct, hinting that the car’s famous wedge shape, created by designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, had caught America’s imagination. The Esprit is now globally revered, and while a true replacement has often been feted, it hasn’t materialised since production ceased in 2004.

4: Ford Mustang GT Fastback – Bullitt

4: The Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback from the incredible car chase sequence in Bullit © Provided by Car Buyer 4: The Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback from the incredible car chase sequence in Bullit Bullitt, one of the most beloved films of muscle car enthusiasts all over the world, put Steve McQueen and a Ford Mustang GT together as one of the most famous man-and-machine pairings to ever hit the silver screen.

The Mustang GT, powered by a 6.4-litre V8 engine, was Frank Bullitt’s steed in one of cinema’s most celebrated car chases, a 10-minute epic staged in a busy San Francisco. It made full use of the city’s undulating hills, and the Mustang – as well as the Dodge Charger driven by Bullitt’s would-be assassins – required customised suspension to cope with the frequent jumps.

The reality of the chase is only a little muddied by the fact that the 7.2-litre engine in the Charger made it considerably faster than the Mustang, and that the chase scene was pieced together with footage from various angles, resulting in many instances of discontinuity. Not only that, but the route taken would actually be impossible in a single take. None of this detracted from the spectacle, however, with the chase sequence providing edge-of-the-seat entertainment.

The film’s legacy is far reaching, too, contributing towards the Mustang gaining true muscle car status. Replicas of the ‘Bullitt Mustang’ are worth big money, too. In 1997, Ford acknowledged the cultural significance of Bullitt and its importance to the brand in an advert for the Ford Puma, ironically a car never sold in the US. In the advert, clever computer editing placed McQueen, who died in 1980, behind the wheel of a Puma as he retraced his tyre tracks on the San Franciscan streets. He then parks the car between a 1968 Mustang and the motorbike he rides in The Great Escape. Whether the Fiesta-based Puma will ever rise to be as recognised as the Mustang remains to be seen.

3: Mini Cooper – The Italian Job

3: The three Mini Coopers central to the storyline of The Italian Job © Provided by Car Buyer 3: The three Mini Coopers central to the storyline of The Italian Job The original Mini’s overwhelming success in the 1960s is well documented, so it’s almost a surprise that it took 10 years before it found a starring film role. Since 1969, though, The Italian Job has become an inseparable part of the Mini’s heritage.

Unlike the 2003 remake, which used MINI hatchbacks as a direct homage to the original film, Minis were chosen as the getaway cars in the original for good reasons. Not only were they small enough to escape via Turin’s sewer system, but their 10-feet length meant that all three could fit in the back of a Harrington Legionnaire coach to unload the gold.

The Italian Job has become an iconic film over the years, and one which raised the Mini’s profile immeasurably. Today it still inspires innumerable replicas and provides the soundtrack to countless Mini owner’s club meetings and promotional displays.

Of course, in 1969 the Mini was still a pretty unique design. While it was defined by its looks, the real genius behind the Mini was its space-saving design that rivals took years to emulate. Today, every city car and small hatchback owes a debt of gratitude to the original Mini, even if they’re far bigger than the original Mini ever was.

2: Delorean DMC-12 – Back To The Future

2: The Delorean DMC-12 time machine from Back To The Future and its sequels © Provided by Car Buyer 2: The Delorean DMC-12 time machine from Back To The Future and its sequels Unlike the cars in many films, the Delorean would have remained an obscure footnote in history if it wasn’t for the Back To The Future films in which it starred. Futuristic looks aside, the Delorean DMC-12 was born of a tale of political controversy and criminal scandal, which involved British Government sponsorship of a company whose founder would later be acquitted of drug trafficking.

Chequered beginnings aside, the Delorean DMC-12 wasn’t a particularly good car. It was assembled in Northern Ireland, at a factory intended to relieve local unemployment, but quality was regularly found so lacking that the car’s North American importers often had to make major improvements after examples had crossed the Atlantic. The DMC-12 didn’t quite match the performance its looks suggested either.

Although its chassis was similar to that of the Lotus Esprit, its engine was mounted at the back which had a dire effect on weight distribution. The engine was nothing more glamorous than a 2.7-litre V6, as found in a Volvo 265, and it struggled to give the heavy Delorean a convincing turn of speed. The stainless-steel veneer on its fibreglass body attracted fingerprints and dirt like a magnet.

Given these shortcomings, the car was the target of much ridicule until its fortunes were reversed by Back To The Future. In a masterstroke of casting, the outlandish underdog was presented as a time machine, achieving immortality at a stroke. Since the Delorean first hit the magical speed of 88mph on screen, interest has blossomed. A cottage industry has sprung up selling Back To The Future merchandise and official film props, and there are possibly more Time Machine replicas than standard Deloreans. And, despite its obvious shortcomings, the DMC-12 retains its own peculiar appeal.

1: Aston Martin DB5 – Goldfinger

1: The Aston Martin DB5 from Bond film Goldfinger. It had to be. © Provided by Car Buyer 1: The Aston Martin DB5 from Bond film Goldfinger. It had to be. The car at number one in this list could almost have been vetoed for being too obvious, but it comes as little surprise that James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 should be voted as Auto Express readers’ favourite car in a film. And it’s not without reason.

The four-wheeled star of Goldfinger has become legendary, starting a procession of Bond cars, each more outlandish than the next. Bond’s DB5 introduced the world to tail-light mounted oil dispensers, ejector seats, revolving number plates, tracking systems and machine guns concealed behind the front sidelights. Since then, 007’s cars have come with gadgets that run from the sublime to the ridiculous, including an ill-advised flirtation with invisibility in Die Another Day, a film in which Aston Martin and James Bond were reunited after 38 years.

Of course, the DB5 was the perfect partner to Sean Connery’s sharply tailored, quick-witted and faintly aristocratic secret agent, and Ian Fleming’s creation has clearly been embraced by Aston Martin bosses. In 2015’s SPECTRE, a decidedly cutting-edge Aston Martin DB10 renewed the association, it's imperfect gadgetry adding a slightly gritty edge to the the underlying power and agility expected of a Bond car. It would later go out in a blaze of glory in the Tiber river after a heated chase through Rome.

The DB5 was not forgotten, though, making a cameo appearance at the end of the film to link the past and the present. There’s little doubt that Bond and British supercar fans alike are hungry to see the next great 007 Aston Martin. 

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