The TV and film industry spends millions on top talent to guarantee ratings and box office success. However, despite the best efforts of the acting elite the truth is that on many occasions it’s the TV show’s car which ends up as the star!
There are so many famous cars from tv shows to choose from: from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, the 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor hearse from Ghostbusters, the 1976 AMC Pacer from Wayne’s World or even the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo! We’ve selected a number of these famous tv show cars to bring you some of the industry’s biggest automotive stars.
1. KITT: 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am | Knight Rider
Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT, was a self-driving, artificially intelligent and heavily modified 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am with the most iconic red light in TV history! Unlike production models, it could cruise at 300 mph and jump 50 feet in the air! And when it comes to iconic cars from tv shows, KITT is hard to beat.
KITT – maybe the most famous TV car of them all – was originally supposed to be a modded Datsun 280ZX but during pre-production, General Motors brought out the F-Body Firebird Trans-Am. No contest. As odd as it is to anthropomorphise a car, KITT was designed by legendary customiser Michael Scheffe and he (KITT) was one of 23 Trans-Ams used in the show. One was smashed to bits before the series ended but as for the remaining 22, all except five were destroyed as filming finished. There’s conjecture as to where the others are but it’s believed Universal kept two and three are in private hands, possibly in the UK, possibly in Australia…..
Equipped with all sorts of funky kit including ejection seats, a cashpoint machine, thermal-resistant coating, microscanners, silent mode, oil jets, smoke screens and a flame thrower, the most recognised of all the bells and whistles was the red scanner at the front. And of course whether it was road-legal is a matter of debate but there’s no doubt KITT’s sheer power consistently put even the fastest road cars in the world to shame.
Glenn A Larson, the creator of both Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica used the Cylon Centurions’ ‘eyes’ from BG simply because he liked the effect of the red LED lights. The two shows have no other similarities.
Even though a fair chunk of every script has David Hasselhoff and William Daniels (the voice of KITT) talking, the two actors only met for the first time six months into filming the first series and interestingly William Daniels, at his own request, was never credited during the entire run of the show. He said that he wanted KITT to have a personality of his own and a sense of mysticism to the voice.
Interesting fact: The Trans-Am cars were sold to the producers for $1 – who then had to pay thousands of dollars to modify each one!
2. 1981 De Lorean DMC-12 | Back to the Future
Possibly the most famous movie car ever, the 1982 model was chosen for its ‘spaceship’ qualities and it was covered in aircraft parts, blinking lights and all sorts of bells and whistles to make it ‘fictional’. Seven were used in the trilogy (including a fiberglass shell for the flying scenes) and only three remain. Two are owned by Universal Studios and one was sold at auction in 2011 for $504,000 with the proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
John De Lorean, the American creator of the car, famously (or infamously) ran into financial turbulence after making almost 9,000 DMC-12s. He was largely responsible for the Pontiac GTO, widely considered to be the world’s first muscle car, but while the youngest division head in General Motors’ history he left the company to start his own De Lorean Motor Company.
The car he started planning in 1973 didn’t hit the metaphorical shelves until 1981 and by then a depressed car market coupled with the fact that the car wasn’t particularly good left him in financial ruin. After struggling to claw back the $175m in R&D costs, he was left with stockpiles of the cars but no money.
He was arrested on charges of drug trafficking in October 1982. Despite being found not guilty, by then the company was finished. He was asked after his trial if he’d go back into the car trade, and famously said “would you buy a used car from me?”
Interesting fact: De Lorean did a deal to make 100 gold-plated DMC-12s and sell them to American Express customers. They sold two.
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3. 1972 Reliant Regal | Only Fools and Horses
Most people think Del Boy and Rodney’s grubby three-wheeled van was a Robin Reliant but it wasn’t. It was a Reliant Regal Supervan. They used between six and 18 during the 20 years of filming and the main van is in the Cars of the Stars Museum in Cumbria.
The original Reliant Regal was built for 20 years between 1953 and 1973 and is one of the most iconic and famous cars from TV. It was so light it was considered a tricycle and could be driven on a Class A motorcycle licence. The first generation was made of wood and in 1962 Reliant released the Mk VII, badged as the Regal 3/25 and 3/30 in reference to the number of wheels and the brake horsepower! The bigger engined version had a number of optional extras including a fog light, sun visors, oil gauge and metallic paint…
Del Boy’s Regal Supervan had a staggering 701cc engine and, interestingly, the Only Fools and Horses Reliant Regal appeared in a cartoon in a short advert for the Discovery Channel. The cartoon man was driving a sports car and after a short drive it turned into the Supervan with the announcer saying ‘what a plonker’ in an homage to Del Boy’s famous saying.
Interesting fact: In 2007 one of the show’s original Reliant Regals sold for £44,227 at auction – more than double its original estimate.
4. 1975 Ford Gran Torino | Starsky & Hutch
David Starsky and Ken Hutchinson often played second-fiddle, chunky-knit cardigans and all, to the mag-wheeled muscle car in which they rode. In 1976, Ford even released a limited-edition run of 1,002 Gran Torino replicas in homage to the famous car.
The producer originally wanted to use a green Chevy Camaro but when production of the TV series started, Ford were the lease supplier for the Spelling-Goldberg production company so they opted for two Gran Torinos painted bright red. The cars were custom-painted over the original factory red and the white vector stripe – possibly the most famous decal in TV automotive history – was designed.
Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) was ‘introduced’ to the car by Aaron Spelling before they started filming the pilot episode and he took an immediate and permanent dislike to it. In early press interviews for the show, he stated that he thought it was: a) ‘big, ugly and childish-looking’; b) ‘the notion that two undercover cops would drive something so outlandish was ridiculous’; and c) he didn’t like Fords. He even said to David Soul (Hutch) that he was “going to destroy that car… burn it down every chance I get!”
He never grew to like the car but he did come to accept its popularity as a component part of the show that made him famous.
As with a lot of the 70s and 80s TV shows, the cars were either returned to the studios, destroyed or sold at auction and the few remaining Gran Torinos all seem to be in private hands in the UK and the US.
Interesting fact: The car was known affectionately on set as the ‘Striped Tomato’.
5. 1968 Mini Coopers | The Italian Job
Red, White and Blue. The famous three Mk1 Mini Cooper S’s used in the classic 1969 crime caper The Italian Job (pictured above). The production team bought six Coopers and 25 regular Minis from Switzerland and each one had a three-point roll cage fitted and the back seats taken out. Because they were tough and relatively light, few mods were needed (the only real issue was the ground clearance), but saying that the stunt team still did an unbelievable job!
In a perfect example of Britishness that reflects the spirit of the film, throughout the famous chase scenes the Minis stay in perfect red, white and blue order. Clearly it was all about the detail.
It seems that no-one is sure quite how many of these were actually Coopers and how many were regular Minis but regardless the car’s use in the film became iconic. Ken Morris, one of the very last of the crew to leave Turin after filming, said they left a garage with six Minis and 30 sets of mag wheels in. He locked the doors and came back to England and he was later quoted as saying that he was never sure if Paramount Pictures or the production company ever went to pick them up! A treasure trove of what is arguably one of the most iconic cars of all time!
According to the DVDs director’s commentary BMC – the makers of the Mini – only agreed to give the film a small number of Minis and the rest would have to be bought, albeit at trade prices. At the same time, Fiat offered as many super-charged Fiat 500s as they wanted but the producers wanted Minis. It is also said that the Italian Mafia arranged to have entire sections of Turin closed for filming and the traffic jams – as well as the reactions from annoyed commuters – are very real!
There are lots of films that are instantly recognisable by one single line of dialogue. Yet despite the Turin sewer chase and the (actual) cliff-hanger at the end, Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker utters the immortal line “you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” as his team blow up a van.
As an aside, the Lamborghini Miura that featured in the opening scene which was assumed to have been destroyed was quite recently discovered by two British businessmen. In a story reminiscent of a spy thriller, they got a tip-off in December 2014 that the car had surfaced after 46 years and were given three hours to verify it was the original. It was. One of the new owners said, ‘The Italian Job Lamborghini is the holy grail of supercars precisely because no one knew what happened to it after the film.’
Interesting fact: Star Michael Caine couldn’t drive at the time and is never seen driving a car!
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6. 1986 Ferrari Testarossa | Miami Vice
The espadrilles, the half-rolled up sleeves, the gaudy pink t-shirts and the gleaming white Ferrari Testarossa all combined to make Miami Vice the most 80s of all 80s TV shows. At $181,000 a pop, producers initially went for a replica with a Testarossa body kit but Ferrari later donated two Testarossas to the show and at the time made them the most famous cars from TV.
In the first two series’ (and the first two episodes of series three), Don Johnson’s James ‘Sonny’ Crockett drove a black Ferrari Daytona Spyder with the licence plate ZAQ178. In actual fact this used two Corvette replicas sold to the production for $49,000 each with Ferrari replica body kits. When the car was blown up (on the show) by a Stinger missile the character switched to the white Ferrari Testarossa with licence plate AIF00M.
The two Testarossas supplied for free by Ferrari were black and there are conflicting reasons as to why they were repainted, from a Don Johnson mishap to the fact that white was better for filming at night. A De Tomaso Pantera ‘stunt car’ was still used even after they got their hands on the real Testarossas because wrecking a real one resulted in a $180,000+ bill. There was also a defect with real Testarossas in that they had a propensity to stall in high-speed spins, presumably not helped by a special brake wired to a booster that locked both rear wheels for more impressive spins and turns.
Interesting fact: One of the two original Testarossas was listed on eBay with a ‘Buy It Now’ price of $1.75m.
7. 1963 Volkswagen Beetle | Herbie
Herbie, licence plate ‘OFP 857’ was a 1963 VW Beetle deluxe ragtop sedan with a mind of its own. There are only seven of the original cars left (and only one of the ‘trick’ Herbies) and it was painted in Volkswagen L87 pearl white. One went on sale to serious collectors in 2012 for a staggering £96,000.
When The Love Bug – the first film featuring Herbie – was in its pre-production stage, as well as casting calls for the acting talent, Disney also set up casting calls for cars! They had a range of cars available to them including Volvos and Toyotas as well as a TVR and an MG and also, of course the white Bug. During the inspection stage, the crew would kick the tyres and yank the steering wheels of the cars to see how they might handle during the racing scenes but when they came to the Beetle, they would stroke it like a lovable pet. The rest is history!
The interior of a standard production 1963 Beetle would have matched the exterior but the crew painted it a matt grey colour so the camera and studio lights wouldn’t reflect off the surfaces.
In The Love Bug, Volkswagen didn’t allow Disney to show the VW brand anywhere (although it was spotted twice, once on a fleeting shot of the brake pedal and once on the ignition key) but VW relented for the sequels because early to mid-70s Beetle sales needed a boost.
Interesting fact: The number 53 painted on the side was in homage to LA Dodgers baseball player Don Drysdale, who wore jersey number 53.
8. 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 | Bullitt
Lt. Frank Bullitt’s Mustang GT 390 and the black 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 are co-stars of arguably the best movie car chase scene ever – all 10m 53s worth – in the history of cinema. The two Mustangs they used were loaned to the studio by Ford and the engines, suspension and brakes were heavily modified by old-school racer Max Balchowsky.
During the late 60s and throughout the 70s, Steve McQueen was as revered as De Niro and Pacino are now and the moniker ‘The King of Cool’ was richly deserved. Well-known as a serious petrolhead, McQueen took a self-imposed hiatus in 1974 to focus his attention on racing his beloved Indian motorcycles but he is most famous, automotively-speaking, for Bullitt.
The car chase scene through San Francisco was unprecedented for its originality and sheer scale and McQueen was responsible for around 10% of what was seen. He did the close-ups but his long-time collaborator, stunt driver Bud Ekins did most of the rest.
In an interesting aside, when legendary US talk-show host Jonny Carson congratulated McQueen on performing the famous motorcycle jump over the fence at the end of The Great Escape, he said ‘it wasn’t me, it was Bud Ekins’. Such was his humility.
Interesting fact: The engine noise of the Mustangs was actually overdubbed recordings of a Ford GT40 at full chat.
9. 1983 GMC G-15 | The A-Team
With its red stripe, huge bull bar, mag wheels and plenty of BA Baracus attitude, the 1983 black and metallic grey GMC Vandura was voted the most iconic van in TV and movie history (oddly ahead of Postman Pat’s van and the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine!) It doesn’t have any special powers but is the most indestructible vehicle in the entire world. For that, it rightly appears on our list of the best TV show cars ever!
It’s widely accepted and subsequently admitted by writer Steven J Cannell that The A-Team shows were written to test the limits of realism and believability. In 98 episodes of Tom & Jerry-esque violence, only five people died, no-one bled or bruised and bullets never seemed to connect. However, despite these cartoon capers, the GMC van stands out as the real star!
During the filming of the five seasons between 1983 and 1987, the van changed appearance several times – the angle of the rear spoiler changed, some had a sunroof and some didn’t, the producers even used other makes of vans including the Ford Econoline with paintjobs and wheels coloured to resemble the original red turbine mag wheels. It also came equipped with different gadgets and devices including a printing press, surveillance kit and a host of Hannibal’s disguises!
Just so you know, the crime they didn’t commit for which they were imprisoned was robbing a bank in Hanoi, so ordered by their commanding officer, Colonel Morrison.
Interesting fact: So few people knew the bit above the red stripe is metallic grey and not black, even the toy manufacturers got it wrong!
10. 1960 Jaguar Mark II | Inspector Morse
Such is the iconic status of the burgundy 1960 Mark II Jaguar driven by Oxford’s favourite Wagner-loving, real ale drinking, crossword-solving detective, it topped a poll to find the UK’s all-time favourite famous car, beating such luminaries as James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and the eponymous Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Famous TV cars don’t get any more popular than this. The Mark II was built between 1959 and 1967 and the car driven by the late, great John Thaw was the 2.4L version capable of 120 mph. Registration number 248 RPA, it’s sumptuous red leather interior and wood trim belied what was, according to Thaw and co-star Kevin Whateley, a lemon, even though it has long been alleged that one of John Thaw’s conditions on being offered the role was that the Lancia Morse drove in Colin Dexter’s books was switched for the Jag.
‘It was a beggar to drive’, Thaw was quoted as saying, and Whateley went one – actually about 10 – steps further. ‘I detested that Jag. It was an ex-stunt car that had been written off several times and really should have been on the scrapheap!’
The original car was sold in 2005 for over £100,000 and in a perfect example of art imitating life, the man who bought it was sent to prison for five years, a case Morse himself would have relished.
Interesting fact: In the original books, Morse drove an unnamed Lancia and a quote attributed to author Colin Dexter was that in his view ‘Morse would not have been seen dead in a Jag.’
11. 1955 Lincoln Futura | Batman
Before it became possibly the most famous TV car that has ever graced the small screen, the original Batmobile was a concept car designed by Ford creatives Bill Schmidt and John Najjar (the creative brain behind the original Mustang) and hand-built by legendary coachbuilders Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin in 1955. It was called the Lincoln Futura. It was never put into production and was eventually bought by car customiser George Barris for the princely sum of $1. It never had a name and was impossible to insure so it sat behind Barris’s shop gathering dust and rust for years.
With a fresh new red paint job, it featured in the 1959 classic It Started With a Kiss starring Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford but this was the cars’ only outing and Barris was trying to get Hollywood’s attention to see if he could re-use it. His luck was in.
When Dean Jeffries, the original designer contracted to build the car for the Batman TV series couldn’t deliver on time (there are many variations to this story and with the passage of time it’s hard to know what really happened), producer William Dozier turned to Barris. The soon-to-be-creator-of-the-Batmobile who thought the massive rear fins, double-canopy and large headlight pods would be perfect for the caped crusader.
Barris working alongside designer Herb Grasse and metalworker Bill Cushenbery created the Batmobile in three weeks. Mods included huge wheel arches, fins that came all the way up to the windscreen and beautiful Batman wheel caps and the gloss black and ‘fluorescent cerise’ paint is as iconic and famous as any car that’s ever appeared on TV or celluloid. It made its debut on January 12th, 1966 in the episode Hi Diddle Diddle.
Interesting fact: Barris, remarkably, kept the rights to the car and leased it to the production company for the show’s entire production run. In 2013, he sold it to the fantastically-named Rick Champagne for a cool $4.6m.
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12. 1962 Volvo P1800 | The Saint
It’s a rare moment in TV history – or any history, let’s be honest – when a Volvo is considered ultra-cool but while Roger Moore’s slick sleuth Simon ‘The Saint’ Templar put the usually sedate Swedish car manufacturer on the automotive map, it almost never happened.
In the spring of 1962, Lew (later Lord) Grade announced the production of 26 one-hour episodes of The Saint (apparently news to Moore who thought he’d been contracted for 30-minute episodes). Like TV’s other dashing heroes, Templar needed a recognisable car in which to operate.
The producers’ first choice was a white E-Type Jaguar which had been launched at the Geneva Motor Show a year earlier but such was the demand for what remains one of the most beautiful cars ever designed, when Jaguar was asked if they could lend one to the TV company, they declined on the basis they couldn’t keep up with demand from the USA as well as suggesting they didn’t need the publicity The Saint would offer. There emerged a rumour that Roger Moore offered to personally buy a Jaguar MK10 saloon to use but there appears to be no corroborative evidence to suggest that particular factoid is true.
The hunt for an alternative began in earnest and it was Moore himself who suggested the (then) rather obscure Volvo P1800 which had just been launched in right-hand drive form in the UK. Volvo jumped at the chance and within a week, a white one – registration plate 71 DXC – was delivered to the production company. The famous ST 1 plate was used only while filming and the car appeared in most of the 26 episodes.
In 1963, production of the car moved from Jensen Motors in West Bromwich back to Sweden and a year later, Volvo supplied The Saint with a P1800S – registration plate 77 GYL – and the original was chopped up to get better interior shots. Three years later another P1800S was delivered but was wrecked soon acter it arrived. Two more quickly appeared – NUV 647E and NUV 648E – the latter registered to the soon-to-be James Bond as his own car.
In the late 70s, one series of Return of the Saint was produced starring Ian Ogilvy as Simon Templar and Jaguar, realising their faux pas in not supplying the original series with the E-Type they asked for, immediately supplied the production with a white XJ-S.
Interesting fact: Such was the popularity of the show, model car manufacturer Corgi repainted their P1800 model #258 white, added a ‘Saint’ logo to the bonnet and marketed it as ‘The Saint’s Car.’
Icons of TV History
For many of us, our automotive affections were shaped by the most famous cars from TV, whether they were three-wheeled vans spluttering around south London or fire-breathing V8s screeching around the mean streets of LA. Whichever ones you adored, the impressions they left on us have been indelibly etched into our mind’s eye, from the rather magnificent 1961 Ferrari 250GT California from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to the rather awful 2004 Pontiac Aztek from Breaking Bad. These iconic TV show cars are destined to remain part of our collective memories for decades to come!