Wheels on the screen

Between my former and current blogs, I wrote a lot about automobiles and TV and movies. Think of this post as killing two birds (Thunderbirds? Firebirds? Skylarks?) with one stone.

Most movies and TV series view cars the same way most people view cars — as A-to-B transportation. (That’s not counting the movies or series where the car is the plot, like the haunted “Christine” or “Knight Rider” or the “Back to the Future” movies.) The philosophy here, of course, is that cars are not merely A-to-B transportation. Which disqualifies most police shows from what you’re about to read, even though I’ve watched more police video than anything else, because police cars are plain Jane vehicles.

The highlight in a sense is in the beginning: The car chase in my favorite movie, “Bullitt,” featuring Steve McQueen’s 1968 Ford Mustang against the bad guys’ 1968 Dodge Charger:

One year before that (but I didn’t see this until we got Telemundo on cable a couple of years ago) was a movie called “Operación 67,” featuring (I kid you not) a masked professional wrestler, his unmasked sidekick, and some sort of secret agent plot. (Since I don’t know Spanish and it’s not subtitled, that’s about all I can tell you.) The highlight of the movie is a duel between a 1965 Dinalpin A110 (apparently a Mexican-built Renault Alpine) and an airplane equipped with machine guns:

Unlike James Bond’s Aston Martins (apparently MI6 has more budget than whatever these guys work for), the A110 doesn’t have any special features at all, but our hero thoughtfully threw a bazooka in the trunk before he left. (Note to self: Check Army surplus store to see if they have any bazookas on clearance.)

The Dodge Challenger in “Vanishing Point” didn’t have a name, but its driver didn’t have a first name either:

The same year “Vanishing Point” was released, “Two-Lane Blacktop” featured a new Pontiac GTO and a 1955 Chevrolet 150 with a much-more-powerful-than-stock V-8:

(The Chevy, painted black, was driven by Harrison Ford in “American Graffiti.”)

Another early example is Eleanor, the Mustang featured in the original cult classic “Gone in 60 Seconds“:

I stumbled upon an early formula for TV series success: Cool car + cool theme music = something I’d watch. Although I didn’t watch much of this, one early example was  “Mannix,” which combined the theme music of Lalo Schifrin (whose birthday was earlier this week) and, at first, the only Oldsmobile Toronado convertible and then a Dodge Dart GT convertible into a series in which the hero, by one count, was shot 17 times, knocked unconscious 55 times, and drugged 12 times:

There was a TV series, “Chase,” that ran one season on NBC in 1973. (It was repeated on USA Network one mid-1980s summer.) That show must have been a gearhead kid’s dream, because it featured (1) a souped-up Plymouth Satellite, (2) a motorcycle, (3) a helicopter and (4) a police dog. Unfortunately, other than listings of the series, there is no online evidence the series ever existed.

After “Chase” exited, Jim Rockford drove onto the scene:

Unlike a series you’re about to read about (the literary types call that “foreshadowing”), someone thought to replace Rockford’s 1974 Firebird with a 1977 Firebird when Pontiac replaced the dual round headlights with quad rectangular headlights. “The Rockford Files” was also known for epic car chases every other episode or so. (I wrote about the 10 best movie car chases for the previous blog, but that too has gone into e-heaven, it seems.)

One of the most famous series of the ’70s was “Starsky & Hutch,” which featured a red Ford Torino with a Nike-like white swoosh. I’m sure no one would have connected that car to belonging to the police, right?

In late 1976 Motor Trend did a story about the S&H Torino and, pointing out that Ford had just canceled the Torino, noted that “insiders are looking for a spectacular crash in an upcoming script,” and wondering with what the Torino would be replaced. The answer, of course, was … another Torino, something sort of noted in the “Starsky & Hutch” movie, when the Torino that was driven off a dock was replaced by … another Torino driven up by Paul Michael Glaser (whose movie part was played by Ben Stiller) and David Soul (whose movie part was played by Owen Wilson).

Speaking of movies …

(By the way: Pontiac never made a LeMans four-door convertible in 1976 or any other year.)

After Smokey drove onto the screen, along came “CHiPs”:

The coolest wheels were the motorcycles, of course. (At the time the California Highway Patrol was using Kawasakis instead of Harley–Davidsons or, apparently now, BMWs.) This was the first series, however, where I noticed that the same cars were passed every week, and the same vehicles were in the middle of each week’s epic crash. (In fact, one bad-guy car became Ponch’s car, a Pontiac Firebird with both the Trans Am shaker scoop and the Formula Ram Air scoops.) The other thing that annoyed me was the episode in which Ponch and Jon were assigned to a squad car because of bad weather, and their boss told them it was a new squad, when in fact it was about a three-year-old car. (Even though we didn’t own any Chrysler products, I could tell the difference between a full-size Dodge Monaco and a mid-sized Dodge Monaco!)

While Ponch and Jon were patrolling the freeways of southern California, Bo and Luke Duke were racing and being chased by the crooked establishment of Hazzard of some unnamed Southern state:

(Non-Wisconsinites may not know that Tom Wopat, who played Luke, is a native of Lodi. Non-Madisonians may not know that I went to high school with Tom’s cousin. And in some future blog, I may write about the incongruity of the family relationships about three cousins living with an uncle who is the father of none of them, once I figure out the Clampett family.)

The bad thing about “Dukes” (other than Bo and Luke’s several-episode departure due to a salary dispute in which they were replaced by, you guessed it, two other cousins who looked just like Bo and Duke) is the number of people who took perfectly good 1969 Dodge Chargers and ruined them by making Dukesmobiles.

And then we move to Hawaii:

What was not to like about this series? The lush scenery of Hawaii, and a charismatic star who drives a Ferrari! Add loyal friends, an amusing antagonist, mostly good stories, babes easy on the eyes (although Magnum never seemed to connect with them; perhaps that was part of his appeal too, that he was as much a klutz with women as his male viewers), and perfect targa-top-friendly weather.

Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Magnum’s success bred several imitators, including “Hardcastle & McCormick,” with the latter … well, the first-season titles explain the premise:

Related to McCormick’s Coyote (which was actually a modified Manta Montage) was the “Hawk,” a heavily modified AMC Javelin for the miniseries “Wheels,” Arthur Hailey’s fictionalized retelling of Lee Iacocca’s battle to create the Ford Mustang. (“Wheels” should not be confused with “The Betsy,” a movie about the creation of a fuel-efficient car that was named to the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made list in The Official Razzie Movie Guide.)

Down under, Australian director George Miller was making considerably darker movies with a Ford Falcon Interceptor, “the last of the V-8s”:

I’m not sure how integral to the part the Ferraris (a 365 GTS/4 replica on a Corvette chassis and a very real Testarossa) driven by Miami–Dade Police Detective James “Sonny” Crockett were, but they certainly fit in with the series feel:

It is interesting to note that very few TV series or movies have featured America’s sports car, the Corvette. (The aforementioned Corvette-powered Daytona replica doesn’t count.) The Vette was integral to “Route 66,” of course:

Robert Conrad exported a C3 convertible to Vienna to channel his inner Rick Blaine in “Assignment Vienna“:

Just after that, before the scientific accident that turned him into the Incredible Hulk, Bill Bixby drove a white Corvette in the two-season “The Magician”:

There was the movie “Corvette Summer,” but the custom Vette is, frankly, an abomination, with asymmetrical hood scoops and, stupidly, right-hand drive:

Then you have to go all the way to a series by Jim Rockford’s creator, “Stingray,” which featured a ’65 Corvette driven by, of course, Ray:

So apparently I need to create a TV series, with Lalo Schifrin creating the theme music, where the hero drives a Corvette. (Particularly on June 30, National Drive Your Corvette to Work Day.) That will have to be my weekend project. (Perhaps an out-of-work journalist who secretly performs feats of derring-do, rights wrongs, punishes the bad guys, and blogs? Naaaaaaahhhh ….)


8 thoughts on “Wheels on the screen

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