By Craig Leask
In movies and in television, few techniques have been used to easily define the character of an individual better than the car the lead actor drives. Beginning predominantly in the 1960’s, cars were incorporated into various television series as an identifier of the character(s) uniqueness, social class or conventionality, rather than as an accessory to the lead’s trend bucking individuality. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a whole slew of cars and characters were introduced, ranging from gas guzzling muscle cars and luxuriously unaffordable status symbols to uniquely quirky vehicles. Unfortunately, come the 1990s and up to the present period, most vehicles which appear in television series and movies are now there as product placement to market the newest model of one of the major automakers.
This is the first of a two-part article focusing on famous vehicles in television and in movies, with this part focusing on television.
The Monkees (1966–1968)
Inspired by the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night (1964), filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider through their Raybert Productions company developed a television series about a fictional rock and roll group trying to break into the music business. In April 1965 Screen Gems purchased the rights to their concept and developed it into The Monkees. Over 400 singers auditioned for the new sit com, with Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith selected to play the 4 lead characters. The style of the series was based on improvisation, slap stick, the experimental removal of the fourth wall and at least one musical number per episode, which often had nothing to do with the plot.
Although the foursome was portrayed as struggling, even sharing the one bedroom in their rented oceanfront home, they were no slouches when it came to their ride. For the series, the Monkeemobile, a customized Pontiac GTO was developed to ferry the team around LA.
To create the Monkeemobile, customizer Dean Jeffries was retained to develop a car for the show. At the time, there were no concepts or models in discussion other than the requirement for the vehicle to be unique and represent the zany personalities of the lead characters and of the show itself. Word got out to Jim Wangers, who managed Pontiac’s advertising account at MacManus, John & Adams. Wangers saw the Monkeemobile as a unique promotional opportunity to promote Pontiac. A deal was struck, and Jim Wangers supplied two base 389 4-barrel 1966 GTO convertibles for conversion into Monkeemobiles. Jefferies created the first car in ten days to be used in the series, the second car, took only four days to complete – this one being used for promotions.
The first car went on tour with The Monkees, being eventually abandoned in Australia in 1968 when the groups popularity waned. The car later turned up as a hotel courtesy car in Puerto Rico, although no details can be found as to how the vehicle ended up on the island. In 1992 the car was sold at a government auction for $5,000 when the hotel went into receivership. The Monkeemobile is now owned by a private collector in Northern New Jersey.
The second Monkeemobile was purchased by customizer George Barris who restored and enhanced the car. In January 2008, Barris auctioned the car for $360,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction company in Scottsdale, Arizona,. It now resides in the hands of a private collector in southeastern Michigan.
The Partridge Family (1970–1974)
1957 Chevrolet Series 6800 Superior School Bus
The Partridge Family is a musical sitcom about a squeaky-clean, singing family who, when not performing in the family garage, travel around in a bus to various venues and to cut records. The series, minus the bus, was inspired by “The Cowsills”, a real-life rock-n-roll family from Newport Rhode Island who started performing in 1965.
The Partridge Family was headed by working mother (a bank teller in the pilot episode) Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones) who is a widow and the mother of five musically talented children. The entire family performed, sang and played various instruments (the youngest daughter Tracey (Suzanne Crough) is almost comical however in her inability to play the tambourine with any form of rhythm). In real life, the fictional family released several albums during the series and even had some hit singles. Rounding out the group is their frustrated Manager, Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden).
David Cassidy may have been the show’s standout, becoming a pop idol and gracing the covers of teen magazines throughout the show’s four season run, but it was the Partridge family’s bus that became the base of their TV series identity. The multi-colored bus opened each show in the credits to the lyrics of “come on, get happy,” setting the tone for the lighthearted series.
In the series pilot, the family’s children convince their widowed mother Shirley to help them out with vocals as they record a pop song in their garage. The song of course becomes an instant Top 40 hit convincing the family to make the life changing decision to pursue music and go on tour. With economies being an issue, they acquire a 1957 Chevrolet Series 6800 Superior school bus to accommodate the family and their musical equipment and paint it with a brightly colored geometric pattern. In the series pilot, the family finds the bus in a used car dealership’s lot, where they purchase it and give the bus it’s iconic paint scheme. In reality, the bus was purchased by the Screen Gems TV (who also developed The Monkee’s Monkeemobile) from the Orange County School District for $500.
Upon the completion of the series in 1974, the bus was retired and eventually lost.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969 and Onwards)
The Mystery Machine: 1963 Ford Econoline Custom (cartoon) Van
While “The Mystery Machine” had only its psychedelic paint and decaling and no special effects (or even rear seats), it was perfect for motoring crime-solving teenagers and their great dane around the world chasing mysteries. A real-life version of the van was developed for a series of the live action movies: Scooby-Doo (2002), Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004), and Scooby-Doo, The Mystery Begins (2009).
Bad Ass Muscle Cars
In the 1970’s and 80’s, television crime solvers, private detectives and troublemakers had one thing in common – they all drove hopped up muscle cars. Cars which ultimately became their calling card, and defined their rogue, law defying persona’s. To be honest, the main characteristic which defines a rogue TV character (or characters) who buck the conventions of the status quo, (save for their tight-fitting pants and equally tight and low-cut shirts), is the vehicle they have chosen to drive. These cars are often extremely impractical and usually quite unaffordable to their TV owners and their chosen professions. They are however none the less an important definer of their character. The car then became a very convenient method for television creators to easily and quickly establish the personality of the main character. Purposefully or not, regardless of the reason for the selection of the characters mode of transportation, many of these vehicles have since become iconic.
With a couple of notable exceptions, the 70’s and 80’s fueled the demand for gas-guzzling, masculine muscle cars and trucks. Engines were big, gas was cheap, and viewers wanted to be just like their TV heroes. The best and fastest way to become that hero, was to step into their persona and drive the cars they drove. This popularity did not go unnoticed by car companies, who were experiencing a surge in orders for their vehicles. Unfortunately, from the 1990’s to present day, studios seem to no longer be willing to invest in iconic vehicles for their leads, choosing instead to buckle to the lucrative product placement dollars of automaker’s latest models.
The Dukes of Hazard “the General Lee” (1975-1985)
1969 Dodge Charger R/T
A simple program based upon very handsome cousins Bo (John Schneider) and Luke Duke (Tom Wopat), and their hot cousin Daisy (Catherine Bach), (who was responsible for the term “Daisy Dukes” for her very tight and very short cutoff jeans). The basic premise is, the three hot cousins and their long-standing battle with the corrupt Sheriff Rosco Coltrane (James Best) as they motor around Hazzard County in their car, the “General Lee” with its musical horn. “The General”, as it was sometimes known is a 1969 Dodge Charger with a custom orange paint job, a large “01” decal on its doors and Confederate flag decal on its roof, was known for its signature long jumps, a horn which plays the song “Dixie”, and welded shut doors, ensuring the “good ‘ol boys” had to climb in through the cars open windows.
There were numerous General Lees customized for filming – some for specific purposes (internal roll bars for crash scenes etc.). The very first one, identified as “LEE 1” was sold to Bubba Watson, a professional golfer, in 2012 at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction for $121,000.
Although not at all a stellar television program, the series did run for seven seasons and warranted a big screen remake in 2005.
Starsky & Hutch (1975–1979)
1976 Ford Gran Torino “The Striped Tomato”
Starsky & Hutch, (Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul respectively) was a four-season running show about two plainclothes police officers who motor around southern California in an iconic red Ford Torino with a uniquely identifiable white vector stripe running along both sides of the vehicle. The iconic paint scheme (code 2B “Bright Red,” and white) was designed by the show’s transportation coordinator, George Grenier, making the decision to have the car sport five slot mag wheels with “generic” black wall tires for the simple reason of avoiding promoting any particular tire brand. Although Glaser and Soul became quite popular as a result of the series, it was the red and white stripe Ford Gran Torino which ultimately became the show’s signature piece. An unconfirmed number of Gran Torinos were provided by Ford to use in the series, Ford also produced over 1,300 “Starsky & Hutch” branded Gran Torinos, which were sold through dealerships capitalizing on the show’s popularity. As a result, it has not been clearly documented where the show’s vehicles have ended up. However, at a recent sale at Leake’s Tulsa, a Gran Torino with its passenger sun visor signed by the show’s stars, sold for $40,000.
A big screen remake of Starsky and Hutch was produced in 2004, utilizing a new version of the iconic “Striped Tomato” rather than obtaining one of the original vehicles.
Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988)
1977 Ferrari 308 GTS
For a classic detective series with a hot location (Hawaii) and an even hotter guy (Tom Selleck), you would think that that is the perfect set up for a show. However, producers figured that the premise needed the added bonus of a sports car – namely 1977 a red Ferrari 308 GTS. In fact, the car is so important to the character of the series, that it was even featured in the program’s weekly title sequence. To justify the fact that a freeloader could afford such an expensive automobile, the producers decided that it was not Magnum’s (Selleck) car, but one he borrowed from the owner of the estate where he lived rent free. The fictitious owner of the estate and of the car never materializes on the show, but his faithful servant Higgins (John Hillerman) is there with weekly threats to remove Magnum’s access to the famous Ferrari.
The A-Team (1983–1987)
1983 GMC G-15
The A-Team revolves around four former Vietnam War comrades, now mercenaries, who adapted the name “A-Team”, from the U.S. Special Forces’ Operational Detachments “Alpha” (which was never explained on-screen). The twist is that the team work as soldiers of fortune, while being pursued for “a crime they didn’t commit”. The team is staffed by Lieutenant Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), Lieutenant Templeton Peck (Dirk Benedict), Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock (Dwight Schultz), and Sergeant Bosco “B.A.”, or “Bad Attitude”, Baracus (Mr. T).
The team traveled in a black and metallic grey GMC Vandura van identified by a characteristic red stripe, turbine mag wheels with red accents and a rooftop spoiler. Unfortunately, many versions of the van were used throughout the series, but continuity in the van’s design was not maintained – sunroof/no sunroof, GMC logos in differing positions, alternating spoiler positioning and shape and various versions of the vehicles wheel accents.
In 2010, The A-Team feature film was released by 20th Century Fox utilizing a new version of the team’s van.
Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)
Farrah Fawcett’s 1976 Mustang II Cobra II
Not all muscle cars were driven by men, with the best example being Charlie’s Angels.
Although each of the angels: Sabrina Duncan (Kate Jackson), Jill Munroe (Farrah Fawcett) and Kelly Garrett (Jaclyn Smith) had their own identifiable cars (the unfortunate Sabrina drove a red Pinto), it was Farrah’s car which stood out in the series. Jill Monroe drove a classic 1976 Mustang II Cobra II – white, with a black grille, hood scoop, front and rear spoilers, window louvers, and blue accent stripes with snake emblems. Obviously, what made the car special, was the accent stickers, but Farrah was at the peak of her career and she made the car cool!
The series saw numerous big screen reboots by numerous people, but they have never captured the allure of Farrah Fawcett and her 1976 Mustang Cobra II.
You cannot have a conversation about famous cars in movies and television without giving credit to George Barris. George is credited with not only creating many of the most iconic cars on screen, but also for the creation of entire concept of extending a character’s persona through his choice of a ride. Born in Chicago and raised in California, George developed his passion for customizing cars the age of 13 when he and his brother restored a 1925 Buick which they quickly sold for a profit. This led to the creation of the company, Barris Kustom Industries, which quickly gained notoriety for customizing vehicles into quirky and amazing hotrods. His company was creating such unique creations, that it wasn’t long before celebrities and then Hollywood and Television took notice.
Barris and his brothers first movie commission was to alter a Ford police car in North by Northwest (1958) replacing fenders and other components with soft aluminum replicas to minimize damage to Cary Grant’s character’s Mercedes Benz convertible during a crash scene. He also built and supplied cars for High School Confidential (1958), the film adaptation of H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine (1960), and a modified Dodge Charger for Thunder Alley (1967) among others.
The one commission which really put Barris Kustom on the map occurred when ABC asked him to create a signature vehicle for the newly pitched Batman series (January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968). Barris was given only 3 weeks to create an iconic vehicle for the series which left no time to create something original from scratch. Fortunately, in the early1960s, Barris, had acquired the 1955 Ford Lincoln “Futura” concept car, which he had purchased from Ford for one dollar when the car company decided they had no use for it. To adapt the Futura, Barris spent three weeks accentuating the existing details of the car; painting it black, adjusting and enlarging the wheel wells, exaggerating the rear fins and outfitting the interior with gadgets the superhero duo would require to combat evil doers, These included the famous bat-phone, rocket launcher, twin para-chutes (for emergency stopping), and that famous jet-throwing exhaust which was shown every time the car accelerated. Fifteen days and $15,000 later, Barris had transformed the Futura into the iconic Batmobile we know today.
Barris negotiated to retain ownership of the Batmobile following the cancelation of the series and, on January 19, 2013 at the Barrett-Jackson car show and auction held in Scottsdale, Arizona, Barris sold the legendary car for $4,620,000 to collector Rick Champagne.
In 1964 Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, were approached by Universal Studios to produce a new comedy for NBC called The Munsters (1964-1966). For the series, the producers hired Barris Kustom Industries to create an iconic car for the title family and, like The Batmobile commission, Barris had only 21 days to complete the project. The “Munster Koach” as it came to be known was an 18-foot-long family hearse constructed entirely by hand using three 1926 Ford Model T bodies costing $18,000 to construct. The Koach was featured in over twenty episodes throughout the series’ two-year run, and in 1966, the Koach was supplemented by the DRAG-U-LA, also created by Barris Kustom Industries. This vehicle’s design was centered around an authentic fiberglass coffin the company was able to purchase from a funeral home. At that time, it was illegal to sell a coffin without a death certificate, however Barris was able to strike a cash deal with the funeral director, picking up the coffin after dark outside the rear door of the funeral parlor. Beyond the coffin, the vehicle was detailed with a marble gravestone grill with the inscription: “Born 1367, Died?”, a radiator topped with a small golden casket and hubcaps decorated with silver spiders.
Barris Kustom Industries also converted a 1921 Oldsmobile touring car into The Clampett’s 1922 jalopy for The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), created the convertible version of K.I.T.T. – the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am for the Knight Rider. Series (1982-1986), the Volkswagen “Herbie” in The Love Bug series of films (1968, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1987 and 2005) , Bruce Lee’s “Black Beauty” in The Green Hornet (1966-1967), the Griswold’s family wagon in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) and the customized Ford Explorers in Jurassic Park (1993).
George Barris died on November 5, 2015, at his home in Encino, California, 15 days before his 90th birthday.
Stay tuned for my follow up article: Famous Movie Cars.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.