Pixar was coming off a string of hits when the first Cars movie came out in 2016, but even so the success of the franchise is staggering. Without even factoring in merchandising or DVD sales (remember those?), the Cars series of animated films has cleared a whopping $1.4 billion over three movies. You just know a Cars 4 is on the way eventually.
If you’re a car-crazy parent, then watching a Cars movie with your kid provides dozens of opportunities to spot all the little background details that make Pixar movies so great. Personally, I loved seeing Nissan Figaros show up when Cars 2 travelled to Tokyo.
It’s not an isolated occurrence. As just mentioned, Pixar artists are all about sneaking in the details that make these imaginary worlds feel more real. And that means, when it comes to building the backdrop for Ratatouille, or Luca, or Inside Out, they sneak in some pretty cool and surprisingly realistic cars. Here’s a look at a few non-Cars cars you already know, and a few you probably missed.
Toy Story – The Pizza Planet pickup truck
According to various fan sites, this battered yellow pickup is a 1978 Gyoza Mark VII Lite Hauler. Of course, that’s the made-up fictional name, and we all recognized it as the embodiment of a 1980s Toyota pickup truck, right down to the “YO” on the tailgate. But to Pixar, this truck is actually the equivalent of Marvel’s Stan Lee.
You’ve got to look carefully, but the Pizza Planet truck shows up in every single Pixar feature film apart from The Incredibles. It rarely has a role, but is more just a knowing wink from the artists to the film that really kicked everything off. The truck doesn’t always look the same, but takes on the characteristics of whatever animation style is being used.
Further, the Pizza Planet truck is sufficiently close enough to what a real Toyota truck looks like that building real-life replicas of it is very popular. There’s a whole subculture dedicated to fine details like getting the rear camper shell windows just right.
The Incredibles – Hudson Hornet
Speaking of The Incredibles, another hit for Pixar, the 1950s feel to the animation has an even closer connection with the Cars universe. In particular, it’s a background appearance from one of the central characters of the first Cars movie — some two years before Cars came out.
Doc Hudson, the last character played by the late Paul Newman, is a gruff mentor for the brash young Lightning McQueen. But before that, he was just a regular Hudson Hornet, parked on a street where the Incredibles family fights a giant robot. In fact, several background car models from The Incredibles were reused for Cars later, including the fire truck and police car.
Ratatouille – Citroen DS
For this story of a plucky little rat becoming an unlikely cooking sensation, the backdrop couldn’t be anywhere but Paris. And what better way to immerse the audience in the street-level experience of Paris than with Citroëns parked everywhere?
Happily for any copyright issues, you don’t need badges on a Citroën to know what it is. Bright paint, a contrasting white roof, and that signature teardrop shape need no translation — c’est une DS. There are a number of cheery 2CVs in the background as well.
Luca – Vespa
Taking a more forward role this time is the bright red Vespa driven by the cocky Ercole Visconti. “Vespa is freedom!” murmurs the titular Luca Paguro, as he gazes at a poster for Italy’s most famous scooter.
You could hardly have anything else as two-wheeled transport for a couple of Italian sea monsters in a literal fish out of water story. And it doesn’t have to be a flashy brand new Vespa either — Luca’s friend Alberto is more than happy to get his hands (flippers?) on a rustier version at the end of the movie. Maybe you don’t want to jump your scooter into the sea, but Luca will make you want to ride a zippy two stroke around some Italian villa.
Inside Out – Subaru Forester
A story that’s quite literally an avalanche of emotions, Inside Out mostly takes place on the inside of its main characters. However, displacement is a central theme of the movie, and the family road trip in the opening credits is a big part of that.
What does an East coast family drive to San Francisco? What else but a Subaru Forester? It’s not explicitly badged as such, but with that eggcrate grille and AWD badge out back, the Andersen family are clearly the proud owners of a first generation Subaru Forester. Hope they don’t trade it in for a Tesla too soon.
Onward – Mural Van
In this case, Pixar may have gone too far in trying to create a realistic feel. The fictional unicorn-mural “Valor” van driven by two brothers in a quest to be reunited with their father seems to have been based on an actual artist’s 1972 Chevrolet G10. It caused a bit of an uproar at the time.
The mural van is a staple of 1970s van culture. Here, the slightly down-at-heel machines is nicknamed Guinevere and is highly embarrassing to Ian, the younger of the two brothers. Of course, in the end it all works out, and the van turns out to be a trusty and valiant steed after all.
Turning Red – Kei Trucks
Turning Red is one of Pixar’s most recent films, and stirred up some controversy for its themes. It turns out some parents missed the PG rating, and weren’t ready to have those difficult conversations with their children. You know. About the existence of Toronto.
Well actually, about puberty, which the movie addresses with various magical metaphors. The movie is set in 2001, and it’s a treat if you’re into recent-vintage car spotting. Even though most of the car models aren’t real, the streets of this fictionalized Chinatown are dotted with perfect little kei vans and trucks going about their business.
Also very enjoyable is overprotective mom Ming Lee’s sensible sedan, which is very clearly a 1990s Corolla, but has a Maple Leaf badge — and a moose bobblehead. And guess what else makes a sneaky appearance: the Pizza Planet pickup, the Pixar non-Cars car that started it all.