At the time of their release, several of these ’80s car movies tanked at the box office; in the worst cases, their box-office earnings failed to recover a substantial portion of the production costs. Take the film Speed Zone (1989), for example: With an estimated budget of $18 million, movie-ticket sales raked in a little more than $3 million—a cruel blow to ROI and an investors’ nightmare. To the average kid growing up in the ’80s, though, a film’s box-office success meant zero.
The youth wanted to watch, as just one example, a ruthless red Lamborghini Countach outrun the dorky-looking, crap-car-equipped state police, and that’s all that mattered at the end of the day. So, we present to you a list of the most hilariously bad—yet great—’80s car movies from the decade that also brought us Miami Vice, Knight Rider, and Magnum, P.I. For all of the ’80s kids out there—and for everyone else, too—we hope these films take you back to the times when you sat on the living room floor, or your grandma’s weird floral-pattern couch, to catch the latest car chase on the woodgrain television set.
Used Cars (1980)
Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is a young, attractive, and determined man who aspires to become a state senator. When the going gets tough, Russo turns to a shady used-car dealership owner, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), whose inventory consists of lemons, to help fund his political aspirations. With some creative sales strategies and his public-speaking prowess, Russo charms customers to seal the deal.
The Cannonball Run (1981)
The highest-grossing movie on this list, The Cannonball Run—one of several films based on the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash invented by the late, legendary automotive journalist Brock Yates—starred several Hollywood heavyweights: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, and Burt Reynolds. Packed with loads of action and humor, the biggest rivalry in the film is between a 1977 Ferrari 308 GTS and a 1978 Dodge Sportsman ambulance. It was one of 1981’s most successful films, and also included appearances by Jackie Chan and Terry Bradshaw. It’s easily one of favorite ’80s car movies.
King of the Mountain (1981)
One of the more obscure car movies of the 1980s, King of the Mountain stars Harry Hamlin, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and Dennis Hopper. Inspired by the real street racing scene in Los Angeles at the time, street racers take their beef to the backroads and duke it out on Mulholland Drive for both bragging rights and cash. Although the film did not deliver at the box office, it is one of the first movies that spearheaded the street-racing film genre.
The Junkman (1982)
Fatal crashes, exciting car chasing, pileups galore, uber-stylish sunglasses, and shooting biplanes are the perfect ingredients for non-stop-action and laughter. The most astounding part about The Junkman, however, is that Henry Blight Halicki (H.B. “Toby” Halicki), director of 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds, wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film.
When John Carpenter is involved, you know something terrifyingly good is cooking. Based on Stephen King’s 1983 novel, Christine is a (red and white) 1957 Plymouth Fury with a strong personality and frightening past. Carpenter’s film score is a masterpiece, and while box-office sales were somewhat on the marginal side, Christine went on to become a cult classic.
“When the gap becomes too wide between what you’ve got and what you want …” is this Australian film’s promotional tagline.
Ron, who is struggling to find a stable job, cannot afford to buy the Porsche 911 of his wild dreams. When he catches wind of his date’s plan to use him as bait to make an ex-boyfriend jealous, he steals her precious 911 and discovers the true meaning of life.
No Man’s Land (1987)
Not many people seem to remember this outstanding member of the hall of fame for ’80s car movies. With new wave music playing in the background, an epic movie trailer voiceover describes:
“Charlie Sheen, he’s stepping out, looking things over … trying a new line of work. Charlie Sheen is Ted Varrick. Crossing the line into no man’s land. No limits. No boundaries. Welcome to no man’s land. Nowhere to turn, no place to hide.”
More specifically: Tiger-blooded Sheen’s rich-boy Varrick character owns an L.A. Porsche dealership suspected of doubling as a Porsche theft operation and chop shop. D.B. Sweeney stars as the undercover cop out to take him down—an undercover cop who just happens to be an ace Porsche mechanic tempted by the lifestyle Varrick offers. Watch this movie. Like, now.
The Wraith (1986)
Sheen again. The Wraith bombed at the box office, but it made up for the loss with the Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor, one of the coolest 1980s concept cars. Its supernatural, score-settling role in this era-perfect ’80s car movie is worth your time.
License to Drive (1988)
The two Coreys? We were sold back then, and we’re sold now. One of this film’s biggest highlights—and there are many—comes when ’80s teen heartthrob Corey Haim, playing Les Anderson, is at the wheel of a Ferrari as a school bus tails him. He demonstrates his incredible multitasking and driving skills when he lights his girlfriend’s cigarette and ignites a raging fire as part of his escape plan. Haim’s sidekick Corey Feldman plays a pivotal role as well, as does a young Heather Graham. We score License to Drive as a 10 on the re-watchability meter.
Speed Zone (1989)
As previously mentioned, this film cost $18 million to make and brought in $3 million and some change. The late, renowned film critic Roger Ebert said of Speed Zone, “Cars are not funny. Speeding cars are not funny. It is not funny when a car spins around and speeds in the other direction. It is not funny when a car flies through the air. It is not funny when a truck crashes into a car. It is not funny when cops chase speeding cars. It is not funny when cars crash through roadblocks.”
Now we remember why we didn’t always agree with his reviews.