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The Cannonball Run: A Star-Studded Car Movie

A race across the USA from New York to California that’s filled with cool cars and famous actors. Here’s a look at The Cannonball Run.

The Cannonball Run

Scene from The Cannonball Run - imdb.com
Scene from The Cannonball Run - imdb.com

The Cannonball Run challenge started as an unsanctioned race known as the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash back in the ‘70s. It ran from New York City (sometimes Darien, Connecticut) to Los Angeles and it has grown to be known as an infamous challenge route for speedsters. Just this year, a Tesla Model S set a new EV record of 42 hours and 52 minutes to complete the 2,900+ mile journey across the United States. And even more ludicrous than that, the overall record was broken as recently as 2020 with a heavily modified 2016 Audi A6 that made the trip in a blistering 25 hours and 39 minutes.

It’s fitting that these records happened to perfectly coincide with the 40th anniversary of the blockbuster movie that brought this race to the big screen, The Cannonball Run. Following the success of the Smokey and the Bandit movies, director Hal Needham decided to bring Burt Reynolds into a new high-speed role as JJ McClure, a famous racecar driver participating in the illegitimate cross-country race. But Reynolds isn’t the only big name from this film, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Terry Bradshaw, and even Jackie Chan made up the star-studded cast. Let’s remember all the fun moments and cool cars from The Cannonball Run.

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am - imcdb.org
1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am - imcdb.org

There’s more than one subtle nod to the Smokey and the Bandit car found in The Cannonball Run. Right at the beginning of the movie, there’s a “Smokey” version of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that’s involved in a high-speed chase. There’s another cop version, there’s a white one, and even a red one seen briefly that could be another nod towards the Hooper Firebird. But the best one of all is the one seen racing near the end of the movie that is a direct representation of the Bandit’s car. The driver is even wearing the same iconic red jacket that Bandit wore too.

Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna

1976 Chevy Chevelle Laguna - imcdb.org
1976 Chevy Chevelle Laguna - imcdb.org

We only get to appreciate this for a little bit before its hood pops up and it jumps into a hotel pool. “Hiding” that Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna worked out for Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis, as the duo got it back up and running after having it be completely flooded. Ever wondered about that racecar paint scheme it had? It was based off of a real-life version of Donnie Allison’s Hawaiian Tropic #1 NASCAR, but that bright red was a little too much for the crew so they painted it… and then some.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo

1976 Chevy Monte Carlo - imcdb.org
1976 Chevy Monte Carlo - imcdb.org

When the Chevelle Laguna stock car is up and running they suggest that it gets painted and modified. This paint and modification also somehow changes the car into a completely different model. The duo ends up with a grey Chevrolet Monte Carlo for the rest of the film that they fill with all their road trip “essentials”. Probably stocked up too much as the car never made it to California in the end.

GMC C3500 Sierra Classic

1980 GMC C3500 Sierra Classic - imcdb.org
1980 GMC C3500 Sierra Classic - imcdb.org

Who doesn’t love a good dually truck? Well, how about the GMC C3500 Sierra Classic that came straight from the speedway to be in The Cannonball Run. Mad Dog and Batman were quite the wrecking crew with this heavy-duty truck. Smashing into buildings, going off-road through the trees at the start of the race, and even jumping a moving train. That last one wasn’t on purpose since the running joke that their “brakes gave out” actually happened. “Evel Knievel, you’ve got yourself some competition” after that train stunt.

Subaru DL 4WD

1980 Subaru DL 4WD - imcdb.org
1980 Subaru DL 4WD - imcdb.org

Subaru has a long-lasting reputation of offering four-wheel drive on their cars, and the one Jackie Chan drives is no different. The Subaru DL isn’t a typical wagon seen in the US, but this JDM car made an impact in The Cannonball Run. The car was completely “computerized” as Chan’s character put it, as it featured an interior full of switches and screens that would make KITT from Knight Rider jealous. There’s GPS, Infared exterior sensors, a VHS player, and a rocket booter that sent the crew flying over a dirt hill that even Baja buggies couldn’t get up.

Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow I

1974 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow I - imcdb.org
1974 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow I - imcdb.org

Finally. A rich person who actually drives their uber expensive luxury car. The Sheikh drives a white Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow I that has a reputation for hitting camels and speeding over the dirt like it’s a rally car. It even has some big rally lights attached to the front bumper. Probably the best part of the movie featuring this car was the Sheikh ordering fast food by car phone and exclaiming that he did so at 140 miles per hour.

Ferrari 308 GTS

1978 Ferrari 308 GTS - imcdb.org
1978 Ferrari 308 GTS - imcdb.org

Why would two priests have a Ferrari 308 GTS? I don’t think the former Formula One driver and gambler thought that through. The combination brought up some red flags when the “holy duo” asked McClure to pull over so that they could bless them, but the ploy to blow their tire still worked, I guess. While the fake priests had plenty of scenes in The Cannonball Run, the car itself didn’t do much in the movie besides get recognized as a juiced-up Ferrari and go fast, but what more can you ask for from an Italian sports car?

Lamborghini Countach

1980 Lamborghini Countach - imcdb.org
1980 Lamborghini Countach - imcdb.org

Pretty ladies and a super-fast Lamborghini make for a near perfect Cannonball Run combination apparently. The blacked-out Lamborghini Countach can be seen speeding from the Firebird cop car in the intro to The Cannonball Run. The pair were constantly getting pulled over for speeding during the movie. However, the women seemed to always get away with it after interacting with officers… That is until they were met with a female one.

Aston Martin DB5

1963 Astin Martin DB5 - imcdb.org
1963 Astin Martin DB5 - imcdb.org

Who doesn’t love a good James Bond reference? Roger Moore is himself in The Cannonball Run, but seems to portray more of his man of mystery on screen persona for the film. Appropriately, his car of choice is the silver Aston Martin DB5 from the 007. It even includes all of the secret agent gadgets from the movies, but they showcase more of the downsides than the benefits in this movie. Smoke fills the cabin when using the smokescreen and the jump seat only goes off for the wrong person in the end. At least that license plate flipper worked correctly.

The Ambulance – Dodge Sportsman Van

1978 Dodge Sportsman - imcdb.org
1978 Dodge Sportsman - imcdb.org

What car does Burt Reynolds end up with for this movie? Well, he almost had a slick looking Porsche that could pass as one of those RWB models well ahead of its time. After crashing the turbocharged racer and performing some extensive searching with his co-pilot, the hero car of the film ends up being a Dodge Sportsman Van that’s guised as an ambulance. They settled on it after being told that they could “smoke through traffic like shot through a gun in this thing.”

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The ambulance from the film was actually one that had been originally used in the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash by director Hal Needham himself. It was said to have had a HEMI engine dropped in it that allowed the Dodge Ram Van to reach 145 miles per hour. I guess that’s one way to research for a film adaptation.

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Jesse McGraw

Jesse McGraw brings his life-long car obsession into his writing. A fun childhood that involved growing up around race tracks, working on a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, and collecting Hot Wheels developed into a strong appreciation for automotive history. If there is an old, obscure, or rare car, he wants to know about it. With a bachelor's degree in Web Development & Design from Dakota State University, Jesse can talk shop about car or computer specs, focusing on classic cars, imports, and car culture.

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