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Over a half-century of automotive films

Why are there 51 movies on this list? Once you click over to the first one, from 1966, you'll understand why it had to make the cut. The first love scene between cars and movies appeared shortly after Henry Ford started cranking out Model Ts in 1908. Real car movies hit in the '50s as pop culture and the Baby Boomer generation came of age. And then things started getting really good when James Bond drove onscreen in an Aston Martin DB5 for 1964's Goldfinger.

We chose the best car movie from each of the past 51 years. it wasn't an easy list to put together; restricting choices to one film from each year certainly bumped a few of the car films we all know and love. but it also forced us to find new automotive cinema pleasures where we hadn't looked before.

Click through, watch the trailers, and tell us how we did.

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1966: Grand Prix

Still the prototypical racing movie. Grand Prix was shot with real cars on real race circuits, including the streets of Monaco and the high banks of Monza. This was the first use of camera mounts on the cars getting real footage at speed with the actors behind the wheel. The sound is amazing, too. Also, look for more great cars off the track, including Ferraris from the time and a Shelby GT350 H Mustang being driven hard.

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1967: The Graduate

I almost picked You Only Live Twice for James Bond’s quick glimpse of a convertible Toyota 2000GT, which is now worth millions of dollars. Instead it’s Dustin Hoffman’s iconic The Graduate that wins out for its 1966 Alfa Romeo 1600 Spider Duetto. Director Mike Nichols not only shot the then-obscure little sports car beautifully, he made it an important part of the story. Plus it breaks down on Hoffman just before the climactic and classic ending, just like a 1966 Alfa would in real life.

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1968: Bullitt

The film’s main chase scene remains the best one ever filmed. And it was certainly the catalyst for a long list of car-focused action films in the 1970s. Steve McQueen’s Highland Green Mustang fastback has become an icon, as has the bad guys’ black 1968 Dodge Charger that McQueen is chasing. It was the first movie to put cameras in the cars giving the audience the feeling of riding along in the action. It’s also the reason so many bad guys in so many movies since drive black 1968–1970 Chargers.

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1969: The Italian Job

Don’t miss the beginning with the Lamborghini Miura ripping through the Alps. The sound is awesome, and the car’s destruction is creative and hard to watch. Also great action in three Mini Coopers, as they rip around Turin rally-style complete with big jumps and a drive through sewer pipes. They’re destroyed, too. Paul Newman’s Winning about racing in the Indy 500 came in a distant second. 

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1970: The Rebel Rousers

1970 was a year of westerns and war movies. No real car stuff. Jack Nicholson’s road movie Five Easy Pieces had promise for us car guys but never comes through. It was, however, a big year for biker movies hot on the heels of 1968’s Easy Rider. So we chose another Jack Nicholson movie, Rebel Rousers, also with Bruce Dern. Other biker flicks in 1970 included CC and Company, with Joe Namath fresh off his Super Bowl victory, and Nam's Angels.

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1971: Le Mans

A year later things exploded with Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, and On Any Sunday, all should not be missed. But it’s Steve McQueen’s Le Mans that is the greatest car movie of 1971. Filmed on the famed French race track, during and after the 24-hour event, with the world’s greatest racecar drivers at speed in real-deal Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s. Bonuses are the 911S McQueen drives on street, assorted Ferrari models parked around the drivers’ trailers, and the Ford GT40 in the spectator traffic jam.  

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1972: The Godfather

It’s arguably the greatest movie ever made. It’s also a great car movie. From Sonny Corleone’s 1941 Lincoln Continental coupe to the 1937 Cord 812 parked in the driveway of Jack Woltz to the 1946 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 that (spoiler alert) eventually gets blown up, The Godfather is packed with beautiful cars of that era. Others include Cadillacs, Buicks, and the 1941 Packard Super Eight One-Eighty in which they “leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

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1973: American Graffiti

No contest. It has to be American Graffiti. Cars from top to bottom, including Milner’s 1932 Ford five-window, which is not only the fastest car in the valley, but it single-handedly revived interest in traditional American hot rods. Falfa’s black ’55 Chevy became just as iconic, as did Steve’s 1958 Impala. Great movie, great cars. And the cruising and street racing scenes are just perfect.

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1974: Gone in 60 Seconds

This makes the list ahead of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and The Man with the Golden Gun for two reasons. The original Gone in 60 Seconds was not made by a big studio. It was made by a guy named H.B. Halicki, a wealthy car-loving junkyard owner from Long Beach, California. He financed it. He wrote it. He produced it. He directed it. And he did all his own stunt driving. Plus he used many of his own cars in the film. Trust me, it’s better than the Nick Cage version.

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1975: Aloha, Bobby and Rose

The dark and hokey Death Race 2000 almost got it, but instead it’s Aloha, Bobby and Rose, which is a terrible movie, but Paul Le Mat’s character (he also played John Milner in American Graffiti) drives a very cool period-correct 1968 Chevy Camaro with sidepipes, flares, and slot mags, and he cruises many of the iconic LA car guy spots of the time, including Bob’s Big Boy and Van Nuys Boulevard, where he does donuts and drag races a Shelby Mustang.

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1976: The Gumball Rally

A real 427 Shelby Cobra and a real Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Daytona Spider flat out through the streets of New York City and the storm channel of Los Angeles. There’s more, like a 911S Targa and a 300SL Roadster and a bitchin’ split-bumper Camaro on Cragars with a four-speed, but it’s really about the Cobra and the Daytona. Crank up the sound. And remember, “What’s behind you is not important.”

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1977: Smokey and the Bandit

Despite turning a Lotus Esprit into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond loses again, this time to Burt Reynolds and his black and gold Trans Am. The second largest grossing movie of 1977 behind Star Wars, Smokey is now a car-guy classic and it’s about to celebrate its 40th Anniversary with a limited re-release in theatres and a weeklong celebration in Jonesboro, GA, the area where much of the movie was filmed. That’s a big 10-4.

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1978: Hooper

A Corvette Summer is up there, but the best car movie of 1978 is Hooper. That’s right, more Burt, more Sally, and more Trans Am fun, only this time it’s red on deep-dish chrome wheels and there are no T-tops. Oh, and it’s rocket-powered. Thank you, Hal Needham, who also directed Smokey and the Bandit. Other notable car-guy stuff is a 1978 GMC K15, a 1969 Mach 1 Mustang, and a 1977 International Scout SSII.

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1979: Van Nuys Blvd.

Mad Max is a much better movie. It’s the duck’s guts. But Van Nuys Blvd. is a snapshot of the late-1970s car scene and the youth culture that was obsessed with it. It takes place mostly on LA’s hottest cruising strip, and the cars run the gamut of the time and include custom vans, Corvettes, and a 1932 Ford Roadster. And of course there’s some street racing.

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1980: The Hollywood Knights

Take American Graffiti, replace its charm and compelling story with bathroom humor and raunchy sex, and you’ve got The Hollywood Knights. Some love it, others don’t. It’s about a car club in Beverly Hills on Halloween night in 1965 and the cars are fantastic and include the Project X ’57 Chevy at the height of its powers, a real 427 Cobra, a ’65 GTO, a ’65 Mustang, a ’65 El Camino, and assorted Porsche Speedsters from the 1950s. It also features a young Michelle Pfeiffer. Jake and Elwood would understand.

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1981: King of the Mountain

There’s more Burt and Hal Needham with The Cannonball Run if you’re interested. And the first few minutes with the black Lamborghini Countach at full song are magnetic. But King of the Mountain takes us racing on LA’s Mulholland Highway before urban sprawl shut it down. The action is good and the cars are worth it, including a Ferrari 308, a Jag E-Type, a ’69 Mustang Fastback, a 1979 Trans Am, a Porsche 930 and RSR, and the antagonists’ ’67 Corvette. Also, look for the early Datsun Z with the period mods or the Hemi Orange 1970 Super Bee – they come and go quickly.

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1982: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

More sex, drugs, and potty humor, only this time with the charm and compelling story. And there are cars, including a VW bus, a 1960 Buick LaSabre sedan, an AMC Gremlin, a 1979 Datsun 280ZX, and an early Honda Civic. Plus who could forget the joyride Sean Penn takes in his friend’s brother’s 1979 Camaro Z/28?

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1983: Heart like a Wheel

Risky Business, with all of its Porsche 928 goodness, or Christine, with the 1958 Plymouth Fury with the toxic personality and the friend’s 1968 Charger, are both worthy. But Shirley Muldowney’s story takes us from street racing in the fifties to America’s dragstrips in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. And the cars range from dragsters and funny cars of each era to a full-custom Merc and a bad 1962 Corvette. Even the tow vehicles are cool in this one.  

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1984: Against All Odds

Like Bullitt in 1968, this is an okay movie with an incredible car chase. Well, they ain’t chasing, they’re racing on LA’s Sunset Boulevard in traffic and they are on it. It’s a 1984 Porsche 911SC Cabriolet versus a 1984 Ferrari 308. Interestingly, legendary stuntman Carey Loftin, who was the stunt coordinator on Bullitt, drove the Ferrari in this chase. Turn up the sound and watch that part over and over.

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1985: Better Off Dead

If this was strictly a car chase list, I would have chosen To Live and Die in LA. But it’s not. It’s a car movie list, and Lane Meyer’s black 1967 Camaro RS/SS, which goes from driveway art to awesome, makes this a car movie. A very silly and very funny car movie. And the Camaro, with its rake, rally wheels, and red interior, will forever be cool.

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1986: Cobra

Over the decades, Sylvester Stallone has used cars to define his characters, from Balboa’s black Trans Am in Rocky II to his modified Ford pickup in The Expendables, but the custom 1950 Mercury Coupe his character drives in Cobra is one of the best. And the chase through and over the canals in Venice, California, is unforgettable. He even drives the sled through fire.

1987: No Man's Land
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1987: No Man's Land

This cops-and-robbers tale is about stealing Porsches in Los Angeles. And with the exceptions of quick cameos from a Ferrari 365 BBi and the bad guy’s 1984 Camaro Z28, it’s all 911s in this one. Candy includes a 930 slantnose, a 930 that does plenty of stunting, and assorted coupes and cabriolets from the era. There’s good driving, including tail-out action at night on a canyon road. Good stuff.

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1988: Tucker: The Man and His Dream

This movie about Preston Tucker and his dream to build the best car in the world back in the 1940s was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who directed The Godfather. Coppola also owned one of 51 1948 Tucker Torpedoes Preston managed to produce before losing everything due to legal issues that landed him in a court battle. Many of the surviving Torpedoes were used in the movie.

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1989: Road House

In this raunchy action flick, Patrick Swayze has a thing for first-gen Buick Rivieras. There’s also a 1989 Mercedes 560 SEC, which gets cooler with every passing year, a 5.0 Mustang GT convertible (sadly an automatic), and an appearance by Bigfoot the monster truck, which drives through a Ford dealership, up and over some sedans and wagons.

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1990: Days of Thunder

There were almost four Tom Cruise movies on this list. Two made it, including this classic that lit the popularity fuse on the NASCAR bomb and made Cole Trickle a household name. The racing action is believable, mostly, and the sense of speed is there for the audience. But the rental-car demolition derby scene is worth the price of admission. Plus Robert Duvall is awesome as Harry Hogge.

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1991: Out for Justice

Just like the good-versus-evil Patrick Swayze trucker movie Black Dog from 1998, this mobbed-up cops-and-robbers story staring Steven Seagal is an ‘80s muscle car lover’s dream. Generally one big car chase mixed with gunfights and fisticuffs, Out for Justice features a 1986 Camaro IROC-Z, a 1987 Buick Grand National (although they call it a GNX in the movie), and a Chevy Caprice cop car with the F41 suspension option.

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1992: Basic Instinct

Lotus Esprit Turbo lovers need to see this sexy killer thriller, which also includes some 5.0 Mustang action. The driving scenes are well shot and edited, and the action is better than it is in the other two movies from the era that feature Lotus Esprits, The Rookie and Pretty Woman, both from 1990. There’s another good reason to see this movie, and it has nothing to do with cars.

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1993: Dazed and Confused

If you’re into Cadillacs from the 1960s, see A Bronx Tale; otherwise the best car movie of 1993 is Dazed and Confused. Set in Austin, TX, in the late 1970s, everyone is driving American muscle and pickup trucks from the late ’60s to early ‘70s. The rides include a 1970 GTO Judge, a black 1970 Chevelle SS454, a 1974 Pontiac Trans Am SD455, and a 1969 Ford Bronco.

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1994: Speed

If you’re into first-gen Broncos, this Keanu Reeves classic is also worth your while. In this cops-and-robbers classic, Reeves drives an uncut hardtop around Santa Monica. There’s some good driving, and the Bronco gets plenty of screen time for the first 30 minutes or so. This movie is also good if you’re into city buses.

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1995: Bad Boys

There’s plenty of car action in this Will Smith masterpiece, but this is all you really need to know: He drives a 1994 Porsche 911 Turbo 3.6. It’s black and it’s beautiful. And in the final scene, it’s in a life-or-death race with the bad guy driving a Shelby Cobra 427 replica. In the 2003 sequel, Bad Boys II, Smith upgrades to a Ferrari 575M Maranello.

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1996: The Rock

Nick Cage often uses Ferraris in his films, including Family Man in 2000 and this action flick set in San Francisco. In this one he destroys most of the city along with a then-new and very yellow F355 Spider with a real manual transmission and lovely gated shifter. The action is good but the fact that he’s chasing Sean Connery in a Hummer H1 and can’t catch him is a bit hard to swallow.

1997: LA Confidential
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1997: LA Confidential

Another Nick Cage flick, Con Air, has a ’67 Corvette roadster that sees some action, but the winner here is LA Confidential, a period cop movie set in 1950s Hollywood. To convey the time, there’s old American iron everywhere, including a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado, a 1950 Studebaker Commander, and a 1948 Oldsmobile 98. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the Jaguar XK 120.

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1998: Ronin

Directed by the same John Frankenheimer who directed the first movie on this list, Grand Prix, Ronin packs several memorable cars chases into this present-day spy drama, which takes place all over Europe. The speeds are real and the action is intense. The cars are cool too, and include an Audi S8, a BMW M5, and a Mercedes 6.9.

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1999: The Thomas Crown Affair

In The World is Not Enough James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) drives a BMW Z8, which is cool, but the car action is lame. In the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair as Thomas Crown, Pierce Brosnan drives a one-off off-road-ready 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500 convertible complete with roll bar, raised suspension, and knobby tires. It isn’t in the movie long, but it’s one of the coolest movie cars of all time. Tommy Crown beats Bond this time.

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2000: Gone in 60 Seconds

More Nick Cage and more Ferraris in this big-buck remake of the 1974 Classic. It ain’t all roses, but cars you get to see range from a Ferrari 275 GTB to a 1970 Hemi Cuda. Of course most of the action takes place with Cage running to freedom in Eleanor, a restomod 1967 Shelby Mustang GT500 that was such a hit it spawned a cottage industry of six-figure replicas that remains in action today.

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2001: The Fast and the Furious

The first installment of the franchise was a huge hit despite too much to list here, but it was fun and the cars reflected the time, including fart-can Honda Civics, obnoxiously colored Mitsubishi Eclipses, big-power 2JZ TT-powered Toyota Supras, and third-gen FD Mazda RX-7s. And then there was Dom’s blown black Dodge Charger for the muscle car crowd. Everybody had NOS and we all lived our lives a quarter-mile at a time.

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2002: The Transporter

Put Jason Statham in a black E38 BMW 7 Series with a manual transmission and the chase is on. Plenty of good action in this French-made film and real driving; there’s minimal CGI. In the sequel, the budget went up and so did the product placement. Audi stepped in with an A8.

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2003: 2 Fast 2 Furious

In part two, there’s no Vin Diesel, which some say is a good thing, but there are plenty of cars, including R34 Skylines, Evos, Vipers, Mustangs, more Supras and FDs, an S2000, a 1969 Yenko 427 Camaro, and a 1970 Hemi Dodge Challenger, both four-speeds. Sure, some of the action sucks. But some of it is worthwhile.

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2004: The Punisher

Most of the car-guy appeal here is a smash-‘em-up car chase and shoot out between the protagonist, in a 1968 Pontiac GTO, and the assassin trying to kill him, driving a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner. For those into British iron, there’s an Aston Martin Vanquish, a Bentley Arnage T, and a Jag XK8. Two kit cars also appear, a Ford GT40 replica that gets blown up and a 427 Shelby Cobra replica on terrible wheels.

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2005: The World's Fastest Indian

Although The Dukes of Hazzard has its car moments and Jessica Simpson in her prime, the true story of motorcycle racer Burt Munro is the best car movie of 2005. The very likable Munro traveled from his home in New Zealand to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to set speed records on his 1920s Indian motorcycle. This is a fantastic movie, and it features many cars and motorcycles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it also perfectly captures the passion around speed racing in the period, including life at the small motels in Wendover.     

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2006: Cars

The obvious choice here is The Fast and The Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, but the thinking man’s choice is the animated Cars. If I have to tell you why, you haven’t seen it. So watch it. You can thank me later.

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2007: Death Proof

In this weird one, writer and director Quentin Tarantino pays homage to car and road movies of the past both in the vehicles used and the action shown. The cars include a 1971 Chevy Nova, but the real candy here is the black 1969 Dodge Charger on turbine wheels paying homage to both Bullitt and The Dukes of Hazzard, and a white 1970 Dodge Challenger just like Kowalski’s in the 1971 classic Vanishing Point.
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2008: Iron Man

Not much here, I’m afraid, aside from an R8 from Audi’s product placement department. Also static appearances by the many expensive rides in Tony Stark’s collection, such as a Saleen S7, a Bugatti Veyron, a Shelby 427 Cobra replica that gets flattened, and a flamed and fenderless 1932 Ford Roadster riding on ridiculous whitewall tires.

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2009: Fast & Furious

The winner has to be Love the Beast, a documentary made by Eric Bana about his Australian Ford Falcon muscle car and his love for it. Unfortunately, it did not appear in theatres. Instead we’ve selected the fourth installment of the more-nitrous-than-brains series. In this one, the cars include a 1970 SS454 Chevelle, an R34 Skyline, a 1987 Buick GNX, a blown 1970 Dodge Charger, a 1986 Ford RS 200, a Subaru WRX STI, an Acura NSX, a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am, a Nissan S15 Silvia, and David Freiburger’s F Bomb 1973 Camaro.

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2010: Senna

Although there’s a 1966 Pontiac GTO in Knight and Day and Dwayne Johnson drives a mean 1970 Chevelle (with ’71 taillights) in Faster, there’s only one film worthy from 2010 and it’s the only documentary on the list. It chronicles the life and untimely death of the greatest driver of his generation and possibly of all time, Ayrton Senna. If you haven’t seen it, see it. If you have, watch it again.

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2011: Fast Five

More Dom, more Brian, more cars. This time the coolest car is 1971 Nissan Skyline GT-R. But there are others, including a DeTomaso Pantera, a Ford GT40 replica, a Nissan Skyline GT-R R35, a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Roadster replica, a 1963 Ford Galaxie 500XL R-code, a Lexus LFA, and a pair of Koenigsegg CCXRs.

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2012: Jack Reacher

Not in theatres, it’s Black Air, a documentary about the development of the Buick Grand National and GNX. In theatres, it’s Jack Reacher. There’s good car action throughout and Tom Cruise’s character drives both a street machine-style mid-‘70s Camaro and a four-speed 1970 Chevelle SS454, which is in the big chase.

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2013: Snake & Mongoose

Fast and Furious 6 is too obvious, Rush is overrated, and the spectacular Formula 1 racing documentary 1 never appeared in theatres. So I choose the story of drag racing pals and rivals Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. This low-budget production chronicles their lives and careers through the ‘60s and ‘70s when they pioneered big-money sponsorship in the sport with the Hot Wheels brand. It’s well done.

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2014: John Wick

Need for Speed is your jam if you feel the burn for Mustangs and modern exotics like Koenigsegg CCXRs. The endless action can hold your interest, but it just doesn’t ring true consistently enough to take the spot. Instead it’s Keanu Reeves’ assassin thriller John Wick. Not only is it one of the most underrated movies of 2014, it’s an underrated car movie. Reeves’ character only drives American muscle, including a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 (similar to the Mustang he drove in Point Break) and a 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS454. There’s also cameo by a black ’68 Charger for a little Bullitt tribute for those that know.

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2015: Furious 7

The documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans never appeared in theatres, which leaves the incredibly creative Mad Max Fury Road and the seventh chapter in the Vin Diesel Demolition Derby series. And Vin wins it on the back of one vehicle. In this movie he drives a cross between a 1970 Dodge Charger (black, of course) and a Baja 1000-style trophy truck. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Right up to the point when he wads it into a ball.

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2016: Everybody Wants Some

The guy that wrote and directed Dazed and Confused went back in and created this one about teenagers in the ‘80s. And he did the cool car thing again. And it’s cool – not as cool as Dazed, but cool. There’s a 1971 Oldsmobile 442, a 1972 Chevy Monte Carlo, and a wide assortment of period-correct rides including Cadillacs, pickups, and a Gremlin. Hail, Ceasar! Is another option. Set in 1950s Hollywood, its list of vehicles is lush and includes a 1948 Cadillac Series 62, a 1947 Ford Super De Luxe, and a 1946 Packard Clipper.

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