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Top 5 Documentaries for Car Enthusiasts

best car documentaries
Photo by Sicnag on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Being a car enthusiast is about more than enjoying your time behind the wheel; true car enthusiasts want to know everything there is to know about cars. Thankfully, cars have long been a part of popular culture. Over the years, filmmakers have produced a number of fun and informational documentaries about cars. We’ve chosen to highlight five of the most useful and influential documentaries available; some of these are multi-episode documentary shows, while others are feature-length movies. Here’s our pick on the top five documentaries for car enthusiasts.

Top Gear: The Ultimate Car Show

Originally debuting in 2002 on British television, Top Gear has been a mainstay of car enthusiast culture since its inception, but its visual style and entertaining hosts have garnered an audience even outside of car culture.

The show’s three humorous hosts, along with The Stig, an anonymous test driver, wax lyrical about all things related to cars. Each week, the show presents a number of different segments, mixing serious discussions and straightforward performance evaluations with quirky presentations. A number of segments have become regular features on the show:

  • “Races” pits two cars against each other in head-to-head races.
  • In the “Challenges” segment, the hosts present oddball scenarios, such as putting a nun behind the wheel of a monster truck, jumping motorcycles with a bus, or traversing through a life-sized loop.
  • “Stars in Reasonably Priced Cars” sends a celebrity on a speed lap in an economy car.
  • “The Cool Wall” pits photographs of cars against each other to measure their relative coolness.

Since 2010, the U.S. has had its own version of Top Gear. The U.S. show follows a similar format, with three humorous hosts presenting a number of segments. The American version features many of the same segments, but they have different names; “Big Stars, Small Cars,” for example, is the American equivalent to “Stars in Reasonably Priced Cars.” Both versions are acclaimed for their camera work and practical stunts, though occasionally the hosts have caused controversy with politically incorrect comments.

Mighty Car Mods: A DIY Workshop

Mighty Car Mods is a labor of love between two Australian car enthusiasts who met in a recording studio and soon realized their shared love of cars. In 2008, the pair, Marty and Moog, launched a YouTube channel to show viewers how to modify their cars, both inside and out. Each video centers around buying and modifying a car, with Australian colloquialisms and pop humor sprinkled throughout each video. The pair aren’t professional car mechanics, and fans of the show with professional expertise make regular appearances to lend their skills to the pair’s car mods.

Most videos are about 15 minutes long, though there is considerable variability in the length; some videos last up to an hour. Marty’s mother’s home is a common setting for the videos; many of the cars are modded in her driveway or her garage. A shed in western Sydney is also used as a setting. In addition to the channel’s regular videos, Marty and Moog have also released several feature-length videos that have been well-received worldwide, including Turbos and TemplesHow to Zombie-Proof Your Car, and Kei to the City.

Dust to Glory: An Off-road Adventure

Released in 2005, Dust to Glory chronicles the 2003 running of the Baja 1000. The race, which got its start in the late 1960s, is held every year in the Mexican state of Baja California and covers some of the toughest desert terrain on the planet. Each year, several hundred off-road enthusiasts sign up to test their mettle against the grueling course in a variety of vehicles, but not everyone finishes the race. In addition to the hazards of regular desert driving, including bumpy roads, dusty air and punishing heat, drivers in the Baja 1000 have to weather impromptu pits, ramps and jumps built by bored spectators during the race. Several different classes of vehicles compete in the Baja 1000, including motorcycles, trophy trucks, dune buggies and specially modified Volkswagen Beetles. Although the name implies that the race is 1,000 miles long, the actual course varies from year to year and usually runs between 600 to 850 miles.

Dust to Glory follows several prominent racers who competed in the 2003 race, including Mario Andretti, Mike McCoy and Robby Gordon. Using 55 cameras, four helicopters and a fully outfitted camera buggy, the film captures the essence of what it’s like to compete in the Baja 1000. Several drivers agreed to mount cameras on their vehicles, giving viewers a visceral experience as they ride along with the drivers. As viewers watch the powerful desert racers speed across the sand, they’ll feel their hearts race and the adrenaline begin to flow.

Senna: The Sorely Missed F1 Champion

This 2010 British documentary chronicles the life and achievements of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian race car driver who is widely considered to be one of the best racers of all time, if not the best. Senna burst onto the F1 scene in 1984, and over the next ten years, he compiled an impressive portfolio of victories and records.

The film captures the spirit that made Senna such a dominant force in racing, peeling back the layers of myth to present the talented and dedicated racer who stood on top of the racing world for a decade. In addition, it highlights many of the private struggles and triumphs in Senna’s life. Viewers are treated to a view of a competitive racer with no patience for the politics and backroom maneuvering that are sometimes common in the racing world. The film, which is composed of home videos, interviews and archived race footage, doesn’t include any formal commentary, allowing the power of its source material to do all the talking. There are two versions of the documentary, a 3-hour version and a 100-minute version. For any serious race fans or car enthusiasts, this critically acclaimed emotional tour de force is required viewing.

Love the Beast: A Man and His Car

Eric Bana, the Australian actor, directed this 2009 documentary about his 25-year love affair with his first car, a 1974 Ford XB Falcon Hardtop. Bana purchased the car, which he lovingly calls The Beast, when he was 15; since then, he’s continued to maintain and race the car. Even as Bana’s Hollywood success has allowed him to acquire more modern and expensive cars, The Beast remains a mainstay in Bana’s life.

The first part of the film follows Bana and his friends as they prepare for the Targa Tasmanian road rally. In its second half, the film explores the emotional bonds that some people form with their cars, with celebrities such as Jay Leno, Jeremy Clarkson of “Top Gear,” and Phil McGraw offering their opinions about the special bond between man and machine. Car lovers will easily identify with the deep bond Bana feels towards his favorite car, making this documentary a must-see for anyone with an affection for the automobile.

Although each of these documentaries is aimed squarely at car lovers, audiences of all stripes can find something to enjoy. In addition to the documentaries mentioned here, several others deserve mention, including Boys of Bonneville, Truth in 24The Speed Merchants, and Dale.

If you find yourself with a few hours to spare, why not enjoy one of these documentaries about cars?

What’s your favorite car show and/or documentary? Let us know in the comments below!


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