The 10 greatest detective cars
Why do we love the Bullitt Mustang so much? One reason: it feels real, as much a part of the hard-boiled persona of Frank Bullitt as a badge and shoulder holster. The Highland Green Mustang isn’t polished perfection, it’s the kind of brawler that doesn’t mind picking up a dented fender en route to throwing the bad guys behind bars—or failing that, punting them into the life hereafter.
There is no delineation between Steve McQueen’s Lieutenant Bullitt and the Mustang; he wears the car as part of his costume. Every little detail, from the deleted badges to the cue ball shifter to the breathed-on V-8 and custom exhaust, all feel genuine. They add depth to Bullitt’s character.
But this isn’t the only time a fictional detective has been paired with a perfect-wheeled Watson. From television to movies to literature, here are the 10 greatest fictional detectives’ cars.
The Rockford Files — Pontiac Firebird Esprit
Steve McQueen and James Garner were neighbors, colleagues, and rivals of a sort. After filming The Great Escape together, they returned to California with a pair of Mini Coopers and used to race them up and down the canyon roads. Garner was every bit as talented a driver as McQueen—he did most of his own stunts when filming Grand Prix—and you can imagine these contests weren’t always as friendly as they looked from the outside.
Garner’s affable, down-on-his-luck private detective Jim Rockford also has hidden depths. On the surface, he lives in a mobile home, barely scraping by, and drives a base-model light-brown Firebird. However, just watch out when Rockford throws his car in reverse.
A J-turn involves reversing at high speed, cranking the wheel over, and slamming the transmission back into forward gear as the car pivots. This stunt was performed so often on The Rockford Files, often by Garner himself, that people started calling it a Rockford turn. Three Firebirds were used each season, and most of them were the Formula 400 version with better handling and performance; the crew fitted plain hoods and reworked them to look like the cheaper Esprit, better fitting Jim Rockford’s skinflint lifestyle.
Columbo — 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet
Another detective you underestimated at your peril was the perpetually rumpled Frank Columbo. Dressed in a shabby raincoat, chomping on a cigar, and squinting due to a prosthetic glass eye, actor Peter Falk turned his unlikely detective into a household name by lulling suspects into a sense of false security and then springing his trap with, “Just one more thing.”
The game was afoot even before Columbo had alighted from his equally ramshackle car, a battered old Peugeot convertible. A 403 cabriolet is actually a fairly rare machine, with just over 2000 produced worldwide and only a few of those stateside. Columbo’s version looked like it was constantly on the verge of going on strike, but shuffled along amiably, getting worse-looking episode by episode.
As a pairing, it was a stroke of genius. According to The Columbo Phile, an exhaustive book on the series, the Peugeot was picked out by Falk himself. Walking through the Universal Studios backlot, he couldn’t find a match. “As an actor, it was like trying to find the right hat for a part. I finally told Bill, ‘I don’t see anything. Let’s go.’ Just as we were walking out, way back in a corner, I just saw the nose of a car sticking out. They said, ‘This one doesn’t even run. It doesn’t even have an engine in it.’ I said, ‘This is the one.’”
Inspector Morse — 1960 Jaguar Mk II 2.4
In the original books, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse drives a Lancia. Acerbic, academic, and alcoholic, the opera-loving English detective paired well with the revered but semi-obscure Italian marque. However, when the series was produced for television, actor John Thaw pushed hard for a Jaguar instead.
The Jaguar Mk I and Mk II have a bit of a reputation when discussing British criminality. Much faster than the standard police cars of the 1960s, they were used first by the bad guys, and later adopted by the police force. Where Morse is concerned, a classic Jaguar projects both elegance and a certain roguish charm. Just the thing for solving grisly murders in the sleepy university town of Oxford.
Starsky and Hutch — Ford Gran Torino
“The Striped Tomato,” as it would come to be known, is a lasting small-screen icon that can stand beside the General Lee or Barris Batmobile as a pop culture icon. Never mind cracking the case by following the clues—let’s drive through an improbably placed chicken coop, a pile of cardboard boxes, and a plate-glass window. That oughta do it.
Starsky’s Gran Torino isn’t just loved by fans of the show, it’s a good match for his loud, Brooklyn-born street savvy. By comparison, Hutch’s beat-up old Ford Galaxie 500 better fits his thoughtful, Midwestern nature.
Magnum P.I. — Ferrari 308 GTS
Two Hawaii-based detectives have had cars that fit them perfectly—even when they didn’t. Jack Lord’s no-nonsense Steve McGarrett from the original Hawaii 5-O was served faithfully by his Mercury Marauder, a car as lantern-jawed as the man himself. However, the car everyone remembers is Magnum’s Ferrari.
The Ferrari 308 wasn’t a good fit for Tom Selleck—the crew had to remove the driver’s seat rails, and even then the top of his head poked through the Targa roof—but it was a perfect match for the character. Magnum is larger than life, rarely without an Aloha shirt and an impish grin beneath his luxuriant moustache. Everything about him screams “Ferrari,” and luckily, he’s got one that he can drive any time he likes.
Miami Vice — 1986 Ferrari Testarossa
James “Sonny” Crockett drove a 1972 Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Daytona on Miami Vice—until it got blown up with a Stinger missile and he needed something new. Anyone who remembers Miami Vice only has eyes for the machine that replaced the black Daytona, an all-white Testarossa, complete with single rear-view mirror and giant car phone.
It wasn’t so much a car as it was a poster, but what better machine to represent the excess of the era, and the life of a vice cop in Miami? Only a Lamborghini Countach could have come close: thank goodness for Stinger missiles.
Life on Mars — 1983 Audi Quattro
Produced in 2008, but set in 1981 (yes, the car’s an anachronism—it still works), Ashes to Ashes is a time-travelling sequel to Life on Mars. In both shows, a modern police officer is shot, only to regain consciousness in the past.
Hard-as-nails Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt is a bully, a tyrant, and more than a little corrupt. However, when he’s needed, he’ll burst out of his office, grab the keys to his bright red Audi Ur-Quattro, and hurtle off in pursuit of justice.
The John Rebus novels — Saab 900
A modern Sherlock Holmes, John Rebus is the creation of best-selling Scottish writer Ian Rankin. More literary than most of the crime fiction out there, the Rebus novels dig deep into the underworld of Edinburgh, and into the psyche of their troubled hero.
Aging, divorced, and battling both alcoholism and ennui, John Rebus is as beat up as his old black Saab. Yet somehow, both supposedly defunct relics return to the fray again and again, cracking the case with sheer bloody-minded persistence and an unwillingness to lay down and die.
Cobra — Custom 1950 Mercury Monterey
Lieutenant Marion Cobretti is another cop unwilling to lay down and die; instead he’d rather help the bad guys do just that. Incredibly violent, even for a 1980s action movie, this Sylvester Stallone film featured a body count above 50. Thirty-nine of those are Cobretti’s kills.
That kind of mindless mayhem needs a suitably blunt instrument, and Cobra’s customized ’50 Mercury fits the bill. Fitted with a hot-rodded small-block Chevy V-8 and nitrous, it was a beast. Stallone kept the car after filming wrapped; it was stolen in 1994 and wasn’t recovered until 2011.
The Fast and the Furious — 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse
No, Brian O’Conner isn’t a traditional gumshoe, but he is (technically) a detective. And what other franchise has done more to give car culture a footing with a new generation? The Fast and the Furious may be laughably unrealistic, but it is also eminently quotable. It’s just plain fun, and what’s more fun than the street version of a Japanese rally car—with two big blue nitrous bottles?