Success in series – Automobile film and TV stars

TV stars - Ferrari Testarossa

What does it take to ignite a passion for classic cars? Fond childhood memories of the smell of grandfather’s Opel Kadett C or the dusty Hillman in the blocked garage? Thrilling duels between Mercedes and BMW in the DTM? Or pleasant memories of cult TV stars on four wheels?
There are many ways to own a classic car, often cars that sooner or later catch your eye on the silver screen as film and TV stars set the scene and you want to call your own. The media landscape is richly filled with cars that are special in their own way and can fascinate young people in particular and accompany them throughout their lives. Think of Herbie, the VW Beetle with sheer endless energy and a mind of its own. Or the GMC Vandura that drove the A-Team from one adventure to another.


Boys of the 80s in particular were socialised with two tv stars: The time-travelling DeLorean and the invincible K.I.T.T. In 1985, “Back to the Future” or in German “Zurück in die Zukunft” hit the cinemas. Originally, only one part was planned around the time-traveller Marty McFly and the fan Doc Brown. After the great success, two more feature films were released in 1989 and 1990. What unites them all is the time machine, a DeLorean DMC-12.

The stainless steel and GRP body, cast by Giorgio Giugiaro in a squat wedge shape, offers just the right vehicle to travel through time. However, the history of the DeLorean is not a glorious one, and if you disregard the cinematic transfiguration, it is not a huge automotive success either.

Film und Fernsehstars 1982 DeLorean DMC 12 (3)

After his more or less involuntary departure from General Motors, John DeLorean set about building his own car, sensible yet sporty; innovative yet with proven components. So, in addition to the Italian body, the British chassis from Lotus was found. After other manufacturers had refused to develop the technical basis of the sports car in a short time, only Lotus was prepared to do so and finally provided the chassis of the Esprit II – which, as is well known, could also swim in the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me”.

A V6 engine developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo was installed in the rear of the car. A rather well-behaved engine, 97 kW and 132 hp made the almost 1.3 tonne car truly no sports car.

The DeLorean did some things quite well: rust was not a big issue, the handling was also quite okay. But other things were quite a nuisance for the few owners. The thermal problems in the rear, the idiosyncratic gullwing doors, the workmanship. But luckily Hollywood and its tv stars are not about realism. Thanks to the flux compensator and Michael J. Fox, the DMC-12 has its place in the history books.


K.I.T.T., Michael Knight’s company car in the US series Knight Rider, also belongs to the category of “tv stars with special capabilities”. K.I.T.T. stands for Knight Industries Two Thousand and the car could really do everything and much more that one could imagine for a future car in the 80s. Turbo Boost and Super Pursuit Mode, driving itself, scanning the area, talking and thinking.

Reality in this case is also not as potent as one might commonly think at the sight of the TV star K.I.T.T.. A black 1982 Pontiac Firebird TransAm is the basis. Even though it is the top model Trans-Am, the maximum engine available in the series in that year was a V8 engine with a capacity of five litres and 123 kW/167 hp. Later, more powerful engines were also available.

But fortunately, in fiction, reality can be embellished a little more freely. Sometimes a simple device like a flashing light-emitting diode in the front helps to turn a standard US sports car into a true TV star. The interior was also visionary. The cockpit is more reminiscent of a jet plane from the future than of a car. But it is precisely these details that inspire K.I.T.T. enthusiasts to turn a Pontiac Firebird TransAm into a Knight Rider replica. There are always some of these on the market, sometimes more, sometimes less detailed.

Only recently, actor David Hasselhoff auctioned off all kinds of devotional objects from his varied acting and musical career. One of them was a K.I.T.T. replica, which was not quite as perfect, but still fetched 300,000 US dollars at the auction.


The advantages and pitfalls of product placement of a car can be well illustrated by the series Miami Vice. Say what you will about the series, but the TV format produced from 1984 to 1989 not only picked up on the spirit of the times, but also shaped a new style. From the cinematic component with fast cuts and cold light, the fashion with the T-shirt under pastel-coloured jackets to the choice of cars. Or as Andreas Mauer wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on the release of the Miami Vice cinema film in 2006: “The Eighties were the most decadent decade in pop culture. And Michael Mann’s cult TV series “Miami Vice” celebrated it with relish – with pink flamingos, roaring Ferraris and two cops strutting through the postcard scenery like dressmen in a commercial for cocaine to synthesiser pop.”

Whether Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs were blowing up drug rings or the odd trace of a forbidden substance gathered in the rolled-up sleeve of the Armani jacket, the car had to match the leather loafers – very loosely based on Lothar Matthäus. In the first two seasons, a Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Daytona Spider was the car of choice. Only in the pilot episode did an original Ferrari appear. In the series, only a replica from McBurnie Coachcraft was used.

So there was no V12 with 259 kW and 352 hp under the Pininfarina bonnet, but a rebuilt Chevrolet Corvette C3 with a 250 hp V8 engine under the plastic dress. You can clearly see in the details that it couldn’t be a real Ferrari, but that didn’t stop the protagonists from claiming it was a Ferrari in the series.


And in Maranello, Enzo Ferrari watched television with some annoyance. Today, one can possibly be divided and, apart from the negative effect of the false facts, also be of the opinion that the use of the Ferrari emblem has done the brand more good than harm. After all, the screen presence of the Cavallino Rampante cannot be denied, even if the McBurnie-Corvette conversion is admittedly a class below the real Daytona in all respects.

In the 80s, for understandable reasons, the patriarch Enzo Ferrari had no eye for the potentially positive effects of his own cars as television stars. So he fought on two fronts: Against McBurnie and their use of the Ferrari logo and name. In the end, he also brought the company down.

Fernsehstars 1986 Ferrari Testarossa (9)

On the other hand, he convinced the series makers to simply use a real Ferrari and provided them with two Testarossa, built in 1984. White ones were chosen for better visibility in night scenes, which was quite conducive to the pastel aesthetic. The era of the predecessors was brought to a fitting end with the explosion of the McBurnie replicas. Whether this was really a condition of Enzo Ferrari cannot be proven beyond doubt; but it will certainly have filled the “Commendatore” with some joy on the television screen to see the “non-Ferrari” fly into the air.

It is idle to speculate on how large – or small – the series’ share in the Testarossa’s success was. What is undisputed, however, is its status as the dream car of the 80s and 90s, which the Italian sports car quickly acquired. V12 engine, mounted longitudinally in front of the rear axle, 287 kW/390 hp, 290 km/h top speed, so far the bare figures. But there is much more to the car’s status as a quartet trump card. This includes the Pininfarina design with the striking air intakes in front of the wide rear tyres, as well as the single rear-view mirror on the driver’s side of the first models produced, which seems somehow misplaced and too high. And whether you like it or not, quite simply – as with the other examples – the careers as film and television stars help.

Photos Girardo & Co. Ltd., Noortje Blokland / The Collectables, The Market by Bonhams

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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