By on March 3, 2018

We’re not capable of brilliance 24 hours a day. The mind demands rest, nourishment, stimulation. And old cars. Wonderful, alluring, Eisenhower-era cars.

As sleep doesn’t come easily for yours truly, you’ll often find a YouTube window open on my computer late at night. Sometimes its comedy, sometimes it’s tornado videos, and more often than not — lately, especially — it’s syndicated reruns of an old show some nice fellow uploaded to the net. It’s not a groundbreaking, award-winning show. It’s not high-minded. There’s no identity politics. Complex plotlines and witty dialogue? Get the hell outta here, pal.

No, the sole appeal of Highway Patrol (1955-1959) is the cars. (That, and identifying the scenes where: (a) actor Broderick Crawford is drunk, and (b) Crawford doesn’t have a driver’s license.)

Smog-blanketed southern California in the late Fifties. Could there be a more glamorous locale?

Highway Patrol is one of the shows my mom sometimes mentioned in stories of her childhood. Until recently, I’d never seen so much as a clip, but now I’m hopelessly addicted. The world portrayed in Highway Patrol is one where criminals wear suits and sport coats (if there’s no coat, you can be sure he’s carrying a knife). No car is more than three years old, at most, even for people “down on their luck,” “struggling,” or “just starting out.”

It’s a world where, I assume due to advertisers, the cops never once mention the make or model of a car, even when sending out a description of a murder suspect to officers in the field.

“Be on the lookout for a black sedan. Suspects are armed and dangerous.”

It’s a world where Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors rule the road, with nary a Studebaker or Rambler in sight. Detroit dominance? In this world, it’s complete. In this SoCal of the late 1950s, aiming a .38 revolver is pointless. Shoot from about chest height and you’ll hit your fleeing suspect between those two train cars 20 yards away, no problem.

In earlier episodes, the California Highway Patrol lent its own cars to the show’s creators. It was a low-budget production, with every dollar counted. Later, after the CHP ended its relationship with the show (more on that in a bit), cars had to be ordered direct from the OEM. These were true police-spec vehicles — two-door sedans with blackwall tires, simple hubcaps, spotlight, police band radio. Buick Specials and the odd Century filled the Highway Patrol fleet during the the first two years, with the odd Oldsmobile 88 and Mercury Monterey added in for good measure. Yes, Buicks, Mercurys, and Oldsmobiles as cop cars.

The Buick Specials disappeared after the chrome-covered, bloated, and sluggish ’58 models (single-speed Dynaflows weren’t built for quick getaways), while the last Mercs were the Space Age ’57s. Starting that year, and running exclusively until the end of the series, Dodge took over the fleet, and with good reason. The low-slung, high-finned Coronets of ’57 to ’59 had menace, muscle, and could navigate a sharp turn without risking rear suspension failure.

Hemispherical combustion chambers and torsion bars are truly a cop’s best friend.

It’s been said that in this show, there was no crime that couldn’t be solved by setting up a roadblock. Repeated viewings seem to bear this out. Simplistic? Sure. Family friendly? Well, people do get shot and killed, but perhaps viewers were made of tougher stuff back then. This is the Fifties, so it’s a bloodless death.

Hollywood hypocrisy was popular 60 years ago, too, so all episodes end with Crawford (who played the lead character, Captain Dan Matthews) issuing a stern and, ahem, sober warning from behind his desk, or while standing next to his squad car. It’s always a message about road safety (“It isn’t the car that kills … it’s the driver”), delivered by an actor pulled over for DUI — by the California Highway Patrol, no less — countless times. Apparently, CHP officers even had their own nickname for him.

Not to make light of alcoholism, but it’s easy to tell which scenes were shot too close to noon. In some episodes, it’s no secret why Crawford continually asks another officer to take the wheel. (Filming was reportedly, at times, a challenge. Some scenes where Crawford had to be seen behind the wheel were shot on private property.) Still, when he’s on the ball, no one barks a complex order without the need to take a breath quite like Crawford. If you’ve never seen the films All the King’s Men (1949) and The Mob (1951), I highly recommend them.

My special YouTube user, who’s responsible for so much of my wasted time, seems to have the whole show ready to go, and no one likes a quitter. I have to watch them all, if for nothing else than to soak up the feeling of seeing a Dodge Coronet chasing a Plymouth Fury along the sun-drenched roads of the Simi Valley.

Simpler times, simple pleasures.

(For your viewing pleasure, here’s the 1977 episode of CHiPs where Ponch and Jon pull over Broderick Crawford. It’s worth it just for the subtle put-down at 1:47.)

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44 Comments on “Send Help: I Can’t Stop Watching a Corny Old Show Because of the Cars...”

  • avatar

    I’m a big fan of old cop shows, although ‘Highway Patrol’ is a little further back than I usually venture. The cars on these shows are a big reason I watch. Ford and Chrysler provided the vehicles for most cop shows from the mid ‘60’s until the late ‘70s. Some cars are synonymous with the show; Mannix had a ‘72 Barracuda, Cannon had his Mark IVs, Adam-12 with Satellites and Belvederes, Steve McGarret had a Mercury Park Lane. It’s the cars that didn’t belong to the stars that make it fun to watch these shows though, there are always some beauties popping up in the background. Even non-cop shows can provide an automotive trip down memory lane. The ‘72 D-300 on ‘Emergency!’ Is one of my favorites. There were plenty of cool cars on ‘CHiPs’, unfortunately they would always burst into flames, even if a stray shopping cart hit them.

  • avatar

    I bought the complete Perry Mason TV series in large part for the cars. When I was a kid, “convertible” meant those huge cars which could seat six comfortably. MGs and Triumphs and such were sports cars, not convertibles.

    It’s a real kick when Paul Drake or Perry Mason rolls up in those huge convertibles, especially on a dirt road, wallowing all over, and the sound effects guys add tires squealing on pavement.

    • 0 avatar

      Perry always drove a Cadillac convertible, and Paul rocked a T-Bird convert. You could tell which year the episode was from just by looking at the cars.

      But few noticed one small detail- Della Street (Perry’s secretary) always climbed behind the wheel of Lincoln convertible. Always wondered how that worked.

    • 0 avatar

      Perry drove a few different cars during the series. the earliest episodes had him driving a ’57 Ford Fairlane. At various times he’s also seen driving the Cadillac you mention, a Buick, and a Lincoln.

  • avatar

    “…. in large part for the cars. ”

    Those “snapshots” in time of automotive novelty in America can be intriguing for today’s slick, small streamlined car society, but they often make for fond memories for the people who lived during those times.

    Among MY personal faves are my 1949 Buick Fluid Drive Straight 8, my 1952 Mercury Flathead V8 with three-on-the-tree and cable-activated overdrive, my 1957 Mercury with Pushbutton transmission controls, my 1959 Chevy PowerGlide inline-6, my 430 cubic inch 1960 Mercury Montclaire, and my 1957 Pontiac Hardtop with B&M Bang Shifter.

    All of them bought used, tinkered on, tinkered with, and used as DDs.

    Although I did not have any of them for very long, to this day, these cars evoke a twinge of nostalgia from my youth, living in SoCal until I joined the USAF in 1965.

    • 0 avatar

      Those big old Buick’s were a hoot. I remember driving one and learned that the starter worked by turning the key and pressing the accelerator pedal all the way to the floor to activate the starter switch. Oh, the “good old days”.

      • 0 avatar

        And then there were the 10K mile tune-ups, points, plugs, oil & filter change, and grease points.

        I got my start as a 16yo at my uncle’s Shell Station on Garnet in Pacific Beach, San Diego, CA, first as a pump jockey, then a pump jockey and grease monkey, and finally as a journeyman mechanic R&R generators, water pumps, fuel pumps, batteries, tires and whatever else other mechanics needed help with.

        I was soooo proud when I got my first real pay check from him, $385 for a full month of after-school work.

        • 0 avatar

          Great story, somewhat similar to mine in Ohio, and the guy who owned the gas station raced a 49 Ford flathead V8 stock car at the local oval which was awesomely cool for a kid to be involved in back then.

  • avatar

    X-Files(the original 9 seasons) was one giant Panther car porn series.

  • avatar

    He won the best actor Oscar for “All the King’s Men”. 21-50 Bye

  • avatar

    Why was “plain clothed” Matthews driving a marked car? Seems like a contradiction in terms..

    I think 6ft 5in Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle 1950) would have cut a better Matthews. More gritty less cali.

  • avatar

    Whenever I can, I watch reruns of Naked City which features scads of cars from the early 60s tooling around Manhattan (it was filmed on location). The uniformed cops tool around in
    green and white ’56 Fords or ’59-’61 Plymouths. The plainclothes detectives the show centers on get Catalina hardtops (as if) and assorted characters are seen driving Prosche 356s, Dauphines and even a Rolls Phantom, One episode featured a crazy woman with a Mercedes 300SL Roadster.

    You can catch actors like Robert Redford, Martin Sheen and Walter Matthau before they became stars.

  • avatar

    One of my favorite shows growing up in the 50’s. Watching it today , I see all the flaws , mistakes , etc. Still , good memories!

  • avatar

    Crawford was pulled over in 1959 driving a Jaguar at 130 mph.

    He ended each show with this: “Leave you blood at the Red Cross, not on the highway.”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Just watched All the King’s Men on TCM last week. So of course I looked up Highway Patrol which was one of my favourite shows as a kid. Steph got the facts and trivia correct.

    However ‘back in the day’ we watched if because of the 2-way radios and the lingo they used when communicating on them. Of course now, as Steph stated it is the cars that rule.

    Would like to see Robert Taylor’s The Detectives, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside Six, M-Squad and yes The Naked City for the cars and actors and Richard Diamond for young Mary Tyler Moore’s double entendres and legs.


    • 0 avatar

      ‘77 Sunset Strip’ is on weekdays at 4:00am on MeTV, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. has some sweet rides. Plus the lovely Jacqueline Beer (Miss France, 1954) appears as his secretary.

  • avatar

    I’m a child of the 50’s also, and another show that I liked was Sheriff of Cochise, which sounds like a western from that era but is actually about the head cop in Bisbee, AZ. John Bromfield portrays law enforcement officer Frank Morgan, and the cars were a big part of it. He drove a 1955 Chrysler Town and Country wagon with a door mounted rifle, inside the driver’s door.
    There was also a later 50’s Chrysler wagon 1958 maybe. And it also had all of the same cars as Highway Patrol. I read somewhere that the same scripts were used.

  • avatar

    Oh, I agree. It makes watching movies such as Hitchcock’s Psycho and North By Northwest and Kubrick’s Lolita so great. You know how they end, so the more attention you can give to all that wonderful Detroit iron.

  • avatar

    “Be on the lookout for a black sedan. Suspects are armed and dangerous.”

    In today’s world that would be every third sedan (thanks limited color palette!)

  • avatar

    Wow, I never thought I’d see “Highway Patrol” here. It was my one of my two favorite shows when I was about six. The other was “The Three Stooges,” the difference being my mother would let me watch “Highway Patrol.” It never registered with me that Broderick Crawford was stumbling around soused, but now that you mention it the dialogue was sure the type that could have been delivered either drunk or sober. I loved watching the big Buicks, Mercurys, and Dodges getting tossed around. I remember the show had no continuity whatsoever (though I had no idea that’s what it was called) — it was common to see a 2-door Buick in the chase then watch Crawford lumber out of a 4-door Dodge when he caught the guy. And in every episode the car they were looking for had license number “Mary-Paul-Frank 686.” One very bad hombre no doubt! Thanks for the terrific memories.

    • 0 avatar

      “It never registered with me that Broderick Crawford was stumbling around soused, but now that you mention it the dialogue was sure the type that could have been delivered either drunk or sober.”

      Just like Dragnet, which I believe just used scripts adapted from the show’s radio-only days. You could do that show without the video part.

      People excoriate Keanu Reeves for being wooden, but they seemed to love Jack Webb for it.

      • 0 avatar

        Apparently Ward Cleaver AKA Hugh Beumont would show up on the set completely soused. It was reported, that staff would dress him in a nice suit, and pour black coffee down his throat. Amazingly he never flubbed a line.

      • 0 avatar

        Oddly enough, especially given his wooden acting style, Jack Webb was a true jazz fanatic, and jazz is known for improvisation, quite the opposite trait.
        Earlier in his career Webb wrote and produced a radio program set in KC where he played a jazz trumpeter, “Pete Kelly’s Blues”.
        Well-known for his thriftiness, THAT trait accounts for the sparse props on Dragnet sets, and the eternally same scene of the gold Fairlane pulling in and out of Police HQ.
        Further, the oh-so sexy nurse from Emergency (“Dixie McCall”) was his first wife, actress Julie London. In real life she later married Bobby Troup, who played the in-house doctor on the series. Also, the talented Bobby Troup wrote the song “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”.
        Small world…

  • avatar

    “It’s a world where, I assume due to advertisers, the cops never once mention the make or model of a car, even when sending out a description of a murder suspect to officers in the field.

    “Be on the lookout for a black sedan. Suspects are armed and dangerous.”

    This used to drive me nuts when I’d watch Knight Rider as a kid.

    They called KITT a “T-Top” all the time, but of course NO ONE in real life ever called a Trans Am a T-Top.

  • avatar

    My daughter is sadly obsessed with Dragnet – has it on some kind of loop. Again, you can see sometimes they had beer for lunch, but thing is – they have crappy boring cars which have horrible cornering characteristics. You could walk past them and not notice them.Nothing for me to key into, sadly. But, what crappy cars they had to use.

  • avatar

    You missed mention that a very young Leonard Nimoy is part of the rotating cast of extras crims and background actors. He is evil in one scene where he is a mobster shaking down honest working men. Yes, Mr Spock as The Heaavy. The other two great takeaways is that sway bars hadnt been invented yet and the in town background shots of early LA are amazing. They pull in front of a realtor advertising homes for a few hundred down and then 100 per month. Amazing ! Also, how drunk do you need to be to get busted as a star in the 50’s….


  • avatar

    Oh and in one ep the victim of the crime drives an early E TYPE. I saw for the first time how amazing that design truly was at the time

  • avatar
    Edsel Maserati

    A director of those shows once told me that those half-hour shows in the ’50s were done on an assembly line, two and a half days, over and out. Start a show Monday morning, finish by lunch on Wednesday. After lunch, start another
    At your urging I watched an episode of Highway Patrol. (Great theme songs!) This one had a young Clint Eastwood as a biker. Boy, was it all primitive and clumsy. But it was great on reruns as a kid.

    Best TV cop car: The Peugot driven by Columbo.

    Runners-up: Magnum’s Ferrari 308, Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird

    Old TV show I’d Really Like to See: M-SQUAD starring Lee Marvin

  • avatar

    Highway Patrol was my favorite police crime drama late at night along with M Squad and Mike Hammer! I would watch this show at 3:00 A.M. weekdays. Never air on the weekends however! LOL!

    Broderick Crawford in real life was 6′ tall and bulky! 250 pounds. Linebacker type body style.

  • avatar

    That grimace on the ’59 Dodge has to be one of the angriest-looking front ends ever put on a car. Certainly not a pleasant thing to see in your rear view mirror.

  • avatar

    So it’s airing on This-TV now? What time? I might have to start recording it.

  • avatar

    Steph: While 1955 was the last Buick in CHP service, both Olds and Mercury made their way back in the fleet…Olds in 1967, Mercury in 1970.

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