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TV stars and the cars that made them

Television has made extraordinary stars out of normally ordinary cars

Published: May 6, 2017, 5:40 AM
Updated: October 27, 2018, 7:20 PM

Loading up the family - George Barris also created the truck that transported the Clampetts from the Ozarks to Beverly Hills. Not much was reportedly needed to create the iconic vehicle, as it already had the back cut off when it was found wasting away on a back lot in California. Time and weather had done most of the work on the body, so all Barris did was add some rustic touches (like the moonshine barrel) and the wooden bench on the truck bed, on which Granny and Elly May could ride. (Credit: Wikipedia/Neelix)

Most iconic of fictional cars - Barris’ conversions, and in particular his work with cars for film and television, lead ABC to come calling when they needed an iconic Batmobile for its new 1966 TV series about the Caped Crusader. Barris had acquired a Lincoln concept early in the decade and since the network wanted a quick turnaround, he set to work adopting the futuristic car for the series, reshaping the wings, opening up the wheel wells and adding all the various gadgets (including the roof light that traditionally designates service vehicles).

Cheap and plentiful - Model Ts were a favourite of hot rod makers because they were abundant and inexpensive (especially model years 1917-23, which accounted for half of all Model Ts built), so customizers could spend their money on the conversions — especially the 2.9-litre 4-cylinder engine that made just 20 hp (far from Hot-Rod worthy!). The 1922 Model T Touring had a lower, more contoured hood and presented a more finished look than its predecessors. (Credit: Wikipedia/Spinster)

Ubiquitous underpinnings - You don’t hang around the auto industry virtually unchanged for over 60 years without doing something right and the simplicity of the Beetle was the reason for its longevity. It also provided a great platform on which to base supercar-like kit cars because of the engine in the back, rear-wheel drive configuration. Often the Beetles’ clickety-clack boxer-4 engines, which never topped 1.6-litres in displacement and hovered around 50-70 hp, were swapped out in favour of better sounding, more powerful variants (such as the 100-hp versions from the Porsche 914). (Credit: Wikipedia/Spurzem)

Street racecar - The car used in the series Hardcastle and McCormick was meant to look like a McLaren M6GT race car (the closed cockpit Le Mans version of Bruce McLaren’s M6) and was created true to spec by Mike Fennel. Like many kit cars from that era, the Coyote X (or Cody Coyote) was built on a VW Beetle chassis and powered by a Porsche 914 engine (for obvious reasons the combination was easy to work with and sounded amazing), though later versions used De Lorean DMC-12 underpinnings to raise the ground clearance and make it easier for star Brian Keith to get in and out of. (Credit: Wikipedia/Eazyrip)

Iconic actor for iconic role - You could argue that Crockett would have retained his cover as well driving the classic ’Vette as the make-believe Daytona that used its chassis. One of the most iconic Corvettes, the C3 was built from 1968 through 1982. It went through very few body modifications over that time period, but a lot of engine improvements. It started out getting power from a 5.0-litre small-block V-8 (making 180 hp) and finished off with a big-block 7.4-litre V-8 (450 hp, before the oil crisis hit). Horsepower ranged from a low of 165 hp in 1975 to the 450 in 1970 (before the 7.4 went down to 270 in the mid-’70s).

Miami-Vice-Daytona-Spyder - One of the lesser automotive TV star is Sonny Crockett’s Ferrari Daytona Spyder 365 GTS/4 from Miami Vice. It’s actually a kit-car and although it wasn’t acknowleded as such, it would actually make it more believable that Sonny could afford it on his public-servant’s salary than the actual Testarossa he obtained (explained as supplied by his department to maintain his cover, as if police departments could justify such an expense) after the Daytona was blown up (reportedly at Ferrari’s insistence). Two cars were created for the show by McBurnie Coachcraft, though the pilot episode did use an actual Daytona (towed on the back of a flatbed during driving scenes).

Present fast - The new KITT is not too far removed from its base Ford Shelby GT500KR, which brings a 540-hp 5.4-litre supercharged V-8 to the role. In fact, not much make-up is needed to get the GT500KR ready for its scenes (it already has the lightweight body panels needed to make it easier for it to jump, as well as the SVT-tuned suspension to make sure its handling is out of this world), with the only changes being to hide those Shelby Cobra stripes, and the addition of twin light bars up front and the red voice-module screen inside.

Future fast - The third generation Pontiac Firebird was a pretty futuristic beast in itself, with the Trans Am version acquiring body add-ons that sometimes made it more attractive but at times looked clunky. The power bulge on the hood was meant to accommodate a turbocharged V-6, but that engine was swapped out in favour of the Chevrolet 5.0-litre V-8 that made a whopping 165-hp, at the time.

Knight Industries Two Thousand - Far as instantly recognizable mildly-converted cars on TV go, the only other car to perhaps top the General Lee is Knight Rider’s K.I.T.T. (an acronym for Knight Industries Two Thousand, in the original series). It may not seem so far fetched today, but KITT was able to drive itself, its body was impervious to harm, the engine had turbojet boosters that worked in any direction to speed up the car, slow it down or help it jump over obstacles, and of course there was that “Cylon” light bar to designate it was an independent entity. In later years, it acquired a pursuit mode and a convertible top.

Built to be abused - The car from The Dukes of Hazzard probably wouldn’t make it past the politically-correct producers in today’s TV environment, what with the name of the US Confederate General in Chief, the Confederate flag on the roof, and the horn playing the introduction to I Wish I Was in Dixie. The cars themselves (estimates range from a total of 255 to 325 used over the series’ run) were based on 1968-69 Dodge Chargers, with motorized versions using the Dodge 383 cid V-8. The doors were welded shut and depending on the stunt requirements, some had lifted suspensions, roll cages or added ballast.

Built to race - The second-generation Charger was designed to differentiate it from the Coronet, and featured the now classic Coke-bottle profile. It was designed with kick-up spoilers to give it the look of a race car, and also with flying buttresses to mimic a Pontiac GTO. Engine choices ranged from a 318 2-barrel-carb V-8, to a 225 slant-6, to 2- and 4-bbl versions of the 383 V-8. (Credit: Wikipedia/Alfvanbeem)

Knight Industries Three Thousand - K.I.T.T. went through a remake for a movie sequel, in which it looked like a Pontiac Banshee concept, before the Knight Rider series was repackaged and started up in earnest again in 2009, with a Knight Industries Three Thousand. The Artificial Intelligence model is instantly recognized as a Ford Mustang, improving on its predecessor’s features with nano-technology to allow the body to morph into a pickup truck, full-sized van, traditional police car, crossover wagon, or even a friendlier-coloured Mustang when it goes out Trick or Treating. Rocket launchers and grappling hooks are, naturally, standard issue.

The original T-bucket - Though not specifically created for the series 77 Sunset Strip, the T-bucket referred to as the Kookie Kar (because of its on-screen owner Gerald Lloyd "Kookie" Kookson III, played by Edd Byrnes) was created by Norm Grabowski in 1955 from a shortened Model T Touring front end, and the cockpit and rear box of a Model A pickup (also shortened), it was painted up with flames, which somehow seemed to better suit the character of its beatnik owner.

Scary good family hauler - The Model T also provided the base for one of George Barris’ most notable creations - the Munster Koach, for The Munsters television series (and follow-up feature film Munster, Go Home!). Designed by Tom Daniel, only one was ever made, from a pair of Model T chasses, welded together to make a 3,378-mm frame and 5,500-mm overall length (about 18 feet). Of note is that star Fred Gwynne, who stood 6-foot-5 before he put on the 4-inch platform boots for the role of Herman Munster, sat on the floor when he drove the Koach. (Credit: Wikipedia/Bahooka)

Trend setter - The Futura prototype was a 1955 fully-functional car built by Ghia off a Continental Mark II chassis, and public approval on the auto show circuit lead to a line of toys and model kits. Futura showed off Ford’s vision of future cars, with a 2-seat split cockpit housed under clear domes. Although the cabin didn't make it to production, light and fin styling cues were adapted for production Lincolns, as well as grille design for Mercury and Ford cars. And, it paved the road for future paint jobs with one of the first pearlescent paint applications.

Here it comes - Barris is also credited with creating the curvy convertible for the TV Series band, but he actually only later created a replica of the original, which was designed and built by Dean Jeffries. Jeffries ended up striking a deal with Pontiac for product placement, and customized a 1966 GTO convertible with four bucket seats and a third row bench where the trunk would have been, extended front fenders and nose, split windshield, and old-time touring-car soft top to shelter riders from the elements, among other items. (Credit: Wikipedia/Espsko)