Video: Elizabeth Taylor, Catalyst For America's Car Fever, Dies At 79

March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor was many things: actress, activist, friend of the disenfranchised, professional divorcee. She was also one of the great sex symbols of the 20th century -- in part, because of her longtime love of cars. She passed away early this morning at the age of 79.

By the time Taylor reached driving age, women had been behind the wheel for several decades. But Taylor hit young adulthood just as the U.S. hit its post-World War II economic boom -- when suburbs exploded (for better or worse) and as a result, America was, for the first time, truly obsessed with cars. No group was more smitten with automobiles than the rapidly growing teenage demographic, and Elizabeth Taylor's well-publicized love of driving only heightened the allure.

When we think of Taylor and cars, we usually think of two films. First, the Academy Award-winning A Place in the Sun, released in 1951, starring Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters. The hero, Clift, first sees Taylor as she zooms past him on the highway in her sporty 62 Series Cadillac. She and the car are pristine, impossibly beautiful; he never forgets either of them, and neither do we.

Taylor's other great car scene -- one of many -- comes in BUtterfield 8. There, Taylor plays a reluctant call girl who's in love with a married man. In the film's climax -- SPOILER AHEAD -- she bails on a motel tryst with beau and races her sporty Sunbeam Alpine across the Tappan Zee bridge, over a cliff, and into film history. It's kind of like the "women's film" equivalent of the car chase from Bullitt.

Thanks for the memories, Ms. Taylor. Our cars are looking a little less sporty and shiny today.

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