The Savage 7 of the Super '70s: Must-See Car Movies
The Super Seventies were something special... As anyone who’s ever peeked into an old family photo album knows, there was a collective insanity when it came to hair style, clothing fashions and...pretty much everything. Eyeglasses, wallpaper – that tasteless aesthetic spilled into everything – graphic design, architecture, music and sadly, automotive design.
Unlike anyone who grew up in the '50s or '60s, no one who was a kid in the '70s is currently scanning eBay for that bitchin’ car that Detroit had unleashed when he was still pedaling his Big Wheel over a rickety plywood ramp, just like Evel Knievel did on TV. Nothing was enduring about that decade. Even '70s nostalgia is winked at, like the joke that it is. Just as the buildings built can’t meet the wrecking ball quick enough, we have to be honest and admit that, with very few exceptions, it’s for the best that cars of the '70s have mostly already met the junkyard crusher.
But that’s not to say things didn't start well.
’70-71 saw Detroit thundering out some of the best asphalt-eaters, ever. GM, Ford and especially Chrysler were making Big Block dreams come true. Even AMC was in on the game. Then in ’72 clean-air smog regulations and the OPEC Gas Shock threw a wrench into the global gearbox and nothing was ever the same. Detroit likes to point to those two things to explain abominations like the Pinto and the Pacer and V8 engines choked down to 150 horsepower. The Big Three gloss over crappy design and obvious facts like how Ford wrecked the Mustang and Dodge wrecked the Charger before the OPEC gas-crunch madness kicked everything sideways. Detroit’s '70s decline was based in poor design decisions at home as much as anything coming from the Middle East.
But the decade wasn’t only mutton-chops and burgundy leisure suits – Hollywood would never be as independent. Strange and wonderful films would be released – the kind of cinema that is impossible today in a blockbuster/franchise-obsessed film industry.
The pre-digital car movie was never better than in the ’70s. Here’s a list of the essentials. Some are touching at the cerebral, some are just plain stupid. But no one can call themselves a car nut without seeing all of them:
1. Vanishing Point (1971)
Probably the most familiar film to car culture fanatics, Vanishing Point is known as "That White Dodge Challenger movie."
When we meet the main character, Kowalski, he’s a rootless nomad on the road - a theme repeated in many car movies. We see small pieces of his past here and there, he’s an ex-soldier, ex-cop, ex-motorcycle racer. People drift in and out of his story. A kind of ‘searching-for-real-America’ journey is sprinkled in between wide desert vistas and roaring Dodge Tri-Power glory. Easy Rider had been a big hit only a few years before and the outsider/ seeker/ counter-culture perspective is woven into Kowalski’s journey.
He crosses paths with hippies and Pentecostals, and even becomes a folk hero, but in the end he remains alone with his Challenger. The existential truth of Kowalski’s motivation to ignore speed limits is less than clear.
What’s undeniable is that those E-Body Mopars were about the best-looking and badass muscle cars ever let loose on the highways.
2. Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry (1974)
Aspiring NASCAR driver Larry is played by Peter Fonda and his mechanic, Deke, by Adam Roarke, veteran of many '60s biker films. They’re on the run in a souped-up ‘67 Impala after robbing a grocery store safe.
Convinced of their own racing talents, they intend to use the money to buy a fast car and conquer Stock Car racing. Midriff exposed Susan George is along for the ride too. The always-great Vic Morrow is the obsessed county sheriff leading the dragnet against the would-be racers.
Halfway through the film, the trio swaps getaway cars and rips through the second half of the film in a ’69 Charger. And nothing looks better than a Dodger Charger and a big Plymouth Police Interceptor dicing it out at full throttle on public roads.
The film’s ending is a stunner. This was marketed as a kind of two-crazy-kids in love story, but the characters are much darker than that. George’s Mary is disturbing in how she accepts Fonda’s sociopathic abuse. Roarke is troubled on a deep level as well. These three, seemingly homeless nomads drive fast, evade cops in big Chrysler squad cars and seem to be from nowhere and going nowhere.
The country felt adrift in the '70s and these three outlaws are running as much on dreams as on hi-octane.
3. The California Kid (1974)
It’s 1958, and a young, James Dean-like Martin Sheen rolls into an infamous speed-trap town in a flamed ’32 Ford hot rod. Vic Morrow is the murderous town sheriff who rules the nearby roads in a hopped-up ’57 Plymouth Police Cruiser.
This was a network made-for-TV movie and it has the production look of every ’70s TV drama that ever aired. The music is a string of very un-1958 funky '70s guitar wah-wah. Everyone’s hair is a bit too long for the fifties as well, but none of that matters. Yes, the story is predictable. But waitress/ love interest Michelle Phillips looks like the California Dream she was and Morrow is downright menacing as the psycho sheriff who must punish all lesser motorists in revenge for…well, it doesn’t matter what for.
The Deuce Coupe of the title has since become a classic of the custom world. There’s a young Nick Nolte as a wrecking yard owner. Think of this as the flip side of any episode of Happy Days.
4. Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
The most '70s of the films on this list, Gone in 60 Seconds was the dream project of "The Car Crash King" H.B. Halicki. With no budget and unknown actors, Halicki wrote, produced, directed and starred in this nearly two-hour crash-o-rama.
He plays the secret agenty-named, Maindrian Pace, the leader of a group of insurance investigators/ car thieves with a South American contract to steal 48 cars in two days. The female lead is giant-wigged and named Pumpkin. Even the true star of the film, the 1973 mustard yellow Mustang, named Eleanor, is '70s schlock-tastic.
And what’s not to like? The hair. White dudes in pimp chic Huggy Bear outfits. Business executives that look like the parking lot stoner kids from high school. Parnelli Jones. A 45-minute metal-crunching police chase through Long Beach and adjacent cities. The wreck tally in this one has probably only been exceeded by the Blues Brothers film made six years later.
Dish out the chips and guacamole and invite your friends over for this one. Marvel at how Southern California once had open, undeveloped lots all over the place. It’s beyond cliché and satire. It’s ironic and amateurish. It’s blinding and it’s fun for everyone.
5. The Getaway (1972)
Some might squawk that this Sam Peckinpah crime classic isn’t really a car film; and while it’s true that the car is not the star here, it’s all about the road.
Steve McQueen, fresh out of prison, and Ali MacGraw are nomads on the run after a bank heist gone bad. Now, with bags of cash and double-crossing criminals on their tails, they have to get through Texas to sanctuary in Mexico. McQueen owns the long Texas highways with a series of unobtrusive getaway cars, and should some straw-hatted country deputies interrupt his trip, Steve-o knows a twelve-gauge beats bangin’ fenders every time. Excellent bad guy, Al Lettieri is out on the road after him and a beat-to-hell ’57 Chevy pickup never looked so good as when Ali MacGraw is ridin’ Daisy on that bench seat between McQueen and Slim Pickins.
If you haven’t seen this one, shame on you. Turn in your keys. You’re unworthy.
6. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
The first scenes of Two-Lane Blacktop set the tone for the rest of the film – gritty, dark and uncertain. A near documentary style. No names and sparse dialogue. No police chases or elaborate stunt crashes.
Singer James Taylor is The Driver and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson is The Mechanic. Nomads, they exist to move from town to town, drag racing their stripped ’55 Chevy for spending money. Laurie Bird is The Girl and she drifts in and out of buses, cars, and diners. The great Warren Oates is G.T.O., either a test pilot out for four-wheeled kicks in his new 455 Pontiac or a perpetual liar with a compulsion to pick up hitch hikers. It feels like the '60s are over and no one really knows what to do. No one is a good guy or a bad guy, but they’re all not quite right. They live only in the present with no past and no future.
The three men agree to a race across the Southwest to the East Coast with with their pink slips at stake, but the race is as aimless as the characters. This is a must-see film.
7. Mad Max (1979)
Director George Miller, on a shoestring budget, creates some of the best highway mayhem ever burned into film. It’s the end of the ‘70s and civilization is failing. Black leather. Nomads. Authorities unable to keep order.
The lawless roads of Mad Max are just a few years away. Better have your supercharged black police interceptor tuned and ready.
Did we miss anything? Which one of these is your favorite?