By on April 1, 2013

The best science fiction tells human stories set against a backdrop of strange worlds or futuristic cities. Because pacing and plot are more important than lengthy, accurate descriptions of the technology at work in those worlds, most sci-fi writers don’t spend a lot of time on the various machines their protagonists use. We might know that our hero traveled in a shiny aluminum air car, but the details generally are left to our imagination.

Fortunately for those of us who want a real peek into the future, film is a visual medium. The best directors know that set and prop design are critical to the tone of a movie and that machines can be as important as the action. They pay a lot of attention to getting just the right look and, even though we may not get to open the hood on that futuristic air car, we definitely get to see it at work, get a feel for its lines and even some idea of how it handles. If they do their job right, we might even believe these vehicle could be real.

The following are, in this author’s opinion, some of sci-fi’s finest.

Korben Dallas’ Taxi from “The Fifth Element.”

In our mind’s eye we usually think of the future as a bright shining place free of dirt and disease. The Fifth Element gives us vision of the future in which the world is as dirty and well worn as an old shoe. The cars in the film reflect this by being futuristic flying vehicles, but with design elements taken straight from the cars of our own yesteryear.

Korben Dallas’ taxi’s huge grill, sweeping fenders and fins hark back to the late 1940s and immediately let us know that this car is old and out of date. Although the technology at work is light years ahead of where we are today, the car is obviously a tired, overworked machine that would look perfectly at home along side any of the tired, overworked machines on the bad streets of New York today. It is at once futuristic and believable, normal yet totally over the top. For the sheer audacity of its design, Korben Dallas’ taxi must be ranked high among the best cars of sci-fi.

The “Spinner” from “Blade Runner.”

Blade Runner is another vision in which the future may not be a better and brighter place. In the book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” the world is a fully fleshed out disaster in which humanity struggles relentlessly along while living amid the aftermath of World War Terminus. A lot of that back story is lost in the Ridley Scott movie and the viewer is thrown into a confusing future society complete with flying cars and robotic “replicants” almost indistinguishable from, and in some cases maybe even more human, than the people they are supposed to serve.

In his book, Philip K. Dick takes little notice of the vehicles Rick Decker and the other bounty hunters use, but the movie is a visual feast and no expense was spared. The Police “Spinners” used in the film are one of the iconic cars of sci-fi and they seem quite plausible designs. Their tires show that they would work well on the road yet they fly with equal ease. Their large glass cockpits are similar to the ones found in modern helicopters and look as though they would give their operators a good field of vision. What I like best about them is that they seem like regular workaday vehicles that could be at work on any police force in the world today. It is this touch of reality that makes me rank the “Spinner” among the best cars of sci-fi.

The “S.H.A.D.O.” cars from the TV series “U.F.O.”

Gerry Anderson had a huge effect on television sci-fi. Beginning in the 1950s his supermarionation hits including “Stingray” “Captain Scarlett and the Mysterions” and “The Thunderbirds” gave millions of kids a look at the future. By the 1970s, Gerry Anderson was producing movies and live action TV sci fi like “Space 1999” and “U.F.O” and his shows included full size working props along with the superior model-base special effects for which his shows are best known.

Two working cars, known to fans as the “Straker “ and “Foster” cars, were built out of aluminum on the chassis of the English Ford Zephyr Mk 4 and used in Anderson’s first live action movie “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” and later in his series “U.F.O.” Angular and futuristic with gull wing doors, these cars are a very 1960’s version of the future and they have not aged particularly well. Still, because they were seen and obsessed over by millions of young sci-fi fans they must be counted among the important cars of sci-fi.

The “Cricket” from “A.I.”

The movie A.I. is not one of my favorites. Sorry, I wanted to like it but it comes off as a weird dystopian utopia and I think it sends mixed messages. Do we love technology or don’t we? What if that technology loves us? It’s gut wrenching in a way that makes me both glad and sad that I sat through it.

One thing this move does very well is give us a real vision of what our future may be. It is a better and brighter place, but it is not outside of the human condition. In the end, it is humanity’s own frailty and our inability to really understand how we should relate to the rapidly emerging computerized intelligence around us that that makes this vision of the future miserable. In short, the message is that people are jerks. Got that? Yeah, totally a chick flick.

The car, ‘The Cricket” seen in the film strikes me as the kind of car we might actually see on the road one of these days. Bright, light, futuristic and with convenient sliding doors rather than impossible to use in a parking garage gull-wings, the car looks like something you average suburban mom would drive. To be honest, I think it looks cool. Hell, paint it red and add a racing stripe and I’d drive it. It is because this car seems so realistic, without resorting to blatant product placement like some other movie cars (looking at you Lexus and Audi!) that I consider this one of the great cars of sci-fi.

Bonus – The “Landmaster” from “Damnation Alley.”

Sometimes the future sucks and when that happens you need something like the Landmaster to take you, your hippy wannabe Peacenik former subordinate and a couple of oddballs you find along the way to a better, happier place on the other side of the continent. When this movie was released in 1977, aka the middle of the cold war, wasn’t so much sci-fi as it was a vision of what might happen next week. Still, it was good fun and the Landmaster is awesome.

In the film, the Landmaster is portrayed as being constructed out of ordinary truck parts in order to facilitate repairs in the post apocalyptic world. It turns out that this is also a pretty accurate description of the real thing, too. The prop, built for the film cost of around $300K, used a Ford 427 CID industrial engine, the rear ends from two large trucks and an Allison truck transmission. The most unique feature of the vehicle, its drive wheels, are all fully functional and work shown as in the movie. The truck is said to have survived a 25 foot jump during testing with no damage. Because we are men, the Landmaster must be included in any list of the top Sci-Fi vehicles.

I know there are other vehicles out there, feel free to add your own. Just for reference, although I did select several model cars for this article, I purposely chose not to use any cartoon vehicles. If you know of other vehicles that you think need to be added, please add them. And now – to the comments!

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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84 Comments on “In the Year 2525 – The Best Cars of Science Fiction...”

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    How about the DeLorean Time Machine in “Back to the Future”?

    It definitively introduced to the world the “Flux Capacitor”.

  • avatar

    Agree completely on Fifth Element.

    Most of the cars in Blade Runner were awful. They were clearly cars from the time with plastic skins stuck on.

    I could see an honorable mention going to I Robot. Back to the Future has perhaps the most iconic & socially durable sci-fi car.

  • avatar

    I’m not an Audi person but the Audi RSQ was pretty awesome.

    I’m not in love with the NSX even after the NYAS. If Tony Stark is so goddamn rich, he should have a Bugatti Super Sport, or better yet, an IRON MAN indestructible car that does stuff like his suit: lasers, cluster missiles, tactical nuclear devices, etc.

  • avatar

    I’ve always been a fan of the 6000 SUX from Robocop. I would totaly drive the crap out of that American Tradition.

  • avatar

    The shuttlecraft from Star Trek.

    It looks a lot like my minivan, but can be hooned in Saturn’s gravity well.

  • avatar

    the semi floating cars from Sleeper need a mention.
    and for bikes the Lawgiver from Judge Dread

  • avatar
    Pastor Glenn

    I guess the Chrysler Turbine Car as seen in the 1963 movie The Lively Set doesn’t count, because it was the actual car that was science fact instead of the movie being science fiction…

  • avatar

    Come on, I can’t believe you left out Luke Skywalker’s land speeder. It’s the Corvette (OK, maybe the Camaro) of the Sci-Fi car universe, and I would wager there isn’t a car guy alive who wouldn’t be happy taking one for a balls-out drive across the desert. I can’t imagine they corner very well, but a 2-seater with not one, but 3 rear engines is just awesome.

  • avatar

    The troop carrier from James Cameron’s “Aliens”.

  • avatar
    LBJs Love Child

    Any of the cars in GATTICA.

    • 0 avatar

      Those weren’t future cars, just old cars with electronic whizzy sounds. Can’t recall what models they are right now, maybe something old and Russian? Uma Therman’s character had some old Brit roadster.

  • avatar

    The RV thing from Lost in Space, the old TV show, not the movie.
    C’mon, who amoung us hasn’t at some point (usually drunk) have you waved your arms and in the robot voice yell DANGER WILL ROBINSON!

  • avatar

    Lovely choices. Have never thought about the Cricket, but you bring up a good point… it works so well and is so realistic that you kind of simply take it in stride. That’s what a good movie prop does, unlike the blatantly obvious car commercial/future porn that is the Audi in “I, Robot, the-two-hour-cynical-merchandising-exercise-that-bears-no-relation-to-the-book-whatsoever”

    Damnation Alley… not the best book from Zelazny, but fun, nonetheless.

    Amongst sci-fi cars, I’ve still got a soft spot for “Johnny Cab” from Total Recall. Lovely set-piece. Both funny as hell and believable at the same time.

    Not in the least bit realistic, but… LoneStar’s Winnebago?

  • avatar

    The cars (and other transportation systems) in Minority Report were amazing.

  • avatar

    It wasn’t from a sci-fi movie, but to this day, no car has ever screamed THE FUTURE IS NOW! louder than the Black Moon from “Black Moon Rising.”

    There is something intoxicating about the combination of the car’s shape, the sound of its jet turbine engine and the fact that it had a manual transmission.

    Yes, I’m aware that it was all Hollywood magic and no, I don’t care about the rest of that movie.

  • avatar

    Oh wait! I can’t believe I forgot about the Ford LTD from Men in Black.

  • avatar

    The UFO cars were awesome, as was the MOBILE from the same show. Car lust. Truck lust. I was maybe 8….

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    The Fifth Element car actually looks quite modern with its exagerated, retro styling and gunslit windows.

    As a child in the early 1970’s I thought the SHADOW cars were so cool. The gull wing doors on these cars were manually operated. In one episode there is a shot where you can briefly see the hand of stagehand as he is opening one of the doors.

    Thank you for not choosing the cars from the Logan’s Run T.V. Series. In my opinion, these were some of the worst Sci Fi cars ever.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought I was the only one who remembered that show. I was in the 4th grade when that movie came out. I was excited about the series, too. But yeah, the cars sucked.

      Since we’re talking about bad old TV shows, I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the Ark from Ark II…

  • avatar

    Although kinda generic in the exterior packaging area, the crash safety tech in the police car in Demolition Man was pretty sweet. Encapsulate the passengers in foam!

  • avatar

    This topic could be much expanded upon:
    The car that folds into a briefcase, from The Jetsons
    The raiders’ cars (one of which seems to have parts of a ’60s Pontiac front end) and Max’s car from The Road Warrior, aka Mad Max 2
    The big bus from the 1976 movie The Big Bus
    The Chevy Piranha and the Mercury that engage in a duel in Harlan Ellison’s late 1960s future-road-rage story “Along the Scenic Route”
    Talking cabs appear in a number of Philip K. Dick novels (not necessarily with a dummy head-and-shoulders as in Total Recall), including one of his best, Now Wait for Last Year (included in the three volumes of Dick novels from Library of America, as is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – by the way, it’s Rick Deckard, not Decker, in that one).

  • avatar

    Buckaroo Banzai’s rocket car

    the cars from “Sleeper”

    the cars from “Demolition Man”

  • avatar

    The Mad Max 2 cars for sure, as well as some from 3. Yes Gerry Anderson’s stuff was dead cool. Always liked the tracked truck that flipped open to reveal a missile launcher to shoot down UFO – love that “The truth is out there (and we intend to blow it out of the sky in flaming wreckage)” vibe.

    But I’ve always liked Iain M Banks’ “Against A Dark Background” where he gives us the concept of the vast drive in moving filling station and motel that moves along the motorway. Original idea. Also there is a tank hunter monowheel with it’s wheel canted which I think is certainly THE most original SF vehicle I can think of.

  • avatar

    The police cars from the remake of Total Recall are pretty cool.

  • avatar

    Incidentally the Landmaster from Damnation Alley sat at a shop in Hollywood for many years. (At least from the late 80’s to 2001). I used to see it every time I went to the corner of Yucca and Vine in Hollywood to see my dentist. If you are going south on the Hollywood freeway it was on the right hand side up on a hill at a shop about oh 2 to 3 miles from the exit onto Vine. I am sure there are pictures on the web of where it sat. I have not been down there in a few years. (Been working all over the country) So I have no idea if it is still there or not. I think it even had a for sale sign on it at one point.

  • avatar

    How about cool real cars in sci-fi?

    1) From the Battlestar Galactica universe: Kara Thrace’s Hummer, and Joseph Adama’s Citroen DS.

    2) James T. Kirk’s stolen ‘Vette convertible in “Star Trek” (with Iowa plates) – good to know ‘Vettes and the Beastie Boys will still exist in the 23rd century.

    3) Morpheus’ Lincoln Continental from “The Matrix”

    4) Trinity’s Ducati from “The Matrix Reloaded” (OK, it’s not a car, but it’s still wicked cool)

    5) The Lexus SC 430 in Terminator 3 – the car isn’t any great shakes, but the “terminatrix” had inflatable boobs.

    6) The ’64 Ford Galaxie in MIB 3

    7) The Caddy pimpmobile (with front fender chandeliers!) driven by the Duke of New York in “Escape from New York”

    8) The Miata in “Looper”

  • avatar

    How about the Eagle 5 (Winnebago) in Spaceballs?

  • avatar

    The Magic School Bus

  • avatar

    Um ;

    You alls beat me to the really cool Sci-Fi Cars so I’ll mention the cars in THX1138 (O.K. so I’m _old_)

    And those weird & crappy dune buggies in Death race 2000….

    The SUX 6000’s (two) were still rotting into the desert sand out side Gene Winfeid’s Shop on Sierra Highway last time i checked .

    I thought they were some GM thing he’d basically plastered with graphics .


  • avatar

    –edit…Nate beat me to it…must learn to refresh sooner…

    Ok, it’s not the future anymore, but Death Race 2000? Even the cars in the remake weren’t awful, but the sci-fi seemed much more dialed down than the campy original version. Go Frankenstein!

    “Well, what does she expect? You leave your navigator lying around, naturally somebody is going to run over him.”

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Can’t remember the cars from the Brazil movie. Didn’t even remember the ones from BR.

    Agree on Corben Dallas taxi.

    There’s also a movie with a superawesome robotized Lexus factory, but can’t remember where I saw that.

  • avatar

    The Chrysler prototype from the Wraith.

    You guys have hit most of them.

    Does the tank from Tank Girl count?

    What about the monstrosity that Molly Ringwald drove whatever in Spacehunter:Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. (it’s been a long time since I saw that one)

    Do James Bond cars count as Sci-Fi cars?? LOL

  • avatar

    Cars from the Buck Rogers TV series

  • avatar

    Holy crap, no Tumbler from the Batman series?!? For real??? I mean, they built the thing and it actually did many of the stunts shown in the movie.

  • avatar

    Can I nominate the XTS-V?

  • avatar

    What about Centauri’s badass spaceship car from The Last Starfighter? I loved that car as a kid… still think it’s pretty sweet.

  • avatar

    My favorite car of the future never made it to the movies. It was prominently featured in, I think, The Marching Morons by C.M. Kornbluth, possibly co-written with Pohl sometime in the fifties when cars were getting fins. So this guy goes to the future where, naturally enough, cars have enormous fins, which the time traveler refers to as “cooling fins” because they clearly had no aerodynamic purpose. He gets all excited because he thinks they must be nuclear powered. It turns out the cars went a maximum of 30 miles per hour, but the speedometer read much higher, for the driver’s protection. Thirty miles per hour is not very fast, but it compares favorably with the top speed of most movie cars.

  • avatar

    In the 1970s Ballantine paperback anthology The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (edited by Frederik Pohl, with individual story prefaces by him), “The Marching Morons” and all the other selections are credited to Kornbluth alone. (They did also collaborate but shared a byline when they did, most notably for the novel The Space Merchants.)

    Those are fun car descriptions, for sure:

    “What – a – *boat*!” gasped the man from the past.
    “Boat? No, that’s my car.”
    Barlow surveyed it with awe. Swept-back lines, deep-drawn compound curves, kilograms of chrome. He ran his hands over the door – or was it the door? – in a futile search for a handle, and asked respectfully, “How fast does it go?”
    The psychist gave him a keen look and said slowly, “Two hundred and fifty. You can tell by the speedometer.”
    “Wow! My old Chevvy could hit a hundred on a straightaway, but you’re out of my class, mister!”
    Tinny-Peete somehow got a huge, low door open and Barlow descended three steps into immense cushions, floundering over to the right. […] The dashboard was a lovely wilderness of dials, plugs, indicators, lights, scales and switches.
    The psychist climbed down into the driver’s seat and did something with his feet. The motor started like lighting a blowtorch as big as a silo. Wallowing around in the cushions, Barlow saw through a rear-view mirror a tremendous exhaust filled with brilliant white sparkles.
    “Do you like it?” yelled the psychist.
    “It’s terrific!” Barlow yelled back. “It’s-”
    He was shut up as the car pulled out from the bay into the road with a great voo-ooo-ooom! A gale roared past Barlow’s head, though the windows seemed to be closed; the impression of speed was terrific. He located the speedometer on the dashboard and saw it climb past 90, 100, 150, 200…

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the research. I haven’t seen this story in thirty years at least; that’s how big an impression Kornbluth made on me. Space Merchants is also one of my favorites. Sort of like 1984 where the citizens had it coming.

      • 0 avatar

        You should perhaps go get a copy of His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth, from NESFA Press (New England SF Assn.).

  • avatar

    Almost forgot – the Jupiter 8 briefly glimpsed in the 1968 Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses” (the 20th-century-Roman-Empire planet that also used, as an establishing shot, the central domed buildings of MIT):

  • avatar

    The Defender from “Viper”

    Also, KITT — my car needs Super Pursuit Mode and Tri-Helical Plasteel 1000 MBS.

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