The real star of ‘Starsky and Hutch’ was the ‘Striped Tomato’
Maybe it was all about the scratch. In the mid-1970s, few things were bigger or more recognizable in the world of prime-time television than two Los Angeles crime-fighting cops, David Starsky and Ken Hutchinson, and their red-striped Ford Gran Torino and white.
Truth be told, the Torino was as big a star, if not bigger, than the guys who drove it.
Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, the stars of “Starsky and Hutch” from September 1975 to August 1979, could not have imagined that the “Striped Tomato”, as it was called on the show, would offer so much competition.
If any car could have won an Emmy, the Tomato had as good a shot as any. For four years he was hot. And then it happened again.
In March 2004, the Torino rolled over once again when the movie “Starsky and Hutch” hit theaters, featuring the car 25 years after it last roared on its Beverly Hills set.
In many ways, the Torino was an icon of the decade. He was an icon of cool. In fact, before the Torino went out of production, you could duplicate it through your Ford dealership. He turned a vehicle that was about to go out of production into an everlasting success.
The Torino was a phenomenon, turning Wednesday nights into must-see television, a fact all the more impressive since the show’s main announcers were Chevrolet and Dodge.
When “Starsky and Hutch” debuted in 1975, the switchboard at Spelling-Goldberg Productions in Beverly Hills was inundated with questions about the make and model of the car.
The way it was designed was pretty natural for Hollywood. Spelling-Goldberg wanted a car that would stand out in a crowd. The studio used cars from Ford’s studio-TV car loan program and the Gran Torino emerged as an early possibility.
In a moment of genius, the producers decided to paint the vehicle red and add the characteristic white stripe to the boxed Torino.
Some changes were made for cascading purposes. Mag wheels were added along with oversized tires and air shocks. Glaser was behind the wheel for the normal driving scenes, and a stuntman took over during the chases.
The producers used a Torino with a roof-mounted camera and a second for exterior shots. It screamed. It was smoking. He turned.
But no one could have predicted the response that followed. Fan clubs have been created from Australia to Germany to England, Japan and Ireland. Motor shows continually requested the car for display purposes. Even custom van and truck shows found room on their show floor for a knockoff of the coupe. They knowed it would draw a crowd.
As the show grew in popularity, some Ford dealerships had a few Torinos painted red and white and advertised that “a ‘Starsky and Hutch’ type car” would be at the dealership. At the height of the car’s popularity, Ford ordered a limited production run of a comparable car with a similar paint treatment – 1,000 units in the United States and 100 for Canada – to be produced at its assembly plant in Chicago.
The Torinos signature sold for $4,461 (US) and standard equipment included a three-speed automatic transmission, steel-belted radial tires, electronic ignition, power front disc brakes and power steering. Fairly standard, including the 351 cubic inch “Cleveland” V-8. Ford called it a 351M (for modified).
Optional equipment included air conditioning ($478), deluxe bumper ($67), white walls ($52), tinted windows ($51), dual mirrors ($46) and painting “Starsky and Hutch” ($164.20). Shipping and handling was an additional $114, bringing the typical price to around $5,351 in the United States.
As interest in the TV show faded, the Torino continued to tour. When Ford stopped making the car in the late 1970s, fan clubs grew and collectors emerged. All of this made the 2004 film remake starring actors Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller a natural.
The film’s production required nine Torinos to handle the chase scenes and script excerpts. (Over the years in the TV show, the Torino’s appearance changed, but the film version was an amalgamation of all models.)
The film’s image car coordinator Craig Lietzke discovered that none of the original Torinos were available to be used as the basis for the film’s cars. However, one of the special edition Torinos that Ford had produced was located. It had 1,800 new miles (2,900 kilometres) and had been in storage for 29 years. Using it as a model, Lietzke hired Premiere Studio Rentals and Cinema Vehicle Services to convert Torinos stock for the film, also using recordings from the episodes, old photos and model cars for reference.
“Our Torinos represent pieces of the car as it has changed each year of the series,” Lietzke said at the time.
Even after all these years, “Starsky and Hutch” producer Alan Riche says the car is hotter than ever. “The car is the star,” he said. “It’s one of the really great cars. It reminds me of growing up, listening to the double pipes – the power of Detroit. It’s always sexy.