When the types of cars that are the focus of this website appear on television, the program usually is on a nostalgia cable network and is as old as the cars. A new TV program that features them in every episode appeared in 2013, though: The Americans, which premiered in January 2013 on FX. A fictional story of a family of Soviet sleeper agents living in the Washington, DC area in 1981, the program shows streets full of 1970s and early 1980s cars in the outdoor scenes of each episode. The plot of the premier episode revolves around a 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88, establishing that the emerging classics of today will play prominent roles. Without any plot spoilers, here is a brief description of how the series uses these cars, and the strengths and weaknesses of its “car casting.”
The Olds Delta 88 is the family car and nefarious activity vehicle of the KGB couple, played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, best known for her starring role in “Felicity” in 1998-2002. Since they live in an American suburb, they have to drive everywhere, so the Delta 88 ends up as a constantly featured part of the supporting cast. On the road it regularly passes other cars of the 1970s, including this 1974 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
Deep cover missions sometimes require an unattributable car, so they often use other vehicles. This AMC Concord is one of them. Driving an AMC (other than a Jeep) was a good way to ensure that no one would pay attention to you during the 1980s, so a Concord would have been a good choice for a spy.
In the light of day in the safe suburb where the main characters live, there are frequent appearances by shiny classics that will bring a smile to the faces of fans of cars of the 1970s. This 1977-79 Caprice wagon appeared in the background in the first episode.
The husband, whose cover job is as a travel agent, briefly got this 1980 or 1981 Camaro Z28 in the first several episodes. He claimed that it was a loaner, although I remember loaners back then being the dullest cars available. Unlike the Delta 88, which was intimately involved in the couple’s covert activities, the Camaro was only a flashy part of the overt daytime scenery.
Their neighbor directly across the street, an FBI agent working in counterintelligence who does not yet know that his neighbors are Soviet spies, has a bright green Plymouth Valiant. At work, he and his fellow agents use an assortment of plain sedans typical of those seen in law enforcement fleets, including M-Body Dodge Diplomats, Dodge Monacos, and Ford Fairmonts.
While the middle class main characters have appropriately modest American cars, the young rich of the emerging yuppie class of the 1980s have appropriate European cars. This Saab 900 Turbo appeared as the car of one such character during her brief appearance.
All is not perfect in the automotive world of The Americans, though, and the problems are mostly in the cars in the background of street scenes. The first mistake appears in the first five minutes, when a car that did not exist at the time of the program’s events appeared: the 1987-91 Buick LeSabre shown above. Other cars that are too new appear at times, such as late 1980s Lincoln Town Cars. Only fanatical car spotters will notice these details, but they are unnecessary blemishes that an attentive production crew could have caught before they got on video.
Another issue is that a W123 Mercedes 300D Turbodiesel appears parked on the street in almost every street scene. I can say with complete certainty based on first-hand observation that a W123 Mercedes was a rare sight in the early 1980s in the Washington, DC area, when Mercedes were more expensive and the region was far less affluent than now. The W123 300D is everywhere in today’s Washington, DC area, which may have fooled the show’s prop department, or perhaps the survival rate of W123s makes them over-represented in the registers of cars available for rent by movie and TV producers.
In at least one instance, a car featured prominently in a scene is an error, or at least highly questionable. This Oldsmobile Delta 88 is from 1980-85 and looks like it has the taillights of a 1985, which would be too new for a show set in 1981. (Someone who is more expert than I am on the variations in Delta 88 taillight design from 1980 to 1985 may be able to determine the model year with greater certainty.) Even assuming that it is from 1980-81, it is far too weathered for a scene set in 1981.
Nevertheless, one must commend the producers of The Americans for obviously making the effort to find and use large numbers of period-appropriate vehicles in order to make each scene look like the early 1980s, and the program holds the promise of far more. The trailers and opening credits showed an assortment of Soviet cars, such as this GAZ M21 Volga, which have not appeared yet and are certain to make dramatic appearances in future seasons. Never having seen an M21 Volga exploding or in a car chase, I am looking forward to seeing those scenes when the program’s second season begins in February 2014.