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Just like any other film genre, car movies come in many different styles, shapes and sizes. It’s nearly impossible to narrow down the entire genre to a handful of motion pictures. However, we can categorize the best car movies of all time by one important factor — the audience. The audience’s main demographic primarily determines the film’s reception and long-term legacy.
Let’s break down the Top Ten best car movies of all time based on their target audience so that car lovers of all backgrounds can join in the fun.
For Casual Audiences — Back to the Future (1985)
The first movie in our Top Ten is for casual audiences who might not know a lot about cars but can still appreciate a nice ride when they see one. Back to the Future fits that description to a tee with its famous DeLorean time machine at the center of the storyline. This movie technically belongs to the sci-fi genre, but the vehicle presence is too strong to leave off the list.
Viewers learn a surprising amount of technical information about the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 throughout the film, giving them a solid knowledge base for some of the other best car movies of all time.
For Film Buffs — Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver isn’t just one of the best car movies of all time. It’s one of the best movies of all time in any genre or era. With Martin Scorsese directing and Robert De Niro in the lead role as an antisocial New York City taxi driver, it gives viewers a new perspective on the lonely existence of NYC’s most underappreciated citizens.
A big chunk of the film consists of nighttime driving scenes with De Niro talking to passengers — or to himself — and absorbing the increasingly dystopian urban landscape. You’ll be fully immersed even though you’re not behind the wheel. There’s nothing quite like driving through the Big Apple, and this movie puts that experience on full display.
For Historians — Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)
Fans who know their car history will love Ford vs. Ferrari, a relatively new movie that chronicles the heated 1960s rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari. The beef between these two auto manufacturing giants sparked some of the most exciting races in history, including the 1966 Le Mans which serves as the climax of the movie.
This film has received great praise from car historians for its accurate portrayal of key figures Carrol Shelby and Ken Miles, played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale respectively. The racing scenes are so phenomenal that you might have a similar reaction to Henry Ford II’s first experience riding in a GT-40.
For Families — Cars (2006)
Families are the most important target audience for most movies, and nobody makes family-friendly movies better than Pixar. Cars is a charming film that turns the vehicles into characters with distinct personalities, including the arrogant race car Lightning McQueen and the rusty old tow truck Mater.
While other kids’ movies can be unbearable for the parents, Cars is actually entertaining for people of all ages. It’s packed with humor from start to finish and even has a handful of extended driving scenes with amazing animated landscapes.
For Thrill Seekers — Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Chase scenes are crucial parts of car movies, and that’s why Gone in 60 Seconds is one of the best car movies of all time. This film isn’t known for its deep plotline, complex characters or poetic dialogue. In fact, most would agree that it’s lacking in all three departments, However, the driving stunts are so far ahead of their time that we couldn’t leave this movie off the list.
For Road Warriors — Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Mel Gibson’s Mad Max films also deserve an honorable mention, but in terms of automobiles, Mad Max: Fury Road is the best installment of this franchise. This film is basically a 90-minute chase scene through a vast desert landscape, with only a handful of scenes that don’t include some sort of driving stunt. Perhaps most impressively, viewers still get to see some amazing character development and worldbuilding despite minimal dialogue.
For Racing Fans — Days of Thunder (1990)
If you’re a NASCAR fan, then need to see Days of Thunder. Tom Cruise plays the lead role of an open-wheel racer named Cole Trickle who becomes a stock car driver and learns to navigate the behind-the-scenes drama and politics of professional racing. Viewers also learn a lot about the mechanics and strategy of professional racing that you don’t often see in other car movies.
For Comedy Lovers —Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Talladega Nights is a different kind of racing movie. It also focuses on the trials and tribulations of a professional NASCAR driver, but this time comedy genius Will Ferrell is in the lead role as Ricky Bobby. It’s full of hilarious one-liners and also has a surprisingly touching plotline about Bobby finding himself behind the wheel and reuniting with his absent father.
For the Tuner Culture — The Fast and the Furious (2001)
The Fast & Furious franchise has turned out 12 movies, but the first installment is the only one worth considering among the best car movies of all time. This film is so iconic because it made “tuner culture” mainstream and got millions of people interested in auto mechanics and sports car modifications. It also introduced more theatrics and driving stunts to the big screen that would serve as the blueprint for future car movies in the 21st century.
For Documentary Lovers — 1 (2013)
If you prefer documentaries over traditional movies, then you’ll love the simply named “1”, which follows the daily challenges of Formula 1’s top drivers, including Niki Lauda, Sebastian Vetell and Mario Andretti. Professional racecar drivers often seem larger than life, but this film shows that even the best drivers on earth are still human.
A Movie for Every Audience
The best car movies of all time aren’t just about racing or auto mechanics. Although these elements are crucial parts of the genre, you still need memorable characters, a strong plotline and a specific target demographic. That’s why these movies set the standard for the rest of the genre. This list has a movie for every audience, whether you’re a car buff or not.