We should never forget that cars in the movies are just the director’s props and can work however the actors (or stuntmen) want.
While we shouldn’t confuse what we see on screen with the way that specific vehicles acts in real life, it’s fascinating to see how, in the name of excitement, what we see is so much different from real life.
While most car stunts involve a car in motion, we’ll start with an exception. We kind of think that cars are made to last, but what about cars which purposely fall apart?
In Buster Keaton’s Three Ages the car suddenly falls apart, almost as if it was on order. Except it’s the film business so it was certainly on order. Could it be a button that the driver presses? It’s not a crash, the parts seem to move around slowly to a chaotic shape, and a wheel rolls slowly away. Although the car is a heap the driver manages to walk away, without his dignity but he walks away.
In films you may notice that some cars don’t sound right. Take Wheelman for example. The BMW doesn’t sound like a BMW. Despite it being a similar engine many “petrol heads” are able to tell the difference. Foley experts grab an engine sound that seems to match impression they want the car to have, which may have nothing to do with what that car actually sounds like.
Something which is always done wrong in films is hotwiring – jump starting an engine by joining two wires together and riding off with it. This is no longer possible and wasn’t since the 1990s. Even when many car makers left the ignition wires accessible under the dash, it wasn’t a quick business as shown on screen, and even then, a would-be joy rider would find many cars impossible to hotwire.
One of the things that drive some car experts crazy is when a tire blows out a car traveling more than 10 miles an hour, it would inevitably flip into the air and land on it’s top. In real life a car is too heavy for that to happen.
Movie and TV Cars also explode way too quickly, especially if they go off the edge of a cliff. It wasn’t too uncommon in the 1980’s for a car to explode while falling for no apparent reason other than the audiences collective desire to see a flaming ball of fire tumble to the bottom of the canyon.
Fortunately, real life cars aren’t as flammable as that. What is true, is that they burn quickly. They are loaded with accelerants which means if a flame is produced the fire spreads quickly to consume every part of the car. What’s typically missing from a car wreck is a flame source. Most cars that catch on fire in real life are victims of a mechanical failure in the engine which spreads, even while the car is rolling.
In Gone In 60 Seconds we see cars whose suspensions are far too bouncy, moving with ease over cars, sofas, anything really. This is even hard to do in a film set, so CGI is employed.
There are other unrealistic chase scenes out there in the movie world. When cars go over a jump and appear to fly straight for a long distance. When you see stunt men and women in real life jump something, it’s usually a motorcycle because they weigh less per horsepower and the engine is in the middle of the vehicle. Jump a car off a ramp and you’ll find them very front heavy. They tend to dive hood first at the landing which brakes the frame. As a result, even if you could walk away from the landing you won’t be driving away as they portray in the movies.
When cars speed, they tend to crash more or less immediately. The chases are filmed at about 70 mph, because any faster and even stunt drivers would crash and other accidents would occur. Stunt drivers are able to drive faster than 70 of course, but when you’re paying a couple hundred people to film the scene and you wreck a car with every mistake, you want to limit the number of retakes.
Bringing in guns brings in more problems. It’s probably a boring thing to say, but in real life firing a gun and driving is the ultimate form of distracted driving. It’s not likely a driver would try to fire accurately from a vehicle.
It is likely that you would try to avoid getting shot while driving and that’s also going to be a distraction. Just sit in your car with the engine off and imagine someone is shooting at you. In the movies, drivers try to keep their heads down, but this would almost certainly cause a crash in real life. At least the driver aiming a gun at you would also crash; car driving and multitasking doesn’t mix.
We often see people trying to force another car off the road by swerving into them. In real life this is very hard to do. It reduces the amount of attention you can give to what’s in front of you. Plus, physically getting jostled makes it hard to control your steering wheel. Police have what’s called a pit manoeuvre in real life, where they attempt to bump a car from the side, right at the front or back tire—causing it to spin out. Even with training police Pit Manoeuvres have caused about 30 deaths since 2018.
It’s probably best to leave the car chases and car stunts to people in the movies, they tend to know what they’re doing.