Sci-fi has always been a genre defined by technology. Whether it’s the lightsabers of Star Wars, the scramble suits of A Scanner Darkly, or the lemon-fuelled thinking cap in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the technology of any given sci-fi universe not only sets up its visual style and tone but also opens up a window to the wider horizons of these imagined future worlds. And while concept designers and writers have dedicated their lives to envisioning these yet-to-be-seen technologies, there is one thing in particular that they all seem to gravitate towards, and that’s the car of the future.
From the flying Spinners of Blade Runner to KITT, the talking car of Knight Rider fame, all manner of cool sci-fi vehicles have appeared on our screens over the years. And while many fictional universes put their spin on modern car technologies, only a few of these designs stand the test of time and become permanent hallmarks of our cultural imagination. These science fiction cars aren’t just important because of their status as visions of potential futures; they also open a window into the fantasies of our past, making them even more remarkable to look back on today.
The DeLorean – Back to the Future (1985)
The 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 is one of the most recognizable sci-fi movie cars ever, owing to its starring role in the massively popular 1985 time-travel caper Back to the Future. Capable of time travel and, eventually, flight, this version of the shiny chrome sports car came equipped with the original’s classic gullwing doors and a boost to its V-6 engine in the form of Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. When the car hit 88 miles per hour, it would allow it to travel back in time to any chosen date. Few know, however, that the original drafts of the movie didn’t even include the car – in fact, in early scripts, Marty and the Doc travelled exclusively in a time-travelling refrigerator!
The DeLorean DMC-12 was already something of a throwback back when the original movie was released in 1985. Its manufacturer, the DeLorean Motor Company, had collapsed in 1982, after only seven years of operating as a business. Seven cars were used across the course of the trilogy, including a specced-out version with all of Doc Brown’s tech wizardry inside, a basic edition that was ready to be trashed during stunts, and an interior-focused model with highly complex instruments for close-up shots. Of course, the Doc eventually traded the DeLorean for a time-travelling train at the end of Back to the Future Part III, but after the amount of unfortunate mechanical failures the car suffered, who can blame him!
Lexus 2054 – Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s take on Phillip K. Dick’s The Minority Report is often touted for its prescience in terms of both the technologies it envisioned for the future and its depiction of a police state in which crime is prevented before it can ever happen. And while we don’t yet have the Lexus maglev cars shown hovering up the walls of buildings in the movie, the Lexus 2054 is very much a reality.
This gorgeous sci-fi car was designed by Lexus specifically for Spielberg’s film, and we’re first introduced to it when Tom Cruise’s fugitive police agent John Anderton is trapped inside of the car’s chassis during an intense fight sequence inside an automated factory. The car has never been made for mass production, but back in 2016, one intrepid auto-enthusiast made a strong attempt to replicate it on the body of a modified Porsche. Here’s hoping we can buy one for ourselves by the time 2054 rolls around.
Audi RSQ – I, Robot (2004)
Alex Proyas’ 2004 action flick I, Robot brought some incredible effects to the big screen in the form of its fully CGI humanoid androids, but one of the most visually dazzling sequences of the movie is the chase sequence involving Audi’s RSQ concept car. Designed specifically for use in the film, this 6-speed automatic brought Audi’s classic car profile to the future with a single-frame grille and four spheres used in the place of wheels.
With a fully designed interior and exterior, it’s a truly remarkable car to behold, and the 5.0L twin-turbo engine eventually paved the way for the design of the Audi R8 – minus the spherical wheels. It’s the wheels that are the car’s most important feature in the movie, as they allow Will Smith’s Detective Del Spooner to shake off several malevolent NS-5 androids during an ambush on the freeway via some rapid unilateral acceleration. In other words, the RSQ crushes them to a pulp.
Spinner – Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 (1992 & 2017)
Blade Runner is one of the greatest sci-fi adaptations of all time, and one thing that directors Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve both nailed in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, respectively, in their depictions of the Spinner. Pulled straight from Phillip K. Dick’s original novel, the Spinner is essentially a flying car with the capabilities of a VTOL. The version seen in the movie adaptations was drawn up by Scott’s long-time collaborator Syd Mead, with an updated Peugeot version brought to life for the sequel.
These stylishly retro sci-fi cars are at the center of the Blade Runner experience, with both movies opening with shots of police Spinners flying over the skyline of a dystopic Los Angeles. Both Harrison Ford’s Officer Deckard and Ryan Gosling’s Officer K rely on their Spinners to spirit them around this barren world, and the moody interior shots of Spinners flying in the rain are emblematic of Phillip K. Dick’s creation as a whole. Then you’ve got the Spinner scene at the sea wall in 2049, a cinematic masterpiece that deserves to be witnessed at least once by every sci-fi fan.
Knight Industries Two Thousand (K.I.T.T.) – KNIGHT RIDER (1982-86)
In the original Knight Rider, the Knight Industries Two Thousand car, or KITT, aided David Hasselhoff’s Michael Knight in fighting crime in the form of a talking Pontiac Trans Am. This classic muscle car received a sci-fi upgrade in the show, with an A.I. microprocessor that gives it the ability to talk. This invincible bonded shell makes it impervious to almost all harm a turbo boost that allows it to jump 40 feet in the air. KITT also used several gadgets like a grappling hook and flamethrowers to give it some offensive power – an absolute must considering the presence of evil twin Garthe Knight’s equally evil vehicle, the KARR.
While KITT took on different voices and bodies in the various spin-offs and reboots of Knight Rider, it’s the classic Trans Am that still springs to mind when anybody mentions the show. Like many vehicles on this list, KITT was very visionary for its time, with GPS and self-driving features now a reality in the auto industry. Give it a few more years, and our cars might be talking to us too.
Pursuit Special – Mad Max franchise (1979 – 2015)
Mad Max is a franchise that wouldn’t exist without its iconic cars, and one staple of all four Mad Max movies is the Pursuit Special, Max Rockatansky’s vehicle of mass destruction. A modified Ford Falcon XB GT with a souped-up turbo engine, the Pursuit Special, otherwise known as the V8 interceptor, is painted in an iconic black-on-black colour scheme and fitted with a Weiand 6-71 supercharger, which can be seen on the vehicle’s hood.
Though it underwent minor changes across the three original Mad Max movies, the car’s chassis remained the same. In 2015’s Fury Road, it received a makeover from Immortan Joe’s War Boys, turning it into a shiny chrome war machine shortly before it met its end between two-bladed tanker trucks.
Johnny Cab – Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall might not be the most faithful movie adaptation ever, but it is hilarious, in no small part, thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wonderfully hammy acting. His turn as Douglas Quaid hits fever pitch opposite the irritating android driver of a Johnny Cab, Mars’ premiere taxi transport system.
These automated cabs are designed around a 1990 Volkswagen chassis, and they lend a great look to the movie’s streets as well as a strong dollop of humour, especially when their self-destruct mechanism is demonstrated when Quaid fails to pay his fare. Interestingly, the Johnny Cab driver was modelled on and voiced by Robert Picardo, who you may recognize as The Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager.
Flying Taxi – The Fifth Element (1997)
Here we have another fantastic sci-far car that almost never made it to the screen, this time in the form of Korben Dallas’ flying cab from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. As with some other sci-fi cars on this list, the cab didn’t appear in the movie’s early scripts, as Bruce Willis’ hard-headed taxi driver was originally intended to be a blue-collar worker in a rocket ship factory.
The change was suggested to Besson by none other than comics artist Jean-Claude Mézières, who, alongside Jean Giraud, inspired much of the movie’s visual style. In the end, the taxi served a vital role, acting as the means through which Mila Jovovich’s interplanetary fugitive Leeloo would cross paths with Dallas, paving the way for the salvation of planet earth.
Mach 5 Prototype – Speed Racer (1967-68) and Speed Racer (2008)
Speed Racer was one of the most popular anime shows of its time back in the ‘60s, and Gō Mifune’s Mach 5 Prototype was at the core of every episode’s dramatic races. Purportedly designed as a cross between Elvis Presley’s costume stylings and James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, the Mach 5 brought victory to Speed Racer on many occasions.
These victories came in no small part thanks to its advanced range of gadgetry, which included everything from powerful rotary saws to a retractable periscope. It even received a real-life counterpart built especially for the Wachowskis’ 2008 live-action adaptation, though a CGI stand-in was used for most of the movie’s high-speed action sequences.
Batmobile – Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)
While there have been many iterations of the Batmobile over the years, perhaps the most iconic is the Anton Furst design used in Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, Batman and Batman Returns. Burton’s gothic style is complemented exquisitely by this version of Batman’s favourite vehicle, with a heavily altered Chevrolet Impala chassis used as the outline for its curvaceous art-deco design. From the extravagant tail-fins to the visible turbo-booster at the front of the car’s bonnet, everything about this car speaks to a dark elegance and hidden strength, two key features of Batman’s overall visual design.
The car wasn’t just good-looking, however. This iteration of the Batmobile included many powerful gadgets, including an afterburner, a pair of machine guns, a grappling hook, and a Batdisc launcher, all of which were seen being used across the epic chase scenes of the two movies. We even got to see Danny DeVito’s Penguin take control over the car in Batman Returns, operating it remotely, much to Batman’s chagrin.
Eagle Five Winnebago – Spaceballs (1987)
Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs is a cult classic sci-fi comedy with an iconic sci-fi car to match, this time taking the shape of Captain Lone Starr’s Eagle 5, a custom 1986 Winnebago Chieftain 33 fitted with a pair of wings and twin ‘hyperjet’ engines. A 1/12 scale model was used to bring this rusted RV to life in the movie, and several key scenes take place on board before the cantankerous craft crash lands upon the desert moon of Vega.
It might not be the highest-numbered amongst the coolest sci-fi vehicles out there. Still, it is a brilliant parody of the space smuggler concept that Star Wars popularized with Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.
M577 Armored Personnel Carrier – Aliens (1986)
When it comes to sci-fi armoured cars, one of the most recognizable examples out there is the M577 APC from James Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens, the all-guns-blazing sequel to Ridley Scott’s original film. The sequel’s visuals moved away from the space-trucker aesthetic of the first movie with more of a focus on military elements and sci-fi military vehicles. When Sigourney Weaver’s Ripely takes command over a squad of Colonial Marines, she puts their APC to good use, driving it directly into the alien hive to save the lives of her temporary comrades.
Interestingly, the APC was designed in part by Syd Mead, who you may remember for having designed Blade Runner’s police Spinners. You can see certain similarities between the two vehicles, including a sloped low-profile hood and a striking all-chrome colour scheme.
Ecto-1 Hearse – Ghostbusters (1984)
The Ghostbusters franchise is full of memorable imagery, from the streams of the team’s proton packs to the steam-spewing dog demon Zuul to the magnificent sight of the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Still, amongst all of these fantastical elements, it’s the Ecto-1 that remains one of the coolest parts of the original film.
This modified 1959 Cadillac hearse/ambulance combo car carried Bill Murray and his squad of scrappy Ghostbusters all over New York City, complete with a proton pack gurney, a range of non-functional gadgets, and the classic Ghostbusters emblem as a door decal. Fans of the series will be glad to know that the Ecto-1 will be returning in 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, along with some extra upgrades like the extendable gunner seat shown in the movie’s latest trailer.
Crown Victoria – Men in Black (1997)
Perhaps one of the most ordinary cars on this list, but one of the coolest is the Crown Victoria from the original Men in Black. Otherwise known as the MIB Mobile, this slick vehicle looks like a perfectly normal Ford Crown Victoria when driven around New York by Agent K and Agent J. However, when the car’s ‘auxiliary mode’ is triggered via a giant red button, it quickly transforms into a gravity-defying speedster capable of driving on tunnel ceilings and evading traffic with ease – a must when heading downtown.
Aptera 2e – Star Trek (2009)
While it’s nice to sit and dream about the great sci-fi movie vehicles out there in these fictional universes, there is one sci-fi car that you can get your hands on today. The Aptera 2e, seen in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, is designed and made by Aptera motors.
While the original concept car that starred in the movie failed to take off in the real world, Aptera revised its designs and is currently producing the Aptera Solar EV, a futuristic 3-wheeled car entirely powered by the sun’s rays. If we’re lucky, we might have the Aptera 2e before the 24th century, after all!