Movie cars are usually some super-clean, ultra-rare car made to make the leading man even more appealing, but a handful of movies have put the stars in beaters to great effect. There’s something cool about seeing the lead driving something that you’re not sure is going to make it to the next scene.
Harper is a terrific private eye movie starring Paul Newman and written by William Goldman, who was responsible for some of the greatest screenplays in movie history.
Lew Harper drives a 1956 Porsche Speedster in the movie. Nowadays, Porsche Speedsters are sought-after collector cars, but as the movie indicates by the gray primer and the driver’s door painted in red primer, Harper’s Porsche was just a used-up, clapped-out beater by 1966.
Despite Paul Newman’s good looks, he was supposed to be a loser, and his Porsche fit the part.
Mr. Majestyk (1974)
Mr. Majestyk has a lot going for it. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, who directed the great dystopian film Soylent Green, and the chillingly banal The Boston Strangler. The script comes from Elmore Leonard, who was largely ignored at the time, but would later become the genius writer behind movies like Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.
Charles Bronson’s Mr. Majestyk has exactly the occupation you’d expect in a 1970s action film: Melon farmer. And his truck is a beat-up Ford F-Series that gets put through the wringer to the point that the scenes ended up in a Ford commercial from 1976, at least ten years after the truck came off the assembly line.
Rockford Files (1974 – 1980)
Think about the most memorable cars in television history: The General Lee, the Chevy pickup from the Fall Guy, Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari 308.
…and Jimmy Rockford’s Firebird. Here’s what it had going for it: It was an Esprit — which was really made for secretaries and dental hygienists — it was a 350, and it was BROWN, for God’s sake.
Not only was it a beater when it rolled off the assembly line, but Jim Rockford beat the holy cats out of it, and the later ’77 model, for the next six seasons. It was curbed, jumped into ditches and blown up over the course of Rockford’s run. No car outside of the Bluesmobile had the tar beaten out of it more frequently.
Slap Shot (1977)
Right after Paul Newman and George Roy Hill worked on The Sting, they worked together again on Nancy Dowd’s killer script about a minor league hockey team.
To highlight that Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop is an aging former star athlete at the very end of his career, George Roy Hill put Paul Newman in a formerly cool 1970 Pontiac GTO, with white letter tires, Hush Thrush mufflers, American Racing Torq Thrust wheels and a pretty sizable dent in the front quarter.
It’s an absolutely perfect car for a guy that’s just about to get canned, and it’s an ideal partner for Reggie Dunlop’s leather leisure suit. We couldn’t find a YouTube clip for this one, so you’ll have to go back and watch the whole movie.
Bull Durham (1988)
The other great “Aging sports star on his way to getting flushed out of the system,” Bull Durham has Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis behind the wheel of a 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 KR convertible.
It’s so much like the GTO from Slap Shot, you have to think that director and writer Ron Shelton had to have Reggie Dunlop’s car in the back of his mind.
Like Reggie’s car, it speaks volumes about Crash Davis’s career: It’s a car he probably would’ve bought with a signing bonus when he first went to the Show, and now it’s just a road-worn used car he drives from town to town in the minors. Perfect casting. You can almost see Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh’s Porsche 911 with the quadrophonic Blaupunkt in the same shape 15 years hence.
White Lightning (1973)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Ford Custom 500 saw more screen time than any car in history. They were in EVERYTHING in the 1960s and 1970s. Go to IMCDb.com and you’l find 11 pages of examples of movies and TV shows where the Custom 500 appeared.
Just before Burt Reynolds became indelibly associated with the Pontiac Trans Am, the Custom 500 was his car — a ‘shine mule provided by the Department of Revenue. Like any good moonshine runner, it was designed to blend in, despite having a 429 Cobra Jet with dual quads and a four-speed. It was the perfect “just got out of prison” car, and spends about six minutes on camera before taking a hellacious beating.