80’s Super-Vehicles

A look back at the future of crime fighting and vehicular combat.
May 02, 2007
During the eighties, there were several movies and shows that featured some sort of crime-fighting super vehicle. You got your Blue Thunder vs. Airwolf. You got your Knight Industries 2000, Street Hawk, and Firefox. Later on, in the early 90’s, you have your “Thunder in Paradise” and Viper. Most of these shows and movies had a loose formula to them. In addition to a shiny black super vehicle, you had to have a dashing hero to pilot it, and a dorky “other guy” to provide comic relief, tech support, or be the copilot. The first 3/4ths of the show or movie are used to set up the last bit of action at the end where the vehicle saves the day with its crazy technology.

There were certainly many cool vehicles of note on 80’s television like the car known as the Manta Montage from Hardcastle and McCormick, the A-Team van, the General Lee, and the Screaming Mimi from Riptide. They were cool but they were not “super”. That is to say they did not have extreme “Hollywood” technology (bordering on magic in most cases) under the hood. There are also vehicles driven by super heroes like the Batmobile that I’m ignoring because they aren’t the main point of the movie or show. The Batmobile deserves its own article. I think you’ll get the idea as you read on. Here they are in no particular order.

In theaters Summer, 1982

Clint Eastwood plays Mitchell Gant, an ex-Vietnam War pilot recruited by NATO to infiltrate the Soviet Union and steal a top secret super jet fighter codenamed Firefox. (Most early eighties action heroes are haunted by Vietnam flashbacks and this character is no exception.) After being smuggled into the USSR, Gant must sneak into the Soviet air base, steal the Firefox, and fly it back to the USA. The Firefox (also called Mig-31) can travel at Mach 6, is invisible to all radar, and has an advanced weapons system that responds to the pilot’s thoughts. What Gant doesn’t know, is that there is another prototype Firefox ready to give chase. The result is an awesome high-tech dogfight in the skies over the Arctic.

The mind-reading weapons system.

I saw this in the theaters and ended up sleeping through most of the infiltrating-the-USSR part. But I woke up in time to witness the badass jet combat action. I saw the movie again a few years later and enjoyed the whole thing. All in all it was a great way to blow a Saturday afternoon. Most of the formula is here…we have the dashing hero with a dark past, the first two thirds of the film are a build-up to the final action, and we have a comic relief/ tech support character (sort of). Halfway through his flight home, Gant has to land the Firefox on an ice flow and get fuel from a submarine known as Mother One. The captain of this sub serves as both tech support and comic relief. The scene is relatively brief, but I believe it’s enough to satisfy the formula.

There is an actual Mig-31 but it looks nothing like Firefox. Unfortunately, if you were to construct a real Firefox it would barely be airworthy. The general consensus amongst the aviation buffs is that it would fly very poorly. There were a total of 9 planes built for the movie. Six were miniatures, two were radio controlled models that actually flew, and one was the full scale version (If I could I’d buy it, keep it in my front yard, and sit in the fake cockpit). If you like super cool fighter jets, (who doesn’t) you should check this movie out.

Blue Thunder
In theaters Spring, 1983

Officer Frank Murphy is a police chopper pilot haunted by images of Vietnam. He is recruited to fly Blue Thunder, a heavily modified police copter equipped to deal with street level riots. This chopper has plenty of high tech firepower, but also excels in the areas of stealth and covert surveillance. While investigating the death of a political figure, Frank and his copilot-comic relief buddy played by Daniel Stern stumble upon a larger plot to use Blue Thunder to kill select politicians. This sinister plan is masterminded by an evil Vietnam colonel from Frank’s past portrayed by Malcolm McDowell. The drama builds up to an action packed dogfight over the streets of LA.

Mr. Roy Scheider at the controls.

You know, I don’t really remember much about this movie. I remember sitting in my living room as a young kid and watching it on our 10” black and white TV. I remember it had Roy Scheider in it. This guy is perfect for these types of every-man, underdog, skeptical, humorous, mans-man roles. I also remember a scene where Frank times himself racing his car through a parking garage. Don’t try that at home kids! Overall this movie has all the elements for a great super-vehicle movie, and Mr. Scheider always does a great job of playing the non-threatening hero guy.

TV show cast.

The present-day Blue Thunder.

The Blue Thunder is a heavily modified French made Gazelle. Apparently the thing was a bit nose heavy and had to fly very slowly. Camera tricks and scale models were used to make it appear more agile in the film. This movie spawned a TV show starring James Farentino (been in lots of stuff I’ve never seen), Dana Carvey (hey SNL Kid!), and Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus (football heroes turned actors that seemed to be everywhere in the early 80s). Apparently the 11 episode run is now out on DVD. Netflix anyone?

On TV January, 1984

Jan-Michael Vincent plays Stringfellow Hawke, an ex-Vietnam War pilot haunted by images of his MIA brother. He is hired by a secret government agency (the FIRM) to steal Airwolf from its creator. Mr. Hawk steals the machine but decides to keep it for himself hiding it in a mountain cave. He works out a deal with the government where he flies secret missions in exchange for their help in locating his missing brother. His copilot is played by Ernest Borgnine who playfully calls him “String” and provides comic relief.

Unlike your Knight Rider and Blue Thunder shows, this show had a much darker mood to it. Stringfellow Hawke is perhaps on par with Clint Eastwood’s Mitchell Gant when it comes to sheer brooding. Let’s be clear, Mitchell Gant could destroy Stringfellow Hawke just by looking at him. But they are both depressed and pissed-off anti-heroes. Hawke lives in a secluded mountain cabin where he frequently sits by the water and serenades a hawk with his soulful cello playing. But the real star of the show is Airwolf. Its aerodynamic form can outrun most jets, while rocket launchers and machine guns pop out of the hull to unleash explosive fury on the bad guys. Another thing that I remember about the show is the use of sound effects. Airwolf made some weird sounds when it flew, almost like a dying animal. And while I’m thinking about it, I think the leader of the FIRM looked a lot like Panama Jack from those eighties t-shirts.

Panama Jack?

I found some disturbing trivia at IMDB concerning this series. Apparently, there was a crash during the filming of one of the episodes that killed a stunt double. In addition to this tragedy, one of the helicopters used for Airwolf, a Bell 222, was used as an air ambulance after the show was done but crashed in 1991 killing all three passengers.

The show won some awards and succeeded in scaring off the Blue Thunder series. There is still an online debate amongst the hardcore nerds about which super-chopper rules the TV skies. I’m going to stay out of that fight and stick with a debate that makes more sense like pirates vs. ninjas. My money’s on the ninjas.

Knight Rider
On TV September, 1982

David Hasselhoff plays Michael Knight, an ex-cop haunted by images of being shot in the face by some blond chic in the pilot episode. What can I say about this show that you don’t already know? The Knight Industries 2000 is THE super vehicle. I think this show appealed to me partly because K.I.T.T. was like a transformer with no robot mode. I also loved the technology, the mobile lab, the afro, the crazy dashboard, the turbo boost, the little light that moved back and fourth, and Mr. Hasselhoff’s occasional fake martial arts.

Rather than explain the plot, I’ll try to list some trivia that you hopefully haven’t heard before:
- Pontiac delivered one of the first new Trans-Ams off the assembly line to the show’s creators. Talk about good advertising! After the show aired the company was swamped with orders for the sleek new models. The only problem was people wanted the little light on the front too.
- The moving red light was previously used by the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, another Glenn Larson show.
- David Hasselhoff didn’t meet the voice of KITT, William Daniels, until a Christmas party six months into the show’s production.
- Apparently someone made up a Knight Rider drinking game. As with most game like this, you drink when certain things occur. For example, Michael talks into his watch = 1 shot, Turbo boost = 1 shot, KITT has a bomb blow up underneath him = 2 shots…and so on. If you follow the rules you should have alcohol poisoning after about 10 minutes.
- David Hasselhoff was married to Catherine Hickland from 1984 to 1989. In 1992 she married All My Children star Michael E. Knight! Weird.

If you like cheesy 80’s action, go buy the A-Team box sets. After you watch those, go pick up the Knight Rider box sets. They are a good fix for any 80’s nostalgia you might be feeling.
On TV January, 1985

Finally a show about a super motorcycle! Rex Smith plays Jesse Mach, a motorcycle cop injured in the line of duty. He is recruited by Norman Tuttle (tech support comic relief guy) to test a secret government project known as Streethawk. By day, Jesse is a crippled desk cop, but by night he pilots the crime fighting super-cycle Streethawk. Streethawk can go 300mph and is equipped with a laser cannon, machine guns, rocket launcher, infrared cameras, and a compressed air jumping system.

I think he looks a little like Boner from Growing Pains.

I remember liking this show quite a bit. It only lasted half a season and it seems the general consensus is that it was a good super-vehicle show that arrived too late. The intro can be found right here on Retro Junk. The music for the intro is totally eighties with plenty of synthesizers and the obligatory Simmons electronic drums providing a driving beat. If you’re wondering what Simmons drums sound like, just say the word “DOOV!” and you’ll get the idea. The music for the show was created by Tangerine Dream.

A present-day Streethawk.

A Streethawk video game!

There were a total of 15 bikes used in the show. They were mostly modified Honda trail-bikes. While 14 of the bikes are unaccounted for, one of them was sold on Ebay. It was purchased by one of the show’s stuntmen who restored the bike to its original glory.

The Highwayman
On TV September, 1987

This one’s a bit more obscure. The Highwayman was a post apocalyptic action show featuring tricked out semi-trucks and muscle-bound crime fighting heroes worthy of any side-scrolling action game of the same era. It was created by Glenn Larson (Buck Rogers, Batlestar Galactica, Knight Rider) and starred Sam Jones, who you may remember as the blond haired Flash Gordon from the 1980 film of the same name. Sam Jones, aka “Highway,” had a sidekick/partner named Jetto portrayed by Jacko. For those of you who grew up in the 80’s you’ll remember Jacko as the loud and loveable Aussie in the energizer commercials who would shout OYE! Playing the tech support guy is our very own Tim “Tuvok” Russ from Star Trek Voyager.

Jetto's truck.

Present-day Highwayman truck.

Honestly I remember very little about this series other than the fact that I liked it. Each main character had a super truck that had been issued to them by the government. Highway’s truck had a bullet shaped cab that was actually a partially hidden helicopter that could detach for flight. On occasion, the back end of the rig would open up to release a futuristic car. For the inside shots of the cab, parts of KITT’s dashboard were reused. Jetto’s truck was decidedly less cool in my opinion. It looked more like a futuristic car with a giant tractor trailer attached to the back of it.


Honorable Mentions:

The spaceship from Flight of the Navigator was pretty neat but the formula just isn’t there. Cool movie though. I taped it off TV and watched it about a billion times.

Black Moon Rising was a movie with Tommy Lee Jones that featured a futuristic car. I think the car was slightly super even though is was basically a trapezoid on wheels.

Automan is almost a super vehicle show with a glowing blue TRON-esque character instead of a vehicle. The “Cursor” could form many neat-o vehicles including a cool looking Lamborghini. An interesting show that doesn’t really compare to TRON, but none the less has a similar feel to a super vehicle show.[/align]

Well, there you go. I feel like I’m forgetting a super vehicle. I’m leaving out Viper and Thunder in Paradise because I never really watched them and they aren’t all that “retro” yet. Let me know if there are any other super vehicles out there. One of the weird and wonderful things about being 32, is that I’m noticing all of the cool shows from my past being released on to DVD. Blue Thunder the series on DVD? Airwolf on DVD!? This is what happens when nerds like me begin take over. I’m betting a Knight Rider movie is just around the corner.
Links to my other articles:

80’s Ninja Games

Impossible Mission

80’s Toys for Young Nerds
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