In a TV series, a signature car is more than just a form of transportation. It becomes a character, one we often come to love as much as the human protagonists.
Following, in reverse order, are 10 of the hottest cars ever to get the “star” treatment in a TV series. The only rule in compiling this list is that, stock or custom, the cars had to be available commercially to the general public. (Sorry, no Batmobiles, Mach 5s or Scooby-Doo Mystery Machines.)
(10) The Piranha from "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." (1964-68). The Man from UNCLE was the first American TV series to jump on the secret agent bandwagon started by the James Bond movies. Like 007, UNCLE agent Napoleon Solo needed a super-car armed with all manner of high-tech gizmos, and the task of building it fell to legendary custom car designer Gene Whitfield. At the time, Whitfield was working for AMT Models, which financed construction of the futuristic gullwing-door roadster in exchange for the rights to manufacture and market plastic model kits based on the design. Powered by a Chevrolet Corvair engine, the Piranha was ultimately made available to custom auto enthusiasts as a “kit” car, its molded fiberglass exterior designed to fit over a number of commercially available chassis. Several copies of this 1960s classic survive to this day.
(9) 1965 Sunbeam Tiger from “Get Smart” (1969-1970). Just because you’re creating a secret agent comedy and your hero is a self-important, clumsy, incompetent boob doesn’t mean his ride can’t have some style. Seen in the opening of every episode, the “Get Smart” car was a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger MK, of which only 7,000 were ever produced. Okay, actually it was supposed to be a Sunbeam Tiger MK, but the UK auto’s Ford-sourced V-8 engine was so big it left little room for the fake machine guns and other secret agent doo-hickeys they had to put under its hood, so the show opted for a visually identical four-cylinder-powered Sunbeam Alpine. This Tiger/Alpine fake-out was duplicated four decades later by the producers of 2008’s Get Smart movie starring Steve Carrel. In this case, the switch was made because the production company could not find an elusive Tiger anywhere near the film’s Canadian shooting location, while a less-rare Alpine was available.
(8) Coyote X from “Hardcastle & McCormick” (1983-1986). Few people remember this three-season action drama from producer Stephen J. Cannell, the same man who created “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team” and “The Greatest American Hero.” Those who do recall the series no doubt remember the fiery orange Coyote X driven by co-star Daniel Hugh Kelly, who played a former race car driver and ex-con now in the employ of retired judge Brian Keith. Although some believe the Coyote was built from a Manta Montage car kit, it was actually based on a McLaren M6BGT. (The Manta Montage was actually McLaren-based as well.) The first season car used a Volkswagen Beetle chassis and a Porsche 914 engine. Because Keith, who was no spring chicken at the time, had trouble getting in and out of the original Coyote, the producers replaced it with a similar car built from a more accessible DeLorean DMC-12.
(7) 1971 Plymouth Barracuda from “Nash Bridges.” (1996-2001) Although several steps down from the world-class Ferraris he drove in Miami Vice (see below), star Don Johnson’s vintage Plymouth Barracuda “muscle car” provided more than adequate machismo for the San Francisco-based police detective he played in this CBS series. In all, five cars “played” the ’71 Hemi Cuda. Four were actual Barracuda convertibles built between 1970 and 1971, while the fifth was a 1973 coupe converted into a rag top. And none actually had Hemi engines. Instead, they had 318-360 engines with new Mopar Performance crate motors.
(6) Corvette Convertible from “Route 66” (1960-1964). In this classic CBS series, Martin Miler and George Maharis (later Glenn Corbett) cruised America looking for fun, adventure and romance. Their ride was an early 1960s-vintage Corvette convertible, the car replaced annually by the show’s sponsor, General Motors. Although the show was filmed in black-and-white, most fans assumed the car was red. (Red was macho, right?). In fact, the first car was powder-blue, but when the show’s director of photography complained that the paint was too reflective, the producers switched to boring fawn beige. Good thing the show never went to color.
(5) 1975/76 Ford Gran Torino from “Starsky & Hutch” (1975-1979). The mid-70s was the Golden Age for car chase films and TV shows, and few cars were as visually distinctive as the “Striped Tomato,” a not-so-affectionate nickname given this signature car by co-star Paul Michael Glaser. Painted Ford “Bright Red” (2B) with a bold white vector stripe designed by the Spelling-Goldberg production company’s transportation coordinator George Grenier, the Gran Torino was powered by a 460 Lima V-8 engine, had a back end lifted by air shocks and was equipped with "U.S." brand 5-slot mag wheels with oversized rear tires. While Glaser may have considered the car “garish—not too mention a bit too conspicuous to be driven by undercover police officers—the S&H Gran Torino proved so popular that Ford issued 1001 copies of the car as a “Special Edition” in 1976, the final year of the car’s production run.
(4) 1969 Dodge Charger R/T from “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-1985). The 1970s car-crash craze climaxed with this Smokey & The Bandit-like celebration of backwoods good ol’ boys and the American muscle cars they love. Forget Daisy Duke; what the kids were really tuning in to see was the General Lee. Supposedly a former race car, the Charger had permanently opened windows, a roll-bar and its doors welded shut. This made for visually dramatic entrances and exits as the Duke boys would race to stay one step ahead of the incompetent minions of the corrupt Boss Hogg. It’s estimated that between 300 and 330 “General Lees” were built (and destroyed) during the course of the show’s six-year run.
(3) 1986 Ferrari Testarossa from “Miami Vice” (1984-1989). During the show’s first two seasons, undercover officers Crockett and Tubbs cruised the streets of Miami in a knock-off Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365 GTS/4 (See Listing No.2). Upset that such a highly rated and influential TV series did not feature authentic Ferraris, Enzo Ferrari insisted that the faux-Spider be removed (It was—in a fiery on-screen explosion) and then donated two current-year Testarossas as replacements. In addition to these two vehicles, a third stunt car was built using a Testarossa shell over a 1972 De Tomaso Pantera wheelbase.
(2) Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365 GTS/4 from “Miami Vice” (1984-1989). Until its dramatic demise early in Season 3, the “Miami Vice Car” was the hyper-stylish Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365. Or so audiences were led to believe. After the show’s first episode, which did feature star Don Johnson at the wheel of an authentic Spyder, the producers realized they needed a vehicle that could be more easily replaced when damaged during filming. The solution was to imitate the genuine Spyder with a kit car built over a less exotic Chevrolet Corvette chassis. Although Ferrari experts weren’t fooled by this poser, most of the viewing public was. And the “Spyder” remains the “Miami Vice Car” in the memories of series fans to this day.
(1) 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS from “Magum P.I.” (1980-1988). Tom Selleck’s Thomas Magnum might not have held the pink slip to this gorgeous Pininfarina-styled mid-engine masterpiece, but if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then this car was his. Designed by the legendary Leonardo Fioravanti, the 308 became synonymous with both Magum and the Ferrari line as well, arguably becoming the company’s most recognizable model of all time. On Magnum P.I., the original 1979 model was replaced twice, once with a 1981 edition and then with one from 1984. Oh, and in the show’s last episode, Magnum was finally awarded for his many years of service to the elusive Robin Masters with formal title to his beloved car.
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