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The best and worst vintage racing movies of the 20th century

Back when car enthusiasts' attention was focused on Ford v Ferrari, rather than a microscopic nasty made of lipids and RNA, I started to do a deep dive into racing movies. That investigation led me down a rabbit hole that tunneled back into the silent film era. With so many people holed up in their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this seems like a good time to present the results of my research. Here's a trove of the best, the worst, and the most innovative racing movies from the 20th century, plus some tidbits of history that I hope you'll find fascinating.

 

Read the full article on Hagerty.com: https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/the-best-and-worst-vintage-racing-movies-of-the-20t...

Replies (45)

Replies (45)

If the director spends more than maybe 20% of the time on irrelevant things like plot lines, character development and most especially romantic involvement of the drivers, I become uninterested pretty quickly.  On the television, I record the movies and fast forward through all that nonsense.

Pit Crew

The Racers . This 1955 movie was based on the life of Rudolph Caracciola. I saw this when I was just nine years old and it spark the flame of my interest in racing, The movie had Mille Miglia footage and some of the driving was done by John Fitch.  Some shots of the 1954 Monaco Grand Prix were in the opening scenes. It took me forty years to acquire a dvd of the movie. I still watch it.

Passenger

The best ever racing F1 movie is Senna, with all actual racing scenes.

Passenger

No mention of The Love Bug!?  

Passenger

Bullitt

While not technically a racing movie, I believe Bullitt has some of the best automotive chase scenes ever shot.  San Francisco streets were designed to be filmed and racing through them was a stroke of movie genius. 

Some trivia: Steve McQueen was scheduled to do all the Mustang (Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT), driving using a highly modified and strengthened car, but was replaced by professional stunt driver Bill Hickman, who also drove the  black 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum R/T in the chase. After McQueen missed the curve at the bottom of Chestnut Street and had to back up before charging up the hill, the director was afraid McQueen would injure himself, delaying completion of the movie and pushing its cost over budget, so he replaced him with Hickman to make the rest of the chase scenes. If you look closely in the final scene of the chase, when the Charger crashes into the gas station, causing a massive explosion, you can see that the Charger actually misses the gas station (unplanned) and continues on in the background.

 

Passenger

"The Great Race," while tongue-in-cheek family entertainment with a pie fight and a cheesy indoor studio set of the two rival's cars floating on styrofoam, er, "ice"  chunks across the Bering Straight, I adored the film and all-star cast as a kid and still do. Loosely historic, too! Stars Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Keenan Wynn.

WIKI: The 1908 New York to Paris Race was an automobile competition consisting of drivers attempting to travel from New York to Paris. This was a considerable challenge given the state of automobile technology and road infrastructure at the time. Only three of six contestants completed the course. The winner was George Schuester with the American team, driving a 1907 Thomas Flyer.

 

New Driver

 I remember "Thunder Road" one of my favorite movies of my teen years. So, at age 60, or so, I found the movie once again and was so very disappointed at how totally HAMMY the acting (particularly Robert Mitchum) was. The whole movie stunk! I guess, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder." Applies here.

New Driver

I didn't see a mention of The Racing Scene. It's the story of a  year with James Garner's racing team, from the time he bought the car, and assembled his team through racing in such diverse places as Mexico, England, Florida and Canada.It was the first film by Andy Sidaris, of ABC Sports. I haven't seen it in years, but it is apparently available on Amazon Prime.

Passenger

Only because I'm a fan of the Chrysler Turbine Car will I mention the somewhat terrible movie from 1964, The Lively Set, starring James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, and Doug McClure.  It has some interesting race scenes with some actual race drivers of various types actually doing some driving.  

 

New Driver

Excellent article! 

 

Since the title says “Racing”, and doesn’t specify what type; I’m going to nominate 1978’s “Breaking Away” as one of the best racing movies, as well as one of the finest movies, too. Steve Tesich’s screenplay won the Academy Award, and the cast is uniformly excellent. It involves family relationships, coming-of-age and bicycles. 

 

Trust me, you'll like it. 

Pit Crew

Two Lane Blacktop, starring James Taylor, Brian Wilson and Warren Oates

Passenger

Dear Ronnie, you forgot one of the most famous race movies of all times „The great Race“ with Tony Curtis, Nathalie Wood and Jack Lemon. 

Passenger

no mention of Vanishing Point ! ! !

Passenger

Quentin Tarantino's Deathproof (his half of Grindhouse).

 

New Driver

Saw Grand Prix when it first came out in a theater with full wrap around screens and sound. The opening had injector stack vertical views all around the perimeter. First one, then several and finally all of them starting and revving at the same time. The sound, 360 degrees, matched the progression. The camera cars were full up racers and had either six or eight cameras capturing views from all sides and back. Sound matching each view with directional mics. People were leaning in their seats compensating for turns on the screen. You won't ever see a theater set up like that again. James Garner did his own driving and at least matched, and sometimes exceeded, the pros in the other cars. The equipment and tapes probably still exists someplace. It would be a world attraction for a car museum to set it up

 

Passenger

One movie that I liked was Silver Dream Racer staring David Essex. It's a bit hokie in places, but it has some great racing footage of bikes at Silverstone.

Passenger

A couple of obscure British films from the '50s:

Checkpoint (1956): A crime drama set against a backdrop of an Italian "road rally" which is actually the Mille Miglia, with the Aston Martin team supporting.

Genevieve (1953): 1904 Darraq vs. 1905 Spyker in the London to Brighton Run.

 

And from Italy is Fellini's short: Toby Dammit.  Terence Stamp drives a rebodied Ferrari sports racer.

 

New Driver

From Elvis:

Clambake: Elvis drives the 1959 Stingray racer in which Dr. **bleep** Thompson had such success.

Viva Las Vegas: Cesare Danova drives a Ferrari 250 GT TdF.

Spinout: A Duesenberg J tow car for a Cobra racer!

 

Munster Go Home: Fred races the Munstermobile against a Ferrari 250 GT California Spider driven by the villain and assorted other cars: E-Types, a Vette, a Cobra, a 300SL, and an Austin-Healey.

 

New Driver

I have my DVD copies of Le Mans and Grand Prix. Watch them at least once or twice a year while "hibernating"  over the winter. If for nothing else but to watch the vintage race cars in action and reminisce trips to Watkins Glen and Mid Ohio. And the acting is pretty good too! Wish I could find a film about the Can Am series from the 60's and 70's. That would be a good watch as well.

New Driver

   

Navigator

Hagerty might consider doing a similar review for vehicles found in 50's and 60's TV shows. I like watching Perry Mason and always notice the cars and traffic on the road, 

Navigator

Gumball Rally, The Hot Rod Story . Not a racing movie but car related ,Hollywood Knights.

Remember whatching the Great Race with my dad at 8 years old. Best Saturday afternoon ever!! 

 

Passenger

More of a documentary but On Any Sunday is great entertainment.  I watched it again this week and it is a fun ride.

Passenger

How about a list?

Passenger

The ‘55 Chevy in “Two Lane Blacktop” is the same one Bob Falfa crashed in “American Graffiti”

✌️

New Driver

Great article ! Than you   I saw Grand Prix when released (Cinamax was the big draw!) and it left a lasting impression.  Today I would say my favorite is "Rush"  (CGI and all)

Passenger

So is there a list that you suggest? Outside of reading the full article and trying to compile a list as a reader, I was expecting a quick reference of what was suggested as the best and worst in a handy list format. 

Passenger

In the movie Grand Prix, I seem to recall that Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill were background characters in a scene of the pits - all standing around very stiff and uneasy.

Passenger

Le Mans, by far my favorite. No dialogue for like 35-40 minutes. Just the sights and sounds leading up to the race made me feel as though I was there in person. Ford v Ferrari, second. I remember doing a high school English term paper on Shelby and Le Mans in my senior year, 1967. Cool teacher, let us write on whatever we wanted. I managed a "A". 

Passenger

A forgotten "so bad it's good" car movie is The Wraith.  An '80s movie so '80s it should be taught in pop culture history classes.  Charlie Sheen's film debut (so take that for what you will), but the real star is the Dodge prototype M4S Turbo Interceptor, apparently powered from beyond by a big jar full of lightning bolts and ectoplasm... though it was never explained why a revenge-mobile from another dimension had a Chrysler logo emblazoned across the hood.

Pit Crew