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Cars As Stars On TV Shows

by Bob Hagin

September 17, 2001

Cars have long been used in various weekly TV shows and in some cases, they've had more than just walk-on (or roll-on) parts. Following are some of the shows and cars that come to mind, and a bit of history on each of them:

BATMAN - It's hard to believe, but the Batmobile and its famous Caped Crusader owner, Batman, is 60 years old. The car first appeared in Gotham City in 1941 on the pages of Adventure Comics, and was simply a generic black sedan with a powerful engine. The first "real" Batmobile was used in the "camp" TV series "BATMAN" that ran from '66 to '68. Famed custom car builder George Barris modified the '55 Lincoln Futura concept car build by Italian coachbuilder Ghia. The '89 movie Batmobile was a 25-foot long "dummy" car that was original from the ground up.

GREEN HORNET - Black Beauty was the name of the car used by "THE GREEN HORNET" TV series in '66 and '67. The "base" car was a Dean Jeffries-altered '66 Chrysler Imperial Crown modified with all kinds of crime-fighting apparatus. There were three Black Beauty cars built, two for the show itself and one made for exhibition drag racing. Kato, the chauffeur for the TV Black Beauty, was played by the late martial-arts star Bruce Lee.

ROCKFORD FILES - In the "Smokey and The Bandit" movies, Burt Reynolds used a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am for his cross-country destruction derbies. There's a certain rugged similarity between Reynolds and actor James Garner, so there may be some sort of subliminal link between them when a standard 77 Pontiac Firebird was a featured player in Garner's "ROCKFORD FILES" TV series. Garner played Jim Rockford, a private eye who lived in a mobile home with his gnarly father played by veteran actor Noel Berry. Rockford had 133 adventures in the Los Angeles area and while the beat-up pickup driven by the senior Rockford was also seen, "Jim" drove his tan Firebird and it occasionally sustained minor body damage. Earlier this year, I watched a made-for-TV Rockford movie that featured the original cast (except for Beery, who had since passed away) including the Firebird. It may be the last we'll see of the car as it was T-boned by the bad guys and destroyed. Rockford got pretty banged up too.

DUKES OF HAZZARD - The "DUKES OF HAZZARD" " TV show can be thought of as "Son Of Smokey And The Bandit." The Duke family was a rural southern clan that operated just outside the law and it's primary "star" was General Lee, an orange '69 Dodge Charger dressed like a NASCAR Grand National race car of the era. It sported a large number 01 on each door and an even larger Confederate flag on the top. The cousins who drove General Lee in their adventures were Good Ol' Boys who always outwitted the law (as usual, personified as a fat, pompous bumpkin and his moronic sidekick) and the car has spawned several General Lee clubs for look-alike Chargers. There is at least one in my own area. There may be more but I wouldn't know because they all look alike.

SPEED RACER - The Mach 5 is a TV specialty car that didn't exist, being the centerpoint of the cartoon series "SPEED RACER." Speed was a clean-cut All-American Kid (actually, the shows came from Japan) and the Mach 5 was unofficially an FIA Group 6 sports-racer built and maintained by master mechanic "Pops," his father. The shows included Speed's girlfriend, little brother, mysterious "big" brother, an intelligent ape and a plethora of evil doers. The Mach 5 had almost magical powers that allowed it to jump over obstacles and opponents, through fire and floods, and negate whatever else might try to slow it down. Years later at least one actual Mach 5 was built using a Corvette chassis and a custom-made fiberglass body. I found a site on the internet that offers real-life replicas for sale for $125,000. Ape not included.

MAGNUM P.I. - No TV/movie car elicited as much enthusiasm from aficionados as the Ferrari used continually by Tom Sellack in his role as Thomas Magnum in "MAGNUM P.I." which ran from '80 to '88. As a live-in security officer for a rich writer in Hawaii, Magnum has access to the entire estate, including a Ferrari 308. Actually, three different 308 models were used during the eight-year run of the show, a GTS, a GTSi and a GTS QV. Sellack is a big man, so the cockpits and seating of the Ferraris had to be modified so that it didn't look like he was sitting on rather than in the cars.

THE WALTONS - Traditional American family values as they existed during The Great Depression of the '30s was the central theme of "THE WALTONS" TV ministrations, but the ongoing appearance of the Ford Model A pickup used by the family were highlights for vintage Ford fans. John Boy, Grandma, Grandpa and the rest of the family were seen in the venerable vehicle. Right-hand-drive Model A Fords in a plethora of body styles were also used exclusively in the little-seen and underrated "HEAT OF THE DAY" mystery series that is shown on various Public Broadcasting Systems affiliates stations. The only unbelievable factor in "THE WALTONS" shows was that all the vehicles were in pristine condition without the slings and arrows of daily use in evidence.

Television provides lots of mindless entertainment for the masses. But if you're an enthusiast, you can also get some pleasure out of looking for some grains of wheat among the chaff.