Top Gear's Top 9: truly unsung movie cars
Like the Bullitt Mustang! Just kidding
John Wick’s Ford Mustang
On the face of it, John Wick is a movie about a man who goes on a kill-crazy rampage after his dog is killed and car is stolen.
But, as we’ve written about at some considerable length, it’s not just a car that gets stolen, and it’s not just a puppy that meets an untimely end. It’s what these things represent. Viewers get the whole story behind why the puppy means as much as it does, but we’re not spoon-fed why the car matters enough for John to absolutely unleash the beast to get it back.
Perhaps because it’s an action movie, this Hemingway-esque bit of Iceberg Theory seems to have slipped past the bulk of its audience. But as we’re the sort to read into a set of Duplo instructions, we caught it. The Mustang goes far beyond a mere movie MacGuffin; what this machine means to John is as tangible as it is inscrutable. Like ships on the ocean, we can only ever appreciate the depths of what we navigate from the surface.Advertisement - Page continues below
Death Proof’s Chevy Nova
Maybe we don’t move in the right circles. Maybe there are vast throngs of people for whom Death Proof, and its very specifically modified Chevy Nova, are nothing but the ultimate expression of film and form. But in our little bubble, Death Proof was very much a thing for a little while, then very much not. Apparently even Tarantino calls it his worst film. So we’re happy enough to call the eponymous death-proof Nova unsung.
But it’s also the perfect horror antagonist. It lurks in the background for a few shots, waits out of sight while the film introduces ‘the good guys’ and then introduces itself with such violence that your body tries to duck, pucker and cringe at the same time... and manages none of the above. If Christine feels corny, if The Wraith feels cheesier than a croque monsieur, this is the antidote – nothing supernatural, no fantasy, just an insight into how terrifying reality can be if someone sets their mind to it. As far as we can tell, it’s impossible to watch Kurt Russell position the Nova for the backroad coup de grace and not feel your heart rate spike.
Or maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. To truly get the benefit of it... you really need to be sitting in our seat.
Die Hard’s Lincoln Town Car Limousine
On the surface, the Lincoln’s little more than a car that young limo driver Argyle spends the bulk of the movie obliviously hanging out in, and then the tool he uses to rather fix a certain bad guy’s wagon. And as hilarious as the former might be – and satisfying as the latter definitely is – this limo means much more.
Yes, it’s time for another round of ‘Top Gear writers read too much into things’, but hear us out on this one. At the beginning of the film, the Town Car represents how far out of his comfort zone McClane is – being too unnerved to even sit in the back and choosing to ride up the front with Argyle. By the end, after McClane has defeated everything up to plausibility itself in his one-man crusade against a horde of heavily armed and ruthlessly led robbers, he calmly limps to the back of the limo with his wife, perfectly at ease with his surroundings. Those surroundings are mostly on fire and scattered with bodies, but hey. This is a John McTiernan film, after all.
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Red Dawn’s Chevrolet K-10
Look, we could spend thousands of words talking about Red Dawn, the story it was supposed to tell, the film it eventually became and the people who adopted it as a totem. Lord knows enough people have already. What we’re interested in is the Chevy K-10 stepside.
In no uncertain terms, the K-10 is the only reason the Wolverines mount any resistance in the first place. They flee the opening salvos of the invasion, fill the truck bed with supplies from a sporting store (albeit an American one, so of course there’s an arsenal of guns), dodge roadblocks and scarper into the mountains. They named themselves after their high school mascot, but really, they should have been called the K-10 squadron.
Speed’s Ford Bronco and Jaguar XJS
What do you remember about Speed, apart from the bus? Sandra Bullock saying ‘Oh my god’ a bunch, possibly, or Dennis Hopper’s menacing turn as antagonist Howard Payne. Maybe it’s just all the explosions.
But what about Jack Traven’s (yeah, it’s not a great character name) singularly brilliant Ford Bronco? It is absolutely the wrong car for Los Angeles highways, and yet he threads – and throws – it through traffic like a Lotus. A boxy, wildly oversteering Lotus. Chasing the bus down in the Bronco gives way to the sequence with a drop-top Jag XJS, which Jack drives every bit as ‘sympathetically’ as his own wheels.
The World’s End Ford Granada
When it comes to the world of film, props don’t get enough... um, props. Yeah, not happy with that one either. But the point remains. It’s only when you discover the depth of thought that goes into what a character interacts with – right down to the chair they sit in – that you appreciate how each prop can act as an extension of the character.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the cars they drive. Dom Toretto’s gigantic, fearsome and muscular Dodge Charger. Bond’s timelessly cool Aston DB5. The Dude’s crappy old Torino.
Which brings us to the Granada from The World’s End. Life has taken an absolute kicking to it. Disreputability and smoke belch from it in equal measure. And each new day is one further from its glory days. The Granada explains and reveals so much about its driver that it probably deserves an acting credit.
Scarface’s Cadillac convertible
Brian de Palma’s 1983 masterpiece is many things. But what it patently isn’t is a car movie. Sure, Scarface has some lovely cars – Citroen DS, Porsche 928 and so on – but there’s probably enough strings to its bow without drawing the whole thing far enough to call it a car film. But that doesn’t mean it’s not home to another perfectly cast, totally unsung automobile.
And hey, you might think Tony’s customised Caddy looks like somebody’s nightmare or indeed a creampuff; the fact is that it works in a similar way to the Granada in The World’s End. Where the Granada basically reflects Gary King’s life and outlook, Tony Montana’s Cadillac goes about its exposition in a subtler way. But, for the record, no other part of this Caddy is subtle. The big ol’ drop-top – and its tiger-print interior – hints at certain traits: a lack of inhibition, education and worldliness, but also bombastic self-confidence and steely conviction. Even in a car as big as the Cadillac, that’s a lot to haul around.Advertisement - Page continues below
Cool Hand Luke’s DeSoto Custom
When writers gush over movie cars, it’s generally thanks to the car itself, or the way it’s been driven, or (in a pinch) what it says about its owner. Cool Hand Luke’s DeSoto Custom ticks none of these boxes, yet still manages to earn a spot on this list. How?
Well, when a scene as simple as a woman washing a regular car in front of a prisoner work gang manages to encapsulate what the convicts had lost, what they’d gone so long without and very obviously what they wanted, it’s done more standing still than most movie cars manage in motion.
Could it have been almost any other contemporaneous car? Well, DeSoto being a mid-tier brand does make a lot of sense in context, but yeah, pretty much. But it’s the right car for the scene, and conveys so much without moving a single inch. And you have to doff your cap to that. Takin’ it off here, boss.
Pretty Woman’s Lotus Esprit
When we started doing this gig, we never really did expect to be discussing Pretty Woman at any point in time. But here we are, expectations abandoned and yada yada yada.
The fact is that there’s a gorgeous Lotus Esprit that gets left out in the cold in just about every ‘best movie cars’ list. Is it because there’s no 15-minute car chase? Are there just too many cars in too many movies that do it better? Or maybe no man wants to admit to having seen, let alone having liked Pretty Woman?
In any case, the Esprit does exactly what it needs to – demonstrating Julia Roberts’ worldliness and Richard Gere’s immense wealth and pampered naiveté. Well, not theirs, but their characters. We don’t remember the characters' names, obviously. It’s not like we like the film or anything.Advertisement - Page continues below