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Top 10 Classic Cars on the Small Screen

20 April 2023

If, like us, you love to blurt out every detail of a classic car model to all in earshot, the second it appears on the TV, then you’re in the right place.

There’s something surprisingly delightful about spotting a classic car being used on TV in the most unlikely of scenarios.

Whether it’s chasing down a villain or simply getting our protagonist from A to B, we all love to see a classic on the small screen. Here’s our list of the top 10 classic cars on the small screen from UK TV, many you’ll know, some you might not…

Detectorists – Triumph TR7

The first on our list is hard to miss – unless you’ve yet to sample the subtle joys of this BBC series. Detectorists follows the ups and – more common – downs of a small group of rural amateur archaeologists, as they sweep the picturesque fields surrounding the fictional Essex town Danebury (actually filmed in Suffolk).

The series is a gentle and amusing amble through the lives and hobbies of rural Englanders, but more important than that is the car that central protagonist Lance (Toby Jones) drives. Straight-laced Lance is a nerdy bachelor whose passion for metal detecting is almost analogous to his love for his Inca Yellow Triumph TR7 Coupe.

A lesser-known fact is that real life Detectorist – and the show’s writer and producer – McKenzie Crook actually bought the car himself and apparently still owns it.

Top 10 Classic Cars on the Small Screen - Detectorists and yellow TR7

Morse – Jaguar MkII

Even thirty years after the fictional Oxford-based detective first graced our screens, it’s impossible to say the name ‘Morse’ without thinking of his classic four-wheeled transport.

There’s a story out there that puts the choice of vehicle in the hands of lead actor John Thaw, but this seems like a stretch. What’s easy to verify is that, in the early Morse books, author Colin Dexter placed his fictional detective behind the wheel of a Lancia, though which one was never confirmed.

In a rare case of TV improving on literature, Morse and his Jaguar MkII became such a popular on-screen pairing that Dexter even switched to the Coventry marque for his later novels.

Top 10 TV Classics on the small screen - Inspector Morse with red Jaguar MkII

Bergerac – Triumph Roadster

If art truly mirrored reality, then we might expect a detective, even a fictitious one, to drive something utterly mundane but dependable – law enforcement professionals are hardly famed for their strength of imagination. Though in almost every case, on-screen detectives drive something old and interesting – few more so than channel island sleuth, Bergerac.

During his 1980s adventures – on Jersey, the largest of the Channel isles – D.S Jim Bergerac’s sole form of transport was a fetching 1947 Triumph Roadster.

Actor John Nettles apparently hated the classic drop-top, as he was forever scraping his knuckles and legs on its low-slung dashboard. Nettles’ follow-up role in Midsummer Murders seems to back this up, as he’s resorted to a far more believable Rover 75 Connoisseur.

Bergerac - Triumph Roadster

Professionals – Ford Capri

The somewhat ironically named, but wildly popular, police series The Professionals is mainly remembered today for its uber masculinity. That came with equally butch modes of transport, usually used to chase down the crims, while busting through flimsy scenery.

Fords were the name of the game here with myriad models making an appearance from Escorts and Cortinas to Granadas – though the series is best remembered for its Capris.

The high-speed pursuit wagon of choice for Bodie and Doyle was the 3.0-litre S, with both MkII and MkIII variants making multiple appearances. Though its motifs of police brutality, mixed with toxic masculinity, leave something of a sour taste today, The Professionals still has some fantastic crims vs. coppers car chases to enjoy.

The Professionals - Ford Capri

The Saint – Volvo P1800

Simon Templar and the Volvo P1800 were a winning combo right from the off in 1961. Though the sleek and sexy Volvo – not terms usually associated with the Scandi marque – were arrived at almost by accident. The producers of the show first approached Jaguar for the loan of an E-type but were turned down, Volvo was happy to step in.

Like his other famous on-screen secret agent character, Roger Moore’s Templar came to be as closely associated with his cream-coloured Volvo as James Bond would be with his silver Aston Martin. The promotional value of the exciting life of an international spy was easy to see in Trollhättan – even if its value was lost in Coventry.

The Saint - Volvo P1800

Lotus Elan – The Avengers

Other than the Elise – responsible for saving its parent firm in the mid-1990s – the Elan is the seminal Lotus. It was everything we’d come to expect from Colin Chapman’s motorsport maestros.

Prior to the Elan, Lotus’ reputation had mainly been forged on the circuit, with relatively few drivers experiencing the Norfolk firm’s lightweight delights. The Elan changed all that, it was a smash hit, selling approximately 12,500 – many of them in America.

Part of the Elan’s success Stateside was its appearance in The Avengers – one of the first British shows to be syndicated on US TV networks. The effortlessly elegant Emma Peel – played by Dame Diana Rigg – famously drove an Elan for much of the show’s run, adding to its fashionable appeal. The now Dame was even gifted one the cars after the show.

The Avengers - Lotus Elan

Audi Ur quattro – Ashes to Ashes

We could easily have chosen a number of machines from Life on Mars here, but instead we’ve selected Philip Glenister’s second set of wheels from his return as the irrepressible DCI Gene Hunt.

Ashes to Ashes moved the setting from 1970s Manchester to 1980s London. This time, the choice of machine was far more appropriate to the yuppie era, with Audi’s seminal Ur quattro stepping up to the plate. Though it would have been a rare sight, even in period, the quattro has the glamour and performance to be the ideal automotive TV star.

It was iconic enough in fact to fuel a brief boom in prices for these four-wheel drive Audi legends – though that didn’t extend too long after the series ceased airing in 2007.

Top 10 Classic Cars on the Small Screen - Ashes to Ashes - Audi Ur Quattro

Rover 800 – I’m Alan Partridge

Has ever a car been better suited to its fictional character? The exceptionally well observed Steve Coogan character Alan Partridge has driven many cars over his decades on our screens – the oft quoted ‘Japanese Mercedes’ Lexus and most recently Vauxhalls and KIAs – though the immortal episode of I’m Alan Partridge, where his beloved Rover 800 is vandalised, makes this model the most memorable Partridge-mobile.

As a petrolhead himself, Coogan was well aware of the connotations of Rover in the 1990s – using that faded glory and patriotic old-England image to perfectly complement his fictional former Radio Norwich DJ. Out of touch and painfully un-PC, Partridge stumbles from one faux pas to the next, to great comic – and cringe – effect and, of course, his Rover 800 was beige… Shame he had to ‘downgrade’ it to a Rover 100.

I'm Alan Partridge - Rover 800

BMW 7 Series – Stranger Things

One motor many may have overlooked during the glorious mix of neon lights and special effects that is the monster (pun intended) Netflix hit Stranger Things, is Steve Harrington’s BMW 7 Series.

A pleasant surprise for many a 1980s German-car fan was the choice of this 733i (E23 generation) for designated ‘rich kid’, Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery). It made sense for Steve’s family (we assume this isn’t his car) to drive something flash and European, but the choice of the 733i was still surprising.

Stranger Things is, of course, a nostalgia fest and that naturally extends to the cars. Everything from Chevrolet Camaros and K5 Blazers to a Ford Pinto share screen time with Steve’s 7.

As the series has progressed, the big BMW has gained more and more screen time and has become an emblem of the show as a result – especially among younger fans, who likely won’t have seen a shark nosed BM before. Remember when Munich made good looking cars?

Top 10 Classic Cars on the Small Screen - Stranger Things - BMW 7 Series

Volvo 240/740 – Luther

Last up is another detective’s ride and one that perfectly encapsulates its character’s outlook and lifestyle. The superb BBC series Luther sees its title character DCI John Luther (played by Idris Elba) drive several battered old Volvos. He started out in a 740 with miss-matched panels and has since graduated to a more desirable – and better cared for – 240.

The way these machines – especially the ‘banger’ 740 – reflect the character’s attitude to fripperies such as fashion, ideally illustrates his priorities. Luther’s obsession with his job at the cost of his social life and health, mean he couldn’t care less what he drives.

He needs to get from A to B in a reliable and comfortable way and leaves the 740 in some of the roughest parts of the Capital, without worrying about it being stolen! Ironically, it’s this lack of interest that actually makes these old Volvos cool choices.

Luther - Volvo 240/740

So there you have it, our top 10 classic cars on the small screen. To stay up to date with all things Peter James Insurance, follow us on social!

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