10 Iconic Movie Prop Cars and Motorcycles of Film & Television

KITT-Knight-Rider-TV-prop-car-3 (Image: Daniel Dionne)

They’re the iconic screen cars and motorcycles we grew up promising ourselves that some day, we were going to own. It didn’t even matter if our versions didn’t talk, jump or fly (although we were secretly convinced that that they would). We’d have them regardless. After our in-depth look at the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine was so well-received, we decided to take a walk down memory lane and examine some of the most iconic vehicles that have ever graced the silver – and small – screen, how they came to be and where they are today.

Mad Max: Ford Falcon ‘Pursuit Special’

mad-max-interceptor-movie-car-props-2 (Image: Pop Culture Geek)

The “Pursuit Special” was Max’s car from the end of Mad Max into The Road Warrior, and it was everything that we thought a post-apocalyptic car should be (right down to a place for Max’s canine sidekick). Throughout the movies, the vehicle undergoes a series of modifications that include the installation of booby traps, larger fuel tanks and lifting it to make it better at navigating off-road terrain.

mad-max-interceptor-movie-car-props-3 (Image: via Mad Max Wiki; the original Ford Falcon seen in 1973, pre-Mad Max use)

The story behind the car is a testament to the ingenuity of the Mad Max props department. The first movie was shot with a total budget of $350,000, with only $25,000 allocated for vehicles and other props. Original plans of high-tech, futuristic machine were scrapped due to budget constraints, and Max’s car went from being a souped-up Mustang to a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT coupe bought at a car auction. The Falcon got a makeover that included salvaged parts from other cars and a paint job (it was originally white). But when filming wrapped on the original movie, no one wanted it.

mad-max-interceptor-movie-car-props (Image: Mad Max Wiki; abandoned Pursuit Special photographed in a scrapyard)

After failing to sell at auction for $7,500, Mad Max’s Ford Falcon was given to a mechanic in lieu of pay. The studio later bought the car back for the sequel, adding fuel tanks and and appropriately road-worn appearance. It survived the second film (although a duplicate was blown up), and again failed to sell at auction. Finally bought and restored, the fabled Falcon had amazingly survived Hollywood and remained a functioning – albeit dented – vehicle whose new owner eventually sold it to the Cars of the Stars Motor Museum in the UK; in 2011, it went to the Miami Auto Museum in Florida.

Smokey and the Bandit: Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

Who didn’t want to get behind the wheel of the iconic car from Smokey and the Bandit? The black and gold 1977 Firebird Trans Am put Pontiac on the map as far as fast cars went, and it’s the first of two that we’ll be looking at.

smokey-and-the-bandit-firebird-trans-am (Image: Julien’s Auctions via Road & Track)

The movie cars were actually 1976 Trans Ams with front ends swapped out and decals changed. Four prop cars were used – and destroyed – during filming. The bridge jump destroyed one of the cars outright, and two others were cannibalized for the parts to help keep the final car functioning at least long enough to finish shooting.

One fun piece of trivia that’s only noticeable if you look (and listen) closely concerns the screen car’s transmission. The engine sounds clearly indicate a manual transmission, though the driver is actually at the wheel of an automatic.

It’s tough to describe what a hot car the Firebird Trans Am was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, thanks in part to this movie. It’s still impressive today, and when Burt Reynold’s own Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am went up for auction in 2014, it blew away all estimates, selling for an incredible $450,000 (over its estimate of $60,000 to $80,000). The car at auction was never screen used, but a promotional vehicle presented to Reynolds after filming was done.

Ghostbusters: Cadillac Miller-Meteor (Ectomobile)

ecto-1-prop-movie-cars (Image: via FatMovieGuy)

Ghostbusters lore suggests that when Ray Stantz bought the car, he had to make a few minor repairs that included: suspension, shocks, brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear end, new rings, mufflers and a little wiring. Not a bad deal, considering he got the car that would become the Ectomobile (Ecto-1) for $4,800. Ecto-1 would be used for kids’ birthday parties after the Ghostbusters were shut down, but would later be overhauled as the Ecto-1a.

The prop car was almost as cobbled together as its on-screen incarnation, built from a Miller-Meteor Futura Ambulance/Hearse Combination and mounted on the chassis of a 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood. Original scripts describe Ecto-1 as a 1975 Cadillac, which was intended to be a far more tricked-out black car, with flashing, purple strobe lights to give it an appropriately supernatural feel. This idea was scrapped, however, when the necessity of shooting at night made it impractical.

ecto-1-prop-movie-cars-3 (Image: relux.)

The original Ecto-1 was also initially supposed to be bestowed with supernatural powers, like the ability to dematerialize. One scene was shot that made reference to such powers, but that, too, was ultimately scrapped.

Though a back-up car was built, only one was ever used on screen – despite the fact that, during the production, it broke down on the Brooklyn Bridge and saddled the film crew with a fine for blocking traffic. In Ghostbusters II, the smoking car wasn’t special effects – it really was falling apart. The Ectomobile, which is understood to be owned by Sony, was eventually restored and put back into action promoting the Ghostbusters video game.

Bullitt: Ford Mustang

Decades on, the infamous car chase scene in the Steve McQueen film Bullitt is known as one of the grittiest, heart-pumping car chases in film history. The key was reality and, because it all looks absolutely real and plausible, we love it that much more.

Bullitt drives a 1968 Mustang GT, and it was this movie that added something to the Mustang mythos. For the chase, two identical Mustangs were pitted against two identical black, 1968 Dodge Chargers that played the bad guys’ car. The seven-minute-long chase was shot as is, with McQueen doing about 10 percent of the driving and the rest handed off to stunt drivers (after McQueen gave it a go himself, and was pulled out when filmmakers decided it was too dangerous).

All the cars were modified with tougher suspensions and reinforced chassis, while one Mustang and one Charger were fitted with roll cages. The screen cars upped the ante for chase scenes in movies and television alike, and the Mustang was so iconic that in 2001, Ford released a limited edition “Bullitt” version.

bullitt-mustang (Image: Allen Watkin; a similar looking Mustang to the ‘Bullitt’ version)

The story of what happened to the original cars after filming is somewhat bizarre. In 1972, a 24-year-old unnamed man bought one of the movie Mustangs after finding it listed in the newspaper classifieds. Of the two cars used for filming, he bought the unmodified version, which was largely left as stock save for the exterior modifications that stripped off most of the trim, chrome and ornamentation. Five years later, Steve McQueen contacted him and tried to buy it back – and was denied.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: GEN11

It’s safe to say that there’s no other car on this list quite like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

chitty-chitty-bang-bang-prop-car (Image: screenshot via The Mirror)

Built in 1968 to star in the movie of the same name, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has it all, from steampunk style to the ability to fly. (Well, not the real one, of course, but we can dream.) For 40 years, the car was in the hands of Pierre Picton in Stratford-upon-Avon. Picton was in charge of the prop car on the movie set, and held onto it afterwards, taking the fully operational vehicle to hundreds of car shows and charity events.

Though a couple of cars were built for the movie, his was the only one that actually ran. Driven by Dick Van Dyke, it was built by the Ford Racing Team with a mix of parts that included brass fittings sourced from Edwardian-era cars and a dashboard plate from a World War One British fighter plane. She was given her plate number by her creator Ian Fleming – and GEN11 isn’t coincidental. It’s meant to be read as “genii”, for the magical being-in-a-bottle.

chitty-chitty-bang-bang-gen-11-prop-car (Image: Karen Roe)

A vehicle described as the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hero car changed hands recently, selling at auction in May 2011 for $805,000 (short of its estimated $1 million value). That wasn’t the end of the story, though, as it was reportedly sold again only a few months later when the purchaser realized that the 17-foot-long car wouldn’t fit in his garage. It was ultimately bought by DJ Chris Evans, who says that his son is a massive fan of the movie.

Other media outlets, however, have claimed the hero car is actually owned by Sir Peter Jackson and kept in New Zealand. An MGM licensed replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – GEN 22 – meanwhile, has its own website.

Dukes of Hazzard: Dodge Charger (The General Lee)

In the first episode of the Dukes of Hazzard, Bo and Luke are determined to win one of the notoriously fixed road races, and it’s the first time they have an engine that might let them do it. They fit it to a car rescued from a junk yard – a 1969 Dodge Charger. A snazzy new orange paint job later and, with a few finishing touches, television history was born.

The idea for the General Lee’s name came from a not-so-obvious source. The 1975 movie Moonrunners, which eventually gave birth to TV’s Dukes of Hazzard, featured a car named Traveller, after General Robert E. Lee’s horse. The television version became the General Lee, and there were a lot of them.

No one’s quite sure how many were used and destroyed during filming, but there were so many General Lees that both 1968 and 1969 Chargers were used. Typically, more than one was destroyed in each filming. Eventually, stock footage needed to be used because Chargers were getting harder and harder to find – they’d ruined so many.

dodge-charger-general-lee-movie-prop-cars (Image: Schmemdrick)

Estimates run well over 300 vehicles, and it’s thought that around 23 original, screen-used cars still exist today. The prop cars used for long jumps were only used once – if you hit the pause button, it’s easy to see just how badly damaged they were on impact.

Today, the General Lee has met with a new adversary – its own iconic flag. With the Confederate flag being removed from South Carolina government buildings, images and replicas of the bright orange Charger have been pulled from shelves, taken off air, and even painted over.

Terminator 2: Harley-Davidson ‘Fat Boy’

When it comes to the motorcycles of film history, perhaps one of the most famous of all is the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy ridden by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Even though it had a little help in the form of cables that were later erased from the screen, making it jump and race through the storm drains was still no small feat.

At the time Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released, the Fat Boy was one of the newest models in the Harley-Davidson line. A handful of motorcycles were used in the movie and a few survived, including that one that’s now in the Harley-Davidson Museum of Milwaukee.

terminator-2-harley-davidson-fatboy-movie-prop-motorbike (Image: via Harley-Davidson.com)

While the iconic bikes were ridden both by Arnie and his stunt double, Peter Kent, the museum’s example is one of the original, screen-used bikes ridden by Schwarzenegger. It came complete with damage sustained in the filming, and joins more than 450 other motorcycles on display.

Knight Rider: Firebird TransAm (KITT)

We promised another Firebird Trans Am on the list, and that is, of course, Knight Rider’s Knight Industries Two Thousand, better known to children of the ’80s as KITT.

KITT-Knight-Rider-TV-prop-car (Image: Tabercil)

When the idea was first pitched, it was KITT that gave studios the most concern. The idea of a talking car was a pretty tough one to pull off, but the absolute coolness of the Michael Scheffe design and George Barris build, combined with the voice and personality of William Daniels, made the Trans Am not just a car, but a character.

KITT wasn’t always supposed to be a Trans Am, however. A number of cars were considered (including the Datsun 280ZX Turbo) before the 3rd generation Firebirds came along. Quite a few were made for filming, including a handful of hero cars, stunt cars decked out with the bare minimum of KITT modifications, and even a mash-up of a dune buggy outfitted with a K.I.T.T. shell that was used for a number of the stunts.

One car, coated with a heavy, protective layer of polyurethane, was used whenever explosions or gunshots ricocheted around the set. The first season was filmed in its entirety with only a single hero car and two stunt cars, before the success of Knight Rider ensured a more substantial budget for future production.

KITT-Knight-Rider-hero-car-prop (Image: via Jalopnik; possible close-up car from original Knight Rider show)

Show runners also hit on something of an unfortunate jackpot; when a train delivering several loads of brand-new Trans Ams derailed, the cars on board, by law, had to be written off. They subsequently ended up as KITT cars.

Several original hero cars reportedly survive, though it’s largely unconfirmed as to where they are now. Occasionally some come up for auction, but most – like the recent 2014 auction of David Hasslehoff’s street-legal KITT – are replica cars that never appeared in Knight Rider.

If it seems like Pontiac failed to capitalize on a goldmine by not manufacturing the cars with a KITT front end and add-ons, there are a couple reasons why that never came to fruition. In addition to being afraid that someone was engage in some “don’t try this at home” stunts with it, they were so overwhelmed with requests that they eventually ordered the show to stop branding KITT as a Trans Am – which is why he’s sometimes only called a T-Top.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Modena Spyder California

Modena-Spyder-California-Ferris-Bueller-hero-car-movie-prop (Image: via Auto Blog)

According to Modena Spyder designer Neil Glassmoyer, the first time John Hughes contacted him about featuring the iconic sports car in his upcoming movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Glassmoyer thought it was a joke and hung up on him. Hughes didn’t give up, though, and Glassmoyer drove one of the cars to his office for him to check out.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the car ended up at the centre of one of the most famous 1980s coming-of-age films, even though the original script called for a Mercedes AMG.

Three Modena Spyder California sports cars (kit-built replicas of the Ferrari 250 GT California, which at $350,000 was too expensive to wreck) were supplied to the studio, though only two appeared in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. One kit, intended as a shell for the window sequence, was reportedly never completed and its whereabouts are unknown.

The other two did feature in the production as both hero and stunt cars, ending up battered and broken in large part due to the famous jump scene that took nine takes to complete. The kits were reportedly unpopular with the crew. One of them – supplied in kit form to be built in the studio – was so badly constructed that it was only of use for that famous window scene.

In 1988, after the movie’s release, Glassmoyer bought back one of the Modena Spyder prop cars and gave it a full overhaul. This was the one that featured most prominently in the film, and what he ended up with after 10 years of restoration work was not just an authentic, screen-used car from one of the most iconic ’80s movies ever, but one that was in immaculate shape.

The other main stunt/hero car found its home in Planet Hollywood, first in Minneapolis and then in Cancun, where it’s displayed in considerably worse shape than its counterpart. Mecum Automotive values Glassmoyer’s car at anywhere from $250,000 to $300,000, and that’s not all because of its looks – Glassmoyer also says that most recently, he used it to smoke a Dodge Viper in a street race.

The Muppet Movie: 1951 Studebaker Commander

It’s not filled with gadgets and gizmos like KITT and it doesn’t have a flashy paint job like the General Lee, but there’s something incredibly endearing about Fozzie’s 1951 Studebaker Commander.

fozzie-studebaker-muppet-movie-prop-car (Image: Michael Barera)

According to The Muppet Movie, Fozzie was given the old Studebaker when his uncle went into hibernation. Originally rusty, worn brown when Fozzie and Kermit set off on their cross-country trip to Hollywood, it’s eventually re-painted by the Electric Mayhem in blindingly psychedelic colours, and though the car is still around, its paint is looking rather rough these days.

Two Studebaker Commanders were used in filming. One was used as-is, while the other was modified for distance scenes where Fozzie needed to be driving. Frank Oz was in the front seat with Fozzie, while the real driver was in the trunk, navigating with a steering wheel and television monitor that had been installed in the back. If it seems an inconvenient set-up, it absolutely was, and occasionally the only functioning part was the walkie-talkie used by the driver to listen in and keep the car on the road.

fozzie-studebaker-muppet-movie-prop-car-2 (Image: Michael Barera)

The stock car is long gone, but the modified version is on display at the Studebaker National Museum in Indiana. The paint job is long gone, too, as it was done with poster paints instead of a more durable type, but there’s always the chance it’ll be fully restored one of these days.

Related – 7 Full-Scale Aircraft Replicas Used as Movie Props

 
 
 

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