How Cars and Car Culture are Displayed in Entertainment
For many geeks, 2020 signifies the end of an era: The long-running drama series Supernatural has a final air date of May 18, after 15 years of syndication, first on the WB and then the CW. Supernatural tells the story of Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), troubled brothers who hunt monsters for a living. Arguably, the show’s most charismatic supporting character is Baby, a sleek, black 1967 Chevy Impala four-door hardtop who has been with the Winchesters since the beginning.
Baby’s role is so important that she sometimes serves as a protector and place of refuge, even occasionally standing in as a second home for the Winchesters. What’s more, Baby forever connects the brothers to their late father, John, who passed both his hunting skill and his beloved Baby down to his sons.
Actually a fleet of nine distinct 1967 Impalas, Baby even got her own self-titled episode in Season 11. “Baby” was filmed entirely from the Impala’s point of view. While Baby is the only one (well, nine) of her kind on Supernatural, she’s just a single entry in a long legacy of supporting characters in television and film that also happen to be cars.
In fact, car culture is effectively a Hollywood legacy, and cars have always been synonymous with entertainment itself. Like Baby, on-screen cars can be as much a supporting character as human actors, while also doubling as eye candy and/or a swift means of escape. Cars on the big and small screens can serve as a status symbol, a loyal friend and everything in between. Let’s take a look at the overarching legacy of Hollywood’s car culture.
Cars and Loyalty
Both in real life and on-screen, cars become an integral part of our lives, so much so that we may feel a tangible connection to our favorite personal vehicle. On-screen, that connection can sometimes go both ways. The aforementioned Baby is, of course, loyal to the Winchesters, but she’s got nothing on Herbie.
First seen in the 1968 feature film The Love Bug, Herbie is a sentient anthropomorphic VW Beetle with a lucrative racing career. Although he can, of course, drive himself, Herbie is fiercely loyal to Jim Douglas (played by Dean Jones), the race car driver who purchased him and turned him into a race car. Following the success of The Love Bug, Herbie starred in several additional films and a short-lived TV series in 1982.
Although he’s a race car, with a paint job to match, Herbie is street legal, with Jim driving Herbie all over town, even on dates. This is an important consideration that’s commonly overlooked on screen, where cars may take to city streets at excessive speeds, with roaring engines and no visible license plate. Sometimes, those on-screen vehicles may even have bright or flashing lights yet avoid getting pulled over because it’s not part of the plot. U.S. states vary widely when it comes to roadway laws regarding lights and noise, but it’s safe to say that Hollywood definitely stretches the truth in regards to car culture and aesthetics.
Cars as a Status Symbol
Especially for Dean Winchester, Baby is somewhat of a status symbol, representing classic values with a hint of rebelliousness. Many of Baby’s on-screen predecessors served the same purpose, albeit with differing symbolism. For instance, Aston Martin’s DB5 made its film debut in the 1964 James Bond vehicle (pun intended), Goldfinger. Since then, Aston Martin vehicles have been synonymous with luxury, prestige, and a bit of mystery — and 007 himself.
And fans are willing to shell out a pretty penny for their favorite on-screen rides. For instance, an Aston Martin DB5 outfitted with Bond’s M16Q Branch gadgets (yet that wasn’t used in any films) sold for $6.4 million in 2019, according to CNBC. Prior to the sale, the DB5 in question was owned by and displayed in Tennessee’s Smokey Mountain Car Museum.
While the values of many iconic cars naturally climb thanks to inflation, on-screen immortality helps increase those numbers even further. Another famous on-screen Impala, a blue 1973 model driven by Kramer on the hit show Seinfeld, was worth almost $20,000 more in 2019 than it was upon release. Of course, when considering the price of classic vehicles, mileage is regularly part of the equation, and lower mileage usually equates to a higher price tag. Vehicles that spend the majority of their life on set will typically have lower mileage than their counterparts, further inflating their value.
How Car Culture Connects to Tragedy
No matter their odometer reading, however, cars on the big and small screen can also be harbingers of tragedy. One of Hollywood’s first true car culture films, 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, is a notable example of life imitating art. In the film, angsty teenager Jim Stark (James Dean) participates in a high-speed game of “chicken” while driving his 1947 Mercury coupe.
While Jim Stark survived the game, the actor who played him wasn’t so lucky. The same year that Rebel was released, Dean was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder on a California highway and crashed into a 1950 Ford Tudor. He later died from injuries sustained during the crash, at the age of 24. His Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard,” is now said to be cursed.
From Supernatural’s Baby to the Fast and the Furious franchise and beyond, car culture remains a lucrative box office draw. And at times, the lines between real-life car culture and Hollywood’s version can become blurred. Interestingly, Dean’s “Little Bastard” was the sinister subject of a Supernatural episode, Season 5’s “Fallen Idols” — a striking indication that car culture within the entertainment industry has come full circle.