Where Have All the Cool Cars Gone?

Starsky and Hutch, the Grand Torino
A steaming slice of awesome!
Do me a favor. Close your eyes and think of Magnum P.I. It’s no stretch to say you thought of two things: a mustache and a Ferrari. 

Let’s try again. Starsky & Hutch. Let me guess—a collared sweater and a red Gran Torino with a pre-Nike swoosh on it.

One more for luck. Knight Rider. You pictured David Hasselhoff rolling on the floor eating a cheeseburger while drunk and a talking car.

So where have all the cool cars gone?

As I proved in the scientific experiment above, cop shows used to have cool cars and now they don’t. What does anyone on CSI drive? What does Vic Mackey from The Shield use to get around? In a thousand hours of Law & Order has anyone driven anything besides a city-issued navy blue sedan?

Jim Rockford’s Firebird
Um, yeah, what color is that, exactly?
Vintage seems to matter here. Cars were much more integral to a cop or P.I.’s image in the 1970s and 80s. Farrah Fawcett even drove a sweet Mustang Cobra II on Charlie’s Angels from time to time. Jim Rockford owned a rather unfortunately colored Firebird. At least an attempt was made to be cool. 

Somewhere along the line, the cars became less important. Could have been the trifecta of Matlock, Diagnosis Murder and Murder She Wrote. Hard to drive a cool car when you leave your left blinker on constantly. Or the state takes away your license after a certain age. Come to think of it, didn’t Jessica Fletcher ride a bicycle in the opening of that show? A BICYCLE!

Faster than a speeding Bullitt
Car chases in films were all the rage following Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Surely between that cool-car moment and then Smokey & The Bandit where the Trans Am got the greatest free commercial in the history of cinema, cars were seen as a must for any self respecting prime time lawman.

I bet these days you could walk David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser down the street with a spotlight on them, but if the Gran Torino drove by, no one would notice two of the most iconic TV cops ever. That car has had a better post-Starsky & Hutch career than Starsky and Hutch put together. People have bought a restored cars to look exactly like that model. Has anyone ever done that with a car from The Wire?

It’s not only cars. The A-Team van anyone? And speaking of vans, The Mystery Machine! 

The cops on Miami Vice had TWO Ferraris! Granted one was white and in the world of Italian supercars, that doesn’t count. But we forgive Don Johnson his salmon-colored sport coats and lack of socks, so we’ll let him have a pass on this one.

With the rise of pure procedural, the cars have become unnecessary. When much, if not most, of your action takes place in a lab, why bother with a snazzy car?

I think Castle owns a Ferrari, but we’ve only seen it once. Nice try.

The rise of government workers too, cuts down on the need for a flashy ride. No one working on an NCIS salary can afford a Lamborghini or Maserati. Which is a shame, since there are so many great supercars to choose from these days.  Justified, which has arguably the super-coolest cop on TV right now, seems like the perfect show to give Raylan a cool car. Maybe a vintage pickup truck or something. Nope. Don’t want to upstage the hat.

Magnum, PI
Tall man, small car.
I have a little theory that the actors were tired of being overshadowed by the vehicles they drive. Or maybe, like Tom Selleck, they got tired of looking awkward as they attempted to get out of a bucket seat six inches above the road. 

Will we ever see the likes of a Batmobile or The Green Hornet’s ’66 Imperial again? What about that crazy car The Munsters all drove around in?

Cars used to say something about character. When Starsky (or was it Hutch?) slid across the hood of that Torino or the Duke boys went into the General Lee through the window, you knew they were rebels. 

When Crockett (or was it Tubbs?) stepped out of a white Ferrari Testarossa in the bright Miami sun, you knew he meant business. What does David Caruso have in that same Miami glare? Sunglasses. 

And don’t think it’s all about the sex appeal or horsepower. Think of Columbo’s battered little Peugeot. That car spoke volumes about his character.  

When will producers and writers stop the endless tide of generic black SUVs and warmed over Crown Victorias? Who will step up with a cool car that isn’t a product placement? Sure, the Mini Cooper chase in The Italian Job was a nice action sequence, but would it have been maybe a little better if they cars weren’t so showroom new? (Kudos to the Bourne films for showing us what a real Mini chase looks like.)

Credit where credit is dueThe Mentalist drives a retro Citroen. Kinda cool. And I do believe there is a Ferrari on Hawaii Five-O, but Grace Park’s surfboard says more about character.

Am I missing some? Has James Bond simply been hogging all the cool cars for himself, and adding guns and invisibility devices? 

And tell me, who do you think deserves a cool car? What character do you think would benefit from a sweet set of wheels? Maybe Tom Selleck’s character on Blue Bloods could find an old 308 GTB in the garage, dust it off and give TV a smooth dose of cool. We need it Tom. Your ’stache can’t do it alone.

Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision (Book #3 in the Fight Card series) and co-author with JB Kohl of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short fiction has appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Off The Record, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Needle, Murder In The Wind and the upcoming Million Writers Award: best new online voices. For more and links to free stories visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com


  1. Gar Haywood


    I’m wondering now how much product placement had to do with all those cool cars showing up in the TV shows of our youth. It doesn’t explain Magnum’s Ferrari, of course, but all those GM and Ford products? I can remember that many shows back in the 70s had an end credit that read something to the effect of “Automobiles supplied by Ford.” Which in those days was probably a significant form of advertising. Now, with the Internet and electronic billboards and cable TV and… Who needs that kind of promotion at the cost of supplying a TV show with free cars?

    Just a thought.

  2. Carmen Pinzon

    I think Raylan’s hat could share the spotlight with a nice mucle truck. Nice post and so true.

  3. Eric Beetner

    Gar – True about product placement. It does still happen quite a bit today though. I’ll never forget the obnoxious levels the show Alias got to when they added dialogue during a car chase. “he’s driving an F-150” “What color? I’ve always wanted one of those.”

    I think no one writes a car as an identifiable character trait anymore, or not very frequently. I think it stems from the lack of personal or backstory in the wake of all-business shows like CSI and Law and Order.

  4. Lakis Fourouklas

    I think Gibbs from NCIS would do well in a car. The guys in the LA version though do love their rides. As for the best car, well, what about a London cab? It’s Sherlock, people!

  5. Terrie Farley Moran

    @bungala–Raylan’s hat was missing for the entire episode this week. Maybe a truck will replace it?? 😉 @Lakis–Gibbs would do well in anything.

  6. Laura K. Curtis

    [quote]Could have been the trifecta of Matlock, Diagnosis Murder and Murder She Wrote. Hard to drive a cool car when you leave your left blinker on constantly.[/quote]I spat tea on my keyboard when I read that. Then I ran down the hall and told everyone else.

  7. LauraT

    It’s funny you mention Castle’s Ferrari, because in the recent 2-parter we learned that Beckett has a thing for muscle cars and then her Crown Vic got knocked into the Hudson River. I was hoping that might be a set-up for her to get a new, “cool” car, but I fear I hoped in vain – we found out at the end the CIA fished out her car and cleaned it up in thanks for services rendered. Alas.

  8. Michael Atencio

    You forgot Hardcastle and McCormick.
    Hawaii Five Oh has Cameros. NCIS L.A. has Dodge Challengers. You aren’t searching hard enough.
    My novel has my protagonist, Mick Charger, driving a 68 Mustang Fastback with a few handling modifications. Cool is still here. Writers have subtlly introduced cool cars instead of blantly promoting them.

  9. Deborah Lacy

    @LauraT – I agree that was a missed opportunity. Maybe Castle needs to buy a muscle car.

  10. Robin @ crimetimepreview

    Cars are probably too much of a guilty pleasure to feature in today’s shows. The only dramas in the UK that had desirable motors in them were Inspector Morse and Ashes to Ashes – but these were both nostalgia cars, the maroon Jaguar Mk2 and the Audi Quattro.

  11. Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    Cool cars still show up in some of the paranormal shows. The 1967 Chevy Impala in Supernatural is practically a main character. The Buffy/Angel continuum is full of character-specific cars, most notably Spike’s 1959 DeSoto Fireflite.

  12. Mike Atencio

    Gibbs would drive a completely restored 57 ford step-side with all original everything and wood panelling or better, I culd see him cruising around in a Thunderbird convertable or an restored Ford Woody. He’s really practical and works with his hands building boats. Truck is the first choice and older because “They don’t make em like they used to Denozo”

    My opinion anyways. Of course the truck would have a strong V8 completely rebuilt – talking of rebuilt, Tim- The Tool Man Taylor had some cool cars but this is blog is about crimebusters and their cars, right?

  13. Alan Jacobson

    You missed one! Inspector Lynley of the eponymous Mysteries drives a Bristol, a low production British kind of Challenger SRT (Chrysler V8, natch) costing 200 K pounds. Look it up!

  14. Kevin Burton Smith

    Of course, the idea of a private investigator using such a conspicuous car as a bright red Ferrari or a vintage Thunderbird for surveillance is pretty much make-believe. The bad guys in Magnum’s Hawaii or Dan Tanna’s Vega$ must have been morons to not spot the tails on them. I sorta liked Harry O’s car, brought in because the network DEMANDED he get a car. So the writers made sure the car, an old Austin-Healy Sprite, was battered and almost always broken, in the shop or on its way there, in need of repair and a little care. Sorta like Harry himself.

  15. Clare 2e

    Good catch, @AlanJacobson!

    @Kevin Burton Smith- I remember Harry O’s lousy car and the way the bills or a new breakdown always wrapped the episode’s beginning or end. I loved Dan Tanna’s Vegas! I can’t explain it now, but I know I’m not alone.

  16. 12th_Nightmare

    He doesn’t use very often but Gibbs does have the Charger his father was holding on to.
    Michael Weston (Burn Notice) has a charger, too, but I seem to remember it getting totaled at some point in the last season. And Sam Axe seems to be able to get a nice car whenever he wants from his girlfriend of the season.

  17. Laura K. Curtis

    Oh, yeah. I loved that stupid show, Vegas! Of course, I think it was mostly because I still held deep and abiding affection for Robert Urich from his Spenser for Hire days.

  18. Brian Falconer

    The Dodge Avenger from season 5/6 is cool

  19. Luxespeed

    Luxespeed, a car rental company, is cited as a way to access some of these classic cars for a short time. The article raises an interesting question about the future of car design and the role that nostalgia plays in our appreciation of automobiles.

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