The Most Famous Cars on TV

The TV and film industry spends millions on top talent to guarantee ratings and box office success. However, despite the best efforts of the acting elite the truth is that on many occasions the car’s the star!

There are so many to choose from: from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, the 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor hearse from Ghostbusters, the 1976 AMC Pacer from Wayne’s World or even the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo! We’ve selected a number of these classics of TV and film to bring you some of the industry’s biggest automotive stars.

Let us know what you think on our Facebook page or on Twitter @Discovery and let us know your favourite four-wheeled screen star!


1969 Dodge Charger – The Dukes of Hazzard


Known as the General Lee, Beauregard ‘Bo’ Duke and his cousin Luke Duke were the Dukes of Hazzard and drove a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger with the battle flag of the Confederate States of America on the roof and ‘01’ painted on the side. It famously received more fan mail – over 35,000 letters a month – than any of the show’s stars!

On average, two Chargers were destroyed per episode between 1975 and 1979 and when production of the car ended, the producers, desperate as they were for more cars, would stop Charger drivers in the street and offer to buy them there and then.

In another example of doing things on the fly, the horn which played the first 12 notes of the song ‘Dixie’ was spotted by producers as they drove through Atlanta. They flagged down the driver of the car and persuaded him to sell. They bought it and the driver went away happy. The producers then realised they could buy the same horn for a third of what they paid at any auto spares store in the area!

Named for General Robert E Lee – a famous commander in the Confederate army – the car was originally going to be called Traveller, the name of Lee’s horse, but the top brass wondered if the link was too tenuous so the General Lee it was.

Interesting fact: Around 300 General Lees were used during filming of the original 70s series.


1972 Reliant Regal – Only Fools and Horses


Most people think Del Boy and Rodney’s grubby three-wheeled van was a Robin Reliant but it wasn’t. It was a Reliant Regal Supervan. They used between six and 18 during the 20 years of filming and the main van is in the Cars of the Stars Museum in Cumbria.

The original Reliant Regal was built for 20 years between 1953 and 1973. It was so light it was considered a tricycle and could be driven on a Class A motorcycle licence. The first generation was made of wood and in 1962 Reliant released the Mk VII, badged as the Regal 3/25 and 3/30 in reference to the number of wheels and the brake horsepower! The bigger engined version had a number of optional extras including a fog light, sun visors, oil gauge and metallic paint…

Del Boy’s Regal Supervan had a staggering 701cc engine and, interestingly, the Only Fools and Horses Reliant Regal appeared in a cartoon in a short advert for the Discovery Channel. The cartoon man was driving a sports car and after a short drive it turned into the Supervan with the announcer saying ‘what a plonker’ in an homage to Del Boy’s famous saying.

Interesting fact: In 2007 one of the show’s original Reliant Regals sold for £44,227 at auction – more than double its original estimate.


1975 Ford Gran Torino – Starsky & Hutch


David Starsky and Ken Hutchinson often played second-fiddle, chunky-knit cardigans and all, to the mag-wheeled muscle car in which they rode. In 1976, Ford even released a limited-edition run of 1,002 Gran Torino replicas in homage to the famous car.

The producer originally wanted to use a green Chevy Camaro but when production of the TV series started, Ford were the lease supplier for the Spelling-Goldberg production company so they opted for two Gran Torinos painted bright red. The cars were custom-painted over the original factory red and the white vector stripe – possibly the most famous decal in TV automotive history – was designed.

Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) was ‘introduced’ to the car by Aaron Spelling before they started filming the pilot episode and he took an immediate and permanent dislike to it. In early press interviews for the show, he stated that he thought it was: a) ‘big, ugly and childish-looking’; b) ‘the notion that two undercover cops would drive something so outlandish was ridiculous’; and c) he didn’t like Fords. He even said to David Soul (Hutch) that he was “going to destroy that car… burn it down every chance I get!”

He never grew to like the car but he did come to accept its popularity as a component part of the show that made him famous.

As with a lot of the 70s and 80s TV shows, the cars were either returned to the studios, destroyed or sold at auction and the few remaining Gran Torinos all seem to be in private hands in the UK and the US.

Interesting fact: The car was known affectionately on set as the ‘Striped Tomato’.


1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am – Knight Rider


Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT, was a self-driving, artificially intelligent and heavily modified 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am with the most iconic red light in TV history! Unlike production models, it could cruise at 300 mph and jump 50 feet in the air!

KITT was originally supposed to be a modded Datsun 280ZX but during pre-production, General Motors brought out the F-Body Firebird Trans-Am. No contest. As odd as it is to anthropomorphise a car, KITT was designed by legendary customiser Michael Scheffe and he (KITT) was one of 23 Trans-Ams used in the show. One was smashed to bits before the series ended but as for the remaining 22, all except five were destroyed as filming finished. There’s conjecture as to where the others are but it’s believed Universal kept two and three are in private hands, possibly in the UK, possibly in Australia…..

Equipped with all sorts of funky kit including ejection seats, a cashpoint machine, thermal-resistant coating, microscanners, silent mode, oil jets, smoke screens and a flame thrower, the most recognised of all the bells and whistles was the red scanner at the front.

Glenn A Larson, the creator of both Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica used the Cylon Centurions’ ‘eyes’ from BG simply because he liked the effect of the red LED lights. The two shows have no other similarities.

Even though a fair chunk of every script has David Hasselhoff and William Daniels (the voice of KITT) talking, the two actors only met for the first time six months into filming the first series and interestingly William Daniels, at his own request, was never credited during the entire run of the show. He said that he wanted KITT to have a personality of his own and a sense of mysticism to the voice.

Interesting fact: The Trans-Am cars were sold to the producers for $1 – who then had to pay thousands of dollars to modify each one!


1968 Mini Coopers – The Italian Job


Red, White and Blue. The famous three Mk1 Mini Cooper S’s used in the classic 1969 crime caper The Italian Job (pictured above).  The production team bought six Coopers and 25 regular Minis from Switzerland and each one had a three-point roll cage fitted and the back seats taken out. Because they were tough and relatively light, few mods were needed (the only real issue was the ground clearance), but saying that the stunt team still did an unbelievable job!

In a perfect example of Britishness that reflects the spirit of the film, throughout the famous chase scenes the Minis stay in perfect red, white and blue order. Clearly it was all about the detail.

It seems that no-one is sure quite how many of these were actually Coopers and how many were regular Minis but regardless the car’s use in the film became iconic. Ken Morris, one of the very last of the crew to leave Turin after filming, said they left a garage with six Minis and 30 sets of mag wheels in. He locked the doors and came back to England and he was later quoted as saying that he was never sure if Paramount Pictures or the production company ever went to pick them up!

According to the DVDs director’s commentary BMC – the makers of the Mini – only agreed to give the film a small number of Minis and the rest would have to be bought, albeit at trade prices. At the same time, Fiat offered as many super-charged Fiat 500s as they wanted but the producers wanted Minis. It is also said that the Italian Mafia arranged to have entire sections of Turin closed for filming and the traffic jams – as well as the reactions from annoyed commuters – are very real!

There are lots of films that are instantly recognisable by one single line of dialogue. Yet despite the Turin sewer chase and the (actual) cliff-hanger at the end, Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker utters the immortal line “you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” as his team blow up a van.

Updated: The Lamborghini Miura that featured in the opening scene of the Italian Job which was assumed to have been destroyed has been discovered by two British businessmen. In a story reminiscent of a spy thriller, they got a tip-off in December 2014 that the car had surfaced after 46 years and were given three hours to verify it was the original. It was. One of the new owners said ‘The Italian Job Lamborghini is the holy grail of supercars precisely because no one knew what happened to it after the film.’

Interesting fact: Star Michael Caine couldn’t drive at the time and is never seen driving a car!


1986 Ferrari Testarossa – Miami Vice


The espadrilles, the half-rolled sleeves, the gaudy pink t-shirts and the gleaming white Ferrari Testarossa all combined to make Miami Vice the most 80s of all 80s TV shows! At $181,000 a pop, producers initially went for a replica with a Testarossa body kit but Ferrari later donated two Testarossas to the show.

In the first two series’ (and the first two episodes of series three), Don Johnson’s James ‘Sonny’ Crockett drove a black Ferrari Daytona Spyder with the licence plate ZAQ178. In actual fact this used two Corvette replicas sold to the production for $49,000 each with Ferrari replica body kits. When the car was blown up (on the show) by a Stinger missile the character switched to the white Ferrari Testarossa with licence plate AIF00M.

The two Testarossas supplied for free by Ferrari were black and there are conflicting reasons as to why they were repainted, from a Don Johnson mishap to the fact that white was better for filming at night. A De Tomaso Pantera ‘stunt car’ was still used even after they got their hands on the real Testarossas because wrecking a real one resulted in a $180,000+ bill. There was also a defect with real Testarossas in that they had a propensity to stall in high-speed spins, presumably not helped by a special brake wired to a booster that locked both rear wheels for more impressive spins and turns.

Interesting fact: One of the two original Testarossas was listed on eBay with a ‘Buy It Now’ price of $1.75m.


1963 Volkswagen Beetle – Herbie


Herbie, licence plate ‘OFP 857’ was a 1963 VW Beetle deluxe ragtop sedan with a mind of its own.  There are only seven of the original cars left (and only one of the ‘trick’ Herbies) and it was painted in Volkswagen L87 pearl white.  One went on sale to serious collectors in 2012 for a staggering £96,000.

When The Love Bug – the first film featuring Herbie – was in its pre-production stage, as well as casting calls for the acting talent,  Disney also set up casting calls for cars! They had a range of cars available to them including Volvos and Toyotas as well as a TVR and an MG and also, of course the white Bug. During the inspection stage, the crew would kick the tyres and yank the steering wheels of the cars to see how they might handle during the racing scenes but when they came to the Beetle, they would stroke it like a lovable pet. The rest is history!

The interior of a standard production 1963 Beetle would have matched the exterior but the crew painted it a matt grey colour so the camera and studio lights wouldn’t reflect off the surfaces.

In The Love Bug, Volkswagen didn’t allow Disney to show the VW brand anywhere (although it was spotted twice, once on a fleeting shot of the brake pedal and once on the ignition key) but VW relented for the sequels because early to mid-70s Beetle sales needed a boost.

Interesting fact: The number 53 painted on the side was in homage to LA Dodgers baseball player Don Drysdale, who wore jersey number 53.


1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 – Bullitt


Lt. Frank Bullitt’s Mustang GT 390 and the black 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 are co-stars of arguably the finest car chase scene – all 10m 53s worth – in the history of cinema. The two Mustangs they used were loaned to the studio by Ford and the engines, suspension and brakes were heavily modified by old-school racer Max Balchowsky.

During the late 60s and throughout the 70s, Steve McQueen was as revered as De Niro and Pacino are now and the moniker ‘The King of Cool’ was richly deserved. Well-known as a serious petrolhead, McQueen took a self-imposed hiatus in 1974 to focus his attention on racing his beloved Indian motorcycles but he is most famous, automotively-speaking, for Bullitt. The car chase scene through San Francisco was unprecedented for its originality and sheer scale and McQueen was responsible for around 10% of what was seen. He did the close-ups but his long-time collaborator, stunt driver Bud Ekins did most of the rest.

In an interesting aside, when legendary US talk-show host Jonny Carson congratulated McQueen on performing the famous motorcycle jump over the fence at the end of The Great Escape, he said ‘it wasn’t me, it was Bud Ekins’. Such was his humility.

Interesting fact: The engine noise of the Mustangs was actually overdubbed recordings of a Ford GT40 at full chat.


1981 De Lorean DMC-12 – Back to the Future


Possibly the most famous movie car ever, the 1982 model was chosen for its ‘spaceship’ qualities and it was covered in aircraft parts, blinking lights and all sorts of bells and whistles to make it ‘fictional’. Seven were used in the trilogy (including a fiberglass shell for the flying scenes) and only three remain. Two are owned by Universal Studios and one was sold at auction in 2011 for $504,000 with the proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

John De Lorean, the American creator of the car, famously (or infamously) ran into financial turbulence after making almost 9,000 DMC-12s. He was largely responsible for the Pontiac GTO, widely considered to be the world’s first muscle car, but while the youngest division head in General Motors’ history he left the company to start his own De Lorean Motor Company. The car he started planning in 1973 didn’t hit the metaphorical shelves until 1981 and by then a depressed car market coupled with the fact that the car wasn’t particularly good left him in financial ruin. After struggling to claw back the $175m in R&D costs, he was left with stockpiles of the cars but no money.

He was arrested on charges of drug trafficking in October 1982. Despite being found not guilty, by then the company was finished. He was asked after his trial if he’d go back into the car trade, and famously said “would you buy a used car from me?”

Interesting fact: De Lorean did a deal to make 100 gold-plated DMC-12s and sell them to American Express customers. They sold two.


1983 GMC G-15 – The A-Team


With its red stripe, huge bull bar, mag wheels and plenty of BA Baracus attitude, the 1983 black and metallic grey GMC Vandura was voted the most iconic van in TV and movie history (oddly ahead of Postman Pat’s van and the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine!) It doesn’t have any special powers but is the most indestructible vehicle in the entire world. For that, it rightly appears on our list!

It’s widely accepted and subsequently admitted by writer Steven J Cannell that The A-Team shows were written to test the limits of realism and believability. In 98 episodes of Tom & Jerry-esque violence, only five people died, no-one bled or bruised and bullets never seemed to connect. However, despite these cartoon capers, the GMC van stands out as the real star!

During the filming of the five seasons between 1983 and 1987, the van changed appearance several times – the angle of the rear spoiler changed, some had a sunroof and some didn’t, the producers even used other makes of vans including the Ford Econoline with paintjobs and wheels coloured to resemble the original red turbine mag wheels. It also came equipped with different gadgets and devices including a printing press, surveillance kit and a host of Hannibal’s disguises!

Just so you know, the crime they didn’t commit for which they were imprisoned was robbing a bank in Hanoi, so ordered by their commanding officer, Colonel Morrison.

Interesting fact: So few people knew the bit above the red stripe is metallic grey and not black, even the toy manufacturers got it wrong!


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