Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Mystery Machines

Top Ten Sixties Crime Fighting Cars

The sixties is best known for people dodging the draft and doing drugs, so maybe it's a little unfair to judge the time by the cars driven by the forces of Law and Order. However whilst in real life sixties cops were as cool as your Dad, on the small screen at least, The Man did have a certain style.

So here is my top ten of cars from the sixties, as driven by the cops, detectives and spys who graced our televisions for the grooviest decade of the last century.

10. Z Cars Ford Zephyr
Cool 1 Style 1 Performance 1

It wasn't for nothing that Life on Mars was set in the seventies, the best decade ever to be a cop. As well as the big Grannies of the Flying Squad, uniformed Rozzers often as not turned up in V8 Rover P6s. Pity then their predecessors who had to make do with Ford's less-than-classic Zephyr.

Contrary to popular belief the series wasn't named after the cars, and the real stars are the script writers who ditched Dixon of Dock Green deference to the boys in blue in favour of gritty realism and less-than-perfect coppers. Very sixties in its way, but although set on Merseyside it was more Cathy Come Home than A Hard Day's Night. 

As for the Zephyr, it was named after a wind and it's performance was flatuent too. They could come with six cylinder engines, and the best of them could just about make a ton, but with cross ply tires and drum brakes you'd be a brave man to try.

9. The Green Hornet's Black Beauty
Cool 2 Style 1 Performance 2

The Green Hornet was always a poor relation to the Caped Crusader, and his car, although it has a certain presence, is not in the same league as the Dynamic Duo's wheels. Despite having a side kick called Kato who, like Inspector Clouseau's 'friend' did karate, the Green Hornet took himself seriously, which Batman never did in the sixties.

The car used in the short lived TV series was based on a 1966 Imperial, which is a Chrysler that wants to be a Cadillac. Technically less advanced than an Austin A30, it did at least feature 7 litres of Detroit iron under the bonnet, so it should shift a bit - in a straight line at least.

8. Lady Penelope's FAB1
Cool 3 Style 2 Performance 2

Good design wasn't generally something that you associated with Thunderbirds, most of which looked like cheap sex toys, but Lady Penelope at least had a bit of style.

Rolls Royce's turned up in unlikely places in the sixties. John Lennon drove a psychedelic version, but FAB1 though shows what Rolls Royce might have made if, instead of being adopted by the counter-culture, it had adapted to the times itself.

It's difficult to know how fast it would have gone as it was just a model pulled by a piece of string, but the history of six wheeled cars is not great. The nearest equivalent to the FAB1 was the Panther Six, which only sold a single model.

7. Mannix's Dodge Dart GTS340
Cool 3 Style 2 Performance 3

Joe Mannix was a Korean War vet turned private detective with a knack for getting beaten up. He was knocked out no less than 55 times during the run of his TV series, which leaves me to wonder if he saw this sort of abuse as an occupational hazard, or a perk of the job.

His regular car was a 1968 Dodge Dart, in either flame red or British Racing Green. He had a full range of sixties mod cons including a totally shagtastic Motorola car-phone, which probably cost as much as the car.

The Dart itself was a solid and unremarkable car until they shoved a V8 engine into it. A 500bhp drag racing special was made, capable of 160mph, and is still the fastest mass produced drag car ever.  Mattix drove the slightly tamer 275bhp version, but that was fast enough for the late sixties.

It was still a Yank tank though, and driving fast can be as risky as the Cuban Missile Crisis, so watch out if you're approaching Dead Man's Curve.

6. The Saint's Volvo P1800
Cool 3 Style 4 Performance 2

Roger Moore in a Volvo? Yes indeed. A nice one I'll admit, but still a Volvo.

Before he became James Bond he was The Saint. Supposedly a globe trotting playboy, in truth he rarely left Ealing studios. However he was still the acme of British style and cool.

The car may have looked as fast as Concorde, but with standard Volvo bits under the Ghia designed bodywork the performance was as laid back as the audience at a Pink Floyd gig. However it could be relied upon to start on a winter morning, which was a rare thing in the 1960s.

Roger Moore liked it so much though that he bought one for himself. Considering that for the same money he could have bought an E Type, and had enough change for a round of Martinis, it can't have been that bad.

5. Batman's Batmobile
Cool 5 Style 4 Performance 1

Forget the angst of Dark Knight Returns, in the sixties Batman was camper than a week at Butlins.

For a show with a modest production budget, the producers got a real bargain in the form of the Batmobile. Wackier than Keith Moon, the car started off as a Lincoln concept car in 1955. It then languished in a back lot for a decade, before being converted into the Batmobile in three weeks.

Unfortunately underneath the space age bodywork were 1950 mechanicals so the car overheated, broke down and blew its tires, whilst the rocket thruster at the back only had enough gas for fifteen seconds of burn.

However it looked cooler than Steve McQueen in a particularly fetching set of shades, and easily out-styles the Chevy on steroids and mutant moon buggy that Batman has driven since.

4. Maxwell Smart's Sunbeam Tiger
Cool 3 Style 3 Performance 5

Get Smart was a Mel Brooks spoof of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with one of the quirkiest opening scenes on TV, and this where we see the car that was his regular co-star, the Sunbeam Tiger.

Like the AC Cobra, the Sunbeam Tiger was the result of a union of a basic British ragtop, in this case the Sunbeam Alpine, and a huge Yank V8. This turned an effeminate sports car popular with the likes of Cliff Richard, into a hairy arsed monster. Perhaps not the best vehicle for a spy, as in full flight it was louder than The Who. However if it lacked a bit in finess, it made up for it in grunt, and few sixties machines could live with it on a Long and Winding Road.

3. John Steed's Bentley
Cool 4 Style 5 Performance 3

More Colonel Blimp than Sergeant Pepper, John Steed's Bentley, like the man himself, was a throw back to an earlier era.

Bentley's today are off-the-peg wheels for Stock Brokers, but between the wars they offered bespoke performance to the discerning gentleman. "The world's fastest trucks" as Monsieur Bugatti once called them, they offered decent amounts of grunt and minimal amounts of road holding. Steed drove a variety of these machines, including 1920s 3 Litre, 1930s Speed Six and the famous blown Le Mans varieties.

In the episode Dead Man's Treasure Hunt he enters that staple of the sixties Car Club calendar, the Treasure Hunt. Up against a veritable beauty pageant of sixties sports cars, including an E Type Jaguar, Triumph TR3A, Jaguar XK140, Sunbeam Alpine and a Mercedes rag top - driven by the baddies, of course. However Steed shows that, despite some worrying understeer at times, his classic motor can cut it with the trend setters.

2. The Prisoner's Lotus Seven
Cool 5 Style 4 Performance 5

He may have only been number six, but his Seven went like a number two off a shovel.

Almost Zen like in its simplicity, the Lotus Seven was a car for going from Point A to Point A. Thanks to light weight the car offered road holding and braking that a Ferrari would envy and, by the late sixties, a fair bit of poke too from its tuned 1.4 litre Ford engine. Sitting a few inches from the road, the car gave the driver feedback only Jimi Hendrix could better.

Protection from the elements was fairly minimal, and whilst in might be okay in London in good weather you'd probably want to take the tube when it rained, and, yes, Number Six is reduced to hand signals as it has no indicators. He appears to be a single man too, which is just as well as going on a date in one would be a little impractical in mini skirt.

As the car for the ultimate individual though, it fits the bill perfectly.

1. Emma Peel's Lotus Elan
Style 5 Cool 5 Performance 5

So who's sexier, the girl or her car? Ms Rigg obviously, but the car isn't bad either.

Probably the most perfectly designed vehicle of the sixties, the Elan was a continuation of Colin Chapman's ideas of performance through light weight and simplicity. With a fibreglass body, all round disc brakes and a twin cam allow head it was as advanced in its own way as a Mars probe - by which I mean the things NASA was launching, not what Mick Jagger was alleged to have been doing to Marianne Faithful.

All of which is enclosed in some of the sexiest bodywork this side of Turin. Here we have the sexual revolution on four wheels. The only downside was the notoriously dodgy Lotus build quality. James Bond may have had one that could go underwater, but most owners would have been happy with just keeping the rain out.

That's the sixties, what did the seventies have to offer?