by Jack Stewart
For most of Seventies, NBC broadcast a group of mysteries under the umbrella title of The NBC Mystery Movie. Starting in 1971, the original series rotated Columbo, McMillan and Wife, and McCloud in the same weekly time slot. At the peak of the series, there were NBC Mystery Movies on both Sunday and Wednesday evenings. The three original mysteries were the most popular (Columbo in particular), but there were 14 shows associated with the series before it ended in 1977: Columbo, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, Banacek, Snoop Sisters, Cool Million, Hec Ramsey, Madigan, Faraday and Company, Tenafly, Amy Prentiss, McCoy, Lanigan’s Rabbi, and Quincy, M.E. A few of the shows prominently featured interesting cars. Here are our favorites:
Detective Columbo (played by Peter Falk) drove a beat-up 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible that was as much a part of his persona as his rumpled raincoat. Columbo’s disheveled appearance and bumbling demeanor helped put his suspects off guard, and driving up in a faded, eccentric French beater only added to the effect. Of course, viewers knew that Columbo possessed a keen mind and would always bring the criminal to justice.
Peter Falk is supposed to have selected the Peugeot himself from Universal Studios’ back-lot fleet. It was certainly an unusual choice. Although little known in the U.S. today, Peugeot is one of the world’s oldest automakers, dating back to 1891. Peugeot won the Indianapolis 500 in 1913, 1916, and 1919. The company entered the postwar U.S. market in 1958 and left in 1991—without too many people noticing. Back in ’58, Peugeot exported the compact 403, which was offered in sedan, wagon, and convertible body styles. Styling was by Pininfarina, the Italian design house best known for its breathtaking Ferraris. Power, such as it was, came courtesy of a 65-horsepower, 1.5-liter overhead-valve four-cylinder mated to a 4-speed manual with column shift. Top speed was around 85 mph, and 0-60 mph runs took a long 17-22 seconds. Clearly, the 403 wasn’t a sports car, but in convertible form with leather interior, it was probably a decent little car back in the day. Image a shiny new 403, top down, driven by Brigitte Bardot in the South of France.
Columbo’s car was actually quite rare. Just 504 convertibles were built in 1959, and only 2050 during the 403 convertible’s production run from 1956-61. Remember, these are total production numbers, not just U.S. imports. According to some sources, the U.S. price for a 403 convertible was around $3900. That was about what a Corvette cost in ’59, so it’s not surprising the 403 didn’t sell well. The studio is said to have leased two other 403 convertibles for filming. If so, they must have had most of the 403 cabriolets in America at the time.
Thomas Banacek (played by George Peppard) was a private insurance investigator who returned stolen objects for a 10% recovery fee. He was good at his work, and lived the high life in Boston’s pricy Beacon Hill neighborhood. A suave fellow such as Banacek needs a cool ride, and Banacek had one: a 1941 Packard Darrin convertible. That jaunty ragtop was the work of Howard “Dutch” Darrin, an American-born designer who styled custom-bodied cars in Paris before returning to the States and designing cars for movie stars in Hollywood. Darrin built a lowered Packard convertible with cut-down doors (a styling flourish that came to be known as the “Darrin dip”) and convinced Packard make it a catalog custom model. The Darrin convertible was part of Packard’s One-Eighty Super Eight line and was powered by a 160-horsepower straight eight. The big eight was incredibly smooth and had enough power to push a Darrin convertible past 100 mph. Only 35 Darrin Convertible Victorias were built in ’41. Rumor has it a 1942 Packard Darrin, disguised to look like a ’41, was also used in the Banacek series.
Banacek was also driven in a 1973 Cadillac Series 75 limousine. This was when limos were owned by the rich and famous—not rented by someone going to the airport or trying to protect his driver’s license during a night on the town. The Cadillac 75 rode on a 151.5-inch wheelbase and was powered by Cadillac’s 472-cid V8, which put out 220 horsepower. Base price of the limo was $12,080, and Cadillac sold 2060 examples in ’73.
In Banacek’s second episode, an experimental safety car dubbed Phoenix is stolen from a moving train. The Phoenix was actually a revised, repainted version of the 1969 AMC “AMX-400” built by famed customizer George Barris’s shop. A super-sized bumper was added to make the AMX look like a safety vehicle, and the script of the episode explained that the car was equipped with a “Compensator”—a computer system that automatically corrected skidding. The Compensator was merely a bit of imaginary Hollywood magic in 1972, when the episode was filmed, but it did predict today’s antiskid systems. The Phoenix also predicted the 1974-75 Bricklin SV—a sports car marketed as a safety vehicle.
An old Jeep and a De Tomaso Pantera—that beautiful but unreliable Italian sports car powered by a Ford 351 Cleveland V8—were also part of Banacek’s personal fleet in the show. George Peppard would later achieve greater fame in The A-Team series, which featured a 1983 GMC van.
The Snoop Sisters
Veteran actresses Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick played sisters with the unlikely last name Snoop. The sisters teamed up to write mystery novels, but as is always the case with TV mystery writers, the two found themselves involved in solving real murders. In the pilot episode, they were chauffeured by Art Carney in what appears to be a 1925 or ’26 Lincoln sedan with LeBaron coachwork. Art Carney left the series, but the Lincoln remained.
The first Lincolns were well engineered, but had dull styling. Henry Ford bought the Lincoln Motor Company in 1922, and put his son Edsel in charge. Edsel consulted with top coachbuilders, such as LeBaron, and soon Lincoln had the style to match its abilities. Lincolns had a top speed of at least 70 mph and in the Twenties were popular with both police departments and gangsters.
If you can remember other vehicles from The NBC Mystery Movie series, we’d love to hear about it.