5 cars that became TV Celebrities

Published on Monday, January 28, 2019.
Updated on Monday, October 21, 2019.
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The Peugeot 403 Cabriolet (Inspector Columbo)

It is still possible today, in France at any rate, when channel surfing on TNT (the French cable broadcaster that replaced classic television), to watch reruns of Columbo played by Peter Falk. Columbo was launched in 1968 in a made for TV movie that inspired the series that began in 1971 (the very first episode of which was produced by a certain Steven Spielberg…). If the hero of the series is the funny inspector, two other protagonists play an important role: Mrs Columbo (that we never see) and the Peugeot 403 Cabriolet of this hilarious, insightful and stubborn detective.

The presence of a French car in this American series might come as a surprise, especially since the Cabriolet model of the 403 Peugeot was never imported to the US. It was Peter Falk’s initiative that led to the choice of this French car. He was looking for a car that reflected his character: a little shabby (the hood looks like it was made from the same material as his raincoat), retro and quirky for Southern California in the early 70s. According to Jean-Michel Normand, from “Le Monde” (the French newspaper), Peter Falk met by accident Roger Pierre, the famous French actor, on holiday in the US with his wife. He had come with his own personal car, and yes you guessed it, it was the 403 Cabriolet.

Legend has it that he had the show’s producer buy the vehicle from the French comedian. Afterwards, and over the years, other 403s were used in the filming of the show but several were sedans that were transformed into cabriolets. Even in France this car had become Columbo’s car, to the shared exasperation of both collectors and Peugeot. For a while. Peugeot however finally used its image once in an advertising campagne.

Don’t believe that just anybody can afford a 403 Cabriolet. With 2,050 units manufactured between 1957 and 1961, it is particularly rare and its price estimates run at around 72,000 euros according to LVA*.

The Ford Gran Torino (Starsky & Hutch)

This American probably impressed the French more than any other in the 1980s. The Ford Gran Torino is not truly sporty, but TV’s magical spell and its red and white strips (the “Striped Tomato” as Hutch called it in the episode « Snowstorm ») made it appear to be. It was by pure chance that Starsky and his screen partner Hutch found themselves at the wheel of such a car. The lending department at Ford had two in stock, both in red, and lent them out for the filming of the pilote. Glaser hated this car but the great idea of the side stripes soon made it iconic. Starsky & Hutch found themselves condemned to riding in the Gran Torino.

At the beginning, the inspector duo’s Gran Torino was equipped with a V8 351 Windsor (5.8 litres) with 140 horsepower but quickly the production team had different motors installed, more and more powerful, in order to improve the impression of the car’s acceleration on film. They doubled the sound of the motor to accentuate the sportiness of this car that was otherwise quite middle of the road at the time. Thanks to these few tricks a whole generation of kids dreamed of owning a Gran Torino. Adults too, causing Ford to come out in 1976 with a limited series Starsky & Hutch version: 1,305 units were produced with the factory code PS122.

Today there are countless homemade replicas but for anybody caught collecting a Gran Torino, it is largely explained by Starsky & Hutch. A Gran Torino V8 Coupé can be purchased for around 6,000 euros, according to LVA*, but it goes up in price with a nice “Striped Tomato” paint job. The holy graal is obviously to find a real PS122.

The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (K2000)

Yet another American show, but that would seem normal since most of the significant TV series from the 70s and 80s came from the US. That’s just the way it is. The series “Knight Rider” (“K2000” for the French…) put on the screen a ‘dynamic duo’, Michael Knight (aka David Hasselhoff) and KITT (the Knight Industries Two Thousand), a car with artificial intelligence and incredible performance (thanks to fast-motion images).

In 1986, France discovered David Hasselhoff in the role of Michael Knight and a 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in the role of KITT. The futuristic look of the Pontiac, with its highly modified nose that fit well with its high-tech image, and the seemingly modified power unit of the car, was in reality quite different. The Firebird’s engine options ranged from a 90 hp, 4 cylindre to the 112 hp V6, and then finally to the 5 litre V8 CFI with 175 horsepower. We are far from what the KITT pretends on the TV screen: 0 to 100 km/h in just 2 secondes.

The Pontiac Firebird was a typical ‘American’ sportscar from the 1980s. After two oil embargos, engines had been re-tooled downwards, while the marketing departments of the big manufacturers went back to the drawing boards to create sportier lines with aerodynamic influences to sell more cars. An unmodified Firebird V8 Trans Am is estimated at around 8,500 euros in 2018 according to LVA*. With a ‘KITT’ transformation, it’s worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it. The French television personality, Vincent Perrot, has a replica equipped with the full famous futuristic interior, including the all of the screens and boutons and the unique small steering wheel.

The Ferrari 308 GTS (Magnum)

This car is a double whammy: for one it’s a Ferrari and for two it’s Magnum’s ride. Those are two sufficient reasons to collect it, not to mention the fact that it is one of the most beautiful and iconic cars of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The producers of Magnum PI originally planned to use a Porsche 928 that, we must admit, doesn’t quite convey the sexy charm of the 308. However Tom Selleck’s tall stature would have required modification of the 928 to make an opening roof, which Porsche refused. Thus they chose a substitue which allowed aerial views from above: a GTS, the Targa version of the Ferrari 308.

The Ferrari 308 GTS is equipped (as its name suggests) with a 3 litre V8 that produced 240 hp. The GTS is not rare (3,219 examples, without counting 1,743 GTSi, as well as 3,042 GTS QV) but finding one from the actual TV series is much more complicated. A “normal” GTS’s price, according to LVA* (2018), ranges between 85,000 and 100,000 euros, on the other hand a true Ferrari used in the production of the series costs much more. In January 2017 one of the cars used during the 4th saison was hammered down at a Bonhams sale for 170,711 euros.

The Mercedes R107 (Hart to Hart)

In the USA the Mercedes R107 was a status symbol to the point that many TV series used it for their most successful characters: Magnum’s friend, Rick, who managed the King Kamehameha Club, Bobby Ewing in Dallas and Jonathan & Jennifer in Hart to Hart.

This latter series, that dated from 1979 in the USA (airing in France starting in 1982), was a millionaire couple who made it their business to investigate crime. Jonathan Hart (played by Robert Wagner), who headed Hart industries with his independent journalist wife Jennifer (Stéphanie Powers) were symbols of glamor and capitalism and the American way of life. Like all millionaires that take themselves seriously they had a certain number of cars : an Aston Martin V8 Volante; a Mercedes W123; a Ferrari 246 GTS; a Rolls Royce Corniche; but also, and especially, the famous R107.

During the first two saisons the couple used a 450 SL which was then replaced in the third saison by a 380 SL. The two millionaires loved the colours of the times, shown by their Mercedes which was sort of a yellowy mustard colour to heighten the effect.

To resemble Jonathan and Jennifer Hart you need to have a well endowed piggy bank: according to LVA* a 450 SL R107’s price quote is around 45,000 euros (2018). The challenge will be to find an authentic American version, and even more so, to find it in this particular yellow.

*LVA = “La Vie de l’Auto” is a renowned French journal dedicated to classic, collectable automobiles.

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