Seventies Columbo wasn’t just compelling viewing due to the great writing and stellar casts. As a time capsule of the opulence of high-life living in LA, there’s plenty to treasure in almost every scene.
It’s always a blast to see the scruffy Lieutenant poking his nose around the giant mansions of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, but another aspect of the show I’ve always enjoyed is the style and beauty of so many of the vehicles on display. From Cadillacs and Rollers to Corvettes, Jags and even the humble VW Beetle, there are enough four-wheeled beauties to satisfy the cravings of any classic car enthusiast.
Much as I’ve admired the aesthetics of the assorted automobiles, one thing I’ve never had the expertise to do is credibly identify which of them are the very coolest, rarest or most interesting from a design or historical perspective. That’s why I’m delighted to hand over the reins (or car keys, perhaps?) to Columbo fan and classic car expert Marco DuBose, who will chauffeur you on your journey of discovery through the 10 coolest Columbo cars of the 70s.
The murderers and victims on Columbo were usually from the upper class and they drove cars to match their status. Being a bit of a car nut, I always noticed who was driving what cool and expensive luxury car. Which ones were the best? There are so many to choose from, but here are my votes for the top 10 cars on Columbo in the 70s, in order from best to the very best. Prices quoted here are in USD. I must thank the Internet Movie Car Database for help in identifying some models.
10. Rolls Royce Silver Cloud / Bentley S1
At one time a Rolls Royce was the high status automobile and a symbol of old money – especially if you had a chauffeur. It makes sense that there were quite a few featured in the show. The Silver Cloud was the core model for Rolls Royce from 1955 to 1966. Although Bentley is a separate company, it was acquired by Rolls Royce in the 30s and their models are intertwined. The Bentley S, for example, is a Silver Cloud with a few design changes. Unfortunately, Rolls Royces didn’t maintain value. Today’s prices range from as little as $40,000 to the low six figures.
- Etude in Black – Orchestra conductor Alex Benedict’s second car is a gold coloured Silver Cloud II, which his wife picks him up from the mechanic’s in.
- Dagger of the Mind – This episode’s victim, Sir Roger Haversham, has a green Bentley S2.
- Negative Reaction – Photographer Paul Galesko drives a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III.
- Forgotten Lady – Aging movie star Grace Wheeler is chauffeured in a Bentley S1.
- How To Dial a Murder – Dr Eric Mason drives a golden 1962 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III (pictured above).
9. Stutz Blackhawk
The Stutz Blackhawk was an odd luxury car made from 1971 to 1987. It was an American designed, Italian built body on a General Motors platform that featured 24K gold plated trim, maple wood trim and a liquor cabinet. It was very popular with entertainers of the day. Elvis bought the first one and at least three more. Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr, Evel Knievel and Elton John were among the many celebrity owners. In 1971 it cost $22,500, which is equivalent to about $150,000 today. Only 500-600 models were made – and you could pick one up in an auction for less than $60,000 today. The Stutz appeared in two episodes, but unfortunately we don’t get a good look at it in either one.
- Forgotten Lady – Movie star Grace Wheeler’s dance partner Ned Diamond drives a Stutz Blackhawk which we only see through a window looking out onto her driveway.
- Murder Under Glass – Restaurant critic Paul Gerard drives a black and silver model (pictured above).
8. Mercedes-Benz 280 SE
The Mercedes-Benz 280 SE was produced from 1967 to 1972 specifically for the American market. A full-sized 4-door luxury car, it typified the German engineering that Mercedes is famous for. You can expect to pay low six figures for a convertible model in excellent condition today. The 280 SE has the unique distinction of being the car of two different murderers, both of whom transport their victim’s body in the trunk.
- Murder by the Book – Murderer Ken Franklin drives a 1968 Mercedes 280 SE convertible complete with a ‘Have A Nice Day’ bumper sticker (see above).
- Blueprint for Murder – Architect Elliot Markham must have purchased Ken Franklin’s Mercedes at auction. It even has the same license plate number! We don’t see if it still has the bumper sticker, though (see above).
- A Stitch in Crime – Heart surgeon Dr Mayfield drives what looks like a gray hardtop model, although we don’t get a good look at it.
7. Rolls Royce Silver Shadow
The Silver Shadow was produced from 1965 to 1980. It was a more modern Rolls Royce, a bit smaller to fit better on American and European roads, yet offering increased interior space due to unibody construction. In 1977 it was renamed Silver Shadow II to reflect several engineering changes. The Silver Shadow has the largest production volume of any other Rolls Royce model, a fact which is reflected in current values. You could ride like a Columbo murderer for as little as $20,000.
- Any Old Port in a Storm – Adrian Carsini drives a gray 1966 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow with personalized CARSINI plates.
- An Exercise in Fatality – Health spa franchise owner Milo Janus drives a red one.
- Try and Catch Me – The 2-door version of the Silver Shadow is called a Corniche. Mystery writer Abigail Mitchell owns a blue model which Columbo gets to drive (pictured above).
6. Jaguar XK120
The Jaguar XK120 is an open 2-seat roadster produced from 1948 to 1954. It was the first sports car produced by Jaguar after WWII. ‘120’ referred to the car’s top speed of 120 mph (faster without the windscreen), which made it the world’s fastest production car at the time. Those first models were aluminum bodies over wood frame. By mid-1950 they had switched to steel construction with the doors, bonnet and boot lid in aluminum. Also note that there are no external door handles. You can find one today for between $50,000 and $100,000.
- The Conspirators – Irish partisan Joe Devlin drives a 1952 Jaguar XK 120 Roadster (pictured above). Odd that an Irish nationalist would drive an English car!
5. Morgan +4
The Morgan Motor Company has been around since 1910 and is famous for using wood construction in its handmade cars. The quintessential British sports car, the Morgan +4 was produced from 1950 1969. The + referred to a larger engine – most used a Triumph engine – than its predecessor, while the 4 refers to four wheels. Until 1936 Morgan cars were 3-wheelers, with a single wheel at the back of the car and two at the front. You don’t see many of +4s come up at auction, but you might pay in the region of $50,000 for one.
- Dagger of the Mind – actor Nicholas Frame drives a +4 (pictured above), which is used to drive the dead body of Sir Roger Haversham from London to his country estate.
4. Citroen SM
With aggressively modern styling and many technical innovations, the SM was Citroen’s first attempt at a luxury car and was intended to compete with American luxury brands. Produced from 1970 to 1975 in France, using a Maserati engine with front-wheel drive, the car had some initial success in America but fell victim to changing safety regulations and an economic recession. Only 2,400 models were sold in North America. When Peugeot acquired the bankrupt Citroen in 1975, production of the SM was halted. You can find excellent models today for under $50,000.
- Identity Crisis – CIA agent Nelson Bremer drives a very distinctive green Citroen SM (pictured above).
3. Ferrari 330 GTS Spider
The Ferrari 330 designation encompasses a series of V12 cars produced between 1963 and 1968. ‘330’ refers to the displacement of each single cylinder in the 4-liter V12 engine. The GTS Spider is a 2-seater convertible based on the previous Ferrari 275 with a body by Italian coach builder Pininfarina. It was produced for only two years, from 1966 to 1968. Despite only 100 versions being produced, it shows up in two episodes of Columbo. If you can find one at auction, expect to pay $2,000,000!
- Double Shock – One of the murderous twins, Dexter Paris, drives a 330 GTS to his uncle’s home prior to the murder.
- Any Old Port in a Storm – It looks like this episode’s victim, Ric Carsini, was able to buy Paris’s Ferrari 330 GTS – but the license plate number is different (pictured above).
2. Ferrari 365 GTB/4
Unofficially known as the Ferrari Daytona, in honor of Ferrari’s 1, 2, 3 finish in the 24 Hours of Daytona race in 1967, the 365 GTB was produced from 1968 to 1973. The contemporary, sharp-edged look was a break from Ferrari’s traditional rounded design. Coincidentally, the engine in this model is Ferrari’s V12 Colombo engine – named for its designer Gioachino Colombo (perhaps a distant cousin?).
The Daytona gained fame in 1971 when Dan Gurney and Brock Yates used it to win the inaugural Cannonball Run. You may recognize the Daytona as the car driven by Don Johnson on Miami Vice, however that car was a replica built on a Corvette frame. Today you can buy pick up the real thing for around $500,000 to $700,000.
- Lady in Waiting – Sheltered heiress Beth Chadwick “accidentally” shoots her overbearing brother and only a few days later a blue Ferrari 365 GTB Daytona is delivered to her home. Coincidence?
- Short Fuse – Murderer Roger Stanford drives a silver/blue model (pictured above), at one point leading the police on a fake car chase.
1. Jaguar XK-E
With its distinctive long front end and forward opening hood, the Jaguar E-type has long been considered a classic British sports car. It is even rumored that Enzo Ferrari called it “the most beautiful car ever made.” The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art includes a roadster version in its design collection – one of only six cars so honored.
Produced by Jaguar Cars Ltd from 1961 to 1975, the Jaguar is an E-Type for most of the world but in America it is designated XK-E. They are still somewhat affordable with nicely restored models going for $50,000 to $90,000. There were three appearances of the Jaguar E-Type in total, and all look to be pre-1971 models. The series was not kind to the Jaguar XK-E, however, with two of them being destroyed! The car would also crop up in the ‘new Columbo’ episodes of the 1980s.
- Etude in Black – Alex Benedict drives a silver Jaguar XK-E (pictured above) which becomes part of the plot when he leaves it overnight at his mechanic but then sneaks back to use it in the murder of his mistress.
- The Greenhouse Jungle – A defenseless yellow Jaguar XKE is pushed into a canyon as part of a fake kidnapping plot.
- Requiem for a Falling Star – A blue XK-E is torched by an aging Hollywood starlet when she murders her assistant.
“It’s a French car…”
No listing of cars from the show would be complete without a look at the Lieutenant’s distinctive 1960 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet. Columbo is very proud of the car and seemingly oblivious to the fact that it is a heap! The 403 was produced in France from 1955 to 1966. The engine produced a whopping 64 hp. Columbo’s convertible version, called a Cabriolet, was a luxury model that included leather seats and was sold in very limited numbers. Prices at auction today vary wildly depending on the condition of the car, but a perfect specimen could set you back over $125,000.
We first see the Peugeot in Murder by the Book, but we don’t get a good look at it until Death Lends a Hand when Columbo is pulled over by a motorcycle cop. Although the car features a convertible roof, we rarely see its top down. The first instance comes in Lady in Waiting when the Lieutenant treats Leslie Neilson to lunch at a drive-in diner. The roof also comes down in Short Fuse, The Most Dangerous Match and Last Salute to the Commodore, which is additionally the only time we see someone else (Columbo’s sidekick ‘Mac’) behind the wheel.
As an aside, in 1991 episode Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star the Lieutenant erroneously claims that he has lowered the roof for the first time. Keen fans know better.
Although cherished by Columbo, his car is perennially looked down on by others. In Short Fuse Roger Stanford refers to the Peugeot as “that old heap.” It’s the first joke at the Peugeot’s expense but certainly not the last. In Etude in Black a fun exchange occurs when Columbo asks the mechanic to take a look at his car with the bemused repairman asking “Have you ever thought of getting another car?” before refusing to do any work on it, saying “There are limits, mate.”
Similar gags are repeated in Requiem for a Falling Star, with the guard at the movie studio gate who thinks the Peugeot is there for a demolition derby scene; and again in Candidate for Crime when Columbo is pulled over into a vehicle inspection stop where his car has multiple infractions.
The beat-up Peugeot was clearly in a few accidents and we see two of them in the series. In A Matter of Honor, while in Mexico with Mrs Columbo, the lieutenant rear-ends a taxi. The accident sees his car impounded and keeps Columbo in Mexico to solve the crime. Meanwhile, in Make Me a Perfect Murder the episode starts with the singing detective getting caught up in a police chase and being rear-ended by a uniformed cop, resulting in Columbo wearing a neck brace for half the episode.
By the end of the 70s run in The Conspirators, the Peugeot looks very much worse for wear. Is that duct tape on the tail light? And a missing headlight? It’s amazing the car was even allowed on the road! However, the Peugeot gets a hero’s send-off with a dramatic helicopter shot of it driving on the Vincent Thomas Bridge over Los Angeles Harbor. And it would, of course, be back when Columbo hit the screens again in 1989. After all, where would the Lieutenant be without his trusty ride?
Marco DuBose is a video editor from Houston, Texas, who watches entirely too much television. If you’ve enjoyed this article you can download Marco’s more detailed rundown of all the most epic cars seen in Columbo from 1971-2003 right here (depending on your internet speed, it may take a while to open).
I do hope you enjoyed this article! My thanks to Marco for coming up with the goods on a subject many readers have asked about in the past. Let us know your own thoughts on the hottest hot rods the series threw at us. There are many noteworthy vehicles not included here that are showstoppers in their own right.
Until next time, farewell and drive safely! And remember, to quote our mate Columbo: “you take care of your car, and your car will take care of you.”