Drive Through the Movies: Five Classic Car Chases and How They Define Action

Written by Mighty Max

What makes a car chase movie great? Is it the speed? The action? The crashes? The one-liners? All of the above? If the Smithsonian introduced a wing just for car chase scenes, there would be plenty of different metrics to measure a masterpiece by. In this infographic, we’ll take 5 classics and analyze them to figure out what makes them tick. That isn’t to say that these are the best, or that any one is better than another – just that they’ve all got elements of greatness in them.

So strap in, keep one hand on your hat, and get ready to be blasted back in your seat! Let’s drive through the movies and explore how five car chases defined a generation of action!

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Drive Through the Movies: Five Classic Car Chases and How They Defined Action

These aren’t all of the best car chases in movie history – but they’re certainly instant classics. We pulled together some statistics about each chase to compare them, and found that each was totally unique in its execution. The Blues Brothers was full of chaos and merry destruction, for instance, while The Italian Job was a neat little feat of acrobatics and daring-do. While Mad Max 2 goes all out to create a fantastic chase involving crossbows, flails, and barbarian roadsters, Bullitt inspires generations of movie-makers with only two cars, some creative editing, and the real streets of San Francisco. All statistics involve elements that happen during a chase. Shots fired while in pursuit or at a fleeing car, for example. Collisions could be cars bumping up against each other, running through objects, or colliding and stopping. Damages are estimated based on current prices and anything mentioned in the film. The danger level is a flexible score – for some films like Bullitt and Gone in 60 Seconds, it represents the risk that stuntmen and actors placed themselves in. For Mad Max 2 and The Blues Brothers, it might represent the fictional risk that characters involved with the chase would have faced.

These films are not presented in any particular order. This is not intended to be a ranking or a definitive statement of “what is best,” only a presentation and comparison of the chases.

The Italian Job (1969)

Starring
Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill
Situation
The main character, played by Michael Caine, enlists a group of thieves and con men to help him pull of a complex scheme that involves a massive, city-stopping traffic jam in the city of Turin, Italy. The prize: $4 million in Chinese gold. Caine’s gang practices a plan that involves three Mini Cooper S’s and a bus to navigate traffic-clogged Turin and escape the police.
Number of Chase Scenes
1
Chases Happen In
Turin, Italy
Duration of Chase Scenes
14 minutes, 35 seconds (About 15% of the film)
Primary Cars Involved
3 Austin Mini Cooper S 1275s, Alfa Romeo Giulia TI, Moto Guzzi Falcone
Explosion Count
0
Collision Count
5
Shots Fired
0
Estimated Damages
$3,010,665 (It’s mentioned in the film that the traffic jam alone could cost the city of Turin $3 million. Other damages include gates, a motorcycle, a police cruiser, and a brick wall.)
End State of Protagonist Car(s)
The Mini Cooper S’s are deliberately launched off a cliff and destroyed.
Trivia
The British Motor Corporation refused to donate any cars – including the famous Minis – to the film. The Minis were purchased, and Fiat donated many of the rest of the vehicles. The traffic jam in the film is real – and rumored to have been arranged by the Italian Mafia.
Danger Level
4 – Lots of dangerous jumps and fast driving, some of it through pedestrian clogged streets, but minimal vehicle vs vehicle damage and the chase ends before it can reach the terrifying heights outside of Turin.
3 Word Description
Clean, acrobatic, whimsical

Mad Max 2 (1981)

Starring
Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston
Situation
In post apocalyptic Australia, gas is scarce and vehicles are the most powerful weapon in a man’s arsenal. Max, the “Road Warrior,” helps a settlement holed out in an oil refinery to escape from a group of bloodthirsty barbarians who want to steal their gasoline supply. While Max heads in one direction as a decoy, the settlement goes the opposite way and towards safety. There are several chases involving Max’s “Interceptor,” but the most prominent one involves an oil tanker being hunted down by a pack of barbarian dune buggies and modified roadsters.
Number of Chase Scenes
5
Chases Happen In
Post Apocalyptic Australia
Duration of Chase Scenes
Approximately 22 minutes, 15 seconds (About 23% of the film)
Primary Cars Involved
1973 Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe in an early scene, and a Mack R600 Coolpower semi-truck later.
Explosion Count
6
Collision Count
23
Shots Fired
19
Estimated Damages
Money has no value in this world, but the destruction includes about 7 dune buggies, 12 cars, a mack semi-truck, 2 motorcycles, and a small oil refinery.
End State of Protagonist Car(s)
The Ford Falcon crashes and explodes, while the Mack semi-truck overturns and lies ruined on the side of the road. Damage to the Mack includes 4 popped tires, a ripped-off door, four smashed windows, holes in the roof from gunfire and a flail, and a head-on collision with a barbarian roadster.
Trivia
The destruction of the oil refinery involved the largest explosion ever created for an Australian film at the time.
Danger Level
8 – Incredible amounts of violence. Vehicles are used as weapons, crossbow bolts and bullets are flying, and firebombs are thrown everywhere. Also a couple of harpoon heads and a flail. Overall, about as much chaos as anyone could hope for in a chase scene.
3 Word Description
Violent, ecstatic madness.

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

Starring
H.B. Halicki, Marion Busia, Jerry Daugirda
Situation
The main character, played by Halicki, is an insurance investigator who leads a car theft ring on the side. Halicki’s character is offered a huge score for stealing a specific list of cars by a South American drug lord. Over the course of the film, friction develops between Halicki and his gang up to the point where Halicki is ratted out by one of his gang members. Two chase scenes involve small car thefts – the final chase is the longest, and the one that the film is known for, in which Halicki’s character attempts to evade the police tipped off by his former partner.
Number of Chase Scenes
3
Chases Happen In
6 cities in California – from Long Beach to Carson
Duration of Chase Scenes
Approximately 42 minutes, 48 seconds (About 44% of the film)
Primary Cars Involved
Yellow 1971 Mustang Fastback (“Eleanor”), 1970 Mercury Montego, 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
Explosion Count
0
Collision Count
43
Shots Fired
2
Estimated Damages
If all the cars had been repaired, damages would probably have been in excess of $217,000. However, director H.B. Halicki acquired every car wrecked in the film at an auction for about $200 each – meaning that his actual losses probably totaled only $18,600.
End State of Protagonist Car(s)
Almost totally destroyed with a compacted front end, heavy collision damage to the driver side, wheel wells warped, misaligned wheels, scrapes, gashes, dents, and all windows cracked or broken.
Trivia

A total of 93 cars crash (through collisions, overturning, skidding down hills, or otherwise) through the full 97 minutes of the movie. Some of these crashes were real and nearly killed the actors or stunt drivers.

The last chase is the longest car chase in movie history. The climax of this chase, where driver, actor, and director H.B. Halicki ramps his Mustang off of an overturned car, left him with ten compacted vertebrae. Friends of Halicki claim that he never walked the same again after this stunt.

Danger Level
10 – The authenticity of the stunts adds a sense of thrill and danger that remains powerful to this day. Gone in 60 Seconds is one of the undisputed kings of the car chase.
3 Word Description
Athletic, authentic, ambitious.

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Starring
John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd
Situation
Brothers Jake and Elwood Blues are on a mission from God to put their old band back together and put on a show to raise $5000 and save the orphanage they grew up in from being foreclosed. The film begins with Jake getting out of jail, and the first chase is caused when the brothers run a red light and it’s revealed that Elwood has a lengthy traffic record. This first chase leads the Blues brothers and police through a crowded mall. A second chase involves the brothers and their band escaping an angry band called “The Good Ol’ Boys,” that the brothers get caught impersonating. The last, climactic chase scene has the brothers escaping a successful concert and racing to pay the orphanage’s tax bill – all while being pursued by a fleet of hundreds of Chicago police out to arrest them for their crimes.
Number of Chase Scenes
3
Chases Happen In
Chicago, Illinois (USA)
Duration of Chase Scenes
17 minutes, 23 seconds (About 12% of the film)
Primary Cars Involved
1974 Dodge Monaco, 1974 Chevrolet Bel Air, 1977 Ford Pinto Wagon
Explosion Count
0
Collision Count
44
Shots Fired
83
Estimated Damages
Upwards of $93,400 (The majority of a shopping mall – mostly storefronts, stands, and the inside of a Toys ‘R’ Us, in the first chase; 27 fender-benders, a semi-truck, the top half of an RV, the 1977 Ford Pinto Wagon, the Blues Mobile, large sections of pavement, and at least 5 completely ruined police vehicles.)
End State of Protagonist Car(s)
Completely falls apart – literally. After the chase ends, the Blues Mobile’s doors, frame, wheels, and everything pop off in a moment of exhausted destruction.
Trivia
103 cars were wrecked during the filming of The Blues Brothers – a world record for the time.
Danger Level: 7 – Plenty of acrobatics and vicious crashes make this a bloodbath (or oilbath) of a car chase movie. The Blues Brothers revels in its autocidal intentions.
3 Word Description
Jake: “Hit it.”

Bullitt (1968)

Starring
Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn
Situation
McQueen plays an SFPD police lieutenant assigned to guard a mafia snitch named Johnny Ross. When an attempt is made on Ross’s life and the story becomes more complicated, McQueen’s police lieutenant takes it upon himself to discover the truth. The film’s single chase scene is known as one of the most iconic in any Hollywood film, and involves McQueen chasing a group of mafia hitmen through the streets of San Francisco.
Number of Chase Scenes
1
Chases Happen In
San Francisco, California (USA)
Duration of Chase Scenes
10 minutes, 52 seconds (About 10% of the film)
Primary Cars Involved
1968 Ford Mustang GT, 1968 Dodge Charger R/T
Explosion Count
1
Collision Count
5
Shots Fired
4
Estimated Damages
About $45,000 (The Charger is destroyed, some damage is caused to the Mustang, and damage is done to a 1968 BSA Lightning motorcycle and several other cars in the process.)
End State of Protagonist Car(s)
McQueen’s car skids off the highway and almost into a ditch with dented sides, a windshield damaged by shotgun fire, and loose tires. The Charger flies off of the highway, crashes into a gas station, and explodes.
Trivia

Although the director of the film asked for speeds of 75 to 80 mph, the cars in the chase actually reached speeds of 110 mph and more. The chase was filmed over the course of 3 weeks, and would have involved the Golden Gate Bridge, but permission was denied by San Franciscan authorities.

The editor of the chase, Frank P. Keller, won an Academy Award for Best Editing for his work putting the scene together – it’s known as the archetypical Hollywood car chase, with scores of imitators.

Danger Level
7 – It’s not as wild as some other stunts on the list, but this is a real car chase – planned, edited, and executed with passion and adrenaline behind every second. There’s a reason why this scene is imitated so much. It only seems “typical,” perhaps, due to the “Seinfeld is Unfunny” trope.
3 Word Description
Smooth, artistic, adrenaline.

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