Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 2, 2012

The Most Memorable Movie Cars of 2011

Memorable CGI/live action chase scene from Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount Pictures)


How big of a draw are cars at the movies? In 2011, they figured prominently in at least a half dozen of the year’s top hits. Worldwide, films aimed squarely at gearhead audiences raked in well over $3 billion at the box office.

The champ was the third movie in the wildly successful (we didn’t say “critically acclaimed”) “Transformers” series – “Dark of the Moon”. The movie grossed more than $1.123 billion (yes, that’s a “B”) in worldwide ticket sales.

The movie’s stars, inarguably, are the Autobots: Bumblebee, Ratchet, Ironhide, Sideswipe, and of course, the commander, Optimus Prime.

Bumblebee, which is usually a Chevrolet Camaro (but it can turn into other vehicles too), has actually spawned its own real-life production model for 2012. “One of the greatest marketing tie-ins in the history of the automobile,” says Bob Lutz, the former co-chairman of General Motors. Mr. Lutz was instrumental in approving the deal back in 2006 – years before the fifth generation Camaro, upon which Bumblebee is based, was approved for production. The first Transformer movie made its debut in 2007 – almost two years before the actual Camaro did!

Bumblebee is also the centerpiece of an entire series of Hasbro toys based on the Autobots and other Transformers cars, trucks and even aircraft.

Replicas of the iconic Peterbilt 379, which Optimus Prime usually turns into, are also seen everywhere from cars shows to truck stops. It is often asked which exact model year of the 379 is depicted in the film; that would be difficult to say, as the 379 was produced in largely unchanged form, from 1987-2007. The filmmakers used three different Peterbilt 379s, built to Optimus Prime specifications, for the various Transformer movies to date.

(Footnote: Yes, in the cartoon versions of Optimus Prime, the commander is depicted as a cab-over truck. The movies’ special effects department said a cab-over would have been impossible to use in the film, because of scale: Optimus re-created in reel-life cab-over mode would have been over 30 feet tall.)

Transformers 3 trailed only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($1.328 billion) in overall box office for 2011.

No. 6 at the movies in 2011 was “Fast Five“, the fifth installment in “The Fast and The Furious” car chase series. It collected a cool $626 million worldwide – an amount which pretty much ends all indecision as to whether or not there will be a sixth Fast & Furious.

Choosing the vehicular star of “Fast Five” could start some arguments. There were some memorable players – such as a customized Corvette which gets launched out of a train, over a ramp, and, finally, into the Colorado River (no, that scene wasn’t filmed in Brazil). And the plot revolves around something that is hidden in a Ford GT 4o replica. But Fast & Furious has always belonged to the Dodge Charger. And “Fast Five” continued that homage, with the introduction of the latest generation of the series, the 2011 model.

Most memorable are a pair of 2011 Chargers which were modified with rear roll bars to haul a bank vault around San Juan, Puerto Rico, leaving memorable amounts of mayhem behind them.

Interesting featurette showing how some of the bank vault stunts were staged.

That scene must rank as one of the most iconic of the Fast & Furious franchise. And it was how the film’s stunt crew (a shout-out to coordinator Jack Gill) wrecked more than 200 cars in the making of the movie – most of them in that one scene. For more information, check out an earlier post here.

Cars 2: A film about racing, intrigue & friendship. (Pixar)

No. 9 at the box office in 2011 was the sequel, “Cars 2“, which a lot of people considered a rare flop from Pixar animation studios. But that’s baloney. Yes, it did cost a record $200 million to make, but it earned $559 million worldwide (that’s just ticket sales; toys and marketing tie-ins are separate numbers). In comparison, the original 2006 “Cars” movie made $461 million. Solid gold.

The usual gang was back – Lightning McQueen, Tow Mater and even lovable little Luigi. But a few new models (hey kids, collect ’em all!) were added, including Finn McMissile’s replica European sports racer.

Extra points if you can cite the actual vehicles upon which Lightning McQueen, Tow Mater and Finn McMissile are based. (Answer: Ford GT 40, mid-1950s GMC truck, Aston-Martin DB5 – with elements of other cars thrown in.)

Another alleged 2011 box office dud was “The Green Hornet“. But, again, the proof is in the bottom line. And the quirky superhero flick attracted $227 million worth of moviegoers to the multiplex. No small amount of the movie’s appeal came from the heroes riding around town attempting to dispatch evil-doers, with varying degrees of success, with their magically customized 1966 Chrysler Imperial. Certainly, that car helped sell a bunch of those tickets. But I wonder why the movie didn’t do anything for ’66 Imperial sales. Well, that one was a dud.

Stylish, critically acclaimed “Drive” failed to attract much of an audience. So its $67 million take won’t add much to the box office totals. But it did remind a lot of people what a forgotten classic the 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna was.

Do we even want to mention 2011’s automotive howlers, like “Drive Angry“? The “Larry Crowne” moped? No, I didn’t think so.

Honorable mention, however, is due to some memorable automotive cinematic performances during 2011: The black 2002 Dodge Ram pickup that Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) drives around in during games in “Moneyball“; the 1988 Lincoln Town Car that is the mobile office of Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughy) in “The Lincoln Lawyer“; the 1935 Cadillac that Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) crashes into a tree in “The Artist“; the fabulous cars of 1959 in “The Rum Diary“; and, finally, the futuristic BMW i8 concept car that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) bafflingly drives around “Mumbai, India” in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol“.

That last movie, the fourth in the immensely profitable Mission: Impossible series, had already grossed $324 million in only four weeks of release in December 2011. That was good for No. 16 on 2011’s list; and the movie was still No. 1 at the box office as 2012 opened. So, the new year seemed to portend the good times would continue to roll for cars at the movies.

Jerry Garrett

January 2, 2012


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