We’re not capable of brilliance 24 hours a day. The mind demands rest, nourishment, stimulation. And old cars. Wonderful, alluring, Eisenhower-era cars.
As sleep doesn’t come easily for yours truly, you’ll often find a YouTube window open on my computer late at night. Sometimes its comedy, sometimes it’s tornado videos, and more often than not — lately, especially — it’s syndicated reruns of an old show some nice fellow uploaded to the net. It’s not a groundbreaking, award-winning show. It’s not high-minded. There’s no identity politics. Complex plotlines and witty dialogue? Get the hell outta here, pal.
No, the sole appeal of Highway Patrol (1955-1959) is the cars. (That, and identifying the scenes where: (a) actor Broderick Crawford is drunk, and (b) Crawford doesn’t have a driver’s license.)
Smog-blanketed southern California in the late Fifties. Could there be a more glamorous locale?
Highway Patrol is one of the shows my mom sometimes mentioned in stories of her childhood. Until recently, I’d never seen so much as a clip, but now I’m hopelessly addicted. The world portrayed in Highway Patrol is one where criminals wear suits and sport coats (if there’s no coat, you can be sure he’s carrying a knife). No car is more than three years old, at most, even for people “down on their luck,” “struggling,” or “just starting out.”
It’s a world where, I assume due to advertisers, the cops never once mention the make or model of a car, even when sending out a description of a murder suspect to officers in the field.
“Be on the lookout for a black sedan. Suspects are armed and dangerous.”“10-4.”
It’s a world where Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors rule the road, with nary a Studebaker or Rambler in sight. Detroit dominance? In this world, it’s complete. In this SoCal of the late 1950s, aiming a .38 revolver is pointless. Shoot from about chest height and you’ll hit your fleeing suspect between those two train cars 20 yards away, no problem.
In earlier episodes, the California Highway Patrol lent its own cars to the show’s creators. It was a low-budget production, with every dollar counted. Later, after the CHP ended its relationship with the show (more on that in a bit), cars had to be ordered direct from the OEM. These were true police-spec vehicles — two-door sedans with blackwall tires, simple hubcaps, spotlight, police band radio. Buick Specials and the odd Century filled the Highway Patrol fleet during the the first two years, with the odd Oldsmobile 88 and Mercury Monterey added in for good measure. Yes, Buicks, Mercurys, and Oldsmobiles as cop cars.
The Buick Specials disappeared after the chrome-covered, bloated, and sluggish ’58 models (single-speed Dynaflows weren’t built for quick getaways), while the last Mercs were the Space Age ’57s. Starting that year, and running exclusively until the end of the series, Dodge took over the fleet, and with good reason. The low-slung, high-finned Coronets of ’57 to ’59 had menace, muscle, and could navigate a sharp turn without risking rear suspension failure.
Hemispherical combustion chambers and torsion bars are truly a cop’s best friend.
It’s been said that in this show, there was no crime that couldn’t be solved by setting up a roadblock. Repeated viewings seem to bear this out. Simplistic? Sure. Family friendly? Well, people do get shot and killed, but perhaps viewers were made of tougher stuff back then. This is the Fifties, so it’s a bloodless death.
Hollywood hypocrisy was popular 60 years ago, too, so all episodes end with Crawford (who played the lead character, Captain Dan Matthews) issuing a stern and, ahem, sober warning from behind his desk, or while standing next to his squad car. It’s always a message about road safety (“It isn’t the car that kills … it’s the driver”), delivered by an actor pulled over for DUI — by the California Highway Patrol, no less — countless times. Apparently, CHP officers even had their own nickname for him.
Not to make light of alcoholism, but it’s easy to tell which scenes were shot too close to noon. In some episodes, it’s no secret why Crawford continually asks another officer to take the wheel. (Filming was reportedly, at times, a challenge. Some scenes where Crawford had to be seen behind the wheel were shot on private property.) Still, when he’s on the ball, no one barks a complex order without the need to take a breath quite like Crawford. If you’ve never seen the films All the King’s Men (1949) and The Mob (1951), I highly recommend them.
My special YouTube user, who’s responsible for so much of my wasted time, seems to have the whole show ready to go, and no one likes a quitter. I have to watch them all, if for nothing else than to soak up the feeling of seeing a Dodge Coronet chasing a Plymouth Fury along the sun-drenched roads of the Simi Valley.
Simpler times, simple pleasures.
(For your viewing pleasure, here’s the 1977 episode of CHiPs where Ponch and Jon pull over Broderick Crawford. It’s worth it just for the subtle put-down at 1:47.)
[Images via imcdb.org]