Rev Up the Nostalgia: Talking Cars, Controversial Vehicles & More Iconic TV Cars from Classic Shows

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, from left, Tom Wopat, John Schneider, 1979-85.
CBS/courtesy Everett Collection

Americans like our autos like we like our celebrities — sleek and sexy or macho and muscular, but always, always with enough panache to make ’em stand out in a crowd. No wonder stars and cars hold neighboring sweet spots in our hearts and most vivid memories. With convertible season just around the corner, we salute pop culture’s love affair with car-crazy famous folks and iconic rides that held their own on top TV shows and road-ready films.

There’s nothing like a great car to impress a girl, chase down a bad guy or amp up your cool cred. No wonder Hollywood has long relied on four-wheeled superstars to turbocharge a storyline. We salute some of pop culture’s most notable “TV-ehicles,” their backstories, fun facts and equally famous drivers.

A Ferrari in paradise

MAGNUM P.I., Tom Selleck, 1980-88

Everett Collection

For eight seasons, Tom Selleck donned a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt and drove around Oahu in an open-top Ferrari 308 GTS to play Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, a Vietnam vet turned private investigator living a luxurious island lifestyle in the Emmy-winning series Magnum, P.I. While the mustachioed Magnum brought plenty of sex appeal to the long-running 1980s series, when he slipped into that red-hot convertible, he smoldered. Producers originally intended to use a Porsche 928 for the series, but the automaker wouldn’t concede to modifications enlarging the sunroof for aerial shots. It was their loss. Having a sexy male lead in the driver’s seat on one of television’s hottest shows was good business for Ferrari — so much so that the Italian car manufacturer gave Selleck a car for his own personal use. “I couldn’t drive that around Hawaii — I would have looked ridiculous,” Selleck admitted. “I ended up sending it back to L.A., and my dad got to drive it.”

Magnum’s own ride suffered countless mishaps — it was stolen, keyed, blown up (a few times) and driven off a cliff. But when the series ended in 1988, all of the surviving Ferraris used in the series were auctioned off. In 2017, one of them — the 1984 308 GTS — sold for $181,500 at auction.

High-tech Trans AM to the rescue

KNIGHT RIDER, Edward Mulhare (top), David Hasselhoff, (Season 1), 1982-86,

Robert Phillips/Everett Collection

Another white-hot ’80s star-and-car combo was Knight Rider’s (NBC, 1982-86) high-tech modern crime-fighter Michael Knight — a role that made David Hasselhoff an international star — and his tricked-out Pontiac Firebird Trans Am called KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand). In addition to being able to drive itself, KITT also talked, with a voice supplied by William Daniels (who was also starring in St. Elsewhere at the time). Hasselhoff is still one the car’s biggest fans. “KITT was programmed to save lives, not take lives,” he boasted, commending the series for being family-friendly. In true Hasselhoff fashion, he also credits himself for giving some personality to the car by calling it pal and buddy — which wasn’t originally part of the script. “I wanted it to be like my horse,” he laughed.

On Hasselhoff’s 60th birthday in 2012, the original car’s designer gifted him with a 1986 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that was modified to resemble and function like KITT, including the flickering red and yellow LEDs on the dashboard and more than 4,000 sound effects. According to Newsmax, Hasselhoff drove the street-legal car around Europe before donating the proceeds from its sale ($150,000) to a charity.

Just the Good Ole Boys & their General Lee

DUKES OF HAZZARD, The General Lee, 1979-85

Everett Collection

When it comes to iconic TV cars, the General Lee barely needs an introduction. The Dukes of Hazzard’s (CBS, 1979-85) four-wheeled star was owned by moonshiner cousins Bo and Luke Duke, who were famous for scrambling in and out of the 1969 Dodge Charger through its windows (the race-ready ride’s doors were welded shut), hood-slidin’ for quick getaways and vaulting the orange marvel over all sorts of obstacles. Over the course of the show’s seven-year run, more than 300 General Lees — with “01” on their doors, a Confederate flag emblazoned on their roofs, and horns that played “Dixie” — were called into service. And as the show’s ratings soared and fans sought their very own ’69 Charger, the model became so rare that producers went car-spotting, leaving notes on suitable Chargers’ hoods begging their owners to sell.

In 2007, a version of the General Lee owned by John Schneider (who played Bo Duke), augmented with autographs of all the living original cast members and crew, was auctioned off for just under $10 million. “In my wildest dreams, two people would get into a bidding war at about $2.5 million, and I would have been delighted with that,” said Schneider, who sold the car to finance a film project. “I’m three times as delighted as that now.”

That famous Gran Torino

UNITED STATES - JUNE 16: STARSKY AND HUTCH - Gallery - Season One - 9/3/75, David Soul as the intellectual Kenneth "Hutch" Hutchinson and Paul Michael Glaser as the streetwise David Starsky are two Southern California plainclothes detectives who tear around the streets of "Bay City" fighting crime in Starsky's two-door red Ford Torino.,

ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

But human TV stars didn’t always love their famous, four-wheeled counterparts. Starsky and Hutch producers wanted a stand-out car for their cutting-edge cop show, settling on a muscular Ford Gran Torino, then painting it vibrant red with a bold and angular white stripe. When the show debuted in 1975, the switchboard at Spelling-Goldberg Productions lit up, sealing the car’s fate as a TV star in its own right. As for its comical nickname, well, that came from an unimpressed Paul Michael Glaser, who played the car’s onscreen owner David Starsky. “First of all I thought it was ugly,” Glaser grumped. “I thought it was ridiculous that undercover police guys would drive a striped tomato.”

George Barris took TV cars to a whole new level

THE MUNSTERS, Al Lewis, Fred Gwynne, 1964-66.

Everett Collection

Sometimes TV cars were intentionally more about kooky than cool. The Munsters (CBS, 1964-66) featured a comically creepy family that parked two tricked-out rides in the drive — both designed by genius car customizer George Barris, who also created memorable vehicles for The Beverly Hillbillies, Batman and Knight Rider. Towering, Frankensteinian Herman (Fred Gwynne) managed to fold himself nicely into the family-sized Koach that was made from three Model T bodies, while vampire Grandpa piloted in the Drag-u-la hot rod that fittingly featured a coffin as its body. Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster, said that he wasn’t allowed to drive either until he returned to Universal Studios as an adult and got behind the wheel of the Koach — not realizing that the tires had very little air pressure and no screws holding them to the beam. “I goosed it, and the back two tires came off,” he laughed.

BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, from left: Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, Buddy Ebsen, Max Baer Jr., at Arnold Kirkeby's Chartwell Mansion in West Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air, which was exterior set for the show, 1962-1971.

Gene Trindl/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

For Hillbillies’ backwoods-gone-Beverly-Hills Clampett clan (CBS, 1962-71), Barris was asked to design a vehicle that could hold the entire batch of bumpkins, plus their stuff. He found it in a 1921 Oldsmobile from which the rear half of the body had already been removed to create a kind of truck — a common modification for rural drivers at the time. Barris added a rear platform with a lady-friendly bench seat so Granny, Elly May and beloved bloodhound Duke enjoyed an unobstructed view. The Clampett car now resides at the Ralph Foster Museum on the campus of College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo.

BATMAN, (from left): Victor Paul (stunt double for Burt Ward), Hubie Kerns (stunt double for Adam West), 1966-68.

20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy: Everett Collection

But the most famous vehicle in all of TV and filmdom’s history is the ever-evolving Batmobile. For the ABC TV series Batman (1966-68), Barris bought a discarded 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura concept car for one dollar and spent about $15,000 to equip it with a Batphone, internal mounted rockets and other imaginative crime-fighting gadgets for the Dynamic Duo. The car paid Barris back handsomely: He sold the original Batmobile in 2013 for $4.6 million.

Holy profit, Batman!

Contributing to this feature were Lori Acken, Barb Oates and Jim Longworth, a 40-year veteran broadcaster and journalist, and a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. 




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April 2018

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