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.
Hmmm… Caprice wagon or Keri Russell?
Caprice wagon or Keri Russell?
Caprice wagon or Keri Russell?
Can’t I have both?
Sounds like this show is worth watching, if just for the cars.
Perhaps my thinking is different, but at the time if you wanted to stand out and get noticed in a crowd, you drove an AMC. Their cars were often too uncommon and quirky, to not get noticed. Concords were the exception in my city.
For deep cover, you’d drive an LTD, Impala/Caprice or Malibu. Or a Citation, for that matter. Haha
That Delta 88 in the second last pic is far too weathered to be believable as a period car.
Especially with all those Triple ‘A’ stickers. haha
That exploding Volga would have been a great prop for the cameras, when the Berlin Wall was being torn down in 1989.
Someone here needs to do a post on the cars of Breaking Bad 😉 It’s CC nirvana. The director is obviously a serious car nut, as the show is just full of really terrific picks.
Lots of great cars in Sons of Anarchy,Dr Tara’s Cutlass is my favourite.Other standout cars are 64 Impalas driven by the Niners and Nero’s goons(Why do bad asses always drive a 64?). and the Cadillac driven by Piney’s ex.
I though we had already done a Breaking Bad CC?
Nope. Long overdue. Since it’s a contemporary show, and not a period piece, the use/choice of cars is exceptional. It might as well have been shot in Eugene, although I imagine Albuquerque does pretty well in preserving older cars, and having quite a few on the streets, to make it look credible.
Every time there’s a street shot, there’s always some interesting car or two. I’ve never seen a contemporary show with such an eye for cars.
I thought you didn’t watch TV!
During the long, dark winter months we indulge in Netflix. Old school DVDs in the mail. One episode before bed. Is that TV? 😉
Gee I don’t know. By that standard I guess I don’t watch TV either.
I know another site did one a couple years ago, but many other CCs appeared in the show since then.
Just last night as I was scanning the choices on TV, I caught a glimpse of that 63-66 Chevy shortbox stepside that Walt drove briefly in the final season. Possibly one of my favorite rides of the series.
Strangely enough, the day after the show’s finale, I spotted a white eighties Volvo sedan in traffic with NH plates. They were driving like they were lost for several miles, then suddenly got aggressive, stomping the accelerator and cutting across multiple lanes to take an unplanned left turn. Quite the coincidence!
Check out the BB page at IMCDb: (link here). Wow, come and get ’em!
I did; now someone just needs to put them in a post!
The idea occurred to me as I watched the first several episodes, but I am barely halfway through season 1, so I will let someone else take on that task. After seeing MikePDX’s post, I am finding the task quite intimidating anyway!
That Delta 88 has the 1984-85 style tail lights. I had an ’85 Royale and it had the 2-section lights with Amber/Red combo. For whatever reason the brochures show all cars with these lights, but some have two-section red/red lights. Those reverse lights indicate it’s a Royale Brougham. It seems some of these Broughams got full red lights, while some got Amber/Red. I am not sure why. The grille would narrow the year but this car appears to be a 1984-85 Delta 88 Royale Brougham.
`85 would have had a third brake light, though, yes?
My `84 was a Royale and had amber/red. Maybe the Broughams got red/red?
Actually, I forgot when I posted earlier that Olds had the Delta 88 Brougham LS, which was the model that was “ultra” Broughamy. This car was first offered in 1984 and also in 1985 as an alternative to the new FWD C-Body 98. These cars used the unique reverse lights, and all red tail lights. The CHMSL was only required for the 1986 model year.
Haha… you beat me to it, PRNDL!
One thing I noticed about Keri, which the producers apparently overlooked, is her era-incorrect style of dress. In the above screenshot, she’s wearing the currently fashionable low-rise jeans and long-sleeved, form-fitting t shirt. Not right for the time period.
Skin tight, high waisted, dark or light blue designer jeans, paired with either a designer sweater or a t-shirt prominently displaying some clothing company’s logo would be much more appropriate for the chronological setting- especially on a beauty like Keri Russell 🙂 . The ribbed tank top / Dolfin shorts combo that were all the rage back then would be nice too 😉 . The coup de grace would be a shot of Keri sporting the oh-so-80’s striped leotard and matching headband in a gym scene. Sigh… one can dream.
Of course I’m 44 years old and came of age during that era, so I’m probably biased 🙂 .
First off, I love the Americans. Old cars and the sexy Keri Russell as a badass Soviet spy: What’s not to love? In all seriousness though it’s a well-executed drama full of thrills, suspense, and mystery.
For the most part the cars featured in episodes are accurate for the time. The only mistake I distinctly remember was a front-wheel drive Buick Electra or LeSabre as a background car in a scene.
There was also an episode that featured a Dodge Monaco exactly like the ’78 we saw here not to ling ago (same color too!).
If you haven’t watched The Americans, I highly recommend it. The second seasons supposed to premier sometime in February, let’s hope that FX stays true on that promise.
I’ve already seen commercials for the 2nd season, its starts after my 1st favorite FX show, Justified, which returns in January from what I recall.
There is a good amount of old car spotting in The Americans, they do get it wrong, but I know it a weekly TV show, and there is only so much obsessing you can do about period correct 1981 cars.
To further be period correct, I think this show could use Dabney Coleman as an FBI Agent styled after Gordon Liddy.
He could drive a Mercury Monarch Ghia.
Is that an Acura TL behind the Town Car in the 9th pic in what’s supposed to be 1981? The TL like a spaceship compared to the Town Car and Fairmont. The Japanese really are ahead of us! Lol You can also see two newish SUV’s too! Fail on Hollywood’s part!
Good eye! I did not notice the three recent SUVs and cars behind the Town Car.
That “error” is so extreme that it may not have been the producers’ fault; they may have had a city permit to control only the street where they were filming. I have seen two urban TV and movie sets, and both times the film crew had control of only a very narrow area. When I lived in Chicago, I lived only 2 blocks from one of the sets of “Payback” (a CC-heavy movie with many old American luxury and muscle cars) with Mel Gibson, and that set had only a one-block stretch of street; cars parked on the cross-streets could stay where they were. That may be what happened here.
Perfectly understandable, I live outside LA and once in a while you’ll see a small section of street closed off for filming with loads of cars nearby. I figured they would’ve edited out the new cars but I guess a couple of seconds partially hidden behind a couple cars and buildings isn’t worth the effort in editing them out. I love looking for errors in films and shows.
The Acura instantly stood out in that pic to me too, but I tend to focus on background more than most viewers. Still always takes my mind completely out of the show or film though 🙁
On a related out of place car sighting, I watched Killing Kennedy on Friday and in the scene where Jack Ruby heads down the underground garage to kill Oswald you can clearly see a 92-97 Grand Marquis as the lone car parked down there.
I wonder if the props guys ever get tempted to slip a Delorean into the background of these period shows…
That scene was only a few seconds long, only long enough to show the Fairmont pull out of its parking space to tail a car just after the other car passed. Viewed in real time, the new cars are almost impossible to see unless you are looking for them, so I can see why the director would not bother to remove them from the set and the editors would not spend time to airbrush/CGI them out.
Agreed, that TL sticks out like a sore thumb.
The Saab 900 Turbo looks mint. I wish there were a brighter pic of it.
Good catch. It reminds me of in That 70’s Show, a Ford Expedition passes the Vista Cruiser about 3 times in a video loop during the opening credits, bothered my car OCD to no end…
My favorite show this year. Couldn’t watch half of the series because of uni (came late at night).
Next up is Elementary… where Watson drives a ~2000 Saab 9-3 that Mr Holmes crashes in one of his tantrums.
And well, my friend The Mentalist is uncovering someone important this week.
Back on topic, did they get divorced in the end?
No, Elizabeth asked Philip to come home.
The Maryland license plate on the Delta is the correct style and color for the period 1981-1986(Black lettering on white plate) The missing expiration date sticker on the plate denotes it as a 1981 issue plate because the first year of issue(1981) the plate had no expiration sticker on it(as MD plates were renewed every year until 1986 at which time the renewal period switched to every 2 years(as it is today) ) Plates renewed in 1982 or plates issued starting in 1982 had stickers to denote expiration date.
Now that being said that plate never existed at all, it was created for the show or was created by the company renting the cars to the show. Maryland never issued a non vanity passenger car plate with a L at the beginning of the plate from 1981-1986(in fact maryland did not issue non vanity passenger car plates starting with an L until the 2004 calender year.) The last year of that plate style(1986) began with a K
See this site for interesting license plate info
This 1987 Mitsubishi Van (not built yet when the show takes plates) is just as beat as the 81′ Delta 88 http://www.imcdb.org/vehicle_588580-Mitsubishi-Van-L-300-1987.html
justified is also pretty good for CCs….Raylans black Town Car makes me wish I didn’t live on a dirt road so I could get one..there’s a good collection of 70s and 80s cars that pop up…seems whoever does the car casting has an interest.
One of my favorite ‘Car-too-new-for-the-setting’ goofs was in the tv series ‘Crime Story’ (set in 1963). In the background of a scene on the street was a rusty derelict hulk of a 1976 Oldsmobile 98 coupe. Must’ve been a case of time travel……..
I really enjoyed this show at the start but as it went along I kind of felt that the storyline became unbelievable. Its kind of like it started off as a really cool Spy Show but turned into a Melodrama. I have watched 12 of the 13 first season episodes. For me it kind of jumped the shark when Philip (Clarke) married Martha. On top of that I started to realize Philip and Elizabeth are actually a pair of Psychopathic Serial Killers who have the misguided belief that Communism is Superior to Capitalism, yet are both quite happy to enjoy the benefits of Capitalism, so they are Hypocrites as well. I love how they kill someone then take the kids out on a family trip, not. In one of the early episodes I saw a mid to late nineties Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager cross an intersection in the background after one of the main characters was leaving a covert meeting. Finally, just to upset you all, I think Kerry Russell is really odd looking, as is Alison Wright who plays Martha, their not ugly, their just different. On the other hand Annet Mahendru, who pays Nina the Double Agent, yes well if I had to spend the rest my days with her I wouldn’t be complaining 🙂
Your tastes must lean toward the exotic, seeing that Annet Mahendru is half Russian and half Indian, while Keri Russell and Alison Wright are decidedly domestic in appearance. Not meant as a criticism; I largely agree with you, although I think that you may be a bit too harsh on Keri Russell. (That said, I learned to dislike her after being forced to watch “Felicity” during the 90s, and I didn’t really accept her in her role in The Americans until the scene where she kicked a man’s head through a wall, which completely changed my image of her.)
It would be interesting to see how tastes in the opposite sex correlate with tastes in cars!
With all due respect, Robert, “domestic” is not an ethnicity, and neither is “exotic.” Part of the irony of the show’s title is that you can’t really tell if people are American, or not, by looking at them.
Ha. Recently saw an episode of “The Americans” where a creepy guy picked up the spies’ kids, who were hitchhiking. Of course he was driving a brown late-’70s Plodge B-body sedan, which clearly targeted the creepy guy demographic.
THE ONE SHOW I WANT TO WATCH BUT CANNOT!
I even subscribed to Hulu Plus, mistakenly thinking I’d get access to this show, but noooo…. they don’t have it!
My favorite cars featured in this post: the Valiant and the Caprice wagon. And what’s this? No Japanese cars? No depressing late Corona?
My wife swears I only watch movies for the cars. I always catch Bachelor In Paradise when it’s on TCM.
The original trailer also showed a glipse of a 1978 Lincoln Continental, white. I own that car, and it is for sale if anyone is interested
In the episode of the Americans, Cardinal at 16 minutes in, Phillip is seen leaving the drive in what looks to be an 1981 Ford Granada. The only problem is, his car doesn’t have fixed front quarter lights and has a waist strip running between the wheel arches, but otherwise it looks very much a Ford.
Does anyone know the model and year of the car please?
I enjoy this show and noticed the cars also. However, where are the foreign cars? Hondas, Mazdas, Datsuns and Toyotas, not to mention VWs, were also already ubiquitous by ’81 (I had already totaled two Mazdas by then).