TOP 10: Classic Cars from TV

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Ben Selby

Cars and Television go hand in hand. The site of a low slung Italian sports car or big block American muscle car blasting along in glorious celluloid gives us more than enough reason to want one someday.

There have been so many TV cars over the years that it was quite a challenge to narrow down my top 10. However, I managed it, so here we are. In no particular order, my Top 10 TV Cars.

Starsky and Hutch – Ford Gran Torino

As far as detective work goes, it pays to be subtle and not stick out like a sore thumb. However, it seems no one thought to tell detectives David Starsky and Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson as they rumbled around Bay City apprehending criminals in their 1974 Ford Gran Torino. Starsky and Hutch made household names of stars Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, not to mention a cult following of that totally unsubtle and yet very cool Gran Torino.

Its bright red paint scheme and signature white stripe earnt it the nickname “The Striped Tomato.” Under the bonnet sat a 351 Cleveland V8 with a three-speed auto trans, but in later seasons this was replaced with a tyre shredding 400ci big block.

The site of Starsky sliding the Gran Torino around back alleys into the obligatory carboard boxes with tyres squealing and smoke billowing from under the Torino’s skirt made for must see TV during the show’s run from 1975 to 1979. It even led to many people doing the same red and white striped modifications to their car, even if the car in question was a Reliant Robin.

Magnum PI – Ferrari 308 GTS

Only Tom Selleck could make the combination of Hawaiian Shirts and a thick Moustache cool. Throw in a luxurious Hawaiian mansion, a stuffy ex-army sergeant-major running the place with a pair of Dobermans, a Ferrari 308 GTS, and you have Magnum PI. Magnum PI ran for nine seasons from 1980 to 1988 and catapulted Selleck to superstardom. He even graced the cover of New Zealand’s first ever edition of TV Guide. 

The show saw the plight of ex Naval Officer turned Private Investigator Thomas Magnum as he, and his friends TC and Rick, got involved in all manner of action-packed cases throughout the Hawaiian Islands. His vehicle of choice was his employer Robin Master’s 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS, hence the number plate Robin 1.

Magnum was originally offered a Porsche 928, but this was rejected by producer Glen A Larson who opted for the glamour of the Ferrari instead. However, when production started, they found Selleck’s 6ft 4 frame simply wouldn’t fit inside it. The solution? Rip out all the seat padding, leaving Tommy basically sitting on the floor. Also, the roof was always off when he drove it.

The 308 would be upgraded throughout the show to the fuel injected GTSi and to the latter Quattrovalvole variants. While there was plenty of fast Ferrari action throughout the shows run, there were more instances when the baddies in big wafting Cadillacs would manage to elude him during a chase. That aside, many of us wanted to be Magnum just to have a Ferrari to play whenever we wanted.

Mr Bean – Leyland Mini

Not perhaps the most exotic car on the list, but still a bonafide TV icon nonetheless. Rowan Aktinson’s comic genius creation of the bumbling Alien among us Mr Bean became a phenomenon. A dorky and hilarious teddy bear enthusiast, Mr Bean would go from one domestic disaster to another, many of which involved his precious Lime Green Mini.

The pilot episode featured an orange Mini with yellow boot, but this was destroyed after a wrong turn in a suburban side street. A wheel bouncing into shot with Bean walking quickly away was proof of that. Its replacement was the Mini we immediately associated with Mr Bean. Its padlocked drivers’ door a stark reminder that Mr Bean thought his Mini was the most valuable car in the world. He even would take its steering wheel with him on outings to deter car thieves.

Whether playing chicken with a Reliant Regal in an underground car park, or being late for the Dentist and getting changed while on the move, Mr Bean’s Mini became a common site around his borough. However, the most iconic Mini moment was driving it from an armchair using a combination of paint cans and brooms to operate the clutch and accelerator. This had us all in stiches as everything that could go wrong did, even driving ‘Italian Job’ style into back of a delivery truck full of mattresses.

The Mini was eventually crushed by a Tank while Bean gorged himself on pastry treats at a University Open Day. His reaction had us all tearing up a bit. The Mini has made numerous appearances on film and TV, but it’s the exploits of Mr Bean which make this one the most memorable.

Knight Rider – 1982 Pontiac Trans Am

You can’t leave this one out of the Top 10. Another Glen A Larson production, Knight Rider summed up the eighties obsession with futuristic technologies and acted as a spring board in the acting career of one David Hasselhoff.

Before he was a life guard running in slow motion all the time and a huge pop star in Germany, the “Hoff” played Michael Knight, a one-man crusader against injustice. His greatest weapon, a highly intelligent Pontiac Trans Am called the Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT.

KITT could drive himself, eject baddies from his cockpit, and even maintain intelligent conversation with Knight while out on one of their weekly missions. These usually involved Michael saving a woman with a Bonnie Tyler hair do and KITT Turbo Boosting himself over a riverbed or road block of baddies.

KITT would be housed in the back of a Knight Industries 18-wheeler. This acted as a rolling laboratory for Michael’s boss Devon Miles and assistants to ensure KITT had the latest crimefighting software and upgrades.

The show ran from 1982 to 1986, after which many fans went out to bag themselves a period Trans Am and turn it into a Knight Rider replica, complete with red light bar and correct interior. A few KITTs call New Zealand home so you might just see one.

The Saint – Volvo P1800

The sixties saw the explosion of the fictional super spy genre. Thanks in no small part to a certain Agent 007, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and before you knew it, film and TV was positively flooded with dashing and sophisticated secret agents travelling the globe and saving it from the archetypical megalomaniac villains of the day.   

One such show which ran from 1962 to 1969 was ITC’s “The Saint.” Starring Roger Moore, before he was Bond, he played charming and debonair super spy Simon Templar. Before production on The Saint began, ITC producers asked if Jaguar would be able to supply Mr Templar with a new E Type to be his wheels for the show. The E Type had only been released at the Geneva Motor show the previous year so it seemed a natural fit for the role.

Jaguar for unknown reasons declined, so ITC went to a manufacturer no one expected, Volvo. The Swedish company gave the green light for ITC to use their recently released P1800 coupe, and a legend was born.

After the first season had aired, Volvo dealers in Europe and the US couldn’t sell them quick enough, such was the hype for the P1800. Everyone wanted to be Simon Templar. Roger Moore even owned one of the P1800s they used in the show, buying it new in 1967. He eventually sold it on after the shows run had ended.

With beautiful coupe lines, flowing cockpit and wood rim steering wheel, the P1800 is still very cool today, even without the connections to “The Saint.”

Ashes to Ashes – Audi Quattro

“Ashes to Ashes” is a spin off show from the acclaimed BBC crime drama “Life On Mars” It follows the story of Detective Inspector Alex Drake who is shot in 2009. While in a comma, she is transported in her subconscious back in time to London in 1981.

While trying to wake up again, she works under her superior, the old school Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt. With his snakeskin shoes, black great coat, driving gloves and a six-shot revolver, Hunt is the favourite character for many fans of the show.

His ride of choice is a bright red Audi Quattro. With its rally bred five-cylinder turbocharged engine at full chat nearly every episode, it makes for exciting viewing for petrolheads. Hunt is very careful with the Quattro, even choosing to go the long way around if it meant avoiding a few scratches. The Quattro used in the series is actually quite historically inaccurate. As mentioned before, the show is set in 1981, but mysteriously, Hunt’s Quattro was the facelifted 1983 version.

You don’t mind this however, as Ashes to Ashes is all about the nostalgia, combining an epic eighties sound track, suspense, and a host of great British actors making appearances throughout the show’s three season run.

Such was the popularity of Ashes to Ashes, the phrase “Fire up the Quattro” used by Hunt, was even used by the British Conservative Party during elections. A very cool car.

The Dukes of Hazzard – 1969 Dodge Charger General Lee

Anyone who had a TV during the eighties would have recognised an orange Dodge Charger flying through the air with dixie blasting on the air horns and a pair of denim short shorts worn by the leggy Catherine Bach. The Dukes of Hazzard was pure old-fashioned fun.

Every week, cousins Bo and Luke Duke, along with Daisy and Uncle Jesse, would always end up on the wrong side of the law. In this case, represented by Boss Hogg, Deputy Enos and Sherriff Roscoe P Coltrane.

Set in the fictional Hazzard County in Georgia, Bo and Luke would be jumping in through the window of the General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger complete with bull bars, confederate flag, a hefty 7.2L 440ci Magnum V8 producing around 375hp, and the now legendary ‘01’ adorning each door. It was no secret both Bo and Luke dreamed of racing in NASCAR.

The General Lee spent most of its time either sideways on a dirt road or flying over a riverbed or Hazzard County Police cars, all narrated by Country Music legend Waylon Jennings. However, the General would be utterly totalled after landing each one of these spectacular jumps.

Of course, in the next shot, it would be totally fine. Legend has it that some fans of the show thought they could jump their Dodge Charger and drive off afterwards, with many finding out they couldn’t the hard way.

Warner Bros destroyed so many 1968 to 1970 Chargers during production, they had a workshop with mechanics and panel beaters working around the clock to fix and repair wrecked General Lees. It got so bad that notes would be left on the windscreens of peoples Chargers from WB executives wanting to buy their cars.

The Dukes of Hazzard is a car crunching classic, though the 2005 film remake is best avoided.

Miami Vice – Ferrari Testarossa

If there was ever a show which put style at the forefront, it was easily Miami Vice. Miami PD detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, played by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, would take down cocaine dealers, pimps and other low lives in South Florida against an incredible cocktail of amazing music, clothes and cars. So much of what was fashionable from the mid to late eighties was influenced by Miami Vice.

Crockett’s cover as a high-end drug dealer meant he needed a car which reflected his status. For the first two seasons, this was a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona Spider. However, this was fake, being a Corvette based McBurnie. When Miami Vice became hot property, Ferrari themselves insisted they use a real Ferrari.

So, producer Michael Mann arranged for the Daytona to be destroyed by a stinger missile in the first episode of season three. Cue the next episode and what do we see? Crockett receiving his own genuine arctic white Ferrari Testarossa.

With its glorious sounding flat-12 engine with 390hp and a five speed open gated manual gearbox, the Testarossa was already a bedroom wall icon before it became a TV star. Universal used kept a Testarossa for static shots, one for close ups and rebodied De Tomaso Pantera to be used for some action sequences. Seeing this Ferrari cruise the means streets of Miami with Phil Collins or Yello playing in the background was the coolest thing on TV.

The impact of Miami Vice on Ferrari sales at the time was profound. Ferrari was so grateful to Don Johnson that they gave Don his own personal bespoke Testarossa. Sadly, Donny sold it at a Barrett Jackson Auction years later when his acting career was on the slide. Pity.

Columbo – Peugeot 403

This list has seen plenty of larger-than-life detective shows with fast cars in glamourous locations driven by people in expensive suits. However, Columbo was rather different. Columbo was a scruffy eccentric police detective who played dumb to lull criminals into thinking he was incompetent.

On a weekly basis, he would use his powers of deduction to flush out murderers as part of the LAPD’s homicide division. He was famous for his cigars, scruffy trench coat, witty one liners, and that Peugeot 403 Cabriolet.

“It could do with a clean,” was something Columbo actor Peter Falk always used to say about his battered grey Peugeot. The 403 was powered by a 1.5L four cylinder with a modest 65 hp mated to a four-speed manual gearbox. Columbo would seldom be involved in any high-speed chases with this kind of power, but he would always arrive on time.

Despite the hot LA climate, Columbo would always have the roof firmly in place. In fact there was only one occasion in 1972 during one episode where Columbo went topless, as in the car mind you, not him.

With its scrapes and dents front and rear, Columbo’s Peugeot 403 is quite iconic and worthy of this list.

The Persuaders – Ferrari Dino 246 GT

Despite running for one season of 24 episodes, The Persuaders is one of the greatest of all ITC’s playboy jet setting detective shows of the sixties and early seventies. The Persuaders saw the plight of Lord Brett Sinclair (Roger Moore), a peer of the realm with a taste for sport, women, wine and Formula One racing. He would be joined by Danny Wilde (Tony Curtis), a self-made New York Millionaire.

The duo would serve as agents for Judge Fulton (Lawrence Naismith), a retired Judge bent on bringing criminals to justice who have evaded the system. Every episode would see Brett and Danny travel around Europe for the rush of adventure and engage in plenty of banter and other tom foolery.

Brett’s car was a 1970 Aston Martin DBS V8, but its Danny’s Ferrari Dino 246 GT which makes our list. The first time we see the baby V6 Ferrari in the Persuaders is in the opening episode. Danny and Bret meet for the first time in the south of France and promptly race each other to the Hotel D’Paris in Monte Carlo. With Jackie Trent’s “Gotta Get Away” playing in the background, it is a great sequence. While the DBS could pull away in a straight line, the Dino could reel him in around corners.

After ‘The Persuaders’ finished production, the Dino would mysteriously disappear. In fact, to this day the whereabouts of the Danny’s Ferrari are unknown. Let’s hope this icon of TV can be found soon, though don’t expect it to be cheap. A regular Dino is worth around half a million today, so one driven by Tony Curtis in a classic TV show is going to command mega bucks.

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