The film became a cult classic and continued to play at drive-in movie theaters in some southeastern states through the 1970s and 1980s.
Korean War veteran Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) works in the family moonshine business — delivering the illegal liquor his father distills to clandestine distribution points throughout the south in his souped-up hot rod. However, Lucas has more problems than evading the U.S. Treasury agents ("revenooers"), led by determined newcomer Troy Barrett (Gene Barry).
Lucas is concerned that his younger brother Robin (James Mitchum), who is also his mechanic, will be tempted into following in his footsteps and becoming a moonshine runner. A well-funded outside gangster, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), tries to gain control of the independent local moonshine producers and their distribution points, and is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. The stakes rise when an attempt by Kogan to kill Lucas results in the death of a government agent as well as another moonshine driver (Mitchell Ryan).
In a romantic subplot, Lucas becomes involved with nightclub singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith). He is unaware one of the neighbor girls, Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight), has a crush on him and fears for his life.
When a series of government raids destroy their hidden stills, Lucas's father and the other local moonshines shut down production "for a spell" to let the government deal with Kogan in its own time, but Lucas is forced by circumstances and his own code of honor to make a final run.
The film was based loosely on an incident in which a driver transporting moonshine was said to have crashed to his death on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee between Bearden Hill and Morrell Road. Per Metro Pulse writer Jack Renfro, the incident occurred in 1952 and may have been witnessed by James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum.
The role of Robin Doolin, Lucas's younger brother, was originally written for Elvis Presley per Mitchum's request. Mitchum personally submitted the script to Elvis in Los Angeles.
The singer was eager to play the role, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker demanded Elvis be paid an enormous sum of money, more than the entire budget for the movie, which ended negotiations.
Mitchum's son James got the part, which worked well due to the close physical resemblance.
In the film, Mitchum drove a souped-up black 1951 Ford two-door sedan (which was later repainted gray) with a custom tank in the back for moonshine liquor and a Ford V8 with three two barrel carburators but after a run in with the law, it was sold and replaced with a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 two-door sedan with the same alterations excluding the engine carburation. The 1951 Ford was modified with a 1949 hood and 1950 grill and front bumper as well as the rear 1951 taillight chrome trim removed and 1949/1950 taillights installed.
The film's dialogue refers to the car as a 1950, but it is not, although at least one exterior shot, when the car spills oil on the road to ward off some "bad guys", the trunk shown is clearly a 1950 unit. (During the "oil spill" scene it is revealed that a series of nozzles attached to a pipe hidden by the 1951 rear bumper, is controlled by a switch under the dash, clearly a 1951 dash unit, which activates a solenoid to release the flow of oil.)
Other exterior shots of the car clearly show 1951 rear window trim, a 1951 rear bumper and 1951 Ford body side trim as well as a 1951 V8 emblem on the front fenders plus 1951 Ford hubcaps. The final scene of the 1951 Ford is when the second owner gets in the car, an ATF agent approaches him, gets in and asks for the key to start the car, inserts the key in the ignition, the dash and steering wheel are plainly visible as a 1951 unit. When the key is turned, the car explodes.
Most of the scenes were filmed in Asheville, North Carolina along Highway 19 and others at Lake Lure. Some scenes were filmed in Beech, east of Weaverville. Scenes include Reems Creek Road, Sugar Creek Road and the Beech Community Center. Some scenes were actual local moonshine drivers shot with a camera mounted on a pickup tailgate.
The stunt coordinator was Carey Loftin. The stunt team included Ray Austin, Neil Castes Sr., Robert Hoy and Dale Van Sickel.
The movie's theme song, which is titled "Whippoorwill" in the film's opening credits, was later recorded by Mitchum and became a popular single record, although Mitchum's rendition, retitled "The Ballad of Thunder Road" is not the one in the film itself.