By on June 18, 2015

Impala vs Marquis

Smoke and mirrors – but sometimes also steel. In the odd world of movies and television, things are not always what they seem: the fake blower on the Mad Max Pursuit Special, the digital tire smoke from the Merc’ 6.9 in Ronin.

It’s always a bit disappointing when you meet a hero car to learn that, behind the polish, it’s all hat and no cattle. But not with these two beasts. These are the real deal: guts, dents, motor, and chrome. One’s a modern hearthrob, the other’s a lantern-jawed archetype that even today outshines its modern co-stars.

One Ford product, one vehicle cranked out by the General. Black paint, V8 rumble, and more character than the small screen can contain. Here are their stories.
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Supernatural‘s been filming in my hometown for close-on ten years now. The show’s premise is pretty straightforward: the trials and tribulations of a pair of demon-fighting brothers as they wander around America in a 1967 Impala, putting evil back in the ground. Dukes of Hazzard meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer: justa good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm; beats all you ever saw, punched the Devil in the jaw, and gave Death a dead arm.

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Sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s goofy, sometimes it’s overdramatic, and sometimes the show’s genuinely funny. The fanbase is large and loyal, and there’s a lot of love for the Impala, which is sort of a third Winchester brother on the show. It’s a constant companion, rumbling into a new town with a trunk filled with salt, crucifixes, and wooden stakes. They call it Baby, as that’s so often what Dean Winchester – played by Jensen Ackles – fondly calls his lead sled.

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As is usual in filming, there are multiple copies of this thing, all suited up identically in shabby black. Of the seven, one’s a buck cut up into movable sections for filming (not used much any more with the compact nature of modern cameras), a couple are stunt cars with extra pedals to lock up the rear brakes, and a couple are stand-ins for positioning shots. And one main one.

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A 1967 Chevrolet Impala hardtop sedan is a pretty rare car in its own right; people preserved more coupes and convertibles than sedans, and over the years many of these things rusted away unloved. It landed the role essentially out of the necessity for a musclecar large enough to have a cameraman riding around in the back seat while filming. The LA-shot pilot used a couple of ex-cop machines and a star was born.

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Part of the Supernatural Impala’s charm is its slightly menacing air and garage-project look. It doesn’t wear huge Chip Foose style rims, nor is it factory-trim prim and proper. The doors creak when you open them. There’s a line-lock strapped to the gearshift stalk. And then there’s what’s under the skin.

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Six of the Impalas are just props. One of them is something else: a fully-built car that’s used for closeups and star work. The work is partially Ackles’ doing – rumor has it he’s hoping to keep the car after the show wraps, so he’s pushed for a few upgrades. More than a few actually.

Under that huge hood is a fully-built big-block Chevy V8, a 502 cubic-inch monster that idles like a bowling ball in an industrial dryer and barks like a Hellhound when you prod the throttle. The suspension is a complete Hotchkiss set up, and the car actually handles and brakes reasonably well. When the crew needed to set up a few establishing shots for a season’s traveling, they strapped cameras to the Impala and spent a week aimlessly roaming around the canyon roads and deserts of BC’s interior. “Most fun two weeks of my life,” says the car’s long-time caretaker.

The Impala is at least as potent in person as it is on screen, even if the demon-fighting apparatus in its trunk is just a prop. Supernatural? No – it’s the real deal.

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In far rougher shape, but no less impressive, is the 1974 Mercury Marquis from Hawaii Five-O. This was Detective Steve McGarrett’s (as played by Jack Lord) car in the original series for six seasons. It continues to feature in the modern remake, functioning as the link between the two shows.

Unlike the Impala, there was only ever one Marquis. While a ’67 coupe was used in the pilot episode, and a ’68 Park Lane sedan filled in for the first six seasons, the black ’74 that saw out Five-O‘s run didn’t have a stunt double to take the punches. Like the original Ectomobile, it was the only car used, and that meant week after week of damage and repair. Often-times the mechanic, Mike Sakamoto, would be welding it back together into the wee hours of the morning.

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The old girl’s in pretty sad condition. That salt-filled Hawaiian air is easy on the skin but rusty murder on old Detroit iron like this. Open the door and a small shower of iron oxide hisses down – it’s a miracle that a forty-year-old unrestored car survives like this.

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Yet survive it does. The owner, John Nordlum, puts the key in the ignition and cranks the engine. The starter whirrs creakily, there’s a weak tuff-tuff-tuff of an old engine coughing to life, and then she fires. The Ford 460ci V8 sets up a beat, and once again McGarrett’s car glides off the set, and out onto patrol on the streets of Honolulu.

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Nordlum was Jack Lord’s body double, and later Tom Selleck’s double on Magnum PI (which mostly used the same crew as Five-O). He was given the Marquis at the end of shooting the series, a gift from Jack Lord. Notoriously a forceful personality, Lord steamrollered any studio objections, and Nordlum got the keys.

The Marquis rumbles around the block without a catch in its step, though the body rolls like an ill-ballasted ship through the corners. There’s creaks and rattles aplenty, and even the shifter is liver-spotted with patina. But she still runs and drives, even after all these years. “We can’t get crew that’s lasted as long as that car,” Nordlum laughs, “It’s got a life of its own.”

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Perhaps either the show or some eager fan will foot the restoration bill for the Marquis. Perhaps the Impala will end up in Ackles’ personal garage, to be trotted out now and then for a blitz around the block.

That’s the hope anyway – sure, both have been immortalized through the lens of a camera already, but each is not just a ephemeral fantasy. There is solidity here, realness beyond the showbiz glitz. It’s something to be honored and preserved.

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27 Comments on “Small Screen, Big Car: The Hawaii Five-O Mercury Marquis and the Supernatural Impala...”


  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    Great article. I would love to see a series of these type of articles; “What ever happened to….”

    As a child who grew up during the 70’s, I often wondered what happened to some of those old cars. Rockfords old Pontiac, the Fall Guy pickup, Magnum’s Ferrari, TJ Hooker and Harry Callihan police cars, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      Willyam

      I agree, I’ve sought out these stories since stumbling upon the famous search for the Camaro from Better Off Dead by accident.

      http://betteroffdeadcamaro.com/

      That Impala is amazing. What a perfect car for the role, (I read an interview where early Mustang’s and such were all considered, but an inspired final choice). I spent many years in Lawrence, KS, so the series is a lot of fun for us.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “digital tire smoke from the Merc’ 6.9 in Ronin.”

    That was the most obvious CGI in the history of the 90’s! And what’s worse, we didn’t need it. It was a reverse little J-turn at low speed. Nobody would have asked “HEY where’s the tons of tire smoke!?”

  • avatar

    I don’t see it as menacing–never did–but that Impala is gorgeous, and in my opinion, the last of the great-looking Chevies of the 1950s and ’60s. Its only equal after that is the Caprice of the ’90s–which is truly menacing. For the record, I was 13 when the ’67s came out.

    You mention filming in your home town, but I don’t think you say where that is. and you also mention BC, and the only place I can think of is British Columbia, but I don’t associate it with the sort of flat land in the background of those shots. Where are the mountains, the water, the tall pines?

    The Mercury isn’t nearly as good looking but it isn’t bad, and it has an appropriately well-used look.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Maybe by BC he meant Boise City, ha.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Yep, those mid-’60s Chevys were fine looking cars. GM styling had it going on back then.

    • 0 avatar
      Roberto Esponja

      I liked the 1968’s front end better. The 1969, with that loop bumper was pretty nice too. But then they went all-out “grandpa mobile” in 1970… :-/

    • 0 avatar
      statikboy

      British Columbia indeed. The Kansas shots are filmed in the “Lower Mainland”, the area surrounding and including Vancouver which is mostly the alluvial plain and delta of the Fraser River. Tellingly, most of the “flatland” shots are done from low down so that objects in the foreground (trees, houses, etc.) hide any mountains on the horizon, or are done in overcast/rainy/dark conditions.

    • 0 avatar
      Brendan McAleer

      Yes, BC. The shots were taken in the middle of the city, near the warehouse where the cars are stored.

    • 0 avatar
      thirty-three

      The shots of the Impala look like they were taken at the Dragonwood Industrial Park in Burnaby, BC. The red buildings and railway tracks give it away. Burnaby is a suburb of Vancouver, BC.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I didn’t realize the current 5-0 was still on. Do they actually drive it around on the show, or is it stationary?

    And why can’t they just get other examples and make them nice? Keep the original, that’s fine, but have backups? Can’t be that hard to find an old four door Marquis.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I can’t believe that Marquis is still running. Love the Impala(s).

  • avatar
    thornmark

    The orig McGarrett ’68 Park Lane was so much nicer, Lord really didn’t want the bloat job.

    The above Marquis looks like Uncle Buck’s car, even though that was a coupe. Lord’s orig ’67 Marquis in the pilot was coupe only that year.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Much to my benefit, interest in 1967 Impalas was definitely boosted by Supernatural. For a time the sedan was in very high demand by people looking to build their own version. I was at an old car pick-n-pull a few years ago and the guy who ran the place said a guy came in looking for one because his wife only agreed to let him build a car when he said he’d do the Supernatural car.

    I have no interest in the show, but it pleases me that more people at events and in general recognize my car as the one from the show. A decade ago few people could pull the exact year when looking at it, but now it’s not unusual to get more folks getting it right than wrong.

    For anyone who would like to see a pic:
    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/forum/readers-rides-and-project-cars/testing-the-waters-insulting-everyone-my-cars/

  • avatar
    Russycle

    First time I saw Supernatural I was tickled by the fact that the boys drove a 4-door instead of a coupe. Always had a soft spot for the 67 Impala, my dad had a 2-door but it wasn’t the best car for hauling a family of 5 around so it didn’t last long.

    • 0 avatar
      NormF3

      My uncle had a ’65 burgundy Impala 4-door and another had, I think, a battered ’68 4-door. I think those old Impalas were really stylish. I think the coupe dual rear antennas.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    It’s good to know McGarrett’s ride is still rolling. And to hell with patina; give that glorious sled the restoration its earned!

    I never did go to the trouble to verify my presence in any background shots, but on several occasions in the 70s I’d be cycling along O’ahu’s roads and be passed by the monster Marquis, followed shortly after by the camera car.

    One of my older brother’s friends was much more fortunate, enjoying a couple of appearances on the original show, including one as the guest perpetrator.

  • avatar
    gasser

    I drove a ’66 Impala 4 door hardtop in ’70. Great car. Sold it for tuition $. I think the ’65 Impala coupe SS was the most beautiful American car ever made. One fraternity brother had a ’65 Impala SS convertible 327 tan over BRG. Another had a ’66 Impala coupe (bench seat, not buckets like SS), burgundy sith black interior. We were in auto heaven.

  • avatar
    64andahalf

    My dad bought a car used in the 5-0 series which had been “imported” to the continental US into Ohio from the woman who, along with her husband, owned Nelson Ledges, back in the day.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    “Great article. I would love to see a series of these type of articles; “What ever happened to….”

    As a child who grew up during the 70’s, I often wondered what happened to some of those old cars. Rockfords old Pontiac, the Fall Guy pickup, Magnum’s Ferrari, TJ Hooker and Harry Callihan police cars, etc.-2drsedanman”

    This.

    • 0 avatar
      NormF3

      The Magnum P.I. Ferrari is at Universal Studios Hollywood along with the Knight Rider Firebird, the Back To The Future DeLorean, and some of the Fast and Furious cars.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Growing up in the 60s, one of our family cars was a turquoise ’67 Bel Air 2-door sedan. Loved the styling, then and now. 1967 was the only year the Bel Air had the same taillight setup as the Impala. It was also the only year for round gauges since the wild 1959-60 models.

  • avatar
    skor

    The holy grail of movie cars is the Bullitt Mustang. Find that and you will be an auto scribbling god.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Marquis needs thinly striped whitewalls pronto…

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