If you ask almost any car guy (or girl I guess), they will mostly likely have knowledge of the 1968 “Bullitt” chase with the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Charger, as many have come to know it as the godfather of car chases, even if they’ve never seen the full movie itself. Along with the Bullitt chase, there are other car chases around the 1960s and 1970s that have been given awards for being “The best car chase ever”.
But what about the very first car chases? What were they like? Well, they actually go all the way back to the 1910s and 1920s, when the automobile was still generating it’s identity around the world, but especially in the US as cars like the Ford Model T were becoming affordable to the average worker. So I thought it might be good to take a look at some of the really old car chases.
In the 1910s and early 1920s, cars seemed to be mostly used for slapstick comedy and crazy stunts, other than for those who had the racing bug, in which cars were inevitably started to be put into place of the race horses around the same time period. But as before how a chase had been with horses and carriages, but with cars not only could they be modified and abused without much worry about it’s current condition, but the car could be completely destroyed and you just had to simply replace it (If you had the money) and not worry about a lawsuit. No longer during filming did you have to pick up horse poop and keep them fed, with a car you put gas in the tank and did whatever you liked, as a driver’s license wasn’t mandatory in all 50 states yet.
Simply, people like the idea of goofing around and doing stunts with cars, and while not immediately, it caught on not too long after. Even before the car was mainstream, the “horseless carriage” became popular not only because it made travel easier and faster, but because it was a massive technological achievement in part with the 2nd industrial revolution. Even if in the very beginning, they were unreliable and hard to operate, because the car represented something bigger than what it was at the time. As many other industries were coming into their own, and movies were invented and capable of being shown to the public, vehicles in general would become a main staple in cinema.
Cars were not the only vehicles that had started to be used in the film industry more frequently either, as the train had showed up before the car, and was sometimes used just as much if not more in a scene. As train robbing bandits became a much common movie trope, and even stared in a few chases themselves in the early days ( “The General” by Buster Keaton comes to mind). As to the improving technology at the time, vehicles in general became much used in the movie industry as horses, while still many folks main way of travel, weren’t as interesting on the big screen. Ironically the movie industry itself hadn’t existed until the early 1900s, around the same time the horseless carriage was becoming somewhat more recognizable.
The roaring 1920s bought along a period of economic prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge in the United States (and Europe I guess), This period saw the large-scale development and use of automobiles, telephones, films, radio, and electrical appliances in the lives of millions in the US. Aviation soon became a business. Nations saw rapid industrial and economic growth, accelerated consumer demand, and introduced significant new trends in lifestyle and culture. The media, funded by the new industry of mass-market advertising driving consumer demand, focused on celebrities, especially sports heroes and movie stars, as cities rooted for their home teams and filled the new palatial cinemas and gigantic sports stadiums.
However, in the 1930s things took a hard turn, as an economic downfall happened. Couple that with prohibition and a lack of jobs and money, and now you’ve bootleggers and people willing to do almost any job as long as they were paid. And thus gave way to the infamous “Cops Vs. Bootleggers/Bank Robbers” chases that we still see in the movie industry today, and this type of chase has become will known around the world today, just ask Bonnie and Clyde.
Though even after prohibition ended, people still made their own booze and ran it illegally, in film and in real life, so that type of chase stuck around in films and TV much longer than it was probably intended. So, from the 1930s through the 1940s, there weren’t a lot of car chases in movies, though they did show up from time to time. As not long after the economic withdrawal came to a close, WW2 began, and most films ended up being centered on war time efforts.
Nonetheless, racing and stunt driving was starting to become very popular in the US around this time, and a few films were pumped out about about said subjects, even so car chases would go on a bit of a hiatus during the late 1930s and early 1940s in favor of automobile racing or crazy, death defying stunts in automobiles. Even with the war propaganda related films, Americans still wanted to see how fast they could make their car go, on the track or the street, or how dangerous of stunts they could do without getting killed. And with cars improving in safety, reliability, design, and speed, it was only a matter of time before car chases would make a massive return to movies and in reality, and the terms “Street Racing” and “Hot Rodding” would become common in car culture.
When the war ended in the late 1940s, post war vehicles made a massive impact on American culture, everyone wanted to see a new and amazing car, train, truck, plane, or bus to ride or drive in. Speed and design was the goal, and Americans wanted the manufactures to make those new and amazing machines that pilot us into to the future, pent-up consumer demand fueled exceptionally strong economic growth in the post-war period. More and more Americans joined the middle class wanting to buy a new speedy and beautiful automobile, and wanted to ride on a technologic and futuristic train, and with the economy starting to finally ramp back up again, the stage was set for the new post-war and modified pre-war automobiles to make a grand stand in cinema history.
The use of green screens and speeding up the footage were helpful when it came to chase screens, and on the dawn of the 1950s, the use of both cinema tricks became more necessary as it made filming far easier. Of course that didn’t mean that they stopped doing stunts or crazy driving scenes, as car chases and car related cinema overall began to show up quite frequently in tune with Americas new found love with the automobile. Car culture was blooming in every media outlet and was only expanding, people wanted to see more and more vehicle related action, which was part of the reason that racing and stunt shows were now so popular, which naturally led to the increase of automobile companies trying new things, as well as the cinemas themselves.
However, one thing that had been discussed prior to the 1950s, but wasn’t commonly talked about, was safety. As due to the growing amount of vehicles on the road, more and more accidents began to occur, thus warranting some safe driving and anti-racing/hot rodding films around the same time period, as well as some pro-hot rodding and racing films to combat them, though I’m honestly not sure which ones came first. But through all of this, car chases were kept commonly in cinema because regardless of peoples viewpoints, audiences gravitated towards the action of the chase itself, and still found the “Cops Vs. Moonshiners” or “Cops Vs. Bank Robbers” trope fun and exciting to watch.
By the mid to late 1950s, auto manufactures begin to develop some truly fast and sporty cars, as by now you didn’t have to build your own car to have something fast anymore, if you had the money you could have a car that could go 80 mph without even working hard, and thus car chases started to appear even more frequently, and not just for the classic tropes. The car’s fate in cinema was now inevitable, as now some truly amazing stunts and chases could be filmed without having to alter a car to go at such speeds, and racing as a sport was in full swing as now there were multiple classes you could enter and race in, and no safety film about driving was going to put a stop to anything, no matter how dangerous.
By the early 1960s, everything only expanded, more chases, more racing, more stunts, and more automotive movies. The public was eating it up and auto manufactures and movie industries were cooking up more and more of it, a good example is “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” from 1963, with plenty of vehicle action to satisfy anyones needs. And with racing on the way to its peak, and the term “Muscle Car” being coined, it was clear that the automobile was here to stay in the cinemas in the spotlight, for as long as the public desired.
There are more chases from the early days of car chases than I’ve showed you here, these were the ones I thought were the best examples, since it was kind’ve just a short history lesson.