Although cars are only a recent invention, TV and popular culture has more than helped to make them a part of our everyday lives.
Anyone's who owned a car they truly loved will tell you that they take on a personality and people refer to them as living, breathing things and a companion through life. TVs and cars go way back, all the way to Robert Stack and The Untouchables in the late '50s and '60s, who drove the mean streets of Chicago in a Cadillac 355 looking for mobsters.
However, it wasn't until the '70s and Starsky & Hutch that cars truly became front and centre for TV shows. The Ford Gran Torino, with its bright red and white livery, screamed through alleyways and backstreets and was ably piloted by Paul Michael Glaser. Of course, the reality was that Glaser hated the car and regularly referred to it as a "striped tomato", so much so that the nickname stuck and was worked into the show by the writers room. It's easy to see why the Gran Torino captured the imagination of audiences, both young and old alike.
It was a big bruiser of a car that the two leads could bound over the bonnet and it sounded like a twin-prop engine when it took off. The bright colouring aside, the Gran Torino was everything that the show went for - loud, garish and a lot of fun. Glaser hated the car so much that it purposefully drove it into kerbs, walls and anything that could damage it. Soul even admitted that Glaser's driving was so vigorous that the producers had to install bucket seats to stop him sliding off his seat whenever the Torino was hurled around a corner. Yet, for all the hatred the two had for the car, it was immensely popular for Ford. So much so, in fact, that they even created 1,305 replicas of the car during the series' run.
Even shows in the interim tried to put cars out in front and give themselves a sort of companion to it. James Garner was often seen driving his tobacco-coloured TransAm in The Rockford Files, and it too featured in the opening credits. In the UK, it was much the same. The Professionals featured the Ford Capri heavily in its episodes, whilst The Sweeney featured the Ford Consul Granada. The fascination with cars and television in the UK even permeated out from crime procedurals and into sitcoms. Fawlty Towers featured an entire episode based around Basil Fawlty's Austin 1100, which he called "a vicious bastard" and beat it repeatedly with a tree.
By the time Starsky & Hutch finished in 1979, another car (and TV show) entered the public consciousness - the Dodge Charger and Dukes Of Hazzard. Like Starsky & Hutch, the car was an instant success with audiences. Indeed, the opening sequence of the show was literally all about the General Lee careening through country roads and flying through the air in daredevil stunts - all to the tune of Waylon Jennings' music. Like most NASCAR racers, the doors were welded shut and the windows removed with a roll cage added, meaning that the Duke Boys - played by John Schenider and Tom Wopat - would have to dive through the window and into their seats for access. All told, it's believed that a whopping 309 Dodge Chargers were used throughout the series with only 17 surviving to this day. A replica of one Dodge Charger, owned by John Schneider who played Bo Duke, sold at an auction in 2008 for $230,000.
Towards the end of Dukes Of Hazzard's run, another car / TV show was on the horizon - Knight Rider. David Hasselhoff's perm and leather jacket were straddled inside a suped-up '82 TransAm that was voiced by character actor William Daniels. Knight Rider, and by extension KITT, was the next logical step with regards to cars and television. Up until this point, shows more or less danced around the issue of making cars a part of the show. They were the trusty steed that never let our heroes down, they were bright and full of character, but they never actively played a part beyond that. With Knight Rider, KITT was just as much a star in the show as was David Hasselhoff. Indeed, the opening credits show the car first and David Hasselhoff second. Knight Rider's unbridled success spawned rip-offs. Street Hawk tried to transpose the same idea - a sentient vehicle - into motorcycles. Airwolf took more from the idea of a technological vehicle that was piloted by a square-jawed hunk.
Magnum PI and Miami Vice both featured top-of-the-line European cars - a Ferrari 308 GTS and Ferrari Testarossa - which were introduced in grandiose fashion. Miami Vice's opening episode featured a three-minute driving sequence with the Ferrari Daytona moving silently through the night, all set to Phil Collins' In The Air Of Tonight. Yet, with the decline in the global economy, so to came the decline in cars featuring in television. It's hard to know precisely why this was; the fall in disposable income for viewing audiences meant that marketing budgets for auto-makers became too strict to allow for product placements.
When a car is featured prominently in a TV series now, comparisons are invariably made to the likes of Knight Rider, Magnum PI and Dukes Of Hazzard. Indeed, Agents of SHIELD made a point of harking back to these shows by featuring Agent Coulson's '62 Corvette, Lola - which itself is an acronym for Levitating Over Land Automobile - quite prominently.
Modern reboots often made a specific point of featuring the original vehicles. The A-Team, for example, featured the GMC Vandura heavily in all of its trailers and in the film itself. Both Starsky & Hutch and Dukes Of Hazzard made a specific point of featuring the cars in promotional materials, almost as if they were a character in the film themselves - and, in a very real sense, they were. Although they may have been inanimate objects, they were alive and had personalities, quirks and life to them. It's unlikely now for actors to share screentime with anything other than other actors, but in the '70s and '80s, there needed to be a pull and something flashy to catch viewer's attentions.
These cars more than lived up to their potential.