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Toon Zone Picks the Top 5 Iconic Cars of Animation

by on May 9, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

To commemorate the double-header of the new Speed Racer cartoon on the Nicktoons network and the live-action movie by the Wachowski brothers, the staff of Toon Zone News has put together our list of the top iconic animated cars. We’ve limited our to 5 in honor of Speed Racer’s Mach 5, naming these particular automobiles because of their overwhelming popularity, their stature within the collected works of animation, or just because we think they’re really, really cool. In no particular order:

The Mach 5
(Speed Racer (1967))
Go Speed Racer, go! started that trend, but it premiered in 1964 in prime-time and had been off the air since 1965). Speed Racer shared those shows’ emphasis on action, but added on-going storyline elements that made it stand out even more from the sitcoms that dominated cartoons at the time. It’s no wonder that the show grabbed the attention of an entire generation of kids, many of whom still speak of the show in reverent tones as adults.

Much of that generation’s love can be directly attributed to the wonderful Mach 5, the set of wheels that made Speed Racer go go go. The Mach 5 is a testament to the power that cars have over young kids, and especially boys. The true appeal of Speed Racer may not have been in the show itself, but in what the show represented: fast cars and adventure. Kids Love Cars, and the Mach 5 and its magical buttons was COOL, even if you knew deep down that the cartoon was fairly ridiculous. The Mach 5 was the key that started up the engines of imagination in the minds of an entire generation of children, and if two of those children are lucky, they’ll be able to restart those engines in today’s youth through the live-action movie adaptation.

Over and above these two points, Speed Racer is also notable for being the first real anime hit on American shores. Even more than Astro Boy or Gigantor, the Mach 5 led the vanguard of the anime invasion before anybody even knew what “anime” was. It blazed a trail that was followed by the Space Battleship Yamato, the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, both sets of Voltron Forces, the Card Captor Sakura, the myriad monsters of Pok√©mon, and the numerous ninjas of Naruto. In fact, as detailed in SciFiJapan.com’s excellent series of Speed Racer history articles, the show was one of the first Japanese cartoons made with the explicit aim of selling it to America to defray production costs — an idea that STILL doesn’t seem to be taken seriously among many Japanese anime producers. No matter how you slice it, every anime watcher or anime fan today owes a debt of gratitude to Speed Racer and the Mach 5 for getting the party started.

The Flintmobile
(The Flintstones)
They're the modern Stone Age family website would assuredly agree.

The Jetsons’ Jetcar
(The Jetsons)
Meet George Jetson! And everyone else.For decades, when people have wanted to sum up “the future” in a single iconic image, they’ll talk about flying cars, and there’s no more iconic flying car in animation than The Jetsons‘ Jetcar. If The Flintstones gave us modern life through a Stone Age filter, The Jetsons did the same thing by going in the opposite direction in the timestream. On top of that, who wouldn’t want to blow off the pain of finding a parking spot by turning your car into a briefcase, just as George does in the opening credits? Sure, it obviously violates the Law of Conservation of Mass, but the car designers of The Jetsons never studied law.

Never mind that all anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that flying cars are an incredibly bad idea, since most people can’t drive in only two dimensions. When we dream of the future, we still dream of our flying cars, and The Jetsons probably has more than a little to do with that.

Optimus Prime
(The Transformers)
Freedom is the right of all sentient beings“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
— The Declaration of Independence

“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”
— Optimus Prime

Transformers is and always has been a glorified, extended toy commercial. However, despite his all-too-commercial origins, the heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime has always had a lot of things going for him. The first is the name. He was the first Autobot with 2 names instead of just one, and it’s a terrific name. The first half evokes “optimism” and “optimized,” while “prime” not-so-subtly emphasizes his stature among the Autobots and his unquestioned leadership. The second thing Optimus Prime has going for him is his voice actor, the inimitable Peter Cullen, who gives the giant robot far more weight, gravitas, and nobility than one would believe necessary or possible for a character in a toy advertisement.

However, Optimus Prime’s greatest asset is motivation, succinctly summed up in that one line quoted above from last year’s live-action movie. Throughout every one of his many animated incarnations, Prime fights the good fight because he truly believes that Freedom is not simply an abstract concept, but an almost sacred birthright worth fighting for to his dying breath and beyond. The enduring nature of this particular toy commercial when so many others from the same time period have faltered or burned themselves out is, I think, partially a reflection of how deeply Prime resonates with his fans, and Prime’s unwavering dedication to Freedom must be part of the reason why. I’m a big believer in finding wisdom through pop culture, so it doesn’t matter to me very much if someone learns to value Freedom and the importance of fighting for it through the words of the American Founding Fathers or through a giant talking robot who changes into a semi. If the lesson is learned, the vehicle for that lesson is relatively unimportant.

The Runners-Up
Any “top picks” list is subject to debate, and this one was no exception. However, there were enough other vehicles considered to warrant a runner-up list, if anything to explain why one vehicle or another wasn’t included on the above list. In no particular order, some of the runners-up are:

Ka-chowww!!Lightning McQueen
Pixar’s Lightning McQueen seems to be the latest cartoon car that’s taken up permanent residence in the mental mindscape of an entire generation of kids, sitting right next to the Mach 5 and the Batmobile. Pixar has had an unquestionable streak of great films, but only two have become bona fide, long-term merchandising phenomena: Toy Story and Cars. It’s all the more remarkable considering the fair-to-middling reviews and ticket sales Cars managed in comparison to other Pixar films. Unfortunately, Lightning just hasn’t been around long enough to declare him an icon yet, but check back in 10 years or so.

The Mystery Machine
(Scooby Doo)
Groovy!This van may be as iconic as the Flintmobile or the Jetcar, and it might be as important to the Scooby Gang as those other cars are to their casts. However, in the end, the Mystery Machine is just a car and isn’t much beyond basic (if, like, totally groovy) transporation for Scooby and his friends. On top of that, including it would make the top 5 list way too Hanna-Barbera heavy.

Turbo Teen. He turns into a car. Really.Turbo Teen
(Turbo Teen)
The mostly forgotten star of his own short-lived Saturday morning cartoon show was a teenager who turned into a car. Don’t ask — it doesn’t make any sense to us either. If anybody remembers him at all today, it’s mostly to point and laugh at how ridiculous the show was, as seen in his quick cameo appearance on Robot Chicken. However, he nearly made the list just for being so weird and out there.

IGPX Racers
IGPX RacersIf you’ve got a need for speed, then IGPX will scratch that itch just fine. If Speed Racer defined cartoon speed for the 1960’s, then IGPX defines speed for the 21st century. The races between the teams are fast and furious, packing a real adrenaline-fueled wallop. Unfortunately, they don’t make the final 5 because, like Lightning McQueen, they just haven’t been around long enough to declare them true icons yet.

Arsene Lupin's gravity-defying drivingWhatever Arsene Lupin III is Driving
(Lupin III Series)
He’s a gentleman thief, chasing the latest score and getting chased by the relentless Inspector Zenigata. So of course, Lupin ends up doing more than his share of getaway driving, whereupon he demonstrates his superpower to make cars completely defy all known laws of physics. Plus, he’s driven a pink Hitler-mobile, and that takes some special kind of guts. However, the fact that he doesn’t drive just one car makes Lupin a lot of fun, but fundamentally not iconic. Some great animated driving for sure, though.

Agree? Disagree? Did we miss your favorite car? Let us know about it on our forums!

Special thanks to the Toon Zone News staffers who contributed to this article. In alphabetical order by screen name: Duke, HellCat, Jacob T. Paschal, James, Jave, Karl Olson, Matt Hazuda, and Weatherman.

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