Which is the best TV car?

Article by Brendan McAleer, photos by studios, etc.

While the way we now watch television has changed, the connections we make haven’t. Once, we used to plonk down every week at the same time to see what our favourite characters were going to get up to – now we binge-watch a full season on Netflix. It’s still the same thing, a larger, serialized story that contains more nuances and side plots than you could ever cram into a movie.

Of course, that means more room for a better back story for beloved four-wheeled characters. Here’s a look at the ten best cars that ever broke through the small screen to find a parking spot in our hearts.

The General Lee

Of course we have to start it off like this – perhaps no other car is as much of a small-screen icon as the bright orange Dodge Charger with the welded-shut doors and the confederate flag on the roof. In fact, you can paint pretty much any car orange and stick a confederate flag on its roof, and everybody will immediately know what you’re paying homage to. I’d like to see the treatment applied to a LeCar. Les Dukes d’Hazzairdé.

Sometimes a star car can result in a fanbase that preserves cars more than would ordinarily be expected, but you could make the argument that Bo and Luke Duke actually increased the rarity of the Charger by a significant degree. Anywhere from 250-300 of the cars were used in filming, and any that made those huge jumps – “them Duke boys better grow wings, or start flappin’ their arms!” – were immediately knocked out of commission with bent frames. Still, hit the horn that plays Dixie and start looking for signs saying Bridge Out.

The Batmobile

Did I say the General Lee was the most iconic TV car? I take it back.

The Batmobile that starred in the ’60s biff-pow-whammo live television version of Batman was nowhere near as serious as the later models that would show up on the big screen. It had a certain cartoonish charm, just like the two pyjama-wearing characters who fought the Joker, the Penguin, and all the other nefarious, cackling baddies.

Built by George Barris out of a one-off Ford (Lincoln) Futura concept car, the Batmobile has a host of features that are enviable even today: bat phone, bat smokescreen, mobile batcomputer. Basically, take anything you can think of, put the word “bat” in front of it, and the Batmobile has it.

The original car used in filming recently sold at auction for the princely sum of 4.2 million dollars. Holy lasers, Batman!

General Lee, Dodge Charger, Dukes of Hazzard1983 GMC Vandura, A-Team
General Lee, Dodge Charger, Dukes of Hazzard; 1983 GMC Vandura, The A-Team. Click image to enlarge. Top image: 1960s Batmobile

A-Team GMC Vandura

I pity the fool who doesn’t know about this thing. If you ain’t gettin’ on no plane, you might as well drive a van instead.

Acting as a sort of mobile command for the nomadic A-Team, this 1983 GMC Vandura makes you wonder why the US Army had such a difficult time apprehending the do-gooding commandos. I mean, it’s got a bright red stripe, custom two-tone grey-and-black paint, a huge spoiler, and turbine mags. It’s not like you couldn’t pick it out in the mall parking lot.

1975 Ford Gran Torino, Starsky & Hutch
KITT, 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, Knight Rider
1975 Ford Gran Torino, Starsky & Hutch; KITT, 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, Knight Rider. Click image to enlarge

1975 Ford Gran Torino

Not to put a damper on the thrilling chases of Starsky and Hutch, but their Ford Torino had less horsepower than a V6 Honda Accord, and weighed about as much as a Dodge Caravan. Even so, it looked the business sliding around the streets of the fictional Bay City, California.

The show was so successful that Ford actually built a Starsky and Hutch version of the Gran Torino in 1976. It had all the same options as the TV car, including a 351ci (5.75L) Cleveland V8. Just the thing you need if you have a bunch of chicken coops that need smashing up.

Knight Industries Two Thousand

You probably know this one better as KITT, the wisecracking 1982 Pontiac Trans Am from Knight Rider.

Aside from David Hasselhoff’s hair, the next most impressive thing about Knight Rider were the stated performance figures for the self-driving KITT. Zero to sixty came in just two seconds, with the quarter mile elapsing in 4.285 seconds, and a top speed of 300mph.

At the time, all of this stuff might have seemed like science fiction, but consider the effects of the so-called Super Pursuit mode. This semi-autonomous driving mode lets Michael Knight drive, but has KITT’s superior reflexes handling the really tricky stuff – could something like the Nissan GT-R be a modern day KITT you can actually buy? Well, maybe. If only it had a button marked Turbo Boost that let you jump into third story apartment buildings.

Pontiac Firebird Esprit, Rockford Files
Ferrari 308 GTS, Magnum, P.I.
Pontiac Firebird Esprit, The Rockford Files; Ferrari 308 GTS, Magnum, P.I.. Click image to enlarge

1974-78 Pontiac Firebird Esprit

Everybody talks about how cool Steve McQueen was, but odds are, James Garner could out-drive and out-cool him. Garner was and is a true gearhead, and the pair brought home Mini Coopers from Europe when they filmed The Great Escape there, and used to tear around the Hollywood canyon roads, racing each other.

But I digress. This particular car was the star of The Rockford Files, a ’70s TV show about a rumpled, wisecracking private detective who usually used his wits rather than brute force. Garner did almost all his own stunt driving, to the point where the J-turn (reversing at speed, flicking the nose of the car around, and burning rubber as you flee the scene) has become known as a Rockford turn.

The Firebird is such a great fit for the show, as it’s not the top-spec car, but just the one Rockford could afford. Painted in glorious 1970s gold, it doesn’t have any fancy gizmos, just a lot of charm.

Ferrari 308 GTS

Here’s another TV show detective, but one with an enormous moustache. Tom Selleck’s Magnum, P.I. was a hit with anyone who dreamed of living in Hawaii, or just really liked Hawaiian shirts.

Magnum drove his Ferrari everywhere around the island, solving cases, but there was an issue – at six foot four inches tall, Selleck was way too big for the cramped little 308. Not a problem, the TV crew removed the seat rails and bolted the seat directly to the floor, making sure Selleck’s head wasn’t completely out of the car.

1967 Chevrolet Impala

Filmed in BC, Supernatural is one of the few TV shows today that hearkens back to that old-school charm of having a hero car be part of the story. In this case, it’s a ’67 Chevy Impala hardtop with a 502 big-block crammed in the nose.

Filming is hard on cars, so there are actually seven of these Impalas used in shooting – though only the car used for closeups has the big engine. In its trunk is a whole host of demon-fighting apparatus, which the two Winchester brothers use as they traipse around the country, battling evil. You can tell it’s fictional not so much because of the supernatural element, but because they can afford the gas to cruise cross-continent in a big-block Impala.

1967 Chevrolet Impala, Supernatural1962 Volvo P1800, The Saint1965 Sunbeam Tiger, Get Smart
1967 Chevrolet Impala, Supernatural; 1962 Volvo P1800, The Saint; 1965 Sunbeam Tiger, Get Smart. Click image to enlarge

1962 Volvo P1800

Perhaps best-known as James Bond, it’s a curious coincidence that Roger Moore never seemed to drive an Aston-Martin on the big screen. As The Saint on the small screen, he very nearly ended up driving a Jaguar E-type, but Jaguar turned down the free publicity, leaving the door wide open for Volvo.

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Photo Gallery:
Television Cars

The ethereal white P1800 is actually a much better fit for the show, where Moore’s Simon Templar shows up to fight evil and help folks out. The series helped the P1800 become a lasting 1960s icon, and its incredible durability means many of these cars are still on the road – most famously, a gentleman named Irv Gordon just hit three million miles behind the wheel of his red P1800.

1965 Sunbeam Tiger

Spoofing the spy genre in a loving manner, Get Smart was clever and goofy all at once. A shoe phone? Well, why not.

Maxwell Smart, the bumbling secret agent, drove a cherry red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger in the show, a car that debuted at the same time as the Ford Mustang, but didn’t quite survive the ’60s. Powered by a 260ci (4.6L) Ford V8, the Tiger could be modified into a real road-racing champion, and still enjoys an enthusiastic ownership base today.

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