Character Studies 7: The Cars

This being the seventies, and smog-and-freeway Los Angeles to boot, it’s not surprising that the car as object of desire and disdain plays a major role. “Starsky and Hutch” is (mis)remembered as a car-chase show, smoking tires and bashed-into trashcans, bad guys shooting blindly through back windows, but look closer and the relationship between man and machine is wonderfully illustrative, and also quite subtle. The Gran Torino, of course, is a major part of the equation here, the first image in the very first scene of the pilot; a merchandizing dream, ridiculously photogenic, beautifully timeless (it still looks cool) the Torino’s distinctive candy-apple-red and white stripe is a major cultural signifier and the thing most people remember about this show. Often, it’s the shiniest, most bombastic object in the frame, a bit of glam in the dingy Los Angeles suburbs. It is a symbol of power and potency, but interestingly it is also symbolic of the unintended consequences of machismo, as the Torino is sabotaged throughout the series, its engine ripped out (“Targets”), tires deflated (“The Psychic”), and its distinctive appearance defeating the best intentions of Starsky and Hutch to remain unobtrusively stealthy. To this I may conclude that physical beauty and masculine power may have its downside, as improbable that may seem.

Hutch takes years of pleasure in insulting this car. Interestingly, his cynicism and contempt is not directed at Starsky, the car’s owner and tireless supporter, but rather outward, at a society that sanctions the superficial, the unreliable and the vulgar. In “Death in a Different Place”, when the Torino overheats, Hutch explodes that it’s “me or the car” and dismisses the car as a “piece of junk”. Yet, one suspects there is a dichotomy at work: in “Bloodbath”, when Starsky is taken prisoner, the Torino changes from albatross to apotheosis in the blink of an eye as Hutch drives the car until Starsky can be found. Yet he expresses great love for his own heap of junk, the battered two-tone LTD he claims has “inner flash”. Such is the enormity of his affection for it, Starsky presents him with an identical copy of this “Hutchinson Original” when it’s totaled in a crash (“Jojo”, “Survival”). These two cars become a perfect metaphor for their drivers, nearly Jungian in its complexity: Starsky, with his unambiguous, muscular, fully integrated personality, and Hutch with his complex, messed-up shadow-side.

Both Glaser and Soul were excellent drivers and often did their own stunt driving. Hutch’s LTD’s license plate was 552 LOQ, and its replacement, introduced in Survival was 018 MEL. The Gran Torino’s was 537 ONN. The mars light that they would attach to the hood of the car is held on by suction cups and a powerful magnet, as in real life. A question: was it routine for detectives to drive their own cars while on duty? Shouldn’t there have been a fleet of standard-issue undercover cars one would have to sign out as a matter of course, bland but powerful sedans, the ubiquitous Crown Vic, perhaps? One wonders if the LAPD would even allow one of its officers to hotdog around town in a car like that. Not to mention a severely unsafe, dilapidated piece of crap car like Hutch’s beloved Ford.

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8 Responses to “Character Studies 7: The Cars”

  1. hutchlover Says:

    I love The Gran Torino. That’s what got me hooked onto this show in the first place. Now I collect all sizes of them. But unfortunately not a real one.

    I wrote a short fanfiction story once from the POV of the Torino.

  2. King David Says:

    Love that car! I buy into the premise that Starsky could hotdog around town in it and still maintain credibility as an undercover plainclothes detective, but it strains the friendship. I can’t think of another car which was so popular and copied, and I include the General Lee in this.

    • Hutchlover Says:

      There are many, many S&H Torinos still around today (Ford produced 1,000 of them). And I believe 6 from the show are still held by collectors. I see them occassionally.

      How many General Lee’s do we see? Zip

      • King David Says:

        And on the subject of the Dukes, do they remind you of anyone…? All-American good looks, pretty-faced blonde boy, attractive wavy dark-haired boy, iconic car…can’t beat the originals though.
        I like the rims the Torino sported; they look heavy-duty solid and unpretentious…bit like their owner, really.
        Why do you suppose the replica Torinos have such an angular swoosh when the original has a curved swoosh? I thank the person who came up with the design concept, however – just one bit of extra paintwork and a plain red car is lifted into the realms of Cult Classic.

  3. Dianna Says:

    And then there are the cars owned by the bad guys (usually big boxy dark-colored luxury cars) and the ordinary people (there is almost always a yellow or a cream-colored VW Beetle driving past or parked nearby).

    In “The Bait,” the bad guys should have been able to tell that “Rafferty and O’Brien” weren’t the real thing because their car, though very expensive, was not large and dark!

    • King David Says:

      The saying that something is the Rolls Royce of whatever is because it was, back in the day, the pinnacle of motoring excellence, so I was delighted when I revisited S&H this time around and noted that they were driving a Roller. It was dark, and had leather upholstery, and I am hoping that they used it because it would put them one up from the archetypal American crooked businessman. Starsky knows cars, and he would know that an imported English Roller would look suitably swanky. It is a big heavy car. Not economical on petrol, either.
      That is my best argument and I hope you agree, although I won’t be offended if you don’t. (LOL!)
      I still can’t bear that suit though. And those shoes! Ugh!

      • Dianna Says:

        I was commenting on the director’s or producer’s choice, not on Starsky’s! Within the S&H universe, that was the perfect choice! It’s only from the viewer’s perspective, that it doesn’t match the bad-guy cars.

  4. Tank Stoner Says:

    Hutch’s car was not an LTD, it was a 1973 Galaxie 500 (same year and model as the Black and Whites used in the show). Theses black and whites were babied because the were also used in SWAT and the last season of ‘The Rookies’. One of the ‘Hutch’ cars was used in the 90 minute pilot of TJ Hooker

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