The Car: 1955 Chevrolet 150
The Movie: Two-Lane Blacktop
The Driver: James Taylor (Credited Simply As “The Driver”)
More often than not, cars in movies are treated as accessories. They’re a tool for the characters to accomplish a certain task, usually culminating in a flash chase sequence that costs millions of dollars to accomplish. But the ’55 Chevy in Monte Hellman’s 1971 racing vagabond drama Two-Lane Blacktop is more than just a means for The Driver (James Taylor, in his only credited film role) and The Mechanic (the late Dennis Wilson, former drummer for The Beach Boys) to win illegal drag races. It’s a perfect reflection of who those characters are.
At first glance, the Chevy looks like a piece of junk. The body is primer grey. The inside is stripped down to its bare essentials. No carpet, no radio, only seats, steering wheel, gauges and pedals occupy the interior. But underneath the hood is a monster of an engine, one that gives every car it races a run for its money and then some. It’s a ringer. It looks hollow and lonely, beat up and ignored, but beneath it all is something that explodes with power.
Driver and Mechanic (their actual names are never provided) have nothing in the way of possessions. They barely even seem like friends and have little interaction with each beyond small talk that mostly revolves around how to get the car to race better. Their only goal in life seems to be little more than to wander the highways and challenge fellow gearheads to high-stakes races. And yet, when the pedal is put to the metal, there’s an intense focus and ferocity that burns within Driver. All that exists for this car and its pilot is the open road. Nothing more, nothing less.
Two-Lane Blacktop was a flop when it first came out, but it’s gained a decent cult following in the years since. It actually makes for an interesting double feature with another film about the open road from the same era, Easy Rider. But where Easy Rider was, in part, about the freedom and limitless opportunity that could seemingly be experienced through America’s highways, Two-Lane Blacktop was its existential mirror, ruminating on the loneliness and isolation that was found in a life on the road.
It’s somewhat understandable that both this film and its car are somewhat forgotten. Dour examinations of aimless youths aren’t exactly films that set the popular culture on fire, but it’s a soulful film none the less and features a perfect metaphor that just so happens to bear a 454-cubic inch engine under its unassuming hood.