Some Hot (and not-so-hot) Wheels of Some Hot (and not-so-hot) Eyes
Okay, so some of these aren’t exactly “hot wheels,” but they have become rather intrinsically linked with their drivers.
It’s weird. You would assume private eyes would drive bland, inconspicuous cars that blend into the background, and for most of them, that is ithe case. But a few of them, particularly on television, seem to have strange ideas about what the word “inconspicuous” actually means.
Like, I mean, come on, Thomas. A bright red Ferrari?
But regardless of their appropriateness, some of these cars were so jaw-droppingly cool (or goofy) that they received perhaps the highest accolade of the cool car world: they were made into model car kits.
- Shell Scott’s 1941 Caddy Convertible
From the books and stories (1950-2011) by Richard S. Prather
Just in case people didn’t notice him already, his car is painted yellow. And not just yellow but a painfully bright canary yellow. Possibly the first truly distinctive P.I. car.
- Eddie Drake’s Davis D-2 Divan
From The Cases of Eddie Drake (1952)
Surely one of the weirdest — and rarest –vehicles a TV dick ever drove was the three-wheeled 1948 Davis D-2 Divan convertible that New York shamus Drake drove on one of the very first televised P.I. dramas. The car featured a 4 cylinder Hercules engine capable of 60 horsepower, and Drake called it “Dave”. It was the brainchild of Glen Gordon “Gary” Davis, who’d been inspired by Howard Hughes ‘Tricycle’ car. Davis had big plans — he was going to produce a 7-seater sedan, an 11-seater station wagon and a military vehicle — but he was convicted of fraud. How rare was the car? Davis’ company supposedly made only seventeen…
- Stuart Bailey’s 1959 Mercury Parklane Convertible
From 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64)
Slick upscale private eye Stuart Bailey (and later his partner Jeff) drove a lot of honking big 1959 Ford Thunderbird convertibles on the show. After all, what better symbol for late fifties/early sixties American success than piloting a big, white shiny T-Bird with the top down through town? Later he switched to a spiffy blue Mercury coverible, with white interior, white top and all the gee whizl doo-dads of the era: a big V8, an automatic transmision, power steering, power brakes, power windows and even a power seat. It was cool enough, but let’s face it — the real cool set of wheels on the show was the “Kookiemobile,” a souped up blue Model T/A hybrid with a custom Jeffries flame paint job, jacked up back, stretched out front and show-off pipes and carbs, built by a hot rodder (and sometimes actor) Norm Grabowski. The Kookie T (aka The Kookiemobile) was featured in dozens of other movies and TV shows (as well as the October 1955 cover of Hot Rod Magazine), and helped kick off the hot rod craze of the fifties and sixties, as well as the model car kit boom. The car itself is now on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
- Gil Jourdan’s Renault Dauphine
From the graphic novel series by Maurice Tillieux (1959-79)
Gil Jourdan’s creator, Maurice Tillieux, loved to draw automobiles and may, in fact, have used Renault advertising materials in drawing the Renault Dauphine that was Jourdan’s car of choice in his early adventures, at a time when that model was barely in circulation. The original vehicle was bright red, and was eventually replaced by another Dauphine, bright yellow this time (Gil was notoriously hard on his cars — with numerous replacements throughout the long-running series). Later on, at the agency became more successful, he switched to a Renault R17.
- Joe Shannon’s 1961 Buick Special
From Shannon (1961-62, syndicated)
The 1961 Buick Special that insurance investigator Joe Shannon drove was, like the short-lived series itself, solid, if not spectacular. It didn’t feature a monster engine or a flashy paint job — it looked like a generic, run-of-the-mill pre-muscle car four-door sedan barely worth noticing. Which made sense, since a large part of Joe’s job was to discreetly follow trucks insured by his company. But his seemingly mild-mannered ride was tricked up with just about every gadget they could think of: a mobile phone (a real rarity at the time), a microphone and tape recorder that popped out of the dash, a movie camera that rose from the front middle seat at the simple touch of a secret button , another camera mounted near the driver’s outside rear view mirror, a spotlight, and several other hidden compartments, including one that housed a gun.
- Honey West’s 1964 Shelby Cobra 289
From Honey West (1964-65, ABC)
The 1964 “Wimbledon White” Cobra with red interior was used in several episodes of the TV show, and boasted a mobile phone (take that, Mannix!). John C. Frederickson, author of Honey West (2009), considers the car “the best-remembered iconic representation” of the show “next to Bruce, the ocelot.” The car was chosen because it recalled Emma Peels’ Lotus Elan from The Avengers. The car was loaned to the show by Shelby America.
- Travis McGee’s Miss Agnes
From the books (1964-84) by John D. MacDonald
The most preposterous of P.I. vehicles is this bastardized 1936 Rolls Royce, converted into a pickup truck of all things, painted an ungodly blue, and named after McGee’s fourth grade teacher who apparently had hair the same colour. Definitely a peculiar choice for a man like McGee who valued his privacy and relative anonymity.
- Joe Mannix’s Oldsmobile Toronado Convertible
From Mannix (1967-75, CBS)
“In the first year of the show, when he worked for Intertech, Joe drove a George Barris-customized (silver-and-dark-gray) convertible Oldsmobile Toronado. MPC made a model of it, in fact (this is true! I had one- ed. ) When he quit Intertech, he went downhill and drove various (dark green) Dodge Challengers and Darts and Barracudas for the rest of the series,” says noted car nut John Boyle. Maybe so, but they were still pretty cool cars, and they each had something really special for back then: car phones.”
- Hank Brackett & Johnny Reach’s Stutz Bearcat
From Bearcats! (1971, CBS)
From the short-lived CBS series, Bearcats!, this sweet ride was the 1914 production version of Harry C. Stutz’ original 1911 Indianapolis 500 race car. And this was no tin lizzy putt-putt — it boasted a 6.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine (bigger than most of today’s “big-block” V-8s) with four valves per cylinder (one of the first multi-valve engines) and aluminum pistons that pumped out fifty horsepower, with a top speed of 80 mph. Not bad, considering it probably weighed more than a tank. Maybe not so quick by today’s standards, but in 1914, this was the equivalent of supersonic flight. It also featured a rear-mounted transaxle (revolutionary for its time) and “underslung” suspension which lowered the center of gravity and improved handling even more. As The Car Lust Blog put it, “If you’re going to drive a car from that era, this is the one you want to be driving. It tells the world that you might be wealthy, but you’re not soft.” But just in case this wasn’t cool enough, this baby came with optional, fender-mounted .303 Vickers Maxim machine guns. No CD player, though. Like Lou Reed says, “Man, those were different times.”
From Cannon (1971-76, CBS)
LA private eye Frank Cannon was a big ass guy, so he needed a big ass car, and the Lincoln Mark III (and later the IV) did the job. Good thing Ford was the sponsor. Its hood alone was big enough to use as a Thanksgiving dinner table for a family of eight, and it handled like a bad dream — at the end of every “chase” scene, the thing would heave to a stop, rising and falling on that big soft suspension, and Cannon would push that big door open and pop out with his .38 snubby clutched in his flabby paw, also heaving from all that driving. The two were absolutely made for each other.
- Harry Orwell’s Austin-Healey Sprite
From Harry O (1974-76)
Harry had a car? Seldom seen (because it was rarely running), A rusty, beat-up old Austin-Healey Sprite of inderterminate vintage was as much a part of this most contrary of shows as the girls he didn’t get, the cases he didn’t solve, and the answers he never found. The car frequently wouldn’t even start, and when it did it had a nasty habit of breaking down at inopportune times. That’ll teach the network to insist he get a car!
- Jim Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird
From The Rockford Files (1974-81)
Classic. Originally a 1974 (although it was frequently updated) Pontiac Firebird Esprit in Coppermine Gold, license number 853OKG. Jimbo’s chief investigative tool, it seemed, regularly crashed, trashed and involved in high speed chases. Some shows, it deserved bigger billing than the “guest stars.” The show’s star, James Garner, actually chose the Firebird Esprit model himself, and did most of his own stunt driving.
- The Charlie’s Anglels Van
From Charlie’s Angels (1976-81)
Okay, this van never appeared on the TV show, although it did regularly tour car shows. Revell (the car model guys) commissioned Rod Powell of Salinas, California, to retool a Chevy van to their specifications, which included hidden compartments for guns and handcuffs , a mini-wine cellar and lots and lots of plush pink upholstery. Once completed, the van toured car shows across the U.S. and Canada, for years, and Revell sold a ton of model kits.
- Dan Tanna’s 1957 T-Bird
From Vega$ (1978-81)
Not only was Dan Tanna, the annoyingly-smug Vegas P.I. (played by Robert Urich) surrounded by beautiful women, but he got to tool around in this cherry red classic ragtop which he would park in the living room of his apartment/office/love pad. It came equipped with a mobile phone, a .44 Magnum stored in the glove compartment and vanity plates that read “TANNA,” just to make him, you know, less conspicuous. Pretty soon, half the TV eyes were tailing suspects in mint condition collector’s cars.
“Hey, isn’t that the same spiffy, immaculate candy apple red 1957 T-Bird’s been on our tail for eight blocks, already?”
“Relax, it’s probably another one.”
On a talk show, Robert Urich once noted “That car got more fan mail than I did!”
- Thomas Magnum’s Ferrari 308 GTS
From Magnum P.I. (1980-88)
Well, actually, it’s Robin Masters’ Ferrari. And it’s bright red. Just the thing for tooling around Hawaii, incognito.
- Kinsey Millhone’s 1968 VW
From the books and stories (1982-ongoing) by Sue Grafton
A battered 1968 Volkswagen Bug that’s been around the block a few times, but somehow the spunky little thing just keeps on chuggin.’ Sorta like Kinsey.
- Hardcastle and McCormick’s Coyote
From Hardcastle & McCormick (1983-86)
Built from Manta Montage, on a base chassis is from a VW and the engine from a VW-Porsche 914, made this light-weight car very, very fast indeed. There was a second version of the Coyote, used in the secondd anfd third seasons, which was based on a DeLorean.
- Spenser’s 1966 Mustang
From Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988, ABC)
I guess if anyone playing a private eye earned the right to use a vintage muscle car in a TV show, it was Robert Urich who had started the trend back in his Vega$ days. For the Boston-based show based on Robert B. Parker’s sleuth. Urich drove an ivy green, 289 automatic1966 Ford Mustang Fastback with a black interior. Unlike the show offy classic T-Bird of his previous show, though, this was a working car, and regualry got riddled with bullets. For the second season they tried to replace the classic Mustang with a then brand new 1986 model, which didn’t go over well with the show’s viewers. So, for the third season, they brought it back.
- Ray’s 1965 Corvette Stingray
From Stingray (1986-87)
Ray’s classic black 1965 Corvette Stingray, which co-starred with Nick Mancuso in NBC’s short-lived Stingray. Arguably the coolest car in all of 80’s television (sorry “KITT”…)
- J.J. Starbuck’s 1961 Lincoln Continental
From J.J. Starbuck (1987-88)
JJ’s flashy 1961 limo comes equipped with steer horns on the hood and a horn that plays “The Eyes of Texas.” The perfect vehicle for melting into the crowd.
- Elvis Cole’s 1966 Corvette Stingray
From the books (1987 –) by Robert Crais
Of course “the world’s greatest detective” would have a flashy ride, and Elvis’ “Jamaica Yellow” ’66 Stingray ragtop certainly fits the bill.
- Fitzroy Maclean Angel’s London Cab
From the books (1988-2003) by Mike Ripley
It’s big, black Austin London Cab, one of the few still running on the streets of London. He calls it “Armstrong.”
- “Big Blue”: Stephanie Plum’s 1953 Buick Roadmaster
From the books (1994–) by Janet Evanovich
Well, actually her Uncle Sandor’s 1953 Buick, but Stephanie’s mother insists on her using this obnoxious, bloated, conspicuous behemoth. Suffice it to say it’s never Stephanie’s first choice. But it is about the only car Stephanie has even driven not to get stolen or explode. And while it’s been known do some serious damage to other vehicles, it’s never been dinged itself.
- Mickey Haller’s Lincoln Town Car
From the series (2005 –) by Michael Connelly
Why’d do you think they call him “The Lincoln Lawyer,” anyway? Mickey owns four of the eighties-vintage “Cartier Edition” black beasts that he accepted, in lieu of payment, from a client.
- Michael Westen’s 1973 Dodge Charger
From Burn Notice (2007-13)
When Michael’s black ’73 Dodge Rallye (the legacy of an abusive father which Michael has vowed to keep running) first popped up back in 2007, eyebrows were raised. Was this the last gasp of a tired TV trope that ran out of gas in the eighties (namely the borrowed “cool” of using a certified classic car), an homage to that trope or simply the fact those old muscle cars were virtually indestructible? Over the course of the show, the car has been blown up several times and it gets shot up on a very regular basis. Michael explained in the very first episode that he prefers driving older cars so that in the event of a crash, he wouldn’t be pinned by the airbag, but given the amount of abuse this car has gone through, you have to wonder if he just takes a little perverse pleasure in putting his dad’s old wheels through the wringer.
- Gus’ “Blueberry”
From Psych (2006-12, USA Network)
Okay, not all cool cars are cool for the same reason. The two clownish “police consultants” in this popular USA Network show were often reduced to toddling around the town in Gus’ plucky little 2002 Toyota Echo 5-door Hatchback (license plate number 5OLPT46), a company car given to him by Central Coast Pharmaceuticals, his theoretical employer, an appropriately smart but goofy choice for this smart but goofy show. Although often referred to by fans as the “Psych Mobile,” Shawn and Gus usually refer to it as “The Blueberry.” In a second season episode, Shawn soups it up, but mild-mannered Gus insists he return it to normal. And while it may not be the coolest car on this page, it’s certainly got better gas mileage than any of the others. By the way, the car would be a Toyota Yaris in the U.S. — The Echo was only available in Canada, where the show was filmed.
- Jake Doyle’s 1968 Pontiac GTO
From Republic of Doyle (2010-14, CBC)
Another P.I., another cool retro muscle car. In the comedy/drama P.I. show, private eye Jake Doyle races recklessly through the twisty turny streets of St. John’s, Newfoundland in a battered and beleagured azure blue 1968 Pontiac GTO, much to the chagrin of his no-nonsense father and partner. The choice of the car, according to writer, producer and star Allen Hawco, was a deliberate and conscious homage to The Rockford Files. Although there’s a little wish fulfillment in there as well. In his teens, Hawco confesses “I always wanted to have a GTO… It would have been cool… there are a lot of adults who can pull it off, but it doesn’t suit my personality. … I don’t have the disposition that does it properly…. I drive a 2010 Toyota Tacoma truck.” Although he laments that “there’s no rear defrost system.” “It’s Jake Doyle versus Allan Hawco – cool versus uncool,”he admitted in a 2010 Globe and Mail interview. The car has certainly run the gauntlet, regular y involved in high speed chases and catching more than a few dings — and bullet holes — in the process, but the third season finale truly ended with a bang — the beloved GTO was blown up. The CBC obligingly ran an obituary Oh yeah!
- Matt Shade’s 1969 Porsche 911 S
From Private Eyes (2016-19, Global TV)
Former hockey player turned rookie P.I. Matt Shade (played by Jason Priestly) tools around Toronto in a classic silver 1969 Porsche 911 S, a relic from his superstar days, in Global TV’s defiantly retro, generically titled show Private Eyes. It even sports vanity plates, reading “Shade 17,” his name and his sweater number from when he played. They go for the obvious a lot on this show — the theme song is the Hall & Oates song. But more disappointing is that for the most part, all Shade does in the Porsche is drive it around town, passing by countless Toronto landmarks. Apparently having actual car chases wouldn’t fit in the budget.
- Assembly Required
Some Cool P.I. Model Car Kits
List respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith, with a really, really big and heart-felt shout-out to John Boyle. Anyone who has info, photos or illustrations of any of these cars (or of the possible models or toys they inspired) are urged to contact Kevin. The photo of Kookie’s Kookiemobile from 77 sunset Strip is actually a limited edition 1/24 scale diecast model from Danbury Mint. Ther photo is copyright Tony F. Perrone from diecast.org.