Wheels on Reels


Cars started rolling just about the same time that movie cameras did. More than a century on, the movies are still in love with smell of burnt rubber. Every bit as much as their human occupants, bikes and cars are the stars of some of the greatest films ever made.

Wheel and reels collided with giant cultural impact in the ‘50s – Marlon Brando and James Dean both owe a portion of their iconic immortality to a bike and a car. Based on the infamous Hollister motorcycle-rally riot in 1947, The Wild One put a leather-clad Brando on a Triumph Thunderbird 6T as the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club – and a new symbol of masculine cool was born.


Just two years later in 1955, James Dean captures the raging spirit of youth playing a deadly game of chicken in a 1946 Ford Super De Luxe in Rebel Without A Cause.


The scene instantly grew in power when Dean died in a car crash just before the film was released.

But to talk about cars and bikes in the movies is really to talk about one man. Appearing in rear-view mirror of a sinister-black Dodge Charger, Steve McQueen wrapped his hands round the wheel a Ford Mustang Fastback and tore up the streets of San Francisco in ‘60s cop thriller Bullitt.

Over nine minutes of tyre-screeching, wheel-locking, shock-clattering action, man and machine glinted with cool. McQueen was just getting started. He’d famously swap four wheels for two in The Great Escape, pulling off one of the greatest motorcycle scenes of all time as he pelted away from the Nazis through open countryside on a TT Special 650 Triumph.

Along with the barb-wire-fence jump (pulled off by stuntman Bud Ekins), it’s been inspiring people to climb on motorbikes ever since.

McQueen loved wheels so much he even starred in Le Mans, a movie with that swapped script and story for stunning cars and incredible driving sequences.[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPjhb3D587Q&feature=related[/youtube] After watching McQueen rag a Porsche 911S down some deserted French lanes, we hit the track to look in awe at the speeding beauty of the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512S.

Only one other big-screen hero owes cars as much as McQueen: Her Majesty’s finest, Commander James Bond. Pimped out with ejector seat, machine guns and tyre-shredder, the Aston Martin DB5 became an essential 007 iconic in Goldfinger.


You had to feel sorry for 007 when, in For Your Eyes Only, his Lotus Esprit Turbo was blown up and he was forced to battle gun-toting killers in a Citroën 2CV.

No question, the ‘60s were a golden age for cars and bikes in Hollywood and Britain. Despite cruelly crushing a Lamborghini Muira with an earth-mover in the opening scene, The Italian Job made Mini Coopers an unmistakable part of the first version of Cool Britannia. Then runaway bride Marianne Faithful slipped naked into a leather jumpsuit for Girl On A Motorcycle, a psychedelic cult classic about, well, you know.


But while Brando’s The Wild One got the motor running, the chopper really became a big-screen icon when Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper made Easy Rider. Powered by a Steppenwolf soundtrack the film became a counter-culture classic that changed Hollywood and made the choppers legendary. Ironically, the bikes were former police bikes – one was burned on film, the others were stolen.


It sparked a cavalcade of shonky biker flicks and a few interesting ones, including Electra Glide In Blue, in which hippie cop Robert Blake rides a Harley Electra Glide.


The Harleys didn’t have it all their own way: Gregory Peck famously romanced Audrey Hepburn on a Vespa in Roman Holiday, the same scooter that would later represent youth, cool and freedom in Brit coming-of-age drama Quadrophenia.


Back on four wheels, the ‘70s taste for cool running continues with Two-Lane Blacktop, which saw musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson ( ‘55 Chevy) stirring the box alongside Warren Oates (‘70 Pontiac GTO) in motors that empower them to escape from The Man.


Weirdly, though, it was love bug not a speed machine that captured the hearts of ‘70s cinema-goers. Disney’s Herbie franchise saw a little white VW Beetle become one of the popular characters it’s ever created.

Cars often had more personality than the stars. Anyone who’d seen the demonically possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury in John Carpenter’s cult thriller Christine knew this already.

As a new generation of teenage kicks began in the ‘80s, motors continued to be a yardstick of cool. Ferris Bueller did it all for his dad’s replica 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spider California (“It is his love, it is his passion… it is his fault he didn’t lock the garage”). Back To The Future turned the gull-winged 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 into a time-travelling mean machine.


And even sci-fi masterpieces Akira and TRON are remembered best for their neon, streaking future-bikes.



As if to strap into empty driver’s seat left by McQueen, Tom Cruise treated a Kawasaki GPz900R like an F-14 with wheels in 1986’a Top Gun.

Cruise hadn’t ridden a motorbike before, but he learned in the parking lot of a California bike shop and promptly found himself in motorhead heaven. You’ll see him on a bike in everything from Mission: Impossible II to Knight & Day.

His record-smashing, wheel-tilting appearance on Top Gear proved that NASCAR actioner Days Of Thunder wasn’t all acting.

Another famous Hollywood biker is Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chased Sarah Connor on a Honda 750 in Terminator, before upgrading to a Harley Davidson Fatboy in the sequel and uttering the immortal line: “I need your clothes, boots and your motorcycle.”


The Big Oak remains an avid motorcycle enthusiast to this day, while the Terminators in Terminator Salvation actually became motorbikes themselves.

Over the past few years of movies, bikes have been at the heart of some of cinema’s most inspiring true stories, including The Motorcycle Diaries (Che Guevara travels across South America on a a 500cc single cylinder Norton Motorcycle named La Poderosa, ‘The Mighty One’) and The World’s Fastest Indian (Anthony Hopkins stars as Kiwi speed-bike racer Burt Munro, who set an under-1000cc world record on a modified an Indian-brand motorcycle).

The Fast And The Furious reignited a taste for modified cars and street racing, spawned three sequels (and counting), but when it comes to real car-nage – even after the souped-up battle rigs in Mad Max Road Warrior or Jason Statham’s Death Race remake – you still can’t beat Gone in 60 Seconds.



Not the Nic Cage remake, the ‘70s original. Real cars, real stunts, really bad acting. It ends with a 34-minute car chase that’s one of the most spectacular in film history. Writer/director/producer/star H B Halicki wrecked 93 cars in this 96-minute film. That’s 0.97 cars per minute. It’s been pointed out that Rambo only kills 0.72 people per minute in First Blood Part II. Talk about hitting the road.