As Seen On TV: Our Favorite P.I. Cars

(first posted 9/9/2011)    When we recently took a look at badge-totin’ sworn-officer cars, the response was, um, gratifying. I had no idea that the humble flatfoot cruiser caused a stirring in so many readers. Nostalgia came flooding back as we fondly remembered what “the law” drove into our living rooms in pursuit of truth, justice and the unbending eradication of “ring around the collar” (at the station breaks).

Anyway, Hi-Po cop cars are just a piece of a larger law enforcement puzzle that presented itself for many decades on American network television. Not all cops work for the county and wear a badge, or drive clapped out squad cars that smell like the bodily functions of a strung out junkie.

There was actually some automotive glamor in catching the bad guys on TV. But with the changing social consciousness of the era, the only way to portray that glamor was with crime fighters that didn’t follow the rules (or made their own) . The P.I’s golden age (very) roughly spanned the years 1962- 1980, when muscle cars and stars from TV’s first golden age still appeared on the small screen. By the mid 80’s, detective shows had evolved into a more nuanced, tech heavy, politically correct genre that appealed to the older demographic that still watched them.

Murder, She Wrote may have pulled in the raw Nielson ratings, but you weren’t going to see Angela Lansbury execute a “J” turn (a la Jim Rockford) in a K-Car. And as the cars themselves changed: the shows that absolutely had to involve them became more cerebral, with less raw sex appeal. By the late 90’s an era had passed. Only time will tell if it returns.

A few caveats: Any list that included all car related Detective/P.I.- genre summaries would have to be shipped to each of you individually on DVDs. And until we start warming our cold hearths around here with crisp $100 bills, that ain’t gonna happen. There are just too many shows for any list to be complete. That’s what the comments below are for. So lets pull that bottle of bourbon out of the top drawer, have a healthy slug and get started.

77 Sunset Strip– ABC – 1958-1964 – One of the characters of this pop craze created a sensation with his hopped up model A/T hybrid in the early sixties. Edd Byrnes played Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson alongside fellow private eyes Efrem Zimblast and Roger Smith in this hip,trendy must-see show that ran on ABC.

This show was almost the Miami Vice of its day, reflecting the libertine music scene and changing social mores of the time. Like Vice, younger viewers connected with the show’s well dressed youthful star,s and the series was a marketers bonanza. Lunch boxes, model kits based on the Kookiemobile, and board games cashed in on its relatively brief run.The show was canceled halfway through its sixth season.

Honey West – ABC 1965-1966- It’s hard for me to believe that audiences would rather watch Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. than Anne Francis in this series that ran on ABC for 30 episodes in 1965. Francis made do with an AC Cobra as the company car in this well received, but poorly rated series. This program was actually a spin off of another series (Burkes Law) and the title character was, well, rather exotic.

The debonair Ms. West kept a pet ocelot and used any number of James Bond -type gadgets to get the job done. Francis actually won a Golden Globe award for her work on this series, but it was not enough to bring it back for another year.

Mannix– Joe Mannix was a cop and a mercenary before becoming a private eye in this series that ran on CBS from 1967 to 1975. Mike Connors was the lead character in what turned out to be a car watchers touchstone in those years. Mannix’s life really revolved around his cars, and this series graced the screen with some beauties. Season one saw him switching between a Comet Caliente drop top and a Comet Cyclone, but the car that most viewers remember is the customized Toronado built for the series. Mannix didn’t seem to have any particular loyalties – his cars varied between the Big Three depending on what was the most glamorous at the time.

Cannon– William Conrad was one of the golden age of radio’s better known voice talents (he was marshal Matt Dillon on CBS Radio’s Gunsmoke through 1961), but his biggest TV role found him as a private investigator driving a Lincoln Mark III and IV from 1971 through 1976.Conrad was a big guy and he needed big cars.

Conrad saw the series through 124 episodes and a TV movie revival and the series won a smattering of awards. Ford was the official auto of the show, so you’ll see a lot of blue oval cars in the reruns that still air around the country.

Barnaby Jones– Some of us, when we knelt beside our modest beds at night in the 1960’s, prayed that we would never see Buddy Ebsen in form fitting bell bottom pants and leisure suits. Well, fate is cruel and that is sometimes what we got in this CBS series that lasted for parts of eight seasons in the 1970s. This show was actually a spin off of Cannon (above) and used a lot of the same vehicle models tooling around. Eye candy Lee Meriweather (Batman’s Catwoman) was Baranaby’s daughter in law and operative.

This show actually interspersed its plot line and characters with the show that spun it off – an odd arrangement for network TV at that time. Anyway, producer Quinn Martin had an in with Ford and that meant that the shows cast drove upper crust Fords and Mercuries. A lot of the scenes involved Jones’s ’73 LTD that later changed as the years went by. The show went off the air in 1979.

The Rockford Files– James Garner was the utility infielder of TV acting in the mid 70’s. He had done westerns (Maverick), war movies (The Great Escape) and comedies ( Support Your Local Sheriff) and his folksy dry wit helped make this show a smash for NBC for 122 episodes from 1974 to 1980.

The Rockford Files made much use of Jimmy Scott Rockford’s Firebird Esprit (with Garner claiming later to have done his own stunt driving) and there is a lot of late 60’s to mid 70’s metal moving about. The show didn’t have a formal loaner arrangement with any of the Big Three, so you’ll see a smattering of just about every make.

Banacek– This was a thinking man’s detective show. George Peppard played Polish-American Thomas Banacek for two years as a rotating feature of the NBC Mystery Movie series. No shoot ’em ups here- Banacek worked mostly insurance cases and took a cut of the recovery. The plotlines and story arc of most episodes assumed that the audience could follow the “inside baseball” terminology of daring, non-violent robbery and deception. The Neilson ratings revealed that most viewers liked the show, but didn’t identify with the character. Thus its run was brief.

The show put 17 90 minute episodes in the can (spread out through two seasons) and then went on to a second life in syndication. One episode even deals with the theft of a five million dollar experimental race car that had been stolen. A close look at the car reveals that it was a heavily customized ’69 AMX . In fact, this was one of the best car spotters shows ever with old, rare metal everywhere. The series ran 1972- 1974.

Magnum, P.I.– Glitz, glamor and fast cars. A perfect leitmotif for a “greed decade” P.I show. And so it was for 162 episodes in this CBS series that ran from 1980 to 1988 and still can be seen in syndication. Tom Selleck played the title character that provided security for his unseen benefactor (voiced by Orson Welles) on the latter’s palatial estate in Hawaii. This was one sweet gig. The fridge was always full of cold ones, the Ferrari was always gassed up and the women were hotter than the lawyers lounge in hell. Costar John Hillerman played the perfect foil for Selleck’s dry wit and in case things weren’t cozy enough, there were ex-Vietnam marine buddies to share a drink around the campfire. None of these people ever seemed to do any actual work, but that was the escapist fantasy that sold the show.

The Ferrari 308 GTS that grabbed all the attention later made the car show circuit for several years. Magnum, P.I. was a huge hit in international syndication – I once watched an episode with some teenagers in Ukraine and had to explain to them that everyday life in America is nothing like the show. The looks on their faces reminded me of when I explained to my kids the truth about Santa Claus.

One thing that I discovered when working on this piece – everybody has a different P.I. niche that they connect with. That’s why there have been so many of these kinds of shows over the years and the genre is an enduring (if constantly evolving) one. Your turn. What P.I. caught your imagination on the small screen over the years?