Rob’s Car Movie Review: Used Cars (1980)

One of the few things I regret about the circumstances of my birth is the fact that my youth coincided with the death of the drive-in movie. Being a cinema devotee, I look back on the drive-in phenomenon as one I wish I had experienced more of. The relative innocence of that era, enjoying the privacy of your car with a pretty date, and the uniqueness of the experience all definitely work on my nostalgic side.

I was only at a drive-in theater once in my life. It was 1984 and I was a 14-year-old on a bus trip with about three-dozen other teenagers touring 15 of the western United States. One night, we went to what may very well have been one of the last operating drive-ins in the country. All thirty-some-odd kids and I climbed up on the roof of the bus to watch the movie, sharing one speaker. It was a glorious, warm and breezy summer’s night, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

For this month’s installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I thought I’d have a look at the film that played that night, one that I haven’t seen since: Used Cars.

Used Cars theatrical movie poster.

Used Cars was a dark comedy released and distributed in the summer of 1980 by Columbia Pictures. The movie stars Kurt Russell, Gerrit Graham, SCTV’s Joe Flaherty, Laverne and Shirley’s Michael McKean and David L. Lander, The Munsters’ “Grandpa” Al Lewis and the inimitable Jack Warden in a double role. Writing and directing was a young Robert Zemeckis, who would go on to heights such as directing Back to the Future, and Forrest Gump, which yielded him an Academy Award. The film is also notable for having been executive produced by Steven Spielberg and John Milius.

Kurt Russell as Rudy Russo.

Used Cars has a rather elaborate plot, especially for a car movie. Kurt Russell plays Rudy Russo, a slimy used car salesman in Phoenix, who works for Luke Fuchs, portrayed by Jack Warden, a kindly and honest car dealer with a bad heart. Rudy has aspirations to do something more with his life and has been saving up money to bribe a political party bigwig to let him be the nominee for an open seat in the state senate.

Joe Flaherty and Jack Warden bring comedy and acting chops to the movie.

Meanwhile, Luke’s malevolent twin brother Roy (also played by Warden), seeks to acquire Luke’s car lot, because his own is set to be demolished by the state to allow for an interstate to pass through.

With sales faltering, and the cut-off for bribing the official rapidly approaching, Rudy turns to Luke for a loan. Luke agrees under the condition that if anything were to happen to him, Rudy would see to it that his brother does not get his lot after probate.

That night, Roy hires a man to pose as a potential customer, and take Luke out for a harrowing test drive in the hopes it will lead to Luke having a coronary. The plan works, and Luke dies in Rudy’s arms. Realizing that Roy was behind Luke’s demise, Rudy enlists the help of his co-workers to help bury Luke in an old car behind of the lot. When Roy comes looking for Luke the next day, Rudy tries to persuade him that Luke drove to Miami for a vacation, but Roy is unconvinced.

Ownership of Luke’s lot is at stake.

This sets up a battle of wits between Rudy and Roy, with the stakes of who gets Luke’s lot and how Rudy will get the money for his Senate run hanging in the balance.

Used Cars is a perfect example of the cynical, smart and politically critical films of the time. It uses its cadre of shady and hustling characters as a metaphor for the real-life ones that seem to occupy our government. Its humor is stinging and provides for a biting commentary on our society and its moral shortcomings.

Lenny and Squiggy! Michael McKean and David L. Lander have supporting roles.

Kurt Russell is fantastic as Rudy and commands the screen like every inch the movie star he would shortly become. Jack Warden is also extraordinary in his portrayal of both brothers, and McKean, Graham and the underrated Flaherty bring loads of flat-out hilarious comedic moments.

Effectively if not artfully shot, competently edited and well written, the movie moves at a good pace and soundly delivers in its third act.

As you would expect in a film with the word “cars” in the title, there are plenty of them present. While many are beat down, boring and unremarkable 1970s sedans, there are a handful of beauties worth mentioning and drooling over.

As a Mopar guy, my favorites have to be a pair of Dodge Challengers, one a gorgeous white 1971 convertible, and the other a red 1970 coupe. A blue 1970 Plymouth Barracuda also shows up late in the film. All three make brief appearances, so it’s hard to glean much detail, but judging by the sound of the white Challenger, it is clearly a big block car, most likely a 440. The red Challenger sports the rare W23 black and chrome road wheels.

Check out that blue 1970 Plymouth Barracuda in the background.

Another standout is a 1957 Chevy 210 coupe. This baby blue and white stunner is the car that Luke is taken out on the test drive in, and it’s painful to watch as this immaculate beauty is trashed in several minutes of reckless driving, and ultimately rolled and totaled. Such a shame. She sports a 283 ci “Super Turbo-Fire” V8, white-wall tires, and white top and fender inlays.

A beautiful 1957 Chevy 210 coupe.

There are also a host of cool Cadillacs in the movie, ranging from a ’59 Fleetwood to ’77 and ’79 Sedan DeVille stretch limousines. Other automotive stars include a 1963 suicide Lincoln Continental, a bunch of first generation Mustangs and a beautiful, green 1975 Mercedes-Benz 450SL roadster.

A sweet 1963 suicide Lincoln Continental.

Used Cars is a very good and quite funny film. In spite of not being a huge success at the time of its release, it has gone on to achieve a cult following and lives on for devoted fans in DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Oh, but to see it at a drive-in…

I give Used Cars seven out of ten pistons.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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