Mannix Oldsmobile – Martin Buckley samples television’s most over-the-top undercover agent’s wheels. When you need to make a distinctive steed for a fictional TV detective, who do you turn to but ‘King of Kustomizers’ George Barris? Words Martin Buckley. Photography Jerry Wyszatycki.
FROM OLDS TO NEW
1967 Oldsmobile ‘Mannix’ Toronado Roadster
A slice of TV cheese typical of its late-1960s origins, Mannix was eight seasons’ worth of crime-busting, tyre-squealing adventure following the proven carchase / punch-up formula.
‘Fake spinners and faux side pipes hardly seemed ideal for a private eye who was presumably keen to keep a low profile’
Deemed worthy only of insomniacs in the UK, this glossy action series always drew big primetime ratings in the USA, right through to when it was pulled in 1975, despite a general move towards grittier, more realistic ’70s heroes. Korean War veteran and karate black belt Joe Mannix was an LA-based private eye played by Mike Connors (1925-2017), who by 1967 had appeared in more than 20 films and made hundreds of TV appearances. With his lopsided smirk, the 42-year-old was a familiar face rather than a household name. It was television that made Connors famous, mainly thanks to Mannix. Featuring one of Lalo Schifrin’s less memorable theme tunes, the series was produced by Lucille Ball’s Desilu Productions and emanated from the same CBS/ Bruce Geller stable as Mission Impossible. In real life, Connors had a weakness for interesting cars and was squiring around Hollywood in a Derby Bentley at the time he was offered the lead in Mannix. In fact, he later claimed it was the Bentley, bought from an English couple on a US road trip, that got him the part. When he visited Desilu Productions in the car, Lucille Ball’s husband and business partner Desi Arnaz wanted to buy the Derby on sight and gave Connors the Mannix scripts to read.
‘A few youngsters cheer, relieved to see a vehicle in California that isn’t a pious eco statement but unashamedly decadent’
From the beginning the character was supposed to drive a distinctive car, but for the first few episodes Mannix was seen using a variety of routine Mercury and Ford saloons. Then, in episode three, he upped his game to a silver-and-black roadster of indeterminate make and model: a huge two-seater created for the series by George Barris.
As customiser to the stars (remember Sonny and Cher’s Mustangs?), Barris needs little introduction: he was chiefly famous for his original Batmobile and the Munster Koach, and had enjoyed a close relationship with the film and TV industry since the ’50s.
Given that the Mk1 Batmobile started life as an already fairly outrageous Lincoln show car, it is probably safe to say that the Mannix roadster, based on a showroom-fresh Oldsmobile Toronado, was a greater stretch of his talents. The choice of a futuristic Toronado was probably linked to the high-tech feel of the series during its first season, when the character was not a freelance PI but part of an organisation that used computers to solve crimes.
‘The choice of the futuristic Toronado was probably linked to the high-tech feel of the series during its first season’
Also, Barris had just produced a set of highly modified Toronados for the Esso display at the 1967 World’s Fair. His choice of the front-wheel-drive Oldsmobile would not prove unique among the custom crowd, either: the 1969 Panthermobile was Toronado-based, too. There is some conjecture in my mind about the year of the car the Mannix roadster was based on – the exposed brake-drum wheels suggest a 1966, but the steering wheel says ’1967. Whichever the case, Barris chopped the roof and, after removing the rear seats, covered the space with a giant glassfibre tonneau cover that hid a (rarely seen) hood and various spare crimefighting implements. The giant doors, then the longest on any production vehicle, were the only steel panels that Barris left standard.
Some 30 coats of semi-gloss Platinum Star metalflake paint were applied, with contrasting black reaching halfway up the doors and over the wheelarches. At the front, the pop-up lights were replaced by circular sealed-beams on either side of a bespoke grille, and the bonnet grew twin power bulges. With the slim bumperettes on the ends of the wings, this was perhaps the most effective part of a transformation that somewhat predicted the revised front-end look of the 1970 production Toronados.
Less convincing was the Pontiac Firebird-like lip spoiler on the rear deck and full-width taillight panel. Fake wheel spinners and faux side pipes hardly seemed ideal for a private eye who was, presumably, trying to keep a low profile. The Toronado reprised its role in season two, by then with contrasting dark red on its lower flanks and with the circular headlamps changed for European-style, lozenge-shaped units believed to have come from a Ford Taunus.
It was in this form that MPC Craft Master thought the Mannix roadster was worthy of a 1:25 scale plastic kit, now extremely rare. Barris produced a second car for stunts, not that it featured in many of them because Mike Connors didn’t like driving this full-sized front-driver all that much, recalling in an interview that it “handled like a parade float”.
‘Our’ Mannix roadster is the close-up car, spotted last year nestling among the exotica in Worldwide’s Pacific Grove sale during Monterey Car Week in August. It looks marginally better in the metal than it does two-dimensionally, with a nose treatment that appears more Turin than Hollywood.
With 25,000 miles recorded it appears totally original, even down to its tyres. Since leaving Mannix in 1968 the Toronado has spent most of its time as a static exhibit, which accounts for its originality. The first civilian owner was a New York property developer who used it as an attraction at his amusement park. When that closed in the late ’80s the car was auctioned to a Tennessee museum, but it came up for sale again in 2017 wearing a $100-125,000 estimate.
Given that level of inactivity it runs quite well, and was completely tolerant of being hustled along the Monterey peninsula for pictures.
Connors’ thoughts on the handling probably relate more to the fact that the structure is not especially rigid with the roof removed – to be honest, even the standard car is marginal in that department. Inside, the dashboard, which shudders visibly over bumpy surfaces, is mainly stock Toronado, which means a barrel-type speedometer and no rev counter. There is no steering ‘feel’ to speak of and the car either floats and wallows on its original dampers or squeals and scrubs its tyres on every turn, although essentially it hangs on reasonably well. The grabby, sharp brakes need care if you don’t want to lock up the rears in a plume of tyre smoke. I didn’t find the short-wave radio, but you can hardly miss the cream-coloured telephone nestling between the front seats. The centre armrest doubles as a locker for a pistol and the seats are, allegedly, heated.
Out on the road, onlookers gawp at the car, some with slowly dawning recognition of where they have seen it before. A few youngsters even cheer – relieved, perhaps, to see a vehicle in California that is not some pious eco statement but unashamedly wasteful and decadent.
The car probably hangs together better than the series itself when viewed today, although both have a certain ironic appeal. Squeaky-clean Connors is frequently beaten up (he was knocked unconscious 55 times), but gets brownie points for doing his own stunts: he was famous for barrel-rolling out of moving vehicles and, generally, coming up shooting, quaff intact.
Those recidivists our hero could not disarm with his tough-talking one-liners, he could bring around to his way of thinking with a readily brandished Walther PPK or a karate chop. About the only edgy thing about the show was the fact that Connors’ Simca-driving secretary was one of the very few regular black characters on American television at the time.
There is no blood, sex or swearing in Mannix, where the action plays out in an eternally sunny world of conveniently positioned empty cardboard boxes on the Paramount Studios back lot, with regular forays out on to canyon roads for chase sequences that were not the strong suit of this bespoke roadster.
It was for this reason that it was pensioned off in season three in favour of a Dodge Dart GTS, also Barris-modified but much less conspicuous. Even in late-’60s la-la land, the idea of a private eye maintaining discretion in a 7-litre, 18ft-long, two-seater one-off convertible stretched credulity somewhat.
Thanks to Worldwide Auctioneers (001 260 925 6789; worldwideauctioneers.com)
The highly original Mannix roadster feels much like a stock Toronado to drive. Top: seats aside, cabin is largely unchanged. Pins at the corners of the tonneau locate the flimsy hood. Lustrous paint helps the roadster stand out. Below, l-r: 425cu in V8 has 475lb ft of torque; high spec included a/c. Mike Connors in the Olds in its first iteration. Above: Toronado appears in the intro sequence for the early series. Buckley does his best Mike Connors on the carphone – de rigueur for the ’60s private eye. Above, from top: drums hide behind chrome rims; Barris’ signature; Taunus headlights. Below: Trans-Am-style rear.
BUCKLEY’S FORGOTTEN PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS
HAZELL 1978-’1979 TRIUMPH STAG
Co-written by football manager and pundit Terry Venables, Hazell was a short-lived but well-made and interestingly written series about a cockney copper turned private eye (Nicholas Ball) who generally eschews violence, preferring an easy life that earns him enough to keep up the payments on his Stag. Inevitably, he gets drawn into some hairy situations, memorably including an axe being impaled in the Triumph’s bonnet by an irate husband.
THE BIG SLEEP 1978 MERCEDES-BENZ 220 CABRIOLET
In the original film noir version of Raymond Chandler’s book, the hero had a humdrum Plymouth. For his star-fi lled 1978 remake, set in the UK, director Michael Winner cast a 220 Cabriolet as Philip Marlowe’s car of choice. It is established in the opening credits as Robert Mitcham (Marlowe) drives up the A1 to Knebworth, and something about these Mercs appealed to ’70s filmmakers – John Voight drove one in The Odessa File a few years earlier.
DICK BARTON 1948-’1950 ALLARD K1
Dick Barton was the hero of millions of 1940s schoolboy listeners to the BBC Light Programme, who thrilled to the sound of the Devil’s Gallop theme. With trusty assistants Jock and Snowy and his faithful Allard, special agent Barton took on the dastardly foes of post-war Britain. The Allard K1 remained in three Hammer Studios fi lm versions, swapped for a pedestrian Riley Nine when Southern TV made its Dick Barton: Special Agent series in the late ’70s.
BANACEK 1972-’1974 PACKARD 180 DARRIN CONVERTIBLE
Banacek was from the same NBC ‘Mystery Movie’ stable as Columbo. The lead, a wealthy insurance investigator played by cigar-chomping George Peppard, was modelled squarely on Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown Affair character – he even lived in the same Boston town house that featured in the 1968 fi lm. Banacek’s everyday car was a chauffeur-driven Cadillac, but for fun – and to illustrate his connoisseurship – he drove the 1941 Packard.
HARRY O 1974-’1976 AUSTIN-HEALEY SPRITE
Harry Orwell (played by jug-eared David Janssen) is another retired policeman who, having taken a bullet in the back in the line of duty, becomes a sleuth for hire, working out of a beachfront cottage between Santa Monica and Malibu. One of the running gags of this series was the unreliability of Harry’s car, a faded 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite that gets very occasional road use but, most of the time, sits mockingly outside his house.
VEGAS 1978-’1981 FORD THUNDERBIRD
As the title suggests, Vegas (or VEGA$) was a series about a private investigator (Dan Tanna, played by Robert Ulrich) working in the famous Nevada gambling town. Apart from occasional cameo appearances by a very tired-looking Tony Curtis (playing a casino boss), the only really memorable thing about this series was Tanna’s red 1957 Ford Thunderbird, which he parked inside his ‘house’ – actually the prop store of a casino.
PETER GUNN 1958-’1961 PLYMOUTH SPORT FURY
An original television conception by Blake Edwards, Peter Gunn featured Craig Stevens in the role of the cultivated, jazz-loving detective, although many only remember the series for its superb Henry Mancini theme tune. There was nothing remarkable about him running big Chrysler products, from a DeSoto to a Plymouth Fury, but it’s worth noting that Peter Gunn was one of the first to embrace what became a cliché of the genre: a carphone.
MAN IN A SUITCASE 1967-’1968 HILLMAN IMP
What could have been just another bit of good-natured ITC nonsense was made memorable by its star, the brooding method actor Richard Bradford playing wrongly discredited ex-CIA agent McGill. Prematurely grey, this beefy former American football star didn’t make himself very popular with the stuntmen whose noses he occasionally broke, but it was all part of his realistic approach – as was the green Hillman Imp he usually drove.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS OLDSMOBILE TORONADO
Sold/no built 1965-’1966/40,963
Construction steel body, steel perimeter frame chassis
Engine all-iron, ohv 6967cc V8, four-barrel Rochester carburettor
Max power 386bhp @ 4800rpm (gross)
Max torque 475Ib ft @ 3200rpm (gross)
Transmission three-speed auto, FWD
Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear beam axle, single-leaf springs
Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
Length 17ft 7in (5359mm)
Width 6ft 6 ½ in (1994mm)
Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
Wheelbase 9ft 11in (3022mm)
Weight 4570Ib (2155kg)
0-60mph 8.7 secs
Top speed 126mph
Price new £4067
Price now £10-25,000