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All-time best movie cars: 'Bullitt,' Black Beauty, the Batmobile and more

Whether it's the Ferrari trashed in Ferris Bueller's Day Off or the campy car of a Caped Crusader, the silver screen's four-wheeled icons are the ultimate dream machines.

Oftentimes, they eclipse the actors.

Most of us have a favorite. Now, with Friday's release of The Green Hornet, Hollywood is putting a car in a starring role again. The Black Beauty, a custom Chrysler Imperial — the car chauffeured by Bruce Lee in the 1960s TV series — rides again in the new movie starring Seth Rogen.

As with all movie cars, you don't have to be a gearhead to appreciate The Black Beauty's weaponry or retro cool. But why do we love the cars that cruise the celluloid blacktop?

"We all have cars in common. Everybody has a car story — good or bad," says Leslie Kendall, the curator of the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles.

Kendall says cars are "art that people can interact with," which is why the museum's permanent exhibition of TV and movie cars is popular with visitors.

"Cars are not like art that hangs on the walls … they can only be understood when people see them operating," Kendall says. "I don't know what's more fun, riding, driving or watching them go by."

Motorists driving by the Petersen can see The Black Beauty at one of L.A.'s busiest intersections, where a 30-foot-tall outdoor platform features one of the movie cars and advertises a Green Hornet exhibit.

So what makes a screen machine great?

"There are things that are intrinsic to the car and how it is used, and then there's who is driving it," says Kendall, sounding a bit scholarly, before quickly stating the bottom line for any movie: "A bitchin' car doesn't hurt."

Best-of lists are as numerous as cars themselves. Best movie cars. Best car chases. Best hero cars. So what's one more? At right are my favorites: Cars that I'd want to drive (sorry, Back to Future DeLorean) from movies or TV shows that I like (Too bad, Gen. Lee). Let's get behind the wheels:

Batmobile

Seen in: Batman TV series (1966-68)

What could have more screen-car cred than the original Batmobile? It's the creation of George Barris, Hollywood's "King of the Kustomizers," and the man responsible for hallucinogenic '60s hot rods and TV cars like the Munster Koach. So why would I pick this Batmobile over the post-modern movie versions? Beside the Barris pedigree, it's not only the first screen Batmobile, but it has those twin Plexiglass bubble windshields for its open cockpit. What good is an outrageous custom if people can't see you driving it?

Fast fact: The car was based on a Ford concept car, the Lincoln Futura, which the company sold to Barris for $1.

1964 Aston Martin DB5

Seen in: Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965)

The movie car that helped define cool. What else do you need to know besides it's a classic British sports car driven by Sean Connery, the best James Bond? Not that this Aston is stock. This DB5 set the standard for spy cars with gadgets both subtle (revolving license plates) and surprising (passenger ejection seat). Haven't we all, while on a bad date, wished for that last feature?

Fast fact: One of the Bond Aston Martins sold at auction last year for more than $4.6 million.

1932 Ford Deuce Coupe

Seen in: American Graffiti (1973).

George Lucas' first big hit had several iconic American cars — '55 Chevy, '56 T-Bird and '51 Mercury — but it was the canary yellow coupe driven by hot-rod hero John Milner (Paul Le Mat) that was the film's breakout star. The car is credited with helping to jump-start interest in hot rods. Me? I'd like to take it cruising down Bayshore Boulevard.

Fast fact: The car's license plate — THX 138 — is also the title of Lucas' first feature film.

1968 Mustang GT 390

Seen in: Bullitt (1968)

The movie's director, Peter Yates, died this week, so let's offer a small tribute to the man who helped set the cinematic standard for car chases to follow. With San Francisco as a backdrop, Steve McQueen, in his Dark Highland Green pony, engages in a tire-scorching duel with two hitmen in a 1968 Dodge Charger. The Mustang is cool; the driver may be even cooler. No one could rock a turtleneck and shoulder holster like McQueen, an amateur race driver himself.

Fast fact: The car inspired Ford to create two special-edition Bullitt Mustangs for consumers in 2001 and 2008. For the '08 edition, Ford engineers used a digitally mastered DVD of the movie to achieve just the right exhaust note.

1973 Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe

Seen in: Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981)

Before he was Mad Mel, Mel Gibson was Mad Max. In the best of the movie trilogy, The Road Warrior, Max cruises the Wasteland in the ominous Aussie muscle car, which, like its driver, has seen better days. But as a character tells Max when he discovers the car's booby trap: "The last of the V-8 Interceptors … a piece of history! Would've been a shame to blow it up." The Falcon, a Ford sold only in Australia, was heavily modified, with a supercharger rising boldly from the hood. The car was featured prominently in one of the most dramatic openings in action-film history.

Fast fact: Mad Max Cars, a Seattle-area company, will build you your own Interceptor in 18 to 24 months. The cost varies. "It's an awesome design," says Dee Vyper of Mad Max Cars. "There's the enigma of not knowing what kind of car it is, which adds to the (movie's) apocalyptic vision."

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T

Seen in: Death Proof (2007), Vanishing Point (1971).

It's classic Mopar muscle made even cooler by an amphetamine-fueled Kowalski (Barry Newman) outrunning everyone in the existential road movie Vanishing Point. It must have made an impression on Quentin Tarantino, because he had one of his characters in Death Proof seek out the same model Challenger. The movie's heroines use it to dispatch the evil Stuntman Mike, yet another baddie in a Dodge Charger. Plus, who couldn't fall in love with Zoe Bell, the acclaimed stuntwoman and actor who strapped herself on the hood of this Hemi?

Fast fact: When Dodge was toying with the idea of reintroducing the Challenger in 2006, Motor Trend took Newman for a spin in the concept car.

Ferrari 308 GTS

Seen in: Magnum, P.I. TV series (1980-88)

Talk about sex appeal. Some of us fell for the star; all of us fell for the car — no matter how far we lived from Hawaii. "I fell in love with the red Ferrari almost as much as I did Tom Selleck," says Vicki Butler-Henderson, one of the hosts of the British car show Fifth Gear. "He and his car were my first teenage crush — a great combination for a moustache-loving petrol head young girl."

Fast fact: Selleck drove three model years for the series. This '82 had to be modified so the 6-foot-4 actor's head didn't rise above the windshield.

All-time best movie cars: 'Bullitt,' Black Beauty, the Batmobile and more 01/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 5:07pm]
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