As so often seems to happen, a car in an adventure production becomes as much a celebrity as the actors do. Sometimes, the car’s role in the plot makes perfectly good sense. Sometimes, you might as well hire the Flat Earth Society to run the motorpool. Starsky and Hutch Gran Torino is a deeply unlikely choice for an undercover cop car. It has a one-of-a-kind look, and it is visible from planetary orbit. Thus, was a foundation-grade premise of the show blown to slowly descending flakes of red and white paint.
Turns out the viewing public didn’t care. Worse than that, they loved it. And if you are producing a TV show, that is the only thing that matters. As the phrase goes, nothing succeeds like success. Well, between 1975 and 1979, the series managed a four-season run, with 93 episodes. Reduced to broad brushstrokes, the show followed the adventures of two undercover detectives in the notional town of Bay City, as they took down bad guys, got in extended gunfights and had car chases to a fare-thee-well. In point of fact, it was mostly filmed on location in San Pedro, California. Something kind of cool is that at least some small part of the show was based on the real-life kickassery of a couple of actual New York detectives.
Public memory of the show remained so strong that, decades later, there was a movie. It debuted in 2004. While we aren’t here to be negative, most purists would tell you that it did away with the grit of the original series. But the car scenes rocked.
So how did these cars come to be?
It happened sort of on accident. The production company, Spelling-Goldberg, had a deal with Ford to supply its cars, so a Ford it would be, even though the Head Guru had originally envisioned a green and white Camaro convertible of his youth. So you get a Torino, with paint-code B2 retina-sear red, along with the now-famous “vector” white stripe. That stripe was a one-off creation of the production company’s transport guy. If to the chagrin of tacticians, then to the delight of production company shareholders, because it worked. The rear of the cars was lifted with air shocks, and they got Ansen Sprint five-slot rolling stock.
Irony of ironies, Glaser hated it at first sight. It became known in the popular mind as the “Striped Tomato,” but that was never originally written into any script. It’s what Glaser blurted out to Soul when he first saw the car. His attitude over it, notwithstanding its benefit to his career, is well established from lots of sources. One source says that he intentionally tried to damage it during stunt sequences. Another says that at a show reunion party years later, he refused to get into it. Well, maybe he eventually got over it, or over it enough, given his aforementioned cameo 25 years after the series ended, when he presents the keys to a new Starsky.
And as to performance? Let’s start with the suspension. Compared with its immediate ancestors in the muscle car era, the ’75 Gran Torino had relatively softer springs and damping. And thanks both to federal crash regulation and a shift from unibody to full frame construction, it was heavy, with a curb weight of up to about 4,200 pounds. So, a model of handling it wasn’t, but it would pull outrageous oversteer with the best of them.
Well, how about acceleration? Given the smog Nazis, and the resultant addition of catalytic converters and the loss of compression, carbs, and cams, most of those motors couldn’t tow your Mattel Big Wheel out of four inches of sand. The 351 Windsor motor had a horsepower rating of 148. Better yet, California strictly restricted ANY change to the motors. The production company promptly found a way around around it, through gearing.
Stock rear gears were a mileage-making-deeply-boring 2.75:1. Someplace along the way, they got swapped for what might or might not be as big as 6.73:1. It’s documented in part: there are shots in some episodes which show a sticker on the speedo reading “Do Not Exceed 50 mph.” Otherwise, you’d leave a (short) breadcrumb trail of connecting rod pieces, bearings, pistons and fragments of block. But that gearing did allow for smoking ‘em up. Later cars had 400 cid motors, and later yet, the 460. While that latter number sounds big, those engines in fact made only 202 horsepower.
Nobody cared at all about that, and to the contrary, everybody loved the car. Among them is a guy named Chris Ingrassia. He runs a very successful outfit called Mustang Restorations, in East Dundee, IL, which does more or less what that title suggests. Of course, he had to have one. His was built for the movie, and by none other than legendary car customizer George Barris. Chris’s car ups the power ante. It started as a “Q” code Cobra-Jet 351, but now runs a 351 Windsor with a 393 stroker crank for huge torque.
He further adds to the torque equation by running the power through a Tremec 5-speed. It’s set up with a correct mid-seventies floor shifter, so it looks like a four speed, but has benefit of both lower starting gears and a sweet overdrive. To finish the torque picture, it all goes to the ground through a Ford nine-inch running 4.11 gears. As to the interior, the car has a package that includes factory bucket seats and a deluxe gauge pack that keeps tabs on oil pressure, amperage, coolant time, engine RPM, fuel level and speed. As a crowning touch, it has an 8-track player, which Chris uses to baffle millennials.
Overall, these cars can’t help but put a big grin on your face. They are so iconic and so outrageous that, even 40+ years later, the car is loved by multitudes of fans and universally recognized. How crazy is it that the one guy whose fame and fortune was tied to the car can’t stand it?