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by Steve Temple  More from Author

Don Johnson's Hemi Cuda Convertible Was the Real Star of Nash Bridges

As evidenced by Transformers and the return of the Knight Rider TV series, muscle cars continue to play a starring role in movies and television, often upstaging their human counterparts. Typically these rolling props appear in the most improbable scenarios. After  all, who would ever conceive of a TV show based on a nattily dressed detective driving an ultra-rare Hemi Cuda convertible on the streets of San Francisco? That’s almost as absurd as an undercover vice cop driving a Ferrari Daytona Spyder in Miami! (Wait—doesn’t that sound familiar?)

Actually, actor Don Johnson was the star vehicle, or rather drove one, in both Nash Bridges (the Hemi Cuda) and Miami Vice (a Corvette-based fake Ferrari built by Tom McBurnie, which was later replaced by an authentic Testarossa).

Given the publicity surrounding these cars, who wouldn’t dream of owning a piece of Hollywood? After all, castoffs from a cancelled TV series are the gems of the rummage-sale world. No worn-out toys or old shoes here, mind you, but world-class pickings from a show that ran six seasons. Most of the Nash Bridges bric-a-brac and set props—the fake cocaine, dusty coffins, bullet-riddled jackets and costumes that would make a hooker blush—were quickly snapped up.

Of course, the ’71 Hemi Cuda was the collection’s crown jewel (or, more accurately, cubic zirconium, as we’ll explain), and sold at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona for something in the mid six figures (reports range from $137,500 to $148,500). The fact that Johnson drove it across the block no doubt helped raise the auction fever of bidders.

What follows are some revealing details about that car, stripping away all the glitz and glamour. (Dig beneath the Hollywood tinsel, and you’ll probably find more tinsel.) Like the cornstarch-filled drug dealer’s dime bag, Johnson’ Cuda was a reasonable facsimile, a more common 1970 model modified to look like the authentic item.

Despite the shaker hood and decal, this Cuda re-creation doesn’t boast an original Hemi engine. The car that sold at Barrett Jackson was originally a 318 car that had a 440 in it. Considering its dilapidated condition some claimed it would have brought only a fraction of the auction figure if it weren’t for the celebrity connection. Still, it has a certain cachet because his hindquarters once warmed the white vinyl upholstery.

Don’t forget we’re talking Hollywood here, so this TV detective’s improbable transportation would never be one of the original, ultra-rare, Hemi-powered, convertibles, one of which sold in 1971 for $2.2 million. (Only 11 of them were built in 1971, according to Galen Govier, an expert on Chryslers). And here’s a heartbreaking side note: One of those 11 is still unaccounted for, and rumored to have been scrapped in the mid-1970s by a Phoenix owner who wanted to sell the car, but found buyers at the time were only interested in hardtops.

It was Don Johnson who decided to use the 1971 Cuda convertible on his show, and chose to have the cars painted yellow with white interiors. Actually that hue is a 1970 color known as “Lemon Twist.” After shooting the pilot the show’s producers were not sure if it would show up well enough in filming, and reportedly later painted it a richer, school bus yellow. Also, during the shooting of the pilot, Don Johnson blew up the 340 engine while driving one of the stunts.

Not surprisingly, like the jumping “General Lee” ’69 Dodge Charger that appeared in the Dukes of Hazzard series, more than one yellow Cuda was created for the show out of 1970 models, as many as five in all by some estimates. Movieland vehicle supplier Frank Bennetti came up with four Cudas—two were ’70 models modified to look like ’71 versions with new front end. One had a 340, two had a 318, one a 440 engine.

Sharp-eyed muscle car enthusiasts spotted a number of incorrect trim details on these stunt vehicles, such as the number of spokes on the steering wheel, the type of stitching on the seats, and the color and shape of the nameplate on the dash.

Not all of these Cuda cast members were in as good a condition as the one seen here, either. (Suffice it to say that a real Hemi-powered Barracuda convertible of any year is far too rare to use for stunt work in a TV series.) Referring to one of the other cars that sold, a crewmember from the show revealed that, “It landed too hard after a jump. Never ran properly after that. Doesn’t steer right. I wouldn’t drive that thing.” An anonymous bidder bought it anyway, paying $23,000 at an auction in San Francisco, where the show was shot.

Also, fans of Nash Bridges may recall the episode where the souped-up Plymouth Barracuda blew up. Sure enough, auctioneers unloaded the torched version of the car with its charred seats, shattered windshield and detached hood.

Johnson eventually sold off some other vehicles as well, which were not all imitation muscle cars, They included a voluptuous red ’59 Cadillac that appeared in the movie 3,000 Miles To Graceland. In the film, Kevin Costner used the car in a cross-country pursuit of Kurt Russell and Courtney Cox to reclaim a substantial sum of money acquired by their team of Elvis impersonators in a Las Vegas casino heist.

Another of Johnson’s personal favorites from his collection is a 1947 Studebaker pickup, give to him by Melanie Griffith, which was also featured in the Nash Bridges series. But his pride and joy was the 1989 Ferrari Testarossa given to him by the late Enzo Ferrari as a thank-you for all the publicity Johnson generated for prancing-horse exotics on the hit series Miami Vice.

Why would Johnson want to let go of these prized vehicles? “Over the years I’ve enjoyed owning and driving these automobiles,” he admitted. “However, a combination of increasing demands on my time and a personal desire to streamline my life make it time to let others enjoy these beauties.”

And who knows? Maybe one of those Cuda clones will show up in a future episode of Knight Rider or the sequel to Transformers.

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