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A Sports Car Icon

If you think about the popular 1970s television hit Vega$, you probably have a distinct image in your mind. It’s dark and the lights from the strip are reflecting off the brilliant paint job on detective Dan Tanna’s 1957 Thunderbird. Few television cars have become as famous as Robert Urich’s 1957 T-Bird.

The car’s immense popularity was summed up by the show’s human star, Robert Urich, himself. He noted that the Thunderbird received more fan mail than he ever did. Although Urich was surely exaggerating, that he felt the need to comment at all is testament to the popularity of the T-bird.

Through the shows sixty-seven episodes (including the original pilot movie and two two-hour specials), only two actual Thunderbirds were involved in filming. Both were nearly identical 1957 models, but one was in better condition that the other. This “show car” was used for close ups and scenes where the car needed to look top-notch. The other car was slightly modified and “souped up” and was used for bigger shots involving movement. Considering the program’s longevity and the frequent use of the vehicles, it is amazing that only two Ford Thunderbirds were used. Literally hundreds of Dodge Chargers, for instance, were demolished during the Dukes of Hazzard television program’s run. Even mellow Jim Rockford necessitated a new car every year to keep the Rockford Files rolling.

One of the production staff from the original television later purchased the 1957 Thunderbirds and still maintains the popular sports cars. The story of their acquisition is particularly interesting. The two Vega$ cars had been commandeered by a movie studio and were repainted an aquamarine color. They were to be used as background items in the Richard Gere film Breathless. When the current owner found them, he may have saved them from destruction in the Gere flick.

Tanna’s T-bird was a television staple, immediately recognized by millions and inextricably linked to the television show. Even after all these years, the mere mention of Vega$ brings to mind Urich’s Dan Tanna talking on what now seems like a wildly oversized car telephone as he worked the Las Vegas streets.

There were other popular sports cars on television during the same era. Jim Rockford’s gold Firebird was very well known, and the Starsky and Hutch Gran Torino with its red and white paint scheme was immensely popular, too. The 1957 Ford Thunderbird from Vega$ ranks right up with these other television automotive icons and is probably the most immediately recognizable true sports car in television history, with the possible exception of the Corvette from the 1960s program Route 66.

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