(Not So) Background Distractions

Andrew Miles is watching the detectives. 

(c) Imcdb.org

Watching television was once a simple act. As youngsters, the choice was scant, yet memory suggests programs containing both interest and drama. With modern day 24 hour, on-demand supply, choices of what and when to be entertained with often raise anomalies when one is forced to observe a production that might not be one’s first choice.

Attempting to pay attention to the main subject often finds your correspondent’s attention drifting, as there’s usually something more interesting occurring in the background. Was that a sage green Vectra – surely that can’t be a Renault Talisman? A one off view of a Chrysler Le Baron convertible duly noted.

The Eurocentric TV drama, The Missing (2014), had, towards the end of episode one, a huge American wagon honing into view. Fully awake and interested, but at what am I looking? Turning internet detective procured the answer: a Chevrolet Caprice Wagon. Hmmm.

(c) Curbsideclassics

The Caprice, languishing in the background for the remainder of the series rather sadly, is almost as enigmatic as the character Julién Baptiste (played by Turkish born, French actor Tchéky Karyo *) who drives this General Motor. A wise, influential yet humane French policeman of some forty years service, the show’s writers and researchers clearly thought this seasoned character deserved a suitably eclectic ride.

Baptiste does raise the rev counter briefly in a short but high speed car chase, him piloting a green Renault Laguna saloon in pursuit of a black BMW E39, before crashing into a silver Mondeo Estate – (the Caprice parked safely away at home or the station, presumably). Baptiste is ok, the Laguna needing a repair shop and fresh fluids. The Mondeo? Had it.

Full marks must be given to crew members who sourced the Caprice when any of Europe’s touring versions would be easier to purloin. I was rather taken by the wagon and previously knew nothing of this formica-clad wonder from 1981. The car is hardly a looker in reasonable company but for reasons other than size alone stood out – it’s different. In the modern-day European milieu of jelly-moulded metal, the Caprice cuts quite the dash.

(c) Imcdb.org

Garish being just one descriptor when pointed in the direction of that faux-veneer. The front engenders plain, yet heavy adjectives along with the set square rectangular additions for the lights, paired with our old friend the egg crate grille. But our eyes then reach towards the rear and we can discern what appears to be a rear three quarter section from perhaps the truck-end of Louis’ range of vehicles. Lengthy is the side view without doubt – five and half metres.

This section of the car demands closer scrutiny, for the impression it gives is that of something welded on from another vehicle. Is this the fault of the wider chrome surround? Do the roof bars add visual or literal weight to the rear end? Is that roof section higher than the rest of the car? All three questions answered in the affirmative but also with a puzzling ‘rightness’ to proceedings. Remarkably this vehicle has in fact been put on a diet, aluminium use shaving off many pounds of excess fat seen in previous incarnations.

Knowing full well some of our readership will have forgotten more about this vehicle than I shall ever glean, research into this extensive American staple found the Caprice to have enjoyed an enduring and interesting life span. Hailing from 1966, the wood being appliqué vinyl. The car’s name is taken from either a restaurant in New York that Bob Lund frequented or the daughter of an Indy Car official, depending on who you ask. Aimed squarely at the upper end of the mid-market with more fake wood inside, thicker carpets along with an altogether more upscale ambiance.

283 cubic inches (4.6litres) was the standard fit V8 but an upgrade to the exemplary sounding Turbo-Jet V8, creating some 325bhp was offered for a time. Monsieur Baptiste’s would have a V8 fitted, not that the programme ever allows us to hear the mill, nor sees the officer under the hood or even checking the oil – (where’s the drama in that)? With a stonking great 226 cubic inches (4.7 litres) the engine shoved out a paltry 115 bhp – skins off a rice pudding, anyone?

More decorous to be a reserved load-lugger on endless straight freeways than a tarmac tearing law enforcement weapon of choice. Another shame being why Baptiste’s choice of car is never alluded to. In the show, he spends long periods away from home in hotels – he could live in the back of Caprice should he wish, with nearly ninety cubic feet of toe wriggling room.

(c) Imcdb.org

A scene in a later episode sees the Caprice Wagon parked alongside a riverbank. These TV vehicles are probably barely driven half a mile in actual footage and are, in all honesty, a mere prop to support the actors. It won’t do the running gear any good mind, all that cold running playing havoc with un-warmed oil. Next time you watch anything with a car in the show, look how white that exhaust smoke is.

Authenticity and realism are facets of most shows. Why not give these background details some more thought and let a thirty year old American wagon show us what it can do: however sloth-like, uneconomically or with masses of understeer come the first bend. For one thing, it would keep us entertained. Probably just me, then.

* The stand-alone series named Baptiste filmed in 2018 sees our investigative friend driving a French registration navy blue Jaguar X-Type diesel estate. The interior’s wooden veneers feature quite heavily whilst the car gets involved in a bonefide car chase come the final episode.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

36 thoughts on “(Not So) Background Distractions”

    1. Tripe has been considered something of a delicacy here in Ireland’s Southernmost county for many years. Once the preserve of the impoverished, it is now more likely to served in certain restaurants as a local speciality. Usually slow cooked in milk with onions, it is often accompanied by Drisheen, a form of blood sausage, which in this particular formulation is said to be unique to Cork. Then there are Crubeens, which are pigs trotters, boiled to a melting tenderness, then oven cooked for a crackling effect. Cork’s English Market on the city’s Grand Parade is a local destination for all forms of meat and offal – and other fare. Indeed, foodwise there’s little that cannot be obtained there.

      Bill, as a well-travelled man of the World, no doubt knows all this, so I’m quite certain he meant his comment as a compliment…

    2. My Nan, who originated from Tipperary, loved tripe and made it with milk and onions. Couldn’t stand the smell personally…

  1. Thanks Andrew, for a extremely enjoyable read. I also am often more interested in the integrity of the setting and the selection of cars for scenes in films/tv. Well done on your research on the Caprice!

  2. Good morning Andrew, and thanks for highlighting an interesting subject. The choice of car for the protagonist in movies and TV dramas is an art in itself, often used to send subliminal signals about the character’s circumstances and personality. My favourite recent example is Saga Noren’s lovely Porsche 911 in the Scandi detective drama ‘The Bridge’:

    Regarding the ‘woody’ Caprice, that really was the quintessential suburban mom’s car in 1980’s US movies and TV programmes. The advertisement above made me laugh, making a feature of how far the children are located from their parents. I’m sure that appealed to anyone who has endured a long journey with noisy squabbling siblings immediately behind them. Of course, the advertisement ignores the fact that the kids are occupying the car’s rear crumple zone!

    1. Thank you Andrew. Even the most dull television drama is enlivened by the background detail – and the vehicles in old films even more so. If Mr Malcolm cannot appreciate that, he doesn’t know what he’s missing.

      Indulging your inner anorak by spotting the ‘wrong’ vehicle detail (like the un-characteristic mistake in an episode of Foyle’s War when a Routemaster bus appeared instead of a period-correct RT) is eclipsed by the plethora of old films on Channel 81 (Talking Pictures) -the other day I spotted a 1938 Hillman Minx drop-head coupé identical to our first family car…..

      No Andrew, it’s not just you.

    2. Saga Norén’s 911 (a 2.7 S) is well known in the Porsche community. It was bought for the film at something like £7,000 in Califormia, was kinf of ‘restored’ cheaply (as can be told by the half hearted conversion from US to Euro spec) aqnd in the end Bonham’s sold it for £125,000.
      The colour combination of ‘Jäger Grün’ (hunter’s green) and dark red interior is highly unusual and makes this car quite rare.

    3. Porsche 911s in somewhat ‘unappealing’ colours (for today’s tastes) seem to be hip among TV detectives.
      Stuttgart Tatort’s Thorsten Lannert drives a Targa in brown:

    4. Hi JTC. If you read the Sunday Times (Culture magazine) you’ll know that that, following that Foyle’s War episode, the word ‘Routemaster’ became shorthand in the comments columns for any error in the staging of TV and film period dramas.

      One of the more famous of such errors concerned the Audi Quattro driven by the character Gene Hunt in the BBC time travel drama ‘Ashes to Ashes’. The drama was set in 1980 and the red Quattro carried the correct ‘V’ suffix UK registration plate. Unfortunately, it was an RHD model with flush one-piece dual headlamp units. Both features were introduced with the 1983 facelift:

      Given the subject of the drama, I suppose he could have brought it back from the future!

    5. Richy Müller (the actor playing Thorsten Lannert) is a Porsche fan wit his own 911 and very active in German semi professional long distance raing where he uses a clubsport 911.
      That’s a big difference to Sofia Helin/Saga Norén who is indifferent to anything with wheels and deeply disliked her 911.
      German ‘Tatort’ inspectors often have intersting cars.
      Schimanski from Duisburg had a CX, Felix Murot from Frankfurt had a Ro 80 (and a brain tumor), Dortmund’s Peter Faber had a genuine Saab 900, Kopper from Ludwigshafen had a 105 series Giulia which was terminally damaged and replaced with a Fiat 130 saloon which was also badly damaged in an accident scene, which was particularly unforgivable because this car was from the Fiat Heilbronn Germany HQ ex-management fleet with unique features like electric door mirrors from a 7er BMW. The 130 was rescued and repaired when it was found that corrosion had done far more damage than the movie accident.

      My favourite TV inspector’s car is Linley’s Bristol 401 with his Jensen Interceptor a close second.

    6. The bridge’s procuction must have had someone interested in cars. Apart from Saga’s 911 shich is supposed to be linked to her character ( if I am not mistaken she won the car on a bet while in police academy), they have picked unusual cars for the backround. One of the witnesses drives a C6 actually. Given how scarce this car is I can not imagine that it was placed there by accident.

  3. One of my favourite anecdotes concerning cars in TV dramas concerned ‘The New Avengers’, a 1976 reboot of the classic 1960’s British series starring Patrick Macnee. In one episode there is a car chase between a baddie driving a yellow Aston Martin DBS and Mike Gambit, one of the protagonists, driving a red Jaguar XJ-S. In the final shots, the DBS is replaced by an Audi 100 Coupé! Apparently, the DBS broke down and they couldn’t get an identical replacement at short notice. Here’s an image showing the Audi with its grille badge taped over:

    I remember watching the programme as a car-obsessed youngster and spotting the switch!

    1. Wasn’t the Audi 100 Coupé’s nickname ‘poor man’s Aston’?

    2. Hi Dave. The 100 Coupé certainly had more than a passing resemblance to the DBS, particularly from the rear three-quarter view. That doesn’t excuse the substitution though!

  4. I think that 115 HP for a 1981 naturally aspirated 4.7 litres diesel engine is ok; European similar engines like the 2.2 litres Citröen CX had 65 HP, more or less in line with the Caprice values.

  5. I’ve never been a fan of huge American cars, well apart from Mustangs and Corvettes 🤣. Huge cars and although usually big V8’s, they produced very little power to lug the lumps around. Very inefficient and gas guzzlers. But I suppose ‘gas’ was always cheap in America compared to the UK. Another great article tough Andrew.

  6. @ Daniel O’Callaghan: also my favourite in best-of-all-detectives is Saga and her Porsche. After seeing “The Bridge” we went to Malmö for a weekend, just to drive over the bridge like she did – although we only had an Alfasud Sprint instead of a 911 for this trip.

    There’s a workshop around here that is restoring old 911. They built a vehicle like the one from Saga. The Price was around 80 Grand, we were tempted for a short time.

    About Caprice: In the mid-80s we were in LA for a film shoot. One of the producers had such a vehicle as a rental car. On a short distance ride, I can say, at least 10 people fit easily in there, as long the desire for adventure and human contact was greater than the need for comfort. (Maybe it wasn’t legal, but hey, we were young and it was the 80s…)

    1. Good morning Fred. An Alfasud Sprint is not a bad substitute at all for a classic 911! My interest is also piqued by your casual comment about being in LA for a film shoot: there must be a good story to tell there too!

      Regarding the Caprice, the subsequent model was the archetypal N.Y. taxi when I travelled there on business frequently during the 1990’s. They had the appearance of a ‘land yacht’ bobbing up and down on the city’s notoriously uneven and pot-holed streets. I could never understand how such an enormous car could have so little rear legroom, but I think it was because the reinforced partition behind the front seats robbed the car of rear seat space:

      Now, it’s all Nissan and Toyota hybrids, which are certainly more roomy and comfortable, but rather anodyne

    2. Daniel, indeed the partition was responsible for the cramped quarters in the rear of NYC taxis. Before the TLC(Taxi & Limousine Commission, great acronym for an otherwise unremarkable regulatory agency) made the barrier a requirement in the late 1990s, most cabs offered boatloads of legroom to stretch out in. Their trunks were enormous, too; ostensibly for the luggage of passengers going to or from the airport, but in practice usually filled with the driver’s weekly groceries or the equipment for his side hustle.

      1991, when I moved to the city, was,IMO, a high point in taxi culture. Not only were the partitions not yet common, there was diversity in the fleet. One would normally get the default standard Chevy Caprice and Ford Crown Vic, but you also had the rather strange choice of a Peugeot 505 and the huge Checkers still roamed the street. Though as an undergraduate I had to pinch my pennies and therefore almost never took taxis, I would hail a Checker every time I saw one just for the experience of riding in one for a few blocks.

  7. Jasper Fforde isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (although personally I love his books) but he has a lot of fun with the convention that fictional Private Eyes must drive a distinctive vehicle in “The Big Over Easy”. I doubt it will ever be filmed though…

  8. thankyou Andrew for your forensic entertainment.
    and thanks Daniel for the lovely photo of Saga and her 911.
    a great role, and a great series. what a pleasure it was every
    time she drove that car, and what a beautiful green.

  9. Hi Ben, and thanks for sharing your recollections. There were still a few Checkers around when I first went to NY, but they looked extraordinarily anachronistic in the early 1980’s. Here’s a photo of one for our younger readers who mightn’t know what we’re talking about:

    1. They looked positively ancient by the 1990s. And I’m sure they were a bear to keep running and to fuel. But their back seats made up for any shortcomings.

  10. Thanks for this entertaining angle Andrew. I personally have a bit of a fetish (which irritates some friends, not to mention my wife, during viewing) with scanning every scene in films and TV series situated in the past to see if all vehicles are period correct. Very, very few I am afraid. The one that came closest was a two-part film about French gangster Jacques Mesrine, named “Public enemy number one”. I was mightily impressed how all cars were correct for the time, location and setting, down to the colours. Just one minor error in the second part which is situated in the late seventies: in the background, slightly out of focus, is parked a Rover SD1, but it is the facelifted post-1981 model unfortunately.
    Having said that the film was well done, suspensefull and fascinating- I recommend it!

    1. Thank you, obviously I’m not the only person in this world who p….. off his wife with such fussy remarks. 😉

    2. Bruno, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Nothing worse than a film situated in the fifties with a double headlight DS, for example. Or when they use different examples of the same car for filming and one of them is pre-facelift and the other post. Another source of irritation is when you see people driving from the outside and they’re in a saloon, but the inside shots are from an estate…

      Luckily, I’m watching ‘The Crown’ at the moment, and I enjoy all the old british cars appearing there, but there is only a tiny fraction of them I could even identify, let alone judge if they are correct for the period. What a relief!

    3. Only two period detail mistakes are now perhaps excusable. In the UK, prior to the early ’50s, headlamps when dipped switched from both on to nearside one only – and at the rear a single rear light & brake light was permissible and normal on pre-war cars. Both had been outlawed by 1960 and thus not available to a Producer.
      But Edwardian and Vintage (as opposed to vintage) cars and taxis that we see on screen driving around town with both headlamps lit are still wrong.

    4. That’s interesting, JTC – I didn’t know that. The British authorities have traditionally had something of a fetish for trying to make people drive around with limited lighting (the dim-dip saga; encouraging use of sidelights only in town at one point, etc).

  11. Thanks to the article by Andrew Miles, I remembered these adventurous ride in a Chevrolet Caprice Station (thanks again for the TV tip at this point).

    Oh yeah, filming in LA – even if it was just commercials. Those were the days and a load of memories.

    Needless to say, we have always stayed at the Chateau Marmont. We were there so often, the manager on a European trip came over for a dinner at our place.

    On the second trip I found out that National Rental had a classy-club-department at that time, called the Emerald Club. It took me about 3 seconds to figure out how to get a membership (all you had to do was fill out an admission form, haha…) and a range of american classic cars in front of the building were waiting to be hired out. The first was a 1957 Ford Fairlane Convertible, the next a Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible from 1956 (a ´57 was not available), and on a third trip a Pontiac 8 Convertible from 1951 (the year my “companion” was born – she was NOT amused – but she’s still my wife today, so it didn’t hurt). Unfortunately, National Car Rental ended the program too quickly, otherwise I would have been able to rent a Buick Reatta in Miami at that time. Well, you can not have everything…

    With the Chevrolet Caprice we went to Mr. Chow for the famous Peking duck. The second thing we did after arriving in LA – the first thing was getting a shower.

    The next trips were made in style in a American Classic. (Among other things, to a restaurant downtown, in the rooms of a former gentleman’s outfitter that housed Philip Marlowe’s office in a film from the 1950s.)

    Life on the fast lane. These days I had a lot of 15 minutes, even if they were “only” private…

    In New York I had the opportunity to get a taxidrive in a Checker Cab and in a Caprice. Nowadays I don’t have to go there anymore. It wasn’t all good in the past, but now the taxis are Nissan Minivans, give me a break…

  12. I suspect the 325 bhp figure was somewhat ‘aspirational’. Maybe at the flywheel with no alternator or AC but not at the rear wheels.

  13. Interesting article Andrew and a good read too. ignore the “tripe” comment and keep on trucking!

  14. Interesting article, but I dont recognize any of the engines as 1981 Chevy specifications, more common on this year are 305 c.i and 350´s

  15. Great subject Andrew, thanks for the excellent article.

    Returning to the Ashes to Ashes / Life on Mars subject the anachronistic quattro is an echo, intentional or otherwise of the strange mongrel Corina used in the original John Sinister series.

    The car itself was a 2000E which as we all know was based on the mk 3 facelifted version with its rectangular headlights. All well and good but the car used in the program was fired with the twin headlight grille of the non facelift (GXL) model while still retaining the 2000E badgery.

    Anyway a good excuse to shoehorn in an alert to TV ‘tec fans that a third series will be made.

    This is not the venue for a poll but absolutely my favourite ‘tec series ever – looking forward to this one.

    Any early nominations for suitable cars for Gene Hunt?

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