Thunder Road – the First Muscle Car Movie

tr1-s.jpgLong before the drug war, there was another war in American, which raged in the South. It was the backwoods liquor war. Backwoods liquor sometimes called moonshine or white lightening was distilled in rural areas of the South usually at night. The center of this activity was in Appalachian country. For as long as there were inhabitants in the backwoods of the South, homemade liquor has been distilled. For its first 140 years, the U.S. Government did not care and it had not constitutional authority to intervene in such matters. However during the Great Depression, Prohibition (1920-1933) was put to an end. The Feds with the return of legalized consumption of alcohol saw a great revenue stream from the taxation of liquor. This was the era when the U.S. Government was exploding in growth mostly due to FDR’s New Deal programs. It did not take the Feds long to place on their radar screens backwoods good ol’ boys making homemade hooch. The Federal agents, who spent their time tracking down moonshine distillers and runners, became know as revenuers. The name was derived from their main purpose which was to shutdown the operation of this homegrown whiskey (that was not taxed) so that the constant stream of tax dollars (revenue from legal liquor) was not hampered in any way.

During this era of the revenuers cracking down, liquor runners had to remain one step ahead. Since necessity is the mother of invention – this forced runners to increase the performance of their cars. If a runner’s car was faster than one driven by a revenuer it decreased greatly the chances of the runner getting caught. So modifications to runner cars became the norm. Runners honing their high speed driving skills on backwoods country roads led to what would later become modern stock car racing. Since most of these runners spent a lot of time modifying their cars, it did not long before egos took hold and there were races to see who had the fastest car. These weekend races led to the formation of NASCAR. Many of the early NASCAR legends were former moonshine runners. Junior Jackson one of the most legendary NASCAR drivers was a moonshine runner. And moonshine running also crossed racial lines – legendary African-American driver Wendell Scott who broke the color barrier in NASCAR, also had his start in moonshine running. Ray Parks who had a automotive garage that made performance upgrades to runner cars back in the day, was one of the driving forces behind the foundation of NASCAR. Parks was a close confident of Bill France who is credited with the creation of NASCAR. Red Vogt who was a mechanic that worked at Parks’ garage actually came up with the “NASCAR” name.

The movie Thunder Road, directed and produced by Arthur Ripley, is set in the late-1950s era of moonshine bootlegging. Lucas Doolin the main character (is played by a 40ish Robert Mitchum) is an ace driver in his backwoods Tennessee tr1-7.jpgcounty. Doolin is a runner; he’s the stuff legends are made of – a driver that nobody can catch. He’s not in his profession because of the money (though the money is good). He does what he does because it runs in the family; his father and grandfather were runners and so he seeks no other profession. His skills have been honed by years of high speed driving on wild country roads; he’s just the kind of driver that would have been a NASCAR champion if he had gone that route. His 1950 Ford is well known in his area. The heavily modified flathead V8 under the hood is referred to as a racing motor in the movie. Doolin and his 1950 Ford are both revered by fellow drivers. Later in the movie when the Feds try to put the squeeze on him, they mark his car as a runner car with all the different law enforcement entities, which for a runner is the equivalent of a mobster being listed in the infamous Nevada Black Book. In effect it rendered his car useless since it was now easily identifiable by every law enforcement officer and revenuer. However his car is so fast, a fellow runner convinces Doolin to sell him the car even after Doolin mentions that the car is marked.  

The Feds are no problem for Doolin. His troubles start when a big player from Nashville, Carl Kogan (played by Jacquest Aubuchon) tries to take over the independent moonshine production and running operations in Doolin’s county. The other drivers and distillers are scared of Kogan who is a man who does not take no for an answer (think of Kogan as the Johnny Sack of Tennessee). It’s Doolin’s unwillingness to accept Kogan’s offer to work for him that keeps most distillers and runners in his county from working for Kogan. As the movie progresses Doolin escapes Kogan’s traps, which Kogan’s goons set.


When Kogan kills a revenuer, the Feds step in and setup a roadblock for Doolin. They bring him into custody, Troy Barrett a Treasury agent played by Gene Barry setup the trap to convince Doolin to help them nail Kogan. Doolin refuses the offer, he sees Kogan as his problem (that he will take care of) and decides to continue on with business as usual. Barrett must let Doolin go since he has nothing on him.

However this is were Thunder Road really begins to shine. Doolin is forced to buy a new runner car which is a 1957 Ford Fairlane. This is very significant since the movie was filmed in 1957 – seven years before the introduction of the 1964 Pontiac GTO, which officially started the muscle car craze. In 1957, Ford was a favorite among gear heads – this had been the case ever since the introduction of the flathead V8 for the 1932 model year. While most of the competition in the 1930s and 1940s only offered 6 cylinder motors, Ford’s mass produced flathead V8 was a “must have” among the growing hot rod community. The competition started to catch up to Ford by the early 1950s with new Overhead Valve (OHV) V8s, so Ford replaced in 1954 the flathead V8 with an all-new OHV V8 – the Y-block V8. The Y-block V8 was a popular engine option tr1-3.jpgin Ford’s lineup during the mid to late-1950s – the most famous of which was the 312 CID V8. In 1957, Chevrolet was a Johnny come lately, its first V8 (a small block 260 CID V8) was a 1955 introduction. Even though by 1957 displacement on Chevy’s small block V8 was up to 283 cubic inches and was offered in some hot performance iterations (such as fuel injection and a dual 4-bbl setup), it was Ford that had the solid performance reputation in 1957. So it was no surprise that Doolin selected a 1957 Fairlane. What is surprising is that even though the 1957 Fairlane is a very attractive car, the 1957 Chevy is the one considered an American classic. The 1957 Chevy’s drop dead gorgeous looks have been a favorite among collectors for years, with the value of any 2-door 1957 Chevy usually far surpassing the average value of most 2-door 1957 Fords. So you would think the 1957 Chevy was the hot seller for the 1957 model year. That’s where you would be wrong. For 1957, Ford outsold Chevy. In 1955 and 1956 it was Chevy that outsold Ford. Back in 1957 buyers chose the Ford, which meant Ford must have been doing something right. In the movie Treasury Agent Barrett and his fellow agent spend their time patroling around in a 2-door 1957 Chevy. The 1957 Chevy is no match for Doolin’s 1957 Fairlane, which easily outruns the Chevy. In reality the average V8 powered 1957 Fairlane and Chevy were pretty even matched, so the audience can assume that Doolin’s advantage was due to his superior driving skills and the performance upgrades to his Fairlane (Doolin mentions in the movie that due to the performance mods his Fairlane will do 130 mph).

The 1957 Ford Fairlane is a beautiful car, its lines are very appealing – from the front-end all the way to the Thunderbird style twin round taillights. The 2-door 1957 Ford looks like the 1957 Ford Thunderbird’s big brother – they both share the same styling schema. This is a good thing since the 1957 Thunderbird is subjectively the most sought after classic Thunderbird by collectors. Unfortunately the 1957 Thunderbird’s popularity in the collector market has not spread to the 2-door 1957 Ford. For some odd reason the 1957 Chevy and the wild big-finned 1957 Mopars (Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth) have overshadowed the 1957 Ford in the last 20 years, especially in car collector circles.


The 1957 Ford came in the following flavors from base all the way up to top-of-the-line: Custom, Custom 300, Fairlane, Fairlane 500, and a Fairlane 500 Skyliner. The Fairlane 500 was the top-of-the-line model. The Skyliner was the retractable hardtop convertible version of the Fairlane 500 (which was the first retractable hardtop to be built – in fact many years before any other auto manufacturer). The Fairlane 500 was the 1957 with the upscale exterior and interior trim. Doolin’s car was a Fairlane 500, he may have been a backwoods country boy but he still had style and class.

The 1957 Ford came equipped with a either a 144 horsepower 223 CID (OHV) straight-six or the Ford Y-block V8 in the following forms: a 190 horsepower 272 CID V8 (4-bbl), 212 horsepower 292 CID V8 (2-bbl), 245 horsepower 312 CID V8 (4-bbl), 270 horsepower and 285 horsepower 312 V8s (dual 4-bbl), and a 300 horsepower supercharged 312 CID V8 (4-bbl). Doolin’s Fairlane 500 was equipped with the powerful 245 horsepower 312 V8 and an automatic transmission. The 245 horsepower 312 V8 was also a favorite engine among 1957 Thunderbird buyers. With the 312 4-bbl V8 Doolin certainly got a lot of bang for his buck.   

In the context of a 1950s movie, the car stunts and chases are the best the 1950s had to offer. In fact the stunt driving scenes are so good it will have you wondering how they did it back then, and forgetting that the movie was shot in black and white. tr1-9.jpgThere are a few scenes when you can hear the roar of a performance-oriented V8 which is a nice touch. However there are a few annoying scenes where a straight-six cylinder engine sound (instead of the correct V8 sound) is obviously dubbed into the movie when the Fairlane is slowly accelerating which is pure heresy to any muscle car fan. However back in 1958 (when the movie was released) most movie goers probably did not catch these bloopers. However there were probably a lot of young baby boomers and pre-boomers who had the performance V8 spark ignited in their consciousness by watching this movie back in 1958. Watching this movie today – 52 years after its original release will have most muscle car fans thoroughly entertained and even longing for a 2-door 1957 Fairlane 500. You get the same feeling about the Fairlane after watching this movie as you do about the 1977 Trans Am in Smokey and the Bandit (another movie with a strong willed Southern good ol’ boy on a mission to transport illegal alcohol with the fuzz in hot pursuit). 

It’s soon after the 1957 Fairlane gets introduced into the movie that Doolin who is cool as a cucumber has his feathers ruffled. With the Feds hot on his trail and Kogan out to snuff him out permanently – Doolin does some fancy maneuvering both on and off the road to try to outwit both. For Doolin this normally would be an easy task but it’s when his younger brother, Robin (played by his real life son James Mitchum) is recruited as a moonshine runner (a ploy by Kogan), that has Doolin taking the on the biggest gamble of his life. The movie then builds up to an epic ending.

Thunder Road has all the things we would expect of a well written and well acted movie from the 1950s with some added bonuses. A lot of the scenes were filmed on location in moonshine country with great care, preparation, and attention to tr1-8.jpgdetail to the stunts and car chases. The mastery of Ripley who had his share of big hits in Hollywood (he had co-written movies with Frank Capra during their early Hollywood years) can be really seen in this movie.  The word “cheesy” can be applied to most 1950s car stunts and chases, but not this movie – it’s the Bullitt (1968) of the 1950s. In fact Steve McQueen seems to emulate Robert Mitchum’s tough guy on a mission type of character in Bullitt. Robert Mitchum’s performance makes the movie – he pulls off with ease the lead role as the unbending tough guy with raw determination with whom the audience sympathizes. All the supporting characters are also well cast. The sad story behind this movie is that Mitchum wanted Elvis to play the role of his little brother which Elvis was very excited at the opportunity. However Elvis’s manager Colonel Parker turned down the offer since he felt the role did not pay enough. Elvis would have shined in the role, his country accent and tough guy persona would have been better suited as Doolin’s younger brother than Mitchum’s son (who did a good job but he played a more docile role than Elvis would have). It was this type of going for the highest payout by Parker (instead of picking roles that would have made Elvis a real movie star) that led Elvis down the road of leading roles in campy movies in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Ironically Elvis had another chance at moving into a serious critically acclaimed acting role with an offer to play the lead in the remake of A Star Is Born (1976) – it was Parker again who killed this deal. A Star Is Born took another singer, Kris Kristofferson, and made him a movie star instead.

Thunder Road’s greatest accomplishment is without a doubt its ground breaking role as the first muscle car movie. It was a movie that whet America’s appetite for the muscle car era which started six years later with the release of the first Pontiac GTO. After Thunder Road things would never be the same again, we have Ripley and Mitchum to thank for that.


Written contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved