Ford Goes to the Movies – Iconic On-screen Moments over the Past 100 Years

Compiling a bucket list of great movies which featured the products of the Ford Motor Company is more a case of the ones that you’d need to leave out, rather than cherry-picking the celluloid masterpieces which had a Ford deserving of at least a co-starring credit.

It seems as if there have always been Fords in movies! Just as the fledgling Ford South Africa production line was cranking up to full speed in Port Elizabeth 100 years ago, that great comedy duo Laurel and Hardy were gaining traction in Hollywood with a string of hits that featured, more often than not, a Model T Ford.

With 15-million examples of the Ford Model T already built by the late 1920s, the American people’s car was tailor-made for the mishap-strewn adventures that saw the tough-as-teak Ford pounded upon by irate homeowners, offended housewives, speeding steam engines and justice-seeking policemen.

And when the smoke clouds had settled, just like in real-life, the Model T always seemed to dust itself off and be game for whatever madcap scheme was next on the script list.

Mention of craziness, but in this case offering nothing in the way of comedic relief, recalls a movie car that in its own way enjoyed the same devoted acceptance as the Model T. The car in question was the Ford Cortina, and the movie was a 2003 big-budget action drama entitled Stander. Directed by Bronwen Hughes and set in 1980s South Africa, it charted the tragic life of policeman-turned bank robber Andre Stander. One of the youngest police captains ever appointed in the South African Police, Stander and his gang robbed over 100 banks in a crazed spree between 1977 and 1983, and his getaway car of choice was a powerful Cortina XR6.

Some say the rogue cop even stole one of the rare triple-carburettor XR6 Interceptor models for his more challenging getaways, but in the movie, which featured American Tom Jane in the title role and a whole host of South African acting mainstays in supporting roles, a light-coloured XR6 was used for the downtown Jo’burg getaway sequences. 

The XR6 was a home-grown South African Cortina model, so it is fitting it lent a touch of gritty local authenticity to this world-wide-release movie about one of our country’s most notorious criminals. Stander’s stunt double in the getaway driving scenes was none other than  WesBank V8 racing champion Gary Formato, who incidentally won his South African title driving a Ford Mustang.

If ever there was a car made for the movies, it was the Mustang. Launched in America in April 1964 it didn’t take movie directors long to realise its silver screen value. One of the very first box office appearances was in the James Bond classic Goldfinger, which was shot between April and July 1964, which coincided with the Mustang’s global debut on 27 April 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. Bond is memorably driven in a chase scene over twisting Swiss mountain roads in the so-called ’64-and-a-half Mustang convertible.

Another very early appearance of a Ford Mustang was in the 1966 motor racing epic, Grand Prix. The film’s star, played by rugged James Garner, drove a 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 through the winding roads above Monte Carlo after the opening racing sequence in the movie. It was just the sort of classic limited-edition race-oriented car that a 1960s F1 star would own, and using the ultra-rare Shelby Mustang was yet another example of film director John Frankenheimer’s attention to detail.

The most famous movie Ford of all is probably the 1967 Ford Mustang 390 GT Fastback model, driven by Steve McQueen in the 1968 movie Bullitt, in an epic car chase sequence through the undulating streets of San Francisco. The Highland Green model spawned a Mustang Bullitt tribute car, which was available in limited numbers in South Africa, in 2019.

Like the Model T employed by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy all those years ago, one of the attractions of the Mustang as a movie car has been that, despite their desirability, they are affordable, and they have also been used to good comedic effect in various other films. One of the best laugh-out-loud sequences involving a Mustang is when James Belushi, in his role as a police detective, ties up his disobedient Alsatian dog in his 1965 Convertible using the safety belts, and sends him through a car wash with the top folded down. The movie was entitled K9, in reference to the police nomenclature for the dog-handling units in American law enforcement.

Further along the Mustang trail, Gone in 60 Seconds, the 2000 remake of a minor classic starred Nicholas Cage and a gun metal grey version of a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500. That car, and the movie, spawned a whole new cult of street racers and devotees particularly enamoured with the car that was christened Eleanor. In fact, a whole industry grew up around creating Eleanor clones from standard ’67 Mustangs, and we even had examples of such enterprises here in South Africa. Building cars like that involves fantasy on the part of the owners, or would-be-owners, driving what would essentially be the “baddest muscle car in the land”.

A much gentler fantasy was evoked around another iconic Ford, the Ford Anglia 105E, which came into being late in 1959. Thanks to the genius of author JK Rowlings, the Anglia was given a new sense of identity and status in the Harry Potter novels, and later in the movie of the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Here was a little old blue and white Anglia that could fly and turn invisible, all in the interests of evoking white magic. Rowlings confessed later that the first of her friends to own a car in the remote corner of England where she spent her early teens drove just such an Anglia. Thus, the Anglia was re-introduced to worldwide younger audiences, who bestowed upon it powers that owners in the 1960s would insist it enjoyed anyway! In those days, young men often talked about how their cars could fly, although they generally felt it was best if the tyres at least could remain in touch with terra firma.

One such young South African was a certain Johannesburg whizz-kid, Basil van Rooyen, who made his name racing Ford Anglias thanks to a tuning acumen with engines that many would equate with some sort of wizardry or magic. His equivalent in Cape Town was a talented motor mechanic and top driver called Koos Swanepoel, and for a spell in the early 1960s, there was an unofficial competition as to who had the fastest Ford Anglia in the land.

Motor racing forms a huge part of Ford’s fanatical following in South Africa, thanks to the Anglia exploits of Basil and Koos, and others like them. And at a much more ambitious level at that time, in the tangibly magical 1960s, Ford Motor Company itself took to the race tracks to win the greatest prizes in motorsport. They achieved this with the Ford Cosworth V8 engine in 1968 in Formula One, and by winning the Indianapolis 500 with Ford power in 1965 and 1966. But the most heroic achievement, surely, was finally conquering the Le Mans 24 Hour, the toughest endurance race in the world.

South Africans who grew up in the 1960s witnessed stirring battles at the annual Kyalami Nine Hour endurance race between Ford and Ferrari from 1965 to 1968, and the very first Ford GT40 to race here in 1965 came within two laps of winning on its Kyalami debut before a wheel problem condemned it to second place.

It is unusual for blockbuster movies to have the names of cars in their titles, but one such movie is Gran Torino, a 2008 drama directed by Clint Eastwood. The story revolves around an immaculate 1972 Ford Gran Torino gathering dust in the garage of a Korean War combat veteran, Walt Kowalski, a role played by Eastwood in the movie. An attempted theft of the classic Ford by a gang of young immigrants sets a sequence of events in motion that leads to the previously depressed Torino owner embracing life, and the goodwill of his erstwhile hostile neighbours. The film garnered much critical praise and grossed an impressive US$270-million.

South Africans may not be too aware of the rare Gran Torino model as a classic, but glancing at the rear wings of the car, they will recall distinct Ford global styling cues that found their way into the Ford Fairlanes that were sold here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Another car that wasn’t sold here in the form in which it appeared in the movie was the Ford Falcon driven by the archetypal avenging outlaw of the movie world, Mad Max. Popularised by American star Mel Gibson, the Mad Max movies created an apocalyptic but strangely compelling view of life in the Australian outback. And the ratty-looking matt black Ford XB Falcon GT 351 movie car will always be remembered for its howling supercharger that Max activated to great effect when in hot pursuit of an assortment of bizarre motorcycle thugs and off-road-orientated anarchists.

Ford South Africa had two separate flirtations with the Falcon nameplate. The first was in 1960, when the “compact” American Ford was introduced here for a couple of years, and later the Falcon name resurfaced in the late 1990s as a popular South African large sedan model with, appropriately enough for Mad Max fans, a strong Australian heritage.

In fact, one of the most popular large cars here in the early 1970s was a Ford Fairmont. This was in fact an Australian-designed Falcon, which Ford South Africa decided to assemble locally, badged as a Fairmont. Today South African-built Fairmont GTs are highly collectable, particularly in Australia, and sadly many of them have been exported, depleting our rich classic car heritage.

The question may well be asked: what about car-cult movies of the future? Perhaps in a world suffering from depleted fossil fuels, the streets will be ruled by electric-powered vehicles.  New iconic cars, like possible successors to the Mustang Mach-E, will take centre stage: high school kids will hang out near charging stations to discuss the latest gossip, car tuners will talk about battery optimisation and following a suspect from a distance can be done in complete, secretive silence!