The greatest car films of all time for petrolheads and motorsport fans

09 Apr 2020 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Dominic Jeffares

"You will never know the feeling of a driver when winning a race. The helmet hides feelings that cannot be understood" - Ayrton Senna

Rush, 2013

Formula One has gotten awfully boring now, hasn’t it? Gone are the days when drivers lit up 40-a-day and feasted on a breakfast of champagne and sex. In its place, we’re served athletes who know how to drive, but have forgotten how to live and engineers hell-bent on making machines that sound like vacuum cleaners. Rewind to 1976 and the championship is on between two diametrically opposed characters: Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda. Hunt was a playboy with a supposed tally of 5,000 wins (that’s women, not races). Lauda was methodical, hard-working and well, Germanic. The cinematography is exemplary, partly down to how closely the cameras have been set up to the action – illustrating the extent to which these drivers were dicing with death. You’ll get far more of a thrill watching this than any current F1 race…

Senna, 2010

Before the highly-acclaimed Diego Maradona and Amy documentaries, Asif Kapadia directed the emotional big-hitter Senna, which won a BAFTA for Best Documentary in 2010. Using extensive archive footage of Senna on-and off-track, the film weaves a delicate story around the Brazilian’s obsessive desire to win and the cult-like following he earned with well-chosen voiceover narration by the driver himself, his parents, his sister, rival Alain Prost and a great many television commentators. The genius of the documentary is that it resists the tabloid sensationalism that focused on Senna’s untimely death at San Marino. Instead, like the man himself, it’s a subtle, spiritual and intelligent retelling of how he lived.

C’etait un rendez-vous, 1976

Running for eight minutes in total, this short film is quite possibly the greatest point-of-view scene you’ll watch during lockdown. Shot on a single take, typical of the cinéma-vérité style, the viewer is taken on a heart-thumping (and illegal) ride through Paris, taking in sites such as the Opéra Garnier, Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe. Why the rush, one might ask? For a rendezvous with a girl waiting in Montmartre, naturally. Make sure your volume is turned up – a V12 engine straight from a Ferrari 275 GTB provides the backing track.

Bullitt, 1968

It starred and was produced by one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, yet it was a 10-minute-long, cleverly-edited car chase through the streets of San Francisco that earned Bullitt a slew of Oscars and certified it an instant classic among a legion of petrolheads. The big-screen adaptation of Robert L. Pike’s Mute Witness crime novel, the all-American, unashamedly-macho Bullitt sees tough-guy police detective McQueen determined to discover the underworld kingpin that killed the witness in his protection. The film may have helped cement the cinematic status of its leading man, but the real star of the 1968 cop-thriller was inarguably the car in which McQueen chased the bad guys – a Ford Mustang Fastback, which sold at auction in January 2020 for $3.4million.

The Italian Job, 1969

Cockney crooks, car chases and an enduring cliffhanger – the recipe is simple, but oh so effective. With catchlines that have endured eternity – “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”- Michael Caine plays conman Charlie Croker in a grab-and-go raid on a gold bullion lorry in Turin. It not only propelled the Mini Cooper into cinematic history, much like Bond’s Aston Martin, it also made use of a gorgeous Lamborghini Miura in the opening sequence through the St Bernard Pass. As a result of the film, a large number of middle-aged dads can be seen dragging their families along the windy roads in their Audi estates.

Ford v Ferrari, 2019

Originally cast with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the starring roles, Ford v Ferrari suffered nothing when it was recast with Academy Award-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale – and wrapped up in a little over two months of filming in California. Damon plays legendary automotive designer Carroll Shelby, with Bale portraying British racing driver Ken Miles. Between them, Shelby and Miles are charged by Henry Ford II with the task of creating an engine and car that would not only be faster than any Ferrari, but also take victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The result was the Ford GT40 – a car that would take to the track at Le Mans in 1966. The rest, as they say….

Honourable mentions:

Le Mans, 1971

Vanishing Point, 1971

Mad Max, 1979

Baby Driver, 2017