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A Top 10 Listing Feature
Dreams On Wheels:
Top 10 Fantastic Cars In Movies & TV
by Christopher Geary


Motoring in the modern age might be derived from German engineering (Mercedes, Porsche) in competition with Italian style (Ferrari) and British elitism (Rolls-Royce), but mass production (by Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota), and screen entertainment from America, has wrapped a whole culture around cars - with road movies, chases, races, and crashes detailed in slow-motion close-ups. We even have traffic accidents filmed from inside stunt vehicles. When considering the history of cars in cinema and television, it is surprising how early they were introduced.

Fred was probably the first registered owner of a family runabout, in The Flintstones cartoon show (1960-6). Of course, this joke dates the fictional automobile as if it's a prehistoric invention but the sci-fi dream of a flying car took a while longer to appear in the same milieu's timeline. So, it wasn't until 1987 that Stone Age couple Fred and Wilma met the futuristic George and Jane, in cross-over movie The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones. Long after the Jetsons and the Flintstones swapped their diverse vehicles for time-traveller larks, another family-centric adventure, superhero movie Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007), featured a 'Fantasticar' that could divide into separate flying pods. This was Marvel drive-by sci-fi at its most crazily futuristic, and yet inventively practical.

Comedy adventure The Great Race (1965), directed by Blake Edwards, was conceived as the epitome of a big picture about cars that succumbs to frivolity and slapstick. The movie was very probably the inspiration for TV cartoon series Wacky Races (1968-9). Such jokes about racing continued in The Gumball Rally (1976), The Cannonball Run (1981), and its sequel and spin-offs. In addition to these pursuit pictures and highway adventures, there are several films and TV shows where a car performs as a character - whether it's the protagonist or antagonist. Good examples, with diverse themes and ideas, include Gerry Anderson's sci-fi puppet show Supercar (1961-2), concerning an all-purpose VTOL prototype, and Alex Orr's black comedy Blood Car (2007), about a vampiric vehicle.

In some cases, fantastic vehicles on TV have become cultural icons, and occasionally a cool car is innately glamorous. None more so, perhaps, than British secret agent Lady Penelope's pink modified Rolls-Royce, from Anderson's most successful puppet show Thunderbirds (1965-6). The chauffeur driven 'FAB 1' was bullet-proof, and had built-in weapons and hi-tech gadgets galore for International Rescue mission adaptability - including hydrofoils for skimming over water. Another famous glam car appeared on cartoon The Pink Panther (1969-76). The Panther-mobile was a sporty limousine that featured as a live-action prop, but only during the show's opening and closing credits.

Although there can be no definitive listing of the best fantastic cars in movies and TV, because so much depends upon the compiler's age, nationality, and usually what kind of toys a person grew up with (I was especially fond of the cars from Gerry Anderson's puppet shows), this particular selection takes note of a car's popularity, designer sci-fi originality, and genre credibility, while still indulging in favouritism. Such vehicles as Luke Skywalker's Landspeeder (from Star Wars, 1977) were included on my shortlist. But Luke's levitating air-car has no wheels, and so failed to meet the essential criteria.

HORIZONTAL SPEED / VERTICAL BOOST
Here are my top 10 choices in chronological order.

camera sign

Flintstones

Fantasticar in Fantastic 4

Supercar

FAB 1 in Thunderbirds

Pink Panther

Landspeeder in Star Wars

SPV - Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle
Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons (1967-8)


SPV in Captain Scarlet

Combining the distinctive qualities of assault vehicle and police interceptor, the rugged-looking blue SPV is a paramilitary tank for world cops fighting a threat of alien invasion. It is an unusual car because the driver faces backwards and steers by a video monitor. The front bumper is armoured for crashing through obstacles, there's a concealed rocket-launcher under the bonnet, the side door telescopes out for the driver's seat to lower him to the ground, and the ten-tyres on the variably sized main wheels are supported by a drop-down half-track at the back for extra traction on slippery roads, or pushing the heavy vehicle up steep slopes.

One of the fun things about an SPV on this TV show was how Spectrum agents like Captain Scarlet or Captain Blue found a replacement car hidden away in unlikely locations. It might be concealed by a tumbledown shed, and requisitioned from the secret stash by priority command: like an emergency vehicle, supplied on demand, for any territory or terrain. It was always a treat when the hero found an SPV hidden away somewhere off the map. As kids watching the TV show, we knew it meant there was going to be car chase. And yes, I had the shiny blue Dinky diecast model when I was a kid. It was a chunky metal toy that fired missiles, so (of course!) it was played with until it broke. Now I have the highly collectible 'Product Enterprise' edition. For the computer-animated remake, New Captain Scarlet (2005), the SPV was completely redesigned as a tactical assault vehicle and they named it Rhino.


go sign

Dinky SPV

SPV model

Rhino from New Captain Scarlet
Joe's car
Joe 90 (1968-9)


flying car in Joe 90

It's a car! It's a boat! It's a plane! Whatever form it assumes, I do prefer this clever SF variant of the flying car, instead of that sadly twee musical fantasy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which also first appeared in 1968). For TV puppet-show Joe 90, the Professor's jet-powered air car was created by special effects master Derek Meddings, a genius of sci-fi design, who contributed miniature hardware to many British movies and series. As a rather ugly looking combo of three vehicles, it's the apparently freakish oddity of Joe's car which makes it appealing, not as a prototype but a functioning experimental vehicle.

It does not resemble any previous Anderson TV-show cars or craft, such as the sleek lines of Supercar (which was just a bit before my time) or the submarine of Stingray. I had original models of Joe's car (Dinky), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Corgi), and both featured flip-out wings. But, of course, these toys never survived my childhood. Eventually, I got a replacement model of Joe's car, a Dinky original in fine condition, and now it's the centrepiece of my diecast cars collection.

In vaguely science fictional design values, the nearest genre vehicle to Joe's car is the Convert-a-Car, which is arguably the best machine from Wacky Races, although that cartoon was made at the same time as Joe 90. The heroic scientist of Wacky Races, Professor Pat Pending (an in-joke about patents for inventors), drove an odd-looking vehicle that changed into several different configurations for use on land, sea, or air, and its funny transformations first appeared 15 years before the Transformers toys became popular.

The late 1960s saw the introduction of that famous British invention, the first jump-jet, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier (my favourite plane!), with its then-unique V-STOL capability so, perhaps, the creators of these flying cars for movies/ TV were inspired, at least partly, by the fantastic idea that if a military jet could take-off like a helicopter, then surely it should/ would soon be possible to build a practical car for the skies.


speed 90

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Joe 90 flyng car

Dinky Joe 90

Convert-a-Car in Wacky Races

Moon buggy
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)


Moon buggy in Diamonds Are Forever

Flying cars are one thing but, far beyond the sky, vehicles in fiction (and fact) roamed the surface of the Moon. The rocket bus in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the Moon hopper (a notably eccentric jumping vehicle created by Derek Meddings) in UFO (1970-1), both failed my top 10 selection criteria because they lack any wheels. However, the design of a 'Moon buggy' for James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever is more in keeping with the dreams-on-wheels theme of this listing.

Bond steals the Moon buggy as his getaway vehicle from an enemy's space company. Bulldozing through a wall, Bond flees the laboratory's simulated lunar surface where astronauts are (presumably) in training for a mission. Basically, the SF imagery turns into a farcical chase across a desert outside Las Vegas, while unlucky security guards are in such reckless pursuit that their saloon cars all crash or flip and roll over on the rugged terrain. Henchmen on mini-trikes continue the chase, but Bond abandons the Moon buggy on a runaway course to lead the bad guys in the wrong direction.

Although the Moon buggy only makes a brief appearance in the movie, its novelty value alone grants the sequence an enduring cult-worthy merit that remains unmatched by the sadly routine road rage that soon follows when Bond has to evade a sheriff's men. The industrial design of the machine assumes that lunar astronauts driving the Moon buggy might work in their shirt-sleeves instead of spacesuits. There was a colourful version of the Moon buggy from Corgi, but the fragility of its varied moving parts made the toy easy prey for entropy in any children's play-room carmageddon.

Amusingly, none of the fantastic Moon vehicles mentioned here resembled the actual LRV (Lunar Roving Vehicle), as deployed by NASA for later Apollo missions #15, #16, and #17 (1971-2). There are meta-fictive links between this Bond movie's Moon scene and conspiracy theories about the Moon landings being faked by government spooks, presumably for the purpose of anti-Soviet propaganda, and (according to some idiotic claims) directed in secret by Stanley Kubrick. It is utter nonsense, of course. But, after any consideration of spy movies and their vague interactions with the paranoia of real world espionage, it becomes easy to see how such wild-eyed rumours get started.


eclipse

Moon bus in 2001

Moon hopper in UFO

Corgi Moon buggy

Eaglemoss Moon buggy

Lunar Rover by NASA
Landmaster
Damnation Alley (1977)


Landmaster in Damnation Alley

Back on Earth, after the end of the world, the ultimate trans-continental tour bus, the Landmaster, was designed and built by Dean Jeffries - a Hollywood vehicle specialist who also created a solar-powered hovercraft for TV sci-fi series Logan's Run (1977-8). The Landmaster is a sectional articulated vehicle with triple tyre modules that rotate to maintain traction over any speed bumps. Like a Winnebago for sci-fi warlords, it's a vehicle made for post-WW3 travel, a 12-wheeled wagon for the off-road routes of a hellish landscape on the way to Albany. It's guided by computers, armed with rocket launchers and machine-guns, and protected by tank-like armour. The back doorway drops down to form a ramp for the crew's motorbike to exit and enter.

Although it's been engineered to 'dig-in' with support jacks, Landmaster #2 is blown over during a tornado, so vehicle #1 continues alone. The machine is tough enough to smash through a concrete wall during an emergency rescue. Eventually proving to be more versatile than its name, the Landmaster survives complete submersion in floods when the climate changes. Afloat on water, its rotating wheels act like paddles. When you see this movie, you just accept without question that you will need a Landmaster of your own to cope with any apocalypse where giant scorpions, mutant cockroaches, and irradiated rednecks, menace travellers searching for the remnants of civilisation.

The Big Bus (1976) was a disaster movie spoof about a New York bus called 'Cyclops'. It was also an articulated vehicle and was powered by a nuclear-engine, adding to the potential risk for danger (as when the bus is perched on a cliff) and subgenre comedy. Battletruck (aka: Warlords Of The 21st Century, 1982) did not rip-off the concept for a Landmaster, it was just an exploitation movie of post-apocalypse adventure, owing more to Mad Max 2 (1981) than Damnation Alley. French cult sci-fi movie Terminus (1987), with its computerised vehicle 'Monster', and a tragic heroine (Karen Allen), is closer to Damnation Alley - at least in terms of genre storytelling. Later movies, such as Ridley Scott's nightmarish Prometheus, recycled transportation ideas for a planet rover that resembles a S.H.A.D.O. mobile from Anderson's TV classic UFO.


alley way

Logan's Run hovercraft

Landmaster tours

Landmaster paddles

Landmaster model

Cyclops in The Big Bus

Lotus Esprit
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)


Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me

Despite the status of James Bond's Aston Martin DB5, a widely acknowledged classic car from the internationally successful 007 franchise, my preference for a Bond car is the Lotus Esprit. After Q delivers the white car to Italy, Bond is soon driving along in Sardinia, with his new Russian girlfriend, when henchmen attack. Bond easily avoids the killer who rides a motorbike that releases its sidecar like a bomb on wheels. Our hero also shrugs off the pursuit by a car, causing it to crash simply by squirting mud onto its windscreen.

When the Bell 206 gunship arrives, spraying bullets all over the coastal road, Bond intentionally drives off a short jetty straight into the bay. Once it's underwater, the Lotus retracts its wheels, extends lateral steering fins, and sprouts a periscope. Of course, the car's defence system includes anti-aircraft weapons, and so Bond targets the JetRanger, while it circles just above the sea, and 007 launches a missile to destroy the helicopter in mid-air.

In mini-sub mode, the Lotus is soon attacked by frogmen, but a combination of black smoke, depth-charge mines, and another missile manage to deter or kill these scuba-divers. Finally, Bond casually drives ashore, emerging from the sea to astonish some holidaymakers on the beach. Overall, this fast-paced action sequence is a remarkably entertaining combination of stunts and special effects, and it remains a fine example of spy-movie gadgetry and Bond at his very best.

The white-hat symbolism of Bond's Lotus recalls the 'Mach 5' car of manga/ anime, Speed Racer (1966-8), a cartoon series that was later to become an under-rated live-action movie directed by the Wachowskis.


water car

Aston Martin DB5

Corgi Aston Martin

Bond's Lotus car

Mach 5 in Speed Racer

Spinner
Blade Runner (1982)


Spinner in Blade Runner

With its aerodyne concept-car appeal, this flying police car - designed by Syd Mead for Ridley Scott's masterpiece - is a memorable creation, not least because its appearance on-screen in scenes of drizzling rain or murky smog means that it's usually shrouded in the mystery of its nocturnal environment. The 'spinner' takes off with a blast from down-vented exhaust fans and, as the soundtrack music by Vangelis soars, the police car ascends into the neon-lit airspace over futuristic Los Angeles. It is a hypnotic and breathtaking sequence of urban tech noir and spectacular live-action, with a startling visual poetry that never ceases to amaze. Spinner 995's vertical ascension flies 'Blade Runner' Deckard straight up to the summit of a police tower.

Apart from that standout visual effects sequence, the very first time that spinner cars appear on screen is the start of the movie. Flying cars zoom through the darkened sky and cruise past skyscrapers with animated billboard signs. This presents police patrol routes fully in three dimensions, and generates significant verisimilitude for an urban futurism that's grimly dystopian in its environment and culture, yet dazzling and fantastical in affect. When Deckard is assigned to hunt down replicants, and he flies to the Tyrell pyramid, we see other airborne cars zip across the sky and the vehicles with colourful lights seem like UFOs (visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull also worked on the aliens' craft of Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977), as they whoosh past.

In a later scene, Deckard's ground car is spotted from above and challenged by a spinner crew on traffic patrol of a restricted area. This scene updates a familiar cliché of helicopter policing, even as it neatly anticipates movies like Blue Thunder (1983).


roundabout

Spinner animated

Spinner model

Spinners flying

Spinner artwork
KITT - Knight Industries 2000
Knight Rider (1982-6)


KITT in Knight Rider

Based upon a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, the KITT in popular TV series Knight Rider was a talking car (voiced by William Daniels, better known as a doctor in TV series St Elsewhere) that soon became a better star performer, with more TV personality, than the sadly dismal actor (David 'the Hoff' Hasselhoff) cast - somewhat unwarily - as the show's alleged hero, Michael. In this instance, the car is elevated from simply playing a 'buddy' or travelling companion and, rather amusingly, it assumes the leading role.

Other action series of the 1980s, like Hardcastle And McCormick (1983-6) provided a TV showcase for driving stunts and flashy sports cars, while stylish crime movie Black Moon Rising (1986), focused upon a gang of car thieves and the prototype of a hi-tech water-powered, super-fast motor called 'Black Moon', in a twisty plot that hinges upon industrial espionage, and the inherent corruption of this international industry that is undeniably obsessed with exploiting a society wholly dependent upon petrol engines.

There were souped-up versions of the KITT car in a series revival, a spin-off show, TV movies, and 21st century remake. Indeed, the short-lived series made in 2008 was an improvement on the 1980s series partly because it featured Val Kilmer as the voice of a revamped KITT. An unlikely Russian twist on the now familiar car-as-hero theme arrived with Black Lightning (2010), which featured an old Volga supercharged by experimental hi-tech and championed by special effects.


road ride

KITT car in Knight Rider

Black Moon Rising

Knight Rider 2000

Black Lightning

Christine
John Carpenter's Christine (1983)


Plymouth Fury in Christine

Based upon a novel by Stephen King, Christine is the ultimate killer-car movie, about a self-repairing monster. A Plymouth Fury is shown to be dangerous while it's still on the factory production line. Later, after 20 years of car troubles, it's a junkyard wreck but finds a new teenage victim who falls in love with it as his first car, and he carefully restores Christine to her original garish red glory. Once immaculate again, the car exerts an evil influence over the social awkwardness of its new owner, corrupting his innocence and ruining his relationships with family and friends. This movie offers a portrait of obsession, with cool genre gear shifts, and a sometimes grimly amusing soundtrack - of songs that provide the car with a 'voice' of her own.

This is basically a 'dark side' version of The Love Bug (1968), Disney's comedy about Herbie, a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own which launched a franchise of sequels and a short TV series. Christine is darker and edgier in its thematic quality, of course. One particular stunt sequence in Christine has the burning car chasing after a victim as he runs down a road at night. It's a startling image that conjures up the nightmare of a driverless runaway car depicted as the devil. Its tremendous impact as a visualisation of automotive horror, and terror on wheels, eclipses even the menace of a demonic killer in The Car (1977), a movie in which a black 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III emerges from the desert in Utah, and runs over anyone that gets in its way.


car fire

Christine

Christine wreck

Herbie in The Love Bug

The Car
DeLorean
Back To The Future trilogy (1985/ 89/ 90)


DeLorean in Back To The Future 2

The time machine on wheels that also became a flying car, the DeLorean DMC-12 was a designer-market sporty vehicle that is modified by a mad US scientist. What could possibly go wrong? Its time-travel function depends on the car moving at 88 mph, which seems arbitrary and rather unimpressive if compared to another movie hero's supersonic jet-car (a modified Ford pick-up) in The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The 8th Dimension (1984). Despite their competing sci-fi tech: Doc Brown's 'flux capacitor' versus Banzai's 'oscillation overthruster', the DeLorean of Back To The Future remains a far cooler looking machine, and its use in a trilogy easily trumps the single movie devoted to Buckaroo Banzai's adventures.

As the first movie ends, the scientist prepares for his trip from 1985 to 2015, and says: "Where we're going, we don't need roads," which introduces the fusion-powered flying version of the DeLorean - as featured in the sequel movie's futuristic vision of the 21st century's airborne traffic. The sci-fi imagery of skies filled with hover-cars and/ or air-speeders reached greater heights of cinematic spectacle in the Coruscant world city of Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones (2002), where the whizzing about for the flying-car chase scene never quite matches the dazzling imagination of air-taxis and cop cars in the 23rd century New York of Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997).

The Last Starfighter (1984) featured a flying car that is piloted by a mysterious alien, who flies the young hero into space. This movie's futuristic vehicle was built by Gene Winfield (who previously worked on Blade Runner), and it's also painted silver, with gull-wing doors, just like the DeLorean. "Great Scott!"


no U turn

Buckaroo Banzai's car

DeLorean time machine

flying cars in The Fifth Element

space car in The Last Starfighter

Batmobile
The Dark Knight (2008)


Tumbler in The Dark Knight

There have been many variations of Batman's car in comics and cartoons but clearly the most famous is the vaguely futuristic Lincoln Futura version, as seen in the 1966 movie and popular TV series. In retrospect, however, what the 1960s' Batmobile was clearly lacking is any perceptible intimidation factor. It's not a scary car. Its black and glossy, it looks great on screen, and it perfectly suits the comedic portrayal of Batman by Adam West, but it's still only a novelty car.

A comparable vehicle to this Batmobile is the hovercraft Who-mobile (alias, Alien) of Jon Pertwee's stint as the time lord in Doctor Who (1974). It was a unique sci-fi vehicle for that British TV series, and its outline suggested a flying saucer - a designer mobile that engaged with the extraterrestrial origin of the iconic TV hero, where as the mundane camouflage of a police call-box for the Doctor's TARDIS never did.

Various ultra-stylised vehicles from the live-action Batman movies (1989/ 92/ 95/ 97), launched by Tim Burton, introduced us to the notion of a frightening and formidable Batmobile on the big screen. These cars suited the gothic appeal of how Gotham was presented at first, before a later director (Joel Schumacher) diluted the darker influences in favour of high camp. Several dangerous and fearsome vehicles appeared in Death Race 2000 (1975), and, to some extent, the motorised malevolence of the killing cars in that satirical sci-fi movie might have influenced the design of a radically different kind of Batmobile - the Tumbler machine, that first appeared in Batman Begins (2005), and later proved a key design element for the spectacular hardware in its sequel The Dark Knight, and trilogy closer The Dark Knight Rises (2012).


road skids

Batmobile 1960s

Whomobile in Dr Who

Batmobile 1990s

Tumbler in The Dark Knight Rises

Chevy Malibu in Repo Man

"The more you drive, the less intelligent you are." - Repo Man (1984).



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