Cultural Impact of Cars in Movies and Television Over the Decades (Take a Journey of 70 Years)

Few elements have left a lasting mark in the vast landscape of cinematic and televisual history as the car.

For more than 70 years, cars have played a significant role in shaping narratives and capturing the spirit of their respective eras. Whether it was a high-speed chase or driving off into a romantic future, there’s a car that embodies this sentiment.

With Willard Batteries entering its 70th year of production in South Africa, we wanted to explore the evolution and cultural significance of cars in film and television.


1950s: The Birth of Cool

In 1954, local production of our batteries started. Internationally, it was the post-war era where people wanted to have fun and explore more!

With this shift in collective thinking, it also welcomed the rise of the automobile as a symbol of freedom and prosperity.

Cars in the 50s were big and comfortable, with design flairs like wings on the back, and often were created to echo the incoming space race, as well as massive leaps humanity was making in the decade.

James Dean, a young, handsome racing driver, was a big star of the era.

In “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean is depicted as a rebellious youth through the lens of hot rods and drag races. Creating and sharing this world with the audience cemented the car’s association with counterculture and coolness.

A television show most South Africans will not know about is “Route 66”. Hosted by two men, they’d travel the classic highway searching for adventure and things to do along the way. This show captured the imagination of the American audience, who wanted to follow suit.


1960s: From Bond to Bullitt

An era now known for its cultural upheaval, political activism, and rapid social change in the USA, it welcomed some of cinema’s most iconic cars.

James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 became the epitome of spy chic, being showcased in Goldfinger. It also came complete with gadgets and gizmos, which was unheard of then.

Later in the decade, Steve McQueen’s iconic chase scene with the Ford Mustang GT in “Bullitt” set the standard for cinematic car chases, thrilling audiences with its raw energy and realism.

In the early ’60s, car design was still influenced by the Space Race, but the development of muscle cars pushed automotive design to accept customised vehicles.

While Americans were set on creating muscle cars, European manufacturers experimented with new materials, shapes, and features. The ’60s also marked the actual start of car safety features.


1970s: Muscle and Mayhem

As the seventies rolled in, muscle cars took center stage in Hollywood.

Films like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” both had muscle cars as the main stars of the movies, embodying the power and speed of American muscle. Also, TV shows like “Starsky and Hutch” displayed a camaraderie between man and machine.

The focus on muscle cars in film equaled their evolution. American manufacturers created vehicles like:

  • Chevrolet Camaro
  • Ford Mustang
  • And Dodge Challenger

However, the oil crisis in the 1970s led to the introduction of iconic models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which opened the doors to smaller, boxier, fuel-efficient designs.

Another element that worried most Western car manufacturers was more reliable imported cars.

By the decade’s end, people wanted more fuel-efficient and sophisticated options.


1980s: Turbocharged Thrills

The 80s was all about a neon-soaked future. Also, the eighties brought a new breed of cinematic car heroes.

“Back to the Future’s” Deloran was an icon and still is today, while TV embraced the rise of the crime-fighting car, with shows like “Knight Rider” introducing audiences to the sentient supercar KITT.

Fueling these changes in car characters was the emergence of supercars. Such cars like:

  • Ferrari Testarossa
  • Lamborghini Countach
  • And the Porche 911 Turbo

These cars smashed records and more, thanks to the focus on technological advancements in the automotive world.

Advancements included:

  • Electronic fuel injection
  • ABS braking
  • Basic traction control
  • As well as some computerisation of engine operations

But one piece of kit that changed motoring was the turbo. While the technology had been around before the start of the decade, it was only in the 80s that they were being used.

Turbos provide more power from smaller fuel economical engines. While there were significant technological improvements, turbo-powered cars from the era are known for turbo lag.

Turbo lag is the delayed response for more power, which can kick in without warning.

Over the decades, major improvements have been made to turbo systems.


1990s, 2000s and Beyond

In the 1990s and early 2000s, cars saw many technological advancements, and with these developments came more thrills for films.

In 1998, a reporter wrote a piece about the underground world of illegal street racing, which sparked the film franchise “The Fast and the Furious.”

When released, it pushed the boundaries of what was possible to what is being shown today. A classic TV series called “Pimp My Ride” on MTV also sparked a renewed interest in customising cars.

In the early 2000s, Top Gear completely overtook car culture and opinions. Also, the show’s antics inspired a whole generation of men to take more crazy road trips.

What will take over in the next decade is still up for debate. Still, with movies like Minority Report and iRobot suggesting what cars of the future could look like, all we can say is that we’re sure we’ll be offering car owners the perfect battery solution.