Most Iconic TV Cars of the 1960s and 1970s
Assassinations. Vietnam War. Civil Rights. Watergate. Oil Crisis. Cold War. The 1960s and 1970s could be considered two of the most tumultuous back-to-back decades in American history, when all types of strife beamed into American living rooms via the television — and in color. Perhaps as an antidote to this daily barrage of the information age, increased TV programming promised entertainment and escape from life’s stark realities. Along with burgeoning TV show production came opportunities for automobiles to be viewed as more than props on a stage, but rather as characters adding to a show’s depth and dimension. Here’s a quick look at the most iconic TV cars of the 1960s and 1970s.
1962 Volvo P1800 “The Saint” (1962–1969)
Predating the James Bond franchise, “The Saint” is a British spy thriller series that originally ran from 1962 through 1969. Starring Roger Moore as spy Simon Templar, the show was picked up by NBC in the United States as summer filler during the 1966 season, and it became hugely popular. Part of Moore’s allure had to be his ride — a white Volvo P1800 that fans associated with the show so much that the retail vehicle eventually became known as the “Saint Volvo.” (It was also successfully reproduced in toy form by British toymaker Corgi and others.) During the show’s run the P1800 became a big star alongside Moore, who eventually went on to become an even bigger star in a little movie franchise known for portraying the daring escapades of a dashing British agent codenamed 007.
Model T Ford Munster Koach “The Munsters” (1964–1966)
A family right out of the groovy 1960s, the Munsters were a hilarious American gothic horror show that happened to live right down the street — a little weird, a little scary, but always good for a laugh. And what a family car they drove. Designed by the undisputed king of TV cars George Barris, the Munster Koach was a ghoulish favorite of hot-rod obsessed kids — of all ages. An extension of this peculiar family, the Koach is constructed from of a Model T Ford chopped and elongated into a hearselike bit of horrific kit. Viewers were never quite sure who was scarier — Fred Gwynne as the Frankensteinish family patriarch Herman Munster, or the Koach itself.
Lincoln Futura Batmobile “Batman” (1966–1968)
Legend has it that well-known California car customizer George Barris had only three weeks to come up with a vehicle for “Batman.” According to personal accounts, Barris repurposed a Lincoln Futura concept car — which he had purchased for $1 — into the foundation for the Batmobile. The reason this car captured the hearts of show fans and automotive buffs alike is its batlike looks at every angle — from batwing fins both front and rear to a formidable batlike face when viewed from the front. The car also sports a cockpit-like canopy reminiscent of another flying object, right down to its bat-logo mag wheels. The Batmobile possessed so much of the show’s essence (and cool gadgetry kids love) that eventually viewers considered it a character in the series.
1966 Chrysler Imperial Crown Limousine “The Green Hornet” (1966–1967)
Although it aired for only one season in the mid Sixties, “The Green Hornet” became a cult classic. Two primary reasons for that status were the casting of up-and-coming martial arts star Bruce Lee, and the Green Hornet’s ride while fighting crime: a highly customized 1966 Chrysler Imperial Crown limousine. The prolific George Barris and Dean Jefferies designed and built the car, dubbed “Black Beauty.” At 19 feet long, this menacing vehicle was called a rolling arsenal in the show’s opening title sequence. At the Green Hornet’s disposal for fighting crime were Black Beauty’s rocket launchers and a gas gun in the grille, rocket launchers at the rear, as well as a surveillance satellite that launches out of the trunk — a prescient bit of tech similar to drones of today. Retractable quad green headlights cemented the Black Beauty’s hornetlike looks.
1974 Ford Gran Torino “Starsky and Hutch” (1974–1976)
What represented the 1970s better than crime show “Starsky and Hutch?” Stars Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul were the epitome of Seventies cop cool, cruising the streets of fictional Bay City, California, in Starsky’s red Ford Torino. But look out when a typical day in Bay City took a turn and Hutch popped a flashing red gumball light on the roof of the Striped Tomato as the duo gave chase to countless crooks who never knew what they were in for. Throughout the series, the Torino was part of so many chase scenes that it became almost as popular as the detectives themselves, spawning countless copycat cars throughout America, such as the replica shown above.
Kawasaki KZP Motorcycles “CHiPs” (1977–1983)
Another show set under the California sun, “CHiPs” was an action-packed crime drama portraying the lives of two motorcycle cops of the California Highway Patrol (hence CHiPs). The show had two stars: Erik Estrada as macho officer Franck “Ponch” Poncherello and Larry Wilcox as his more straightlaced partner Jon Baker. Although stunt doubles were used for long shots or particularly dangerous maneuvers, Estrada and Wilcox learned to ride the behemoth Kawasaki Z1-P and Z900-C2 (seasons 1 and 2) and Kawasaki KZ1000-C1s (used until the end of the series). Estrada reportedly had a few crashes during filming, suffering multiple minor injuries and a major one during which he broke both wrists and some ribs. Many years later it came to light that Estrada did not actually possess a motorcycle license while filming the series.
1978 Checker Taxi Cab “Taxi” (1978–1982)
From the opening sequence of a taxicab cruising across New York’s Queensboro Bridge — accompanied by the show’s dulcet theme music composed by jazz great Bob James — the 1980s series “Taxi” went on to elevate more than a few careers into the pantheon of TV stardom: Judd Hirsch, Andy Kaufman, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Conaway. Beyond these stars, an unsung hero of the show had to be the Checker cabs so often in the background (and sometimes foreground) of most shots throughout the four-year series. Always shown with typical NYC wear and tear, never getting the attention they deserved from garage mechanic Latka Gravas (played by brilliant comedian Andy Kaufman), the yellow cabs never the less left an indelible mark in the collective conscious of those who loved the show.
1921 Oldsmobile Model 43-A (or 46) “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962–1971)
A TV gem likely better known for its theme song rather than the actual show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” was a popular situation comedy in its time and became a cult classic in subsequent syndication. The show’s famous set of wheels is a dilapidated truck the backwoods-but-oil-rich Clampett family drove cross country from the Ozarks to reach Beverly Hills, California. The truck was created by none other than legendary TV and movie car customizer George Barris. According to a book about Barris, he found a 1921 Oldsmobile touring car behind a feed store in Fontana, California, already decrepit enough in its own right. The truck is now on display at the Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks — a donation from the show’s producer Paul Henning, who grew up in nearby Missouri. Sources differ on the Oldsmobile model, some calling it a 43-A and some a 46, so there was likely more than one version created for the show.
Chevrolet Corvette Convertibles “Route 66” (1960–1964)
The adventure crime drama “Route 66” had a total of 116 episodes during its four-year run. The show was an episodic anthology following two young men as they traveled America — most of the time far from the show’s eponymous highway. The show initially starred Martin Milner (who later went on to a starring role in the police drama “Adam 12”) and George Maharis, who eventually left the show citing health reasons. “Route 66” also starred various models of Chevrolet Corvette convertibles that corresponded with the show’s run: 1960–1964. The image above shows Maharis in 1961 on location in New York City with a Horizon Blue Corvette. The series was shot in black and white, so the production team employed subdued car colors for filming to portray a broader spectrum of color than primary hues alone.
1949 Triumph Trophy TR5 Scrambler “Happy Days” (1974–1984)
A show that likely gained popularity due a nostalgic longing for a simpler time in post-Vietnam and Watergate America, “Happy Days” ran for 11 seasons. Achieving No. 1 in Nielsen ratings in its third season, the character-driven comedy grew immensely popular with a demographic that could identify with the 1950s time period portrayed. One of the show’s most popular characters was Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, a leather-jacket-clad tough who beneath a brash exterior had a heart of gold, played brilliantly by actor Henry Winkler. And one of the coolest things about the Fonz — beyond his hair and signature thumbs-up accompanied by an “Ayyyyyyyyy!” — was his Triumph motorcycle, which gained a cult following from kids of all ages when The Fonz jumped 14 garbage cans in a two-part episode called “Fearless Fonzarelli,” the title likely being a nod to legendary motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel.
1951 Ford F100 “Sanford and Son” (1972-1977)
One of the best-known and loved shows of the 1970s, “Sanford and Son” was a prime-time vehicle for comedian Redd Foxx and on-air son Demond Wilson. The father-son junk dealer duo had run-in after run-in with all types, from incredulous customers to Fred’s sister-in-law (and Lamont’s aunt) Esther, Fred’s arch nemesis. Esther was a foil for many of cantankerous Fred Sanford’s catchphrases. Produced by Norman Lear, known for his other groundbreaking show “All in the Family,” Sanford and Son took place in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Fred’s rusted-out red Ford F100 appeared prominently in the show’s opening theme as well as in many episodes throughout the show’s five-year run. The truck is currently owned by two friends and former police officers (and “Sanford and Son” fans) who own a vehicle restoration business called Blueline Classics in North Royalton, Ohio.
1969 Dodge Charger “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979–1985)
Barely sneaking onto a list of 1960s–70s TV cars, the outrageously popular show “The Dukes of Hazzard” ran from 1979 through 1985. The comedy series pitted Southern brothers Bo (John Schneider) and Luke (Tom Wopat) Duke — who are on five years’ probation for running moonshine — against a police department more crooked than a hound’s hind leg. The show spawned many beloved characters, including Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane (James Best), corrupt commissioner Boss Hogg (Sorrell Brooke) and cousin Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach). Although the strong cast created an entertaining show each week, the true star of “The Dukes of Hazzard” eventually became the customized red 1969 Dodge Charger the boys used to evade the law and ultimately do good. The Duke brothers’ stunts are stuff of TV legend, speeding, skidding and jumping the bright red car through and over almost anything imaginable, constantly evading the Hazzard County police or Boss Hogg’s henchmen. Reportedly more than 350 Chargers were used (and wrecked) during show production, to the point where the producers had difficulty sourcing the cars and had to modify other model years and models.
1966 Pontiac GTO “Monkeemobile” “The Monkees” (1966–1968)
“Hey hey, we’re the Monkees!” announced the theme song from the 1960s musical comedy classic. Created as an American challenger to the popularity of Britain’s Beatles, the Monkees TV show was a hit with American teens. The show centered around four bandmates — Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz — trying to make it big in the music business and craziness ensues with every episode, much to their dismay. The Monkees often cruised around in a highly modified 1966 Pontiac GTO designed by Dean Jeffries. The car features a big engine with blower, three rows of seats, a touring-car style convertible roof, and a parachute out back. With the recent passing of Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz is the last surviving member of the Monkees. Nesmith died at his home in California on December 10, 2021.
The Mystery Machine “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” (1969–1972)
One of the great animated cartoons of the 1970s, “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” ran for three years spanning the late Sixties to early Seventies. Each week the gang of Freddy Jones (“Let’s split up gang!”), Velma Dinkley (“Jinkies!”), the irrepressible Scooby Doo (“Ruh Roh!”), Shaggy Rogers (“Zoinks!”) and Daphne Blake (“Jeepers!”) got into some crazy high jinks that always ended up being a mystery of some sort. The gang traveled around in The Mystery Machine — a nondescript brand of van painted in some groovy 1970s colors replete with flower power. The plots always ended with the unmasking of some ghoulish creature masquerading around to scare off various folks intent on discovering a dark secret (often involving ill-gotten gains). The gang always came through to solve the mystery, but the real stars of the show were The Mystery Machine and Casey Kasem, well-known DJ of the popular Seventies-era “America’s Top 40” radio show and voice of Shaggy Rogers.
1957 Ford Thunderbird “Vega$” (1978–1981)
Another detective show of the late Seventies, “Vega$” starred Robert Urich as Dan Tanna, a Sin City PI who cruises the strip in his red 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertible. Tanna’s clients included casino owners, friends, families, private business associates and other characters trying to eke out a life in the Nevada desert oasis of neon and grit. The stubby red 1957 T-Bird is unmistakably Dan Tanna thanks to the vanity license plates, and Urich is often seen running and jumping into the vehicle after some “Aha!” moment that propels the plot forward. The car became such a part of the show’s identity that British toy manufacturer Corgi made a diecast reproduction of the car complete with a plastic figurine of Urich as Dan Tanna behind the wheel.