Cars & TV – Private Detectives Edition

One of the most popular and prolific genres in serialized television is the private detective story. Either standing out for style and narrative originality or relying on time tested tropes, a lot of people enjoy a good whodunit and with good reason. These tales usually revolve around a bright, highly charismatic main character whose extraordinary powers of observation and deduction almost always guarantee a neat resolution to a complex murder mystery. Crime fiction and most specifically detective fiction have been around for a long, long time – way longer than you’d expect actually, with sleuths showing up in some shape or form as early as the first centuries AD. However, the so called golden age of detective fiction came with the World Wars interregnum and the rise of authors such as the brilliant Agatha Christie.

For such a formulaic kind of genre, it’s unsurprisingly difficult to come across a good detective story; part of the problem comes, of course, from the fact that there have been thousands upon thousands of texts written within the same basic premises, which kind of puts a damp on originality. Another issue is how to differentiate the main character and make him or her relevant in a sea of other characters with essentially the same attributes; if you’re reading or watching a murder mystery and the sleuth is boring, the whole thing will wear thin in no time. A third complication ties to the resolution of the mystery itself; it can’t just come out of the blue as if by divine intervention. A good detective story will give you all the context and clues you need to arrive at the same conclusion as the protagonist, just as long as you pay attention and get creative with your thinking process.

That being said, serialized television is a perfect home for private detective stories because, as with novels, graphic novels and comics, the audience has the chance to really get to know the protagonist and become invested not just on a case-by-case level, but also in the entire world established around that character, usually populated with quirky sidekicks, often presumed dead but always alive arch-nemesis and the ever present love interests. Now, we could spend a whole lot of time exploring the many facets of private detective fiction, but what we want to dive into today are the cars of some of our favorite P.I.s. This however will be just a very small sample of what we consider to be the most interesting rides in the genre and it will focus solely only on fairly recent TV series, regardless of if they’re based or not on previous literary works.

We’re certain that coming up with the right car for a character is no easy task; yes, it can be just a means of going from A to B and an author or showrunner may not put much thought into it, but that’s such a reductive approach to a very fertile ground. A successful car/detective pairing is teeming with potential to flesh out the character’s tastes, aspirations, personality…it can speak to their background, to their social and geographical context and to an endless parade of other factors which help the viewer know exactly who that person is (or isn’t). The choices we’re bringing you today are all examples of very smart approaches to that potential.

Veronica Mars’ Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

Veronica Mars (2004 – 2019)

Veronica Mars was a (mainly) successful reimagining of the neo-noir genre. Focused on the titular character, the show took place in the fictional town of Netptune, California where high school student Veronica, daughter of the former Sheriff turned private investigator Keith Mars, made some extra cash working as a P.I. herself. As is the case with a lot of these shows, the seasons had a recurring central mystery, with individual episodes being focused on smaller parallel or alternative investigations. Kristen Bell did an extraordinary job of bringing the resourceful, witty, and relentless Veronica to life and the show gained a very passionate cult following (with good reason). Unfortunately, starting with the 2014 film and culminating with 2019’s season 4, Veronica Mars lost a lot of what made it special to turn towards a considerably darker tone which makes it borderline unrecognizable from the show which began in 2004.

Those considerations aside, let’s instead focus on Veronica’s trusted companion for the first two seasons of the show, a 1994 Chrysler LeBaron convertible (tag 6BLA504). The car is often made to be the butt of the joke, both by Veronica herself and other people. During the two season in which was featured, the LeBaron was vandalized and eventually, crashed. The Chrysler was a great choice for Veronica’s character because it matched perfectly with her very own brand of self-deprecating humor. On the one hand she’d drive it out of necessity as a simple high school beater, but on the other it was also an extension of her personality, the quirky, odd thing out, the “I’ll do me” attitude expressed in car form.

After the LeBaron met its end, Veronica drove a Saturn VUE and a Hyundai Tiburon; the first one might have been a product placement play and had the saving grace of being a little extra gag on the show (Mars, driving a Saturn in a town called Neptune) but it had none of the charm of the budget luxury LeBaron. The Hyundai isn’t even worth mentioning.

LeBaron is a name with a long history in Chrysler, spanning from the 1930’s to the 1990’s. Veronica’s car is a facelifted 3rd generation J platform car (a derivative of the infamous Chrysler K-body). This generation was equipped with Chrysler’s 2.2 or 2.5L inline four or, if you wanted to get wild, you could also have it with a Mitsubishi V6 making a whopping 140bhp.

Precious Ramotswe’s Datsun 1400 (B140)

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency (2009)

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency only ran for one season – very unfairly, in our opinion – but it was a fantastic, wholesome, well pace show centered around the first self proclaimed “lady detective” of the stunning country of Botswana: Precious Ramotswe, played by Jill Scott and her assistant, Grace Makutsi, played by the great Anika Noni Rose (if there were no other reasons to check out this show, Rose’s performance as Grace Makutsi would be more than enough justification to binge the whole season).

Based on an extensive body of work by British/Zimbabwean author Alexander McCall Smith (twenty-one No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels so far), the series follows “Mma.” Ramotswe as she uses her father’s inheritance to establish a private detective agency in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. The show is far from being the dark, murder ridden pit that most fictional private detectives seem to live in; this doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious cases or that the characters’ lives aren’t built upon overcoming personal tragedy, there’s plenty of that; but still, the overall tone is different, lighter. There are few reminiscent traits of the classic noir; there are no gloomy, claustrophobic cities, no smoke filed dark offices, no femmes fatales around every corner. Botswana is prominently displayed in the series in all its magnificence, both cultural and natural and, as a viewer, in each episode you end up going on parallel paths of discovery: one, for finding the solution to the case and another, to understand the part that the physical setting itself plays on the characters’ motivations, beliefs and attitudes.

Precious Ramotswe’s ride is a tiny, funny looking Datsun 1400 B140 (tag B383AHR); she refers to it often as her “little van”. The B140 is a very particular model; these were a South Africa built variant of the popular 1200 (B120) and they’re reportedly the only ones of this configuration with a high roof. They are ridiculously light, weighing in at just a little over 750kg, they were carbureted, featured good old leaf springs suspension and were in production, in some form or another, since the early 70’s all the way to the early 2000’s, a testament to their durability. In fact, South Africans nicknamed them “kanniedood”, meaning “cannot die”.  

The ones (3 were reportedly used during production) featured on the show fall somewhere between 1985 and 1989 as far as production year, which technically makes them Nissans and not Datsuns, but on the series they’re badged as such and so that’s how we’ll refer to them. Precious’ Datsun has the funny particularity of missing the “D” on the tailgate, spelling just “ATSUN” – this can simply be a play on the fact that it’s an old ride, with stuff randomly missing, or it may tie into the producers not wanting to display the Datsun name for whatever rights issue with the brand (which we assume must still very much be under Nissan’s control), or it may even be a sort of clever commentary on Precious’ situation, with “at sun” meaning under the sun in the sense that, after her father’s death and her abusive marriage, Precious is finally free to pursue her passions and ambitions, to find her place in the sun.

The little Datsun is a great choice for Mma. Ramotswe’s character. Someone as logical, practical and (usually) sensible as Precious would obviously go for the equally sensible option of keeping something that’s affordable to run/maintain and of course, we’re sure that in her view, something with more than two seats for a single lady such as herself would just be unnecessary and excessive. Plus, the tiny pickup is always under close scrutiny from Speedy Motors’ car repair shop owner, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni – Precious Ramotswe love interest. This makes the “little van” a great means of advancing the relationship between the two characters.

Pearl Nolan’s Citroen 2CV Fourgonnette

Whitstable Pearl (2021 –  )

Pearl Nolan is a former cop turned investigator and restaurateur (yes, quite the combo), living in the quintessential setting for murder and intrigue: a small British town. This very recent show (season one premiered this year) is based on a series novels by Julie Wassmer, a former television drama writer who’s currently an actual Whitstable resident, so it’s no surprise that the Whitstable Pearl is pretty gripping and fleshed out right from the start, since the author is fully immersed in her inspiration for the stories.

The series begins when Pearl discovers the body of a longtime family friend, later teaming up with London detective Mike Maguire to find out what happened. Mike is an emotionally broken, recent widower who dreaded leaving the city for a small town; predictably, Maguire and Nolan end up getting emotionally involved but just because you see it coming, it doesn’t make it boring. Plus, Pearl is a different kind of sleuth than what most of the audience will be accustomed to, breaking away from many of the clichés prevalent on the TV private detective mold; she’s a likable, friendly, blue-collar, middle-aged single mom relying more on leg work than sudden hunches and fantastic deductive powers, and that makes her pretty damn relatable.

Pearl’s transportation of choice is her restaurant’s catering service car, a Citroen 2CV type AK Fourgonnette (likely an AKS 400, but we can’t confirm; tag D569MKN). Again, a spot on choice for the character. Pearl wouldn’t drive something flashy; plus, her son is grown up and on his way to college, so she doesn’t need a mom-mobile anymore. The Fourgonnette is a practical choice for the restaurant and it also gives a touch of standout power to a business struggling to thrive in an increasingly touristy town. Sure, it won’t get anywhere fast, but it makes a lot of sense contextually and that’s what this list is all about.

The 2CV Fourgonnette is, of course, a legendary workhorse. Citroen made well over a million of these before replacing them with the Acadiane and eventually, the Visa based C15. With the cheap to make, cheap to fix, cheap to run 2CV as its base, the Fourgonette was the ideal tool for the small business owner and it put commercial France on the move after WWII.

As far as being a P.I.’s ride, you’d think that the 2CV Fourgonnette certainly wouldn’t be the ideal vehicle for making it somewhere in a hurry to save the day…and you’d be right. With a 35bhp engine and a top speed of – barely – 60 mph, the Fourgonnette isn’t going anywhere quickly, but since the Whitstable Pearl’s setting is a small town after all, Pearl Nolan never needs to go too far anyway.  

Luella Shakespeare’s Mini Cooper Convertible / Mini One Convertible

Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators (2018 – )

Sticking with the small British town murder mystery setting, but taking a lighter approach than The Whitstable Pearl, Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators is a fun show which threads nicely along the very slippery, narrow edge of the crime and comedy combo. Luella Shakespeare (played by Jo Joyner) is a hairdresser who unknowingly gets engaged to a con man who’s aiming to relieve her of the quarter million pounds she made selling her business. Before the wedding, suspecting an affair, Luella hires local private investigator and former Detective Inspector Frank Hathaway (played by Mark Benton) who just happens to be up to his neck in debts and about to lose his business. Not to spoil too much, but suffice to say that eventually Luella gets to keep her money and decides to become Frank’s partner, investing in what then becomes their joint agency.  

The show balances wonderfully on the dynamic of the two main characters, with Luella being the optimist, almost happy-go-lucky sort while Frank is the gruff, disillusioned realist. It’s challenging to do a crime show which leans heavily to the humorous side, but Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators has more than enough of the classic whodunit traits to keep the murder mystery aficionado thoroughly entertained.

Luella’s car for the first season of the series is a Mini Cooper convertible (tag LUI2322) and it stands out as one of the most car person oriented jokes we’ve ever seen, not just on a murder mystery show, but on TV in general. You see, in Britain, the small convertibles like Minis and SLKs are very often referred to as hairdressers’ cars, so the fact that Shakespeare – an actual hairdresser – drives one of these things is so delightfully on the nose. Funny enough, back in 2011, Diamond UK, a company specialized in providing car insurance for women, inquired with 18.000 hairdressers and found that the Mini was the undisputed champion when it came to the auto predilections of the hairdressing professionals.

Luella could have changed or upgraded her ride in her new line of business, but the red Mini suits her well (despite Frank having no love for it) and as such, it stuck around, even earning itself a little appearance in the show’s title sequence. For some reason between seasons 1 and 2, the Mini Cooper was swapped by a Mini One. Both cars are virtually identical, maybe even from same year (both are MKI R52s); the only differences which tip you off to the swap are the different rims and of course, the Cooper/One badges on the trunk.

We couldn’t neglect to mention that Shakespeare & Hathaway is also a great show for spotting British classics as it often features a lot of neat stuff in that particular department.

Matt Shade’s Porsche 911S

Private Eyes (2016 – 2021)

Private Eyes comes very much in the tradition of classic shows like Moonlighting and Remington Steel in which the main focus becomes the dynamic between the two main characters. Jason Priestly plays Matt Shade, a former professional hockey player turned manager who ends up working with Angie Everett (Cindy Sampson), a private investigator who took over her late father’s detective agency. The series is based on a novel by Gare Joyce, one of Canada’s most well respect sportswriters, so it’s no surprise that the show puts so much emphasis on Shade’s old life as an athlete.

Full disclosure, we’ve started Private Eyes a short while ago and we haven’t gone through more than a few episodes, so it’s impossible to put forward the kind of analysis we can offer for the other shows. However, it’s safe to say that Shade’s 1969 Porsche 911T (tag SHADE 17) is the one truly aspirational car on this list, and that cements its position on the show very well. Sure, some of the characters we’re featuring today have appreciation for their rides, but none besides the Porsche is a veritable dream come true. Shade loves that thing, it is the Holy Grail possession he went after the second he made some real money and even through serious adversity, it would be the very last possession to go.

The car is heavily associated with the show and pops up in the overwhelming majority of promo materials, making it by far the most prominently displayed vehicle in a series of this genre.

The Porsche 911 needs no introduction, so we’ll just note that the T was the lowest spec in the 1969 lineup, making 125bhp versus the 158 of the E and the 190 of the top of the line S version. The 911T was the only carbureted one, but Car and Driver stated at the time that this provided it with more low end torque, with the T becoming the magazine’s favorite of the three.  

Captain Arthur Hasting’s Lagonda 2 Liter Low Chassis Tourer

Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989 – 2013)

Okay, okay…you’re right to cry foul on this one. Yes, this is not a detective’s car…it’s a detective sidekick’s car, but we think that its prevalence in the first couple of seasons of the show (both seen and mentioned) merits inclusion on this list. Plus, the series’ charismatic detective did ride around in it often early on. And what a detective he is…the best in the world in fact, the measure by which every other character in the genre is measured, the little Belgium with the biggest brain in the murder mystery business: Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

Masterfully played on TV by David Suchet in the only truly accurate depiction of the character (we’ll die on this hill if we have to), Poirot is Agatha Christie’s undefeated juggernaut of intelligence, detection and logic. Nothing escapes Poirot’s attention, no clue is too small, no mystery too challenging, no misdirection well thought out enough to throw Hercule off the scent. Poirot is by far one of the most fascinating characters in literature (and subsequently, television) because of his extreme complexity. While being profoundly arrogant, hopelessly self-centered and absolutely dominated by his raging OCD, Poirot is also kind, polite, humane and unwavering in his nobility. The fact that he’s so utterly oblivious to his flaws while simultaneously always putting his very best qualities forward makes him an extremely charismatic and lovable character.

As Poirot’s friend and sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings (played by Hugh Fraser) takes the role of the every man, the measure which Christie used to make Poirot seem like an intellect giant by comparison. By this we don’t mean to say Hastings is unintelligent, but he’s your everyday, trusting, good hearted chap. He doesn’t suspect everyone the way Poirot does, he doesn’t interpret everything as a possible clue tied to some nefarious purpose. Despite playing a relatively small part in the novels, for the TV show, Arthur Hastings was a frequent and comforting presence. Hugh Fraser made the character of Hastings such a friendly, true blue kind of guy that you can’t help but love him. A lot goes over Hastings’ head…a lot! But he still always feels relevant.

A proper gentleman and as British as fish and chips, the fact that Captain Hastings drives a 1931 Lagonda 2 Liter Low Chassis Tourer (tag GN8258) is not surprising in the least. Arthur freaking – loves – cars, and of course, as a well to do bachelor, he would absolutely go for a sporty British option. Hasting’s Lagonda was made at a time when the company was putting out some of its most interesting products, with the in-between World Wars period being a sink or swim moment for Lagonda. After going through some money troubles, the company was bought by Alan P. Good who managed to bring in none other than W. O. Bentley, as well as a number of other (at the time) Rolls Royce key figures. As a result, Lagonda become one of the most notable, most innovative and also pricier car manufacturers in the world.

Hastings’ Lagonda came before this golden period, but was still a respectable ride for its day. With an inline 4, 8V OHC engine making roughly between 60 and 70bhp, the 2L Lagonda had a top speed of just over 70 mph; later on there would be a supercharged version available. Despite not being earth shattering, the Lagonda’s performance seemed to be enough for Hasting and it was certainly more than sufficient to ruffle Poirot’s feathers as he was not at all a fan of speed or motoring in general. And when the Lagonda “broke down” during a time sensitive case (The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly), Poirot was not a happy camper.

Again, if it’s true that Arthur Hastings wasn’t a private detective himself, he did (knowingly or unknowingly) put in his share of work in a number of cases to help Poirot get the bad guy and in doing so, he earned this special mention on our list.

Note: there’s a debate over why the Lagonda showed up in the show with what it looked to be a horseshoe attached to the front grill in a few episodes, which then disappeared. We didn’t come across any explanation for that, so perhaps it was a simple ornament the actual car owner removed between the production dates of different episodes. To our knowledge, it has no significance for Hastings’ character.  

Phryne Fisher’s Hispano-Suiza H6

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012 – 2015; 2020)

If Hercule Poirot is the greatest fictional detective (let’s say of the 20th century, in order not to enter the Poirot VS Holmes debate), Phryne Fisher is by far the coolest. The Honorable Miss Fisher also happens to be a whole masterclass on how to properly develop and layer a character. On the one hand you have the impeccably dressed, effortlessly smooth, endlessly charming, free-spirited society Lady and on the other, the war veteran (intelligence; nurse), the beaten and battered individual who’s seen the very worse of human nature has to offer and not only lived to tell the story, but also managed not to let herself be defined by the inhumanity and atrocities. There is a line on the show which perfectly defines the way Miss Fisher’s character behaves and carries herself through life; she says “I haven’t taken anything seriously since 1918” – When you could write an entire academic essay on one single line of dialogue, you know the character is a good one.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is based on a series of novels by Australian author Kerry Greenwood depicting Phryne Fisher’s life as a “lady detective” in a post WWI Australia. The titular character is expertly played by Essie Davies, with every minute of her screen time being a delight. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a particularly interesting show within the genre because although Phryne is a brilliant character and a great detective by her on merit, she also leans heavily on a found family trope which often comes together to wear a bunch of different hats in whatever investigation she finds herself in (as with Poirot, Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Father Brown and many others, Phryne Fisher is a veritable magnet for murder); there’s Dot, her companion, Bert and Cec, drivers and mildly successful troublemakers, Mr. Butler, the butler (yup), Dr. Elizabeth “Mac” Macmillan, a close friend who provides all sorts of medical insights and last but certainly not least, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, the show’s lawful good straight arrow and Phryne’s main love interest. A lot of the series’ success rests not only in Essie Davies’ and the cast’s individual performances, but on how well they come together as a whole. With the exception of the Frankie Drake Mysteries, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is one of the few modern private detective shows leaning towards an ensemble cast configuration (although the badass, gold revolver wielding Phryne is still very much so the star).

Focusing back on car information since it is what we’re here for after all, Phryne Fisher’s 1923 Hispano-Suiza H6 (tag 20941) is perhaps the most perfectly executed detective/car pairing on this list. The Hispano screams Phryne: it’s in your face, modern, distinctive, refined, exciting. A character like the Honorable Miss Fisher would absolutely have to have the latest, fastest, most luxurious and exclusive car on the road and the Hispano delivers on every requirement. The H6 featured a massive, 6.5L all aluminum airplane technology inspired (fitting, since Phryne is also a pilot) straight six. The crankshaft alone weighed 16lb on these things. The H6s (and H6 Bs and Cs) are some of the greatest automobiles ever made; if there was a short list for pre-war finest cars, they’d certainly be on it.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a tremendously enjoyable show, not only for the excellence of featuring one of the best P.I.s of the genre, but also as a period piece – and this is especially valid for car enthusiasts, as we don’t solely get to watch Phryne speed around with La Cigogne Volante pointing the way, but also get to car spot a bunch of other very interesting rides that pop up randomly throughout the seasons, such as an Alfa Romeo C6 1750 and a Cadillac V16.

The H6 used for the show belongs to a gentleman named Bob, took 12 years to restore and is one of only two running, driving Hispano-Suiza H6s in Australia.

Image credits: AV does not own any of the images used in this post.

All Veronica Mars image credits to Warner Bros. Television
All No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency image credits to HBO
All Whitstable Pearl image credits to Acorn Media Enterprises
All Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators image credits to BBC One
All Private Eyes image credits to Global
All Agatha Christie’s Poirot image credits to ITV
All Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries image credits to ABC

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s