Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, action movies and TV shows were full of cars flying through the air. It was glorious, and part of the fun was the audience’s complicity with the filmmakers: we knew the cars folded up and fell to bits when they landed, and got replaced before they drove off. We just didn’t care. There’s something about a jumping car and the forbidden thrills and freedom it represents. With the advent of CGI, these crazy stunts are now kind of a lost art. You’ll still occasionally see some retro-style jumping, often in a classic car, but it’s rare to feel that frisson of excitement in knowing that some lunatic has actually been in the driving seat for the stunt. Here then, is a tribute to those mad men who risked life and spine for disposable redneck car-chase comedies. It’s also a partial chronology of what we’re loosely calling “the genre”, from Bullitt to the Fast & Furious franchise: 25 of our favourite ridiculous vehicular moments from the last five decades. Where these guys were going, they didn’t need roads…
Cars: 1968 Ford Mustang and 1968 Dodge Charger R/T
Arguably the place where an entire genre of movie car chases really starts, Bullitt doesn’t quite feature the flying cars that will come later. It does, however, have several thrilling moments with all four wheels off the ground, as Steve McQueen and his adversaries negotiate the precipitous hills of San Francisco.
Car: 1971 Ford Custom 500
Burt Reynolds’ moonshiner rogue escapes the cops with this amusingly scrappy jump from the riverbank onto a trawler. This will not be the last time Reynolds appears in this list. You’d have to wonder how closely according to plan this actually went, since the car seems barely to reach its target. Interestingly too, there are scenes that follow in which Reynolds is getting the car repaired. We won’t be seeing the real world encroach like that very often.
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Car: 1971 Ford Mustang (“Eleanor”)
A labour of love for writer/director/producer/star/stuntman H. B. Halicki, the climactic chase here takes up fully half the film, wrecking almost 100 vehicles. Star of the show is “Eleanor” making the final insane jump: she travelled 128 feet airborne and reached a height of 30 feet. Halicki, who was in the pilot’s seat, compacted ten vertebrae. Nobody could quite believe that Eleanor was still driveable afterwards.
Car: 1974 AMC Hornet
One of the most astonishing stunts in the film history, notoriously dubbed with one of the worst sound effects: a slide whistle gag sound that remains a low point of the franchise. Roger Moore’s James Bond, with comic relief from a holidaying Sheriff J. W. Pepper, jumps a broken bridge, turning 360 degrees in mid-air. The story is well known: it’s the first stunt to be designed by computer, and driver “Bumps” Willard nailed it in one take, earning a very generous on-the-spot bonus from a relieved Cubby Broccoli. Never repeated and arguably never bettered.
Car: 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
It’s Burt Reynolds again, nonchalantly sailing over another broken bridge as hapless cops pile up behind him. That hidden ramp only seems to work for the Bandit – which is probably as it should be. Arguably the purest distillation of our ridiculous chosen genre.
Car: Rocket-propelled 1978 Pontiac Trans Am
Reynolds again, but where the Bandit’s jump over the creek is beautiful in its simplicity, this one is mad and festooned with bells and whistles. A loosely autobiographical film based on director Hal Needham’s own stunt career, Reynolds is here playing a stuntman looking at potentially his final gig… in a rocket car…
Car: 1973 AMC Matador
Not director Sam Peckinpah’s finest hour, but it’s a movie based on a song, so we can’t expect too much. What it does have is this great moment where Sheriff Dirty Lyle (the late, great Ernest Borgnine) – presumably because of an early model sat nav’s bad advice – takes a detour through a billboard and across a church roof.
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CAR: 1973 Ford Falcon
Admittedly this one is more of a smash than a jump, but the aptly named Ford Falcon undeniably takes to the air here, and it does so through a caravan. An entire generation hugs its knees in joy and makes a mental note in case there’s an upcoming apocalypse.
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Car: 1974 Dodge Monaco
It’s a cop car with cop suspension, which it’ll be needing very shortly. This is one for everybody who ever fantasised about jumping an open drawbridge. The location is the 95th Street Bridge over the Calumet River in Chicago, but we wouldn’t recommend you try it for real. You don’t want the entire Chicago PD to end up chasing you down the street.
Car: 1974 Mercury Montego
Hard to remember now, but before Oscar-nominated religious dramas, motion capture, cartoon rabbits and flux capacitors, Robert Zemeckis made a rambunctious redneck car comedy with Kurt Russell. It’s good too! “This had better be a great car!” prays Gerrit Graham. Debatable, but its apparently good enough to clear a freight train without injuring its human or canine passengers. The front end took a beating though.
Car: 1974 Dodge Monaco
Almost thrown away in the orgy of stunts and smashes in the Bandit sequel’s “roundup” sequence, this cop-car-off-truck leap is actually a world record-holder. It wasn’t the longest jump ever, but it was, at the time, apparently the longest jump by a car using its original engine (ie. not modified for the gag). The distance was 163 feet, and the only trifling injury stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker sustained was permanent spinal damage. All in a day’s work.
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Car: 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California Replica
John Hughes perfectly encapsulates the pure joy of having the wind in your hair and a car in the air, aided in no small measure by one of the rarest and most expensive cars on the planet. This is why you should never trust a parking valet with your mate’s dad’s incredibly expensive and meticulously restored car.
Car: 1976 Jaguar XJS [XJ27]
Essentially Cannonball Run 3, this is – we’re not going to mince words – a godawful movie. But it does boast the talents of John Candy and Eugene Levy, as well as this wonderfully absurd moment of car-flinging: “Look, there’s a bird nesting!”. Almost certainly fatal, were it not for its obvious fakery.
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Car: Mercedes-Benz 500 SL [R129]
Speaking of fakery… While we’re not yet into the CGI era, this is perhaps the genre’s high watermark of the utterly glorious and the completely ridiculous. Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen pilot a Merc out of the fourth floor of an exploding building. Eastwood even makes a deadpan quip mid-flight. The protracted landing – through a skylight – is awesome too. The basic stunt was achieved with a rig similar to the ones used to fling jets off aircraft carriers.
Car: 1966 Ford Thunderbird
See Ferris Bueller, but with an added sniffle. An alternate ending on the DVD shows a longer plunge cut to a B. B. King song but the release version, freezing in mid-air, remains definitive. It manages somehow, in some ways, to seem upbeat despite what’s actually happening: a thrilling triumph as well as a tragedy.
Car: Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL [W126]
McCLAAAAAANE! There are a couple of good airborne moments with the taxi cab in Central Park, but the one that sticks in our heads from the third Die Hard is the jump off the bridge. The car behaves somewhat strangely in mid-air though, suggesting it’s actually being dangled off a crane or something. That, for the record, is CHEATING.
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Car: 1999 Pontiac Grand Am
Some found the final Lethal Weapon tired, but the freeway chase is an undeniable classic, culminating in a jump from the road, a drive through an office, and then another flight back onto the tarmac. No driving away unscathed either: the car gets pleasingly trashed, even bursting all four tyres on its second landing after which Riggs and Murtaugh drive on the rims.
Car: Mercedes-Benz 500 E [W124]
Glimpsed at about 00:55 in the trailer to the left, this final jump is unusual in that it’s not performed by the hero, but a trap for the bad guys. The Luc Besson-produced Taxi franchise is proof, if proof were needed, that the Americans don’t have the monopoly on car carnage. This scene was replicated in the US remake with 2002 BMW M3s.
Car: 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Here’s where the CG enhancements start to really kick in: a sad moment where real ridiculous car stunts truly become a dying art. Compare this with the Flight of Eleanor in the original Gone in 60 Seconds and tell us which you think is the more thrilling. For our money this one is cool, but weightless.
Car: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro
Great, cheesy moment, but again with the CG. We’ve seen before that it’s actually possible for a stuntie to jump a car onto a boat with no digital trickery, but the distance involved here means some graphical stretching is in order. We went for this scene over the earlier street race, because that first jump really does just look like a videogame cut-scene.
Car: 1969 Dodge Charger
Limiting ourselves to films as we have been, we’ve obviously had to leave out the car jump ur-text that is TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. All hail the movie remake then, because while it’s not very good, it does feature this truly glorious old-school moment where Bo and Luke hit the freeway with their trademark unorthodox methods. The end credits bloopers show what actually happened to the car before dextrous editing – as is traditional – sent it on its way unharmed. Yeee, and indeed, haaa.
Car: Wayne Industries Tumbler (prototype)
This scene is obviously not without a smidgeon of FX enhancement, but the Nolan creed is Everything As Practically As Possible and, incredibly, his Batmobile could pretty much perform as shown. We’ll hand over to Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould, who told Empire last summer: “We spent a lot of time jumping it to see where it broke, strengthen that part, jump it again… We kept finding the weak links along the chain until we could more-or-less do anything with it. In the end I think our longest jump was about 70 feet, at 60mph. And it landed and drove off…”
Car: Audi A8 D3
As unflappable as ever, as always slightly annoyed, Jason Statham plants his Audi on the roof of a train, in a gag only slightly marred by the clunkily animated landing. Only a quick shot, but enough to spoil the majesty of the preceding seconds. See also the car-bomb removal scene from Transporter 2, wherein Statham flips a car upside down underneath a giant magnet to remove an explosive device, which mostly took place inside a computer but which is so bat-shit insane that it deserves a place here.
Car: 1966 Ford Mustang (using 1986 Chevrolet Corvette as ramp)
A lot of you might have gone for the Viper off the bus – and that would be fair enough. Timur Bekmambetov’s bullet-time aesthetic means both flights of vehicular fancy are equally wild and CG glossy, but we went for the assassination scene because hey, it’s a Mustang. And it’s flipping upside down so its driver can shoot someone through their sunroof. It also takes some damage when it lands, which demonstrates that at least bits of the sequence were stunted for real.
Car: 1966 Ford GT40
Two for your buck here, as the spiffy RCR-40 replica first exits a moving train through a gaping hole in its side (from an explosion. This is Fast Five so of course it's from an explosion) and then goes all Thelma & Louise into a deep gorge. You’ll be glad to know that Vin Diesel and Paul Walker both emerge unharmed. The poor car… not so much.