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The cars of eighties TV

The cars of eighties TV The cars of eighties TV The cars of eighties TV The cars of eighties TV The cars of eighties TV The cars of eighties TV
Neil Briscoe

Words: Neil Briscoe - @neilmbriscoe

Published on: March 19, 2020

Words: Neil Briscoe - @neilmbriscoe

Published on: March 19, 2020

Let us help distract you with some utterly fabulous TV star cars of the eighties.

Like you I am currently stuck at home. Like you I have kids, a wife, a mortgage and elderly parents about which to worry. Like you, also, I have just come down from the attic, where I have been digging out my 1980s TV boxsets so that I may perform a thorough inventory and critique of the cars used in each programme. Oh wait, maybe that's just me. Ah well, on with an afternoon's work anyway...

Knight Rider

Surely the granddaddy of all vehicularly-based 1980s crime capers, and that mysterious opening title sequence - narrated by gravel-voiced Richard Baseheart, he of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fame - sets things up beautifully. A man with a mysterious past. Crimes to be solved. And that gorgeous, none-more-black Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am with the whooo-whooo scrolling red light in the grille. This was never going to be anything other than epic.

Wellllllll...

The problems are manifest. David Hasselhoff’s acting contains more medium density fibreboard than a branch of IKEA, and the poodle perm is just distracting in this day and age. Not to mention the copious double-denim on show. And the car? Well, rather like a real Pontiac Firebird, you get suckered in by the styling, but what lies beneath is nothing but disappointing. A massive V8 engine with a rubbish power output, a conspicuously short wheelbase that does not bode of good handling and an interior so cheap and plastic that it appears to have come free with a Kinder egg. OK, so the production designer has had a good crack at filling it with LCD displays and a weird chopped-off wheel that really isn’t going to go well with the Firebird’s four-turns-lock-to-lock steering. Darth Vader’s bathroom? More like an explosion at your local model kit making club. The concept was arguably brilliant, but the plots are instantly hackneyed, and never better parodied than in The Simpsons (Night Boat; The Crime-Solving Boat!).

In summary, all Pontiac mouth, no Hasselhoff trousers.

The A-Team

Right, onto The A-Team. Again, there's an intro with a rugged voice (it's actor John Ashley, who - fact fans - had a role in the film Zero Hour, which was eventually repurposed to become the legendary Airplane!) promising adventure and excitement. The thing is, this time around there is some delivery of precisely that. George Peppard was a proper actor, even if he was rather slumming it appearing on NBC of a Tuesday evening, while the rest bring some surprisingly decent acting chops to all of the silliness and explosions. 

The car? Well, it's a van of course... A GMC Vandura in that iconic black and grey livery with the red stripe and the roof spoiler. Arguably the coolest-looking car on the telly back then? Could be, yeah. A shame that in reality, the van was so underpowered that the stunt team had to put bleach on the rear tyres to get some smoky slides going. Also, continuity was not a 1980s NBC strong point. Some of the vans used had sunroofs, some did not, so you can often spot when the 'hero' car has been swapped out for stunt model mid-way through a scene. Also, the equipment fitted to the rear of the van seemed to change just a bit too conveniently from episode to episode (once, there was a miniature printing press in the back, just by chance...), but let's face it - we all wanted one of these. It's the reason I used to take flying, stunt-like leaps from the sliding side doors of my dad's old VW Transporter when I was playing around on a Saturday morning...

Hill Street Blues

After the excitement and colour of the A-Team, Hill Street Blues seemed like a cup of cosy cocoa, something that I just never appreciated as a sugared-up kid of the 1980s. It was actually a pretty good series, but sadly the only cars on show were blue-and-white Plymouth Furys and Dodge Monacos. I love proper, square, American cop cars, but frankly if it’s not a Ford Crown Victoria, I’m not playing. Moving on.

Columbo

Columbo is famous for his battered Peugeot 403 convertible, of course, but it doesn't actually show up much of the time, and never gets used for anything so tawdry as a car chase. Columbo was always too far, mentally, ahead of the murderer to need to chase them anyway. Columbo is the best. 

Streethawk

Streethawk mostly revolved around a motorcycle and being as I know nothing about bikes, I’m going to gloss over this one and move right along.

MacGyver

Turning to MacGyver, I think we can all agree that Richard Dean Anderson's pacifist action man was one of the greatest televisual creations of all time, and don't even talk to me about the recent reboot that isn't fit to fluff Richard's magnificent mullet. When it comes to cars, though, I think MacGyver has a lot to answer for. You see, in early seasons of the show, MacGyver drove a Jeep Wrangler, which seemed perfect - relatively simple, not too expensive, and usefully rugged. The problem being that I think seeing MacGyver whizz around in his Wrangler (and, indeed, his Wranglers - all 1980s action heroes wore jeans) is ground zero for our current obsession with SUVs. We all grew up and wanted to be MacGyver, so we figured that buying his car was a good place to start. We were wrong. He did also drive a Cherokee and, oddly, a 1950s Chevrolet Nomad. 

Dukes of Hazzard

In the Dukes of Hazzard, the Duke brothers drove a Dodge Charger, which is excellent. But they had a massive Confederate flag on the roof, which is not. Moving on.

Magnum P.I.

Then there was Magnum. Magnum, in motoring terms, didn’t put a single espadrilled-foot wrong with that Ferrari 308 GTS. Clearly, the production company was pretty careful with the 308s supplied by Ferrari North America, as most of the 15 cars used in the show were returned and eventually sold on. One in immaculate condition came up for auction recently, and sold for $181,000, which just shows the value of an awesome moustache.

Miami Vice

Equally Italianate was Miami Vice (which I rarely saw as a child as it was on late and I wasn’t allowed to stay up). But while Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas’s Ferraris looked good on screen (Michael Mann, who created the series, rarely lets things look anything less than good on screen), their prancing ponies were mostly fake. The early shows saw Crockett & Tubbs driving an apparent Daytona Spider, which was actually a pretty convincing fake built on a Corvette chassis. Ferrari was incensed by the fakery, though, and sued the producers. Eventually the fake Daytona was blown up for an action sequence (actually, just an empty bodyshell was destroyed) and Mann patched things up with Ferrari to the extent that the series was actually loaned a matching pair of white Testarossas for subsequent seasons. Oh, that didn’t stop the fakery though - the Testarossas were so valuable that they had to be used sparingly, so a stunt replica was created based on a 1972 DeTomaso Pantera chassis, which co-incidentally had the same wheelbase as a Testarossa. 

The Fall Guy

Finally, I come to The Fall Guy. Now, there's a whole lot wrong with The Fall Guy, not least Lee Major's impression of teak decking, and the fact that Heather Thomas appears to be there simply to model increasingly skimpy outfits. The choice of a GMC K-2500 Wideside truck (with the optional Sierra Grande package) fits the bill nicely, and may actually be as culpable as MacGyver's Wrangler for our current all-hogs-to-the-trough SUV thing. Some of the stunts are actually pretty decent (something that, ultimately, made the show too expensive to continue with), but there does seem to be an awful lot of unexpected sand piles and ramps so that Colt Seavers (Major's impossibly-named lead character, both stunt-man and bounty hunter) can get some serious air under his truck tyres. Too often, though, you can see bits of the truck flying off (an entire tailgate at one point) that are mysteriously and instantly repaired by the next scene, and once in a while you can spot where they actually got a bit over-ambitious and cracked a chassis or two. Oh dear.

In fact, so costly were the stunts in terms of wrecked trucks that for the second season, General Motors actually supplied the production company with specially-built trucks with the V8 engine in a mid-mounted position (under the seats) and which could therefore be flung through the air a little better, because they were less nose-heavy.

So, with the gruffly sung Fall Guy theme now reverberating around my head (and now around yours too, I expect; sorry about that), it's time to close this little look back at the wondrous action-star cars of 1980s telly. Join me again tomorrow for an entire academic thesis on the use of an Austin 1100 in Fawlty Towers.