The movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and his long-time writing partner Bob Gale. The executive producers were Steven Spielberg and John Milius. The original music score was composed by Patrick Williams. Filmed primarily in Mesa, Arizona, the movie was released on July 11, 1980. Although not a box-office success at the time, it has since developed cult film status due to its dark, cynical humor and the Zemeckis style. It was marketed with the tagline "Like new, great looking and fully loaded with laughs." It was the only Zemeckis film to be rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America until 2012's Flight and 2016's Allied.
Rudy Russo is a young and cunning used car salesman in Phoenix with aspirations of running for the state Senate. He works at the struggling New Deal used car lot owned by the elderly Luke Fuchs, who agrees to help invest $10,000 in Rudy's campaign if he promises to keep the business alive. Meanwhile, across the street, Luke's younger brother Roy L. Fuchs (also played by Warden) is desperate to keep his used car lot from being demolished and replaced by a proposed freeway exit. Wanting to collect life insurance money and New Deal from Luke, Roy hires his mechanic, ex-demolition derby driver Mickey, to recklessly drive Luke's 1957 Chevrolet Two-Ten coupe around the block with Luke in the passenger's seat. After the Chevy crashes back into the lot, Luke dies of a heart attack, but leaves Rudy with evidence that Roy staged the "accident". In an attempt to prevent Roy from gaining any inheritance, Rudy has his superstitious co-worker Jeff and mechanic Jim help him bury Luke in the lot's backyard in an Edsel that was once New Deal's sign ornament. They explain to Roy that Luke went on a vacation to Miami.
The next night, Rudy and his friends make an illegal live broadcast of their commercial in the middle of a football game, but it goes awry when Jeff finds out the car on display is red (which he believes is bad luck) and female model Margaret has her dress stuck on the hood ornament, which rips and exposes her when the hood is popped open. The commercial results in New Deal receiving a massive number of customers the next day. In one deal, Jeff cons a family into buying a station wagon by having the lot's mascot dog Toby fake being run over during a test drive. When Roy lures customers in his lot by hiring circus animals, Rudy counters with a live stripper show. Luke's estranged daughter Barbara Jane visits the lot in hopes of reuniting with him after more than ten years, but Rudy conceals the truth about her father by taking her out on a date, which inadvertently convinces her to stay in town.
Rudy's gang broadcasts another commercial in the middle of Jimmy Carter's presidential address, destroying some of Roy's used cars in the process, most notably his prized Mercedes SL. In retaliation, Roy storms into New Deal and attacks Jeff before discovering Luke's resting place. Roy brings the police to New Deal to dig through the backyard the next day, but Jim has taken the Edsel out of the pit, and rigs it to crash into a power transformer and explode. Everyone believes Luke was killed in the fiery accident, and the evidence is destroyed. Roy believes he now has possession of New Deal, but Rudy points out that Barbara is effectively the new owner. Barbara discovers the fiasco over her father's death and fires Rudy. As a final means of shutting down New Deal, Roy has his connections in local TV station KFUK alter Barbara's commercial to imply that she has a mile of cars and pushes a trumped-up charge of false advertising.
Rudy's luck changes when he wins a bet on a football game, guaranteeing him enough money for his campaign. Once he discovers that Barbara has been sued for false advertising, Rudy convinces her to tell the court she has a mile of cars. To avoid a charge of perjury, she must prove it in front of the judge by having over 250 cars on her lot by 2:45 p.m. Rudy spends his Senate investment on 250 cars bought from Mexican dealer Manuel and having 250 student drivers deliver them to New Deal in less than two hours. After overcoming Roy's attempt at disrupting the resulting convoy and Jeff's superstition of driving a red car, the drivers arrive in time. The total measurements are just long enough to equal a mile, saving the used car lot. Roy's former attorney informs Rudy and Barbara that once the freeway ramp across the street is constructed, New Deal will become the largest dealership in town.Kurt Russell as Rudy Russo
Jack Warden as Roy L. Fuchs and Luke Fuchs
Gerrit Graham as Jeff
Frank McRae as Jim
Deborah Harmon as Barbara Jane Fuchs
Joe Flaherty as Sam Slaton
David L. Lander as Freddie Paris
Michael McKean as Eddie Winslow
Michael Talbott as Mickey
Harry Northup as Carmine
Alfonso Arau as Manuel
Cheryl Rixon as Margaret
Al Lewis as Judge H. H. Harrison
Woodrow Parfrey as Mr. Chertner
Dub Taylor as Tucker
Betty Thomas as Bunny
Dick Miller as Man in Bed
The idea for Used Cars originated from producer John Milius, who pitched it to Gale and Zemeckis while they were writing the script for 1941, the 1979 film directed by Steven Spielberg. Milius said that he and Spielberg had hoped to one day write a story about used car salesman outside of Las Vegas. They had wanted to cast actor George Hamilton as Kurt. Universal Pictures passed on the film, leading the duo to take it to Columbia Pictures. Frank Price, the studio president at the time, had sold used cars as a young man and he quickly said yes. According to Bob Gale, Jack Warden had initially passed on the role of Roy Fuchs but agreed to play the role under the condition that he be able to play Luke Fuchs, since he was interested in playing the role of both brothers.
The film was filmed in 28 days at the working Darner Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Mesa, Arizona from October to November 1979. The dealership served as the setting for "Roy L. Fuchs Pre-owned Automobiles", while a vacant lot across the street served as the setting for "New Deal Used Cars". The vacant lot now has an apartment complex while the Chrysler bankruptcy of 2009 caused the Darner dealership to lose its Chrysler affiliation. Many local police officers worked in the film in several capacities, including the "cowboy" Shotgun role. Kurt Russell produced some commercials for Darner's inviting customers to come in and shop while the movie was still being filmed.
In the scene where Rudy and Jeff are burying the Edsel on the lot and are confronted by Roy and Sam over Luke's whereabouts, Gerrit Graham repeated some of Kurt Russell's lines, which was not in the script. Jack Warden was so angered over the impromptu ad-libbing that he ended the scene with his own ad-libbed 'what are you, a fuckin' parrot?' directed at Graham. Luke Fuch's old Edsel switches back and forth between 1958 and 1959 model years. When it is on top of the pole as a sign, it is a 1959 model. When it is dropped to the ground to bury Luke, and when it is dug up, started and drives across the lot with the dead Luke behind the wheel, it is a 1958 model. When it hits the transformer, it is again a 1959 model Edsel, with a turquoise scallop painted on the side to match the 1958 car (only 1958 models have this feature). The judge's props for the music video for Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" were borrowed from Zemeckis. The excerpts of President Carter's televised speech used in the movie were taken from his Oval Office address on his Administration's anti-inflation program, broadcast on 24 October 1978.
Used Cars grossed $11.7 million in North America.
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 75% approval rating and an average rating of 6.6/10 based on 28 reviews. The website's consensus reads, "Robert Zemeckis' pitch-black satire of American culture doesn't always hit the mark, but it's got enough manic comic energy to warrant a spin." Early reviews, however, were mixed. The Washington Post's Gary Arnold dubbed it "a mean, spirited farce [...] Director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis has undeniable energy and flair, but it's being misspent on pretexts and situations that seem inexcusably gratuitous and snide." A staff reviewer for Variety wrote that "What might have looked like a great idea on paper has been tackled by filmmakers who haven’t expanded it much beyond the one joke inherent in the premise." They too praised Zemeckis' direction as "undeniable vigor, if insufficient control and discipline." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two out of four stars, saying the film is "filled with too many ideas, relationships, and situations with plot overkill."
Among the positive reviews, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader found it to be a "fierce, cathartically funny celebration of the low, the cheap, the venal—in short, America." Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "...a movie that has more laughs in it than any film of the summer except Airplane! It wipes out...just about every other recent comedy aimed, I assume, at an otherwise television-hooked public." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described Cars as "a classic screwball fantasy — a neglected modern comedy that’s like a more restless and visually high-spirited version of the W.C. Fields pictures."
At the time, Used Cars received the highest ratings in test screenings in Columbia Pictures history. In 2015, film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said, "I loved Used Cars, and I'll never understand really why that didn't become more." Zemeckis and Gale blamed the film's failure on Columbia, who moved the film up a month from its scheduled release date based on the test screening response. It debuted with little advance marketing and was released only one week after Airplane!.