Although many of us enjoy road trip movies for just what they represent (a road trip), every great road-trip movie in history was actually always about more than just getting to a new location in an entertaining way. The most memorable road-trip movies are really about how much the characters change by the time the credits roll at the end.
Road-trip movies can fit well into any movie genre as long as the road remains the main setting, serving as a metaphor for the psychological journey of our favorite stars. Here’s our take on the top five must-watch road-trip movies of all time:
1. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” — 1963
The comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” won an Oscar in 1964 for “Best Effects” and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for “Best Film” in 1963. The story focuses on five very different men who all happen to pull over to help a stranger after his car accident. This stranger happens to be a thief who, just before passing away, confesses to them where he’s hidden away a treasure worth $350,000 dollars. Each of the men decides to go on a crazy cross-country race to try and reach the lost treasure first.
The leading roles included Sid Caesar playing the dentist Melville Crump, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett playing the comedians Benjy and Dingy, Milton Berle playing the ambitious entrepreneur Russell Finch, Jonathan Winters playing trucker Lennie Pike and Ethel Merman playing Mrs. Marcus.
Out of all the classic cars racing and crashing on highways in this hilarious tale, the most noteworthy car from this movie was of course the bright-red, 1962 Dodge Dart 440 Convertible coupe driven by the son of Mrs. Marcus, which had a powerful eight-cylinder engine. This hot piece of automobile sportsmanship with manual transmission could hit up to 106 miles per hour and accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour within 8.3 seconds.
From a grand total of five hours of footage, Director Kramer cut the film down to 192 minutes. Despite that, the studio cut the film down further to only 154 minutes in order to show it more often in the theaters. Kramer’s extended version finally became available as a special release by 2014 for all the movie’s diehard fans and anyone who loves watching all the vintage ’50s and ’60s American classic-car chases and epic, action-packed crashes.
2. “Vanishing Point” — 1971
In this dramatic-action flick, “Adrenaline junkie” Barry Newman plays Kowalski, an ex-marine with a car-racing history. He is on a new job and has to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from his company in Denver to a client in San Francisco.
To make the drive more interesting, Kowalski makes a bet in a bar he stopped by that he can get to San Francisco faster than anyone thinks is possible. He then races fearlessly off to evade police and grab attention the local media in several states before reaching his final confrontation of police roadblocks that results in a spectacular, fiery ending.
- The automobile stars of “Vanishing Point” included a 1970 Dodge Challenger Road-Track, high-performance model 383 coupe with specialty suspension features and four 1970 Dodge Challenger Road-Track model 440 Magnum coupes. They weren’t all originally white; they received special paint jobs for the movie. Both types of sports cars had eight-cylinder engines, hardtops and rear-wheel drive; however, the 440 model had four gears instead of three and a more horsepower (375 HP) that gave it a faster acceleration speed of only 5.8 seconds to reach 60 mph. Despite that, the 383 model still wins out with a higher overall top speed of 137 miles per hour.
- For the movie’s grand finale, the producers took a 1967 Camaro shell and loaded it with explosives to create the massive fireball needed for the bulldozer roadblock-crash scene. Anyone who loves watching amazing car-racing stunts with classic muscle cars can’t get enough of this legendary masterpiece of raw speed.
3. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” – 1983
Clark Griswold plans his perfect vacation to bond with his teenage kids and wife by driving from Illinois to the ultimate destination of fun: the “Walley World” amusement park in Los Angeles. However, everything that could possibly go wrong does in this quirky comedy: A car dealership forces them to drive off in a faulty station wagon; Clark gets shot, robbed and finally breaks the law in a desperate attempt to just have a fun vacation with his family.
Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold while Beverly D’Angelo plays his wife Ellen. Their children were played by Anthony Michael Hall in the role of Rusty and Dana Barron in the role of Audrey.
The Griswold family’s iconic Wagon Queen Family Truckster station wagon, the primary vehicle used for their unfortunate road odyssey, was a remodelled 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon with wood-grained panels on the body. The five-door Truckster, which wasn’t known for its speed, had a six-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive. Also featured in this movie was a red 1981 Ferrari 308 GTSi coupe with rear-wheel drive and a top speed of 147 mph, driven by a seductive blonde.
- Some sources claim that Griswold’s Wagon Queen Family Truckster was designed by George Barris of Barris Kustom, who designed the first Batmobile. However, it’s also likely that Warner Brothers actually did the remodel – according to the research of Gary Schneider.
This film defined the treasured and traditional road-trip vacation for families, and it’s so funny that you will enjoy bursts of laughter from beginning to end.
4. “Thelma and Louise” — 1991
“Thelma and Louise” features two best friends: a waitress named Louise and a quiet housewife named Thelma in Arkansas who escape from their quiet and troubled lives by driving off on a weekend getaway in a 1966 Thunderbird. When a man tries to force himself on Thelma, Louise shoots him. The girls decide to continue road tripping in the Thunderbird and make themselves fugitives. They drive through several states to avoid the police following them. On their way to Mexico, the authorities corner them, but they refuse to surrender at all costs.
Susan Sarandon stars as Louise and Geena Davis stars as Thelma. Christopher McDonald plays Darryl, Thelma’s husband, and Michael Madsen plays Jimmy, Louise’s boyfriend.
The ride transporting these ladies to “freedom” was a turquoise 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible coupe with an eight-cylinder engine. This awesome coupe has a top speed of 131 mph with rear-wheel drive and a three-speed, automatic transmission.
- To make this movie, the producers made five identical copies of the 1966 Thunderbird classic. One was the “star car;” one was a “camera car;” one was a “back-up” car, and two were stunt cars.
This movie appeals to anyone who enjoys a movie with lots of laughs, explosions, robberies and action along the way.
5. “Little Miss Sunshine” – 2006
This dark comedy revolves around a 7-year-old girl named Olive who wins a chance, to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant at California’s Redondo Beach. Her father uses this opportunity to take a family road trip to the pageant as a way to help bring the rest of the family out of their many problems the family is facing. The trip doesn’t turn out the way it was planned and Olive delivers such a rousing performance for the pageant, supported by the rest of her family, that she isn’t allowed to participate in any future California pageants.
The Hoover family is played by Abigail Breslin in the part of little Olive, Greg Kinnear in the part of her father Richard, Paul Dano as brother Dwayne, Alan Arkin as her grandfather, Toni Collette as her mother Sheryl and Steve Carell as Frank.
Their means of transportation is the yellow 1978 Volkswagen Kombi Transporter Type Two station-wagon van, which was built for moving heavy cargo with its four-cylinder engine that produced 67 horsepower at 4,200 rpm. It symbolized the family, trying to look cheerful despite its heavy load.
- They used five identical Volkswagen Type Two vans for filming, and you can still see one of them at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.
- Fox Searchlight Pictures threw a special event that invited all Volkswagen bus owners to watch a special screening of “Little Miss Sunshine” on July 25, 2006 from their vehicles at the Vineland Drive-In Theater. The event attracted 65 Volkswagen buses.
This moving tale about a dysfunctional family that comes together to help each other is full of satire, drama and unconventional humor that makes it a true classic.
We’ve decided to add a little bonus at the end: “Mad Max: The Fury Road” is an honorable mention although it’s not a road trip movie; the clever incorporation of many muscle cars as plot elements and the sheer action happening on the road is why it made the list.
Honorable Mention: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — 2015
While this movie isn’t technically a road trip, it’s a noteworthy mention due to the original setting (the majority of the movie is happening on the road) and literally explosive plot elements.
In this post-apocalyptic action movie, Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, a man struggling to survive in the desert remains of a destroyed Australia. He meets a bold heroine named “Furiosa” who’s trying to gain control of the fort they are being kept and reunite the people. Together, they decide to fight the dictator and bring water back to the people, giving them freedom and new hope.
This cast contained Charlize Theron playing Furiosa; Nicholas Hoult plays Nux, and Hugh Keays-Byrne plays the dictator Joe.
What truly makes this dynamite flick worth seeing is the fact that the experienced movie-making veteran George Miller, who created the original “Mad Max” in 1979 and its sequel in 1981, is bringing back the best elements of this series with this new 2015 blockbuster.
The head-production designer and art director Colin Gibson designed 88 vehicles especially for this movie, including Max’s classic 1974 XB Ford Falcon Coupe, known as “The Interceptor”. The original hardtop car had rear-wheel drive, a 155 horsepower engine with a top speed of 100 mph and reached 60 mph in 11.5 seconds. However, the remodeled car in the 2015 “Mad Max” has four-wheel drive, a new engine, loads of new weapons and a new chassis.
- Since most of the world knows Mel Gibson as Mad Max, actor Tom Hardy personally met with Mel to get his blessing for playing the new leading role.
- Even though new filmmaking technologies didn’t require it, more than 80 percent of the action and effects in the movie were real stunts, not CGI. CGI was only used to give some finishing touches to the surroundings and to make Furiosa’s prosthetic arm.
Sam Philip of Top Gear sums up the movie well by saying, “This film makes the recent ‘Fast And Furious’ installments look like a particularly sedate episode of ‘Downtown Abbey.'” Therefore, anyone craving nonstop excitement is sure to love the rush they get from watching the new “Mad Max“.
The above list is a well-rounded collection of some of the most iconic road trip movies of all time, where the road remains the main setting for most of the plot and action. The characters we meet at the beginning often develop during the movie, making them more complex and sometimes completely different by the end of the movie.
Which of these movies are your favorites?
This is why the road trip often symbolizes their own psychological journeys. We decided to conclude our list with a movie full of pure road madness due to its iconic nature as the rebirth of a top classic-car movie.
Have you seen all of these movies? Add some you think would be a good addition to this list.