What do box-office hits, cult favorites and a German silent film have in common? They’re some of the movies throughout cinematic history that had forward-thinking ideas about what cars of the future would look like and the “weird” technology they would have.
We live in an age of being able to watch TV on our phone. It seems not so long ago that calculators were considered high-tech. But didn’t movies begin predicting the future nearly 100 years ago?
These visionaries foretold where the automobile would be today — even if the plot, special effects and dialogue didn’t withstand the same test of time. Check out which film favorites predicted the auto trends of today — and tomorrow.
'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'
- Released: 1968
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” based on Ian Fleming’s 1964 book, was about a magical car that could fly, among other things. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched these days since companies like Uber and Aston Martin are developing flying cars.
The car in the film — which starred Dick Van Dyke — was built by Ford Racing Team, complete with a Ford V-6 engine. The car was inspired by Count Louis Vorow Zborowski’s aero-engineered race car from the 1920s called Chitty Bang Bang.
- Released: 1987
Sure, this cult-classic spoof of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Alien” and other sci-fi movies starred John Candy, but it also featured a Winnebago called Eagle 5. It was no Millennium Falcon, but at least you could buy one — and still can, used: a 1986 Chieftain M-33RU.
The next time a real-world vehicle was in space? February 2018, when Elon Musk put his Tesla Roadster aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to circle the sun. It’s still up there and has already swung past Mars and Mercury.
- Released: 1987
The Ford Taurus used in “RoboCop” is pretty iconic. At the time, it was a brand-new car from the Blue Oval. It seems fitting that it was a robot-cop’s car since the automaker had been offering police packages since 1950.
The 2020 Ford Police Interceptor Utility is about as futuristic as a robot-cop’s car can get now. It offers hybrid technology, police-purposed steel wheels, specially tuned brakes and high-beam LED headlamps. Most futuristic of all is the Police Perimeter Alert, which uses sensors to monitor potentially threatening behavior around the vehicle.
'The Spy Who Loved Me'
- Released: 1977
James Bond gets to play with the best toys. With a simple, “Can you swim?” Roger Moore’s 007 launched a Lotus Esprit S1 into the water, flipped a lever, then was piloting an amphibious machine. It came with in-dash controls for the fins, rudder and propellers, plus a series of smart buttons that controlled things like a computer and a missile launcher.
Companies like WaterCar are in the business of customizing vehicles for road and water use. And keep your eye on Elon Musk, who bought “Wet Nellie” — the custom submarine built for the film’s underwater scenes. Musk has said his company designed a similar car.
- Released: 1982 and 2017
The car star of “Blade Runner” was the police Spinner. The vehicle could drive on the road, then take off vertically and fly or hover. The idea was to merge law enforcement’s two greatest tools: cruiser and helicopter.
An early 1970s Volkswagen Beetle inspired the Spinner, while the redo “Blade Runner 2049” got a Peugeot-themed Spinner. In 2019, Japan tested a prototype of a flying car — and it hovered for nearly 1 minute.
- Released: 2007
The 1977 Chevy Camaro that Transformer-ed into Bumblebee got a whole lot of its looks from the fifth-generation Camaro, which would go on sale in 2009. But since this movie premiered 2 years before that, Chevy had to build a one-off for the silver screen from the same molds to be used for the production car.
Bumblebee from 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” was a modified version of the production car, while 2011’s “Dark of the Moon” Camaro was an SS model. The Camaro received a more aggressive and muscular design for 2014’s “Age of Extinction.” The Autobot did give Chevy the chance to offer special-edition Transformers-themed Camaros to its customers.
'The Fifth Element'
- Released: 1997
Flying, hovering vehicles star in “The Fifth Element” (with Bruce Willis, who is a taxi driver). Touch screens with Google-like search engine functionality of vehicle info also appear in the movie. And who could argue that “attack detection” wasn’t a precursor to today’s driver-assistance safety systems?
It seems “The Fifth Element” also solidly predicted the future in this way: Paris is working toward having flying taxis ready for the 2024 Olympics, although not to compete. These would take riders from the airport to the city.
'Back to the Future III'
- Released: 1990
Doc’s idea to power the DeLorean with whiskey? Talk about being ahead of its time with the use of alternative fuel. On the whiskey front, a distillery in Scotland was trying to figure out how to turn whiskey waste into clean biofuel.
Many sources are working to turn other waste into alternative fuel. For example, scientists at Purdue are trying to convert plastic waste, and the U.S. Department of Energy is researching how to convert algae.
'Tucker: The Man and His Dream'
- Released: 1988
What makes the story of Preston Tucker and the 1948 Tucker 48 — also called Torpedo — interesting is that it’s a true story. The biopic tells the story of launching a sedan that’s cutting-edge and has futuristic safety and design elements.
Everything was ahead of its time for a car then, like a third headlight and a windshield that would pop out in an accident. Fenders that pivoted during turns still seems futuristic today.
What item from the Tucker made it to the 21st century? Standard disc brakes, for one. Why’d the car fail? Some point to the Detroit Three automakers taking him down. Others say Mr. Tucker ran out of cash, according to Hemmings.
'Jetsons: The Movie'
- Released: 1990
If you watched “The Jetsons” TV series when you were a kid, you probably can’t recall the plot of a single episode. Yet you’ve likely never forgotten the flying cars.
In 1954, Ford revealed the FX-Atmos concept car at the Chicago Auto Show, complete with a dome roof, fins, rocket-exhaust-looking taillights, driver’s seat front and center, and Roadarscope — radar that monitored the road. “The Jetsons” TV show debuted in 1963, with its flying cars said to be inspired by the FX-Atmos.
The animated movie was just an updated version of the original cartoon series. Today, you can find real-life flying cars, like the Terrafugia Transition and PAL-V, which look and feel very Jetsons-esque.
'Harold and Maude'
- Released: 1971
A dark movie about death — and a comedy to boot — had an interesting car in it, too: a Jaguar E-Type roadster that was converted into a hearse. The big automakers don’t build hearses, but specialty companies such as S&S Coach Company do — they customize Cadillacs, for example.
And “Harold and Maude” made the vehicle-turned-hearse cool. All sorts of quirky custom hearses now exist, including motorcycle hearses, like from Black Diamond Motorcycle Hearse Service. There’s even a racecar hearse that made the Guinness World Records in 2010 for going 115 mph.
- Released: 2002
It’s hard to steal the spotlight from Tom Cruise in any movie, but the car in “Minority Report” kind of did. Not only was it sleek, but it could fly, too.
And more than just its aviation technology can be found in real vehicles today: autonomy, car-to-car communication, touch screens and hydrogen fuel cells. The Lexus 2054 concept has even inspired one-off kit-car lookalikes.
- Released: 2009
The prototype of the three-wheeled, futuristic-looking Aptera 2e made its way into “Star Trek.” Aptera Motors even started taking preorders in California for a future production version of its planned hybrid car. But in 2011, the carmaker did not live long and prosper and closed its doors.
Was its demise brought on by the inability to compete with the “normal-looking” hybrid Chevy Volt that debuted to the public in 2008 and hit the roads in 2010? Did the company run out of money, or was it due to government red tape? In any case, this film is a time capsule for the car’s innovation.
- Released: 2004
Will Smith’s RSQ coupe in “I, Robot” came courtesy of Audi. That car? Advanced tech and stylish design. The all-new production Audi R8 that hit dealerships in 2008? Advanced tech and stylish design. Although one had autonomous driving features and the other did not (yet), it’s almost too easy to connect the design dots shared between these two cars.
- Released: 2013
Audi spent almost a year thinking about what the sports car of the future would look like, and its idea would become the fleet shuttle quattro in “Ender’s Game.” The problem? The car was only a scale model and the car itself had to be created virtually.
The good news is that some of that car of the future exists today. If you liked the in-car sequences, it was shot inside an Audi A7 on loan to production. CGI took the A7’s exterior driving scenes and tweaked them into the sci-fi fleet shuttle quattro.
At the time, Audi hinted that the futuristic car’s appearance could inspire the brand’s future models and design choices.
- Released: 1986
Haven’t heard of this film? Charlie Sheen’s in it, and it’s kind of every genre in one, including sci-fi, supernatural and romance. Is cheesy a genre? Is reincarnated-as-a-car a genre? It’s those, too.
The car is a Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor, a prototype supercar from 1981. Dodge built it as a technical exercise for the Indy Car World Series of what a pace car could be.
If you look closely, you can see hints of the Dodge Charger Daytona. You might also notice a resemblance to 1999’s Dodge Charger R/T concept car.
'A Clockwork Orange'
- Released: 1971
The M-505 Adams Brothers Probe 16 was created in 1969. But the Durango ’95, as it was called in “A Clockwork Orange,” didn’t reach the masses until 1971, when the movie was released. The M-505 was designed by Peter and Dennis Adams, and fewer than five were built.
This movie was not for the faint of heart. Given the plot and its disturbing edginess, it’s remarkable for the car to stand out and be remembered for years to come. It also seems to have inspired the low-profile extreme styling in the Lotus family of cars.
- Released: 1993
When it comes to predicting the future, this Sylvester Stallone movie was spot-on with the idea of self-driving cars, excellent fuel economy and voice-activation. Using the 1992 General Motors Ultralite concept also made for a nice, futuristic touch.
The movie also featured cars that used biometrics and artificial intelligence. Today, automakers are researching driver biometrics with car technologies, such as to help detect drowsiness behind the wheel or for an added level of security. And AI is being explored as a means of tapping into the emotional state of drivers.
- Released: 1964
Sure, all James Bond cars are cool. But the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery’s 007 drove in this flick was chock-full of gadgets — or “rather interesting modifications,” as Q put it. The spy features included a super-sized GPS with “audio-visual range, 150 miles,” which of course we now have today in a much smaller package.
One gripe: We still haven’t seen a modern-day center console with a smoke-screen button or a passenger ejector seat. But in 2019, Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations got Bond-ish when it offered the Range Rover Sentinel. It features blast protection, armored glass and an emergency escape route within the cargo area.
- Released: 1995
Stealthy, yellow Land Rover Discovery with flat surfaces? Yup. Driverless cars? Indeed. Today’s cars use flat surfaces and round design for better fuel economy, while driverless cars and the related technology are being developed by the likes of Google, Apple and, yes, Land Rover.
- Released: 2018
Ford ended production of the Bronco in 1996, so what was a futuristic-looking Bronco doing with The Rock behind the wheel in “Rampage”? That was the Bronco concept, first seen at the 2004 North American International Auto Show.
Ford is bringing an all-new Bronco back in 2020, so was this a way to tease what’s coming? Since the new one hasn’t been officially revealed yet, there’s no answer. But plenty of people are probably hoping for the same boxy body, available diesel engine, manual transmission and removable sections of the roof.
- Released: 2019
The Audi e-tron GT concept four-door coupe debuted at the LA Auto Show in 2018. Then, Robert Downey Jr., as Tony Stark, drove it in “Avengers: Endgame.” The automaker said the production version of its all-electric model will arrive in 2020. And we’re pretty confident that the car won’t change too much from what an Iron Man would drive.
- Released: 1927
This German sci-fi silent film was all about the future, and it used the Rumpler Tropfenwagen to represent what cars would one day be: rounded and aerodynamically designed. And check out its curved windows.
Heck, the Tropfenwagen was ahead of its time when it was introduced in 1921 at the Berlin Auto Show, with a mid-mounted six-cylinder engine, independent rear suspension and low-drag engineering. Also, spy that headline design — even that looks futuristic now.
'Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life'
- Released: 2003
Angelina Jolie drove a custom Jeep Wrangler Rubicon in the flick, so Jeep created a limited-edition package based on it. It’s probably the quickest turnaround of life-imitates-movie on this list.
Jeep gave each of its 2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon “Tomb Raider” special editions a serial number that would make it a collectible. It also came with special badging, fender flares, lighting and other accessories, plus a unique interior.
Just over 1,000 were produced. The Jeep Design Studio had a hand in the design of the Jeep that Jolie’s character drove, so a future Jeep model like it was easily in the cards.
- Released: 1990
“Total Recall” was a bit of a combo platter for predicting future vehicles. First, the Johnny Cab was representative of self-driving vehicles, albeit with a robot behind the wheel.
Second, the taxi-robot responded to voice commands. And, in perhaps the greatest predictor of technology of any of these movies, the system couldn’t understand what the passenger was saying — “Drive! Drive!” “Would you please repeat the destination?” Let’s hope automakers fine-tune that tech for our own futuristic cars — today.
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