The sparse plot concerns two unnamed street racers in a 1955 Chevy 150, played by Taylor and Wilson, who get challenged to a cross-country race from New Mexico to Washington, D.C. by a mysterious and blustery stranger in a Pontiac GTO (played by Oates). Along the way, the racers pick up a young female hitchhiker (played by Bird), who enters into brief romances with all three men.
The film, which achieved Cult Classic status and is often cited as a product of the New Hollywood movement, is remembered for its minimalist and existential presentation as well as its portrayal of classic Route 66 car culture.
- Cool Car: The street racers drive a mean-looking, primer-grey 1955 Chevy 150. GTO, of course, drives a cherry yellow 1970 Pontiac GTO.
- Epic Race: The race that takes up most of the film starts in the American Southwest and ends in Washington, D.C. or it would have if they had actually bothered to finish.
- Melting-Film Effect: How the film ends, with no resolution to the story.
- Multiple-Choice Past: An early example: the stranger in the GTO gives a number of conflicting back-stories for himself. It's clear that they're all lies, because at the end he claims to have won his GTO by driving a Chevy 150, the car the other pair were driving.
- No Ending: The race simply evaporates toward the end of the film. Neither party is shown reaching Washington DC. The stranger is last seen lying about his past again and the street racers enter an unrelated drag race. In the end, the film stock simply burns away.
- Nameless Narrative: As indicated on the poster, none of the characters' names are given. In the credits the four leads are listed as the Driver, the Mechanic, GTO and the Girl.
- Non-Actor Vehicle: Oates was the only lead actor with acting experience. Both of the street racers are played by musicians, and Bird was a first-time actress. She would go on to appear in two more roles before committing suicide at the age of 25.
- Road Trip Plot: A classic example.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Before the race, both cars' pink slips are mailed to DC. Since the film ends before either party gets to DC and everyone seems to have lost interest in the race, we never find out what happened to the pink slips. Did they all just decide to leave them in DC?