TV Star Cars: Kookie T-Bucket, Roy Rogers's Willy's Jeep, Checker Taxis & More!

Greg Zyla
A Reader Writes:Greg, I read your car columns and love your nostalgic recall. What TV shows do you remember growing up that helped with your love of cars? Donald M., Boston, MA.
The Author Responds: Donald, there are numerous television shows from the 1950s through the 1970s and beyond that are excellent sources to visit for auto nostalgia to this day. Thanks especially to YouTube, most are just a click away to whatever decade you seek. Here are my favorites in no particular order.
One of the first on my list is Highway Patrol (1955 to 1959), starring Broderick Crawford. Highway Patrol had several hot rod themed episodes and always offered a bevy of cars in each episode. Crawford favored his trusty Buicks, but every now and then he’d be seen driving some other patrol cars, including Chevrolets and Oldsmobile. However, in 1957, Highway Patrol switched over to Chrysler, with many Dodge models the preferred choice. It was clear by 1957 that all auto manufacturers knew the advantages of the stars of these shows driving their brands. A recommended Highway Patrol is from 1956 called “Hot Rod” that tracks down thieves in a really nice street rod.
Dragnet (1951 to 1959), starring founder Jack Webb heralded its start thanks to a “714” badge imprint scene. It was a Dragnet episode called “The Big Rod” in 1954 that brought my first attention to the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) as there is a scene where Sergeant Friday (Webb) contacts NHRA founder Wally Parks at his office on Hollywood Boulevard for help in tracking down a hot rod involved in a fatal hit and run. Webb’s Dragnet was always based on true events, and although it was an actor portraying Parks, the episode gave some much needed credibility to a fledgling sport that was receiving lots of negative press in the daily papers.
Another early television show I waited for each week was called Danger Is My Business (1958-1959) featuring different livelihoods that included danger. Several shows centered on the 1950 era “Hell Drivers” and “Thrill Show” stunt drivers. Joie Chitwood was the most famous, and utilized many different car brands during the years. However, in addition to Chitwood, most famous for his Chevrolet usage, there were others like “Lucky” Lee Lott, who performed in the 1950s with a line of Nash Ramblers.
Adventures of Superman (1952 to 1958) is another early TV series that proves beneficial for nostalgia car enthusiasts, with Nash again providing most of the cars used on set. From the police cars to Clark Kent’s personal Nash Healey and Lois Lane’s Nash Rambler con-vertible, it’s worthy of viewing to see how Nash was an early leader when it came to providing free cars. There’s a great video on YouTube called “Proof by Test 1951 Nash Film” where you can see excellent early Nash model info.
77 Sunset Strip (1958 to 1964) always had Kookie, played by Edd Byrnes, and his hot rod in each and every show. Kookie’s hot rod was a 1922 Ford T-Bucket and is one of the best known TV vehicles. The star of the show, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., relied on Ford Thunderbirds to get to and fro. On the western front, Pat Brady drove a Willys Jeep named “Nelly-belle” on the popular Roy Rogers Show (1951 to 1957). It is said that more toys, lunch boxes, coloring books, play sets and other ancillary kid’s items were produced from the Roy Rogers show than any other during the 1950s. (Mickey Mouse had lots of toys too, but I can’t remember his or Minnie’s cars.) Chrysler had its fair share of TV success, especially with the Dodge Charger in Dukes of Hazard (1979 to 1985) while over at comedy Car 54 Where Are You? (1961 to 1963) Fred Gwynn as Officer Muldoon, (and prior Herman Munster) drove a 1961 Ply-mouth with co-star “Toody” Joe E. Ross. Neither the show nor car were big hits.
One of my favorite shows from the 1950s is Peter Gunn (1958 to 1961) who always had a new Chrysler brand convertible at his disposal. His friend, Lt. Jacoby, drove a 1958 Plymouth Savoy. Sky King (1951 to 1959) found the DeSoto models taking center stage when not in the air, while the Beverly Hillbillies (1962 to 1971) featured the Clampett family and their banker friends who rode around in new Plymouths, Dodges and Imperials. As for the Clampetts, they never gave up on their 1921 Oldsmobile Model 37.
Ford’s most famous TV car is perhaps the Starsky & Hutch (1975 to 1979) 1975 Gran Torino in its famous red and white livery. A close second might be Farrah Fawcett’s 1976 Mustang Cobra II, the Charlie’s Angels (1976 to 1981) star car that was later released as a die cast collectible by GreenLight Collectibles.
As for Pontiac, Knight Rider (1982 to 1986) comes quickly to mind when star David Hasselhoff had a self driving 1982 Trans Am that did virtually everything to protect its driver. A tip of the hat to James Garner as his Rockford Files (1970 to 1980) Pontiac Trans Am was another most notable Pontiac.
In the 1980s, Ferrari found Don Johnson in Miami Vice (1984 to 1990) behind the wheel as Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.(1980 to 1988) also favored the Ferrari line. On opposite ends of the car spectrum, The Waltons (1972 to 1981) relied mostly on a 1929 Ford Model A pickup to transport the family as best it could.
Finally, over at comedy hit Taxi, the Checker sedans took center stage every episode (1978-1982) with Andy Kauffman as Latka Gravas making sure he kept them running fine.
I’m sure my readers can deliver more hit TV cars, so drop me a line.
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