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Originally published in The New York Times.



In new "Starsky & Hutch," one 70s star makes a comeback

NEXT Friday, when Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson resurrect ”Starsky & Hutch” as the title detectives in a film to be released that day, the only star reprising an original role will be the famous flashy red Gran Torino with the white swoosh stripe. The 70’s retro chic, 180-degree-spinning, rubber-burning mean machine will make its movie debut, 25 years after retiring from television.

The car was cast against type. In 1974, the Ford Gran Torino, hefty fourth-generation descendant of the original ‘68 Torino, was built more as a family car than the earlier, high-performance models. Producers of the TV series ”Starsky and Hutch,” however, saw acting potential in the four-wheeled behemoth. They gave the two-door hardtop its big break — and a makeover, adding cosmetic toughness, most noticeably in a bright red paint job and slotted mag wheels.

ABC put ”Starsky and Hutch” on the air in the fall of 1975, and it was a hit in its first season, thanks in no small part to the cool cop car, nicknamed the Striped Tomato.

”What’s funny is that it was an undercover car but it was bright red with a white stripe,” the movie’s director, Todd Phillips, 33, said recently from his office in Los Angeles. ”It stood out more than an actual cop car.”

The Ford Motor Company capitalized on the TV car’s popularity in 1976 when it produced a limited-edition ”Starsky and Hutch” Gran Torino. About 1,000 fans could buy official cosmetic replicas of the show car, fitted with standard 351 Windsor V-8 engines, dual racing mirrors and deluxe bumpers. Throw in factory air and other options, and the toughest car on television started at $5,000 — $2,100 more than a Ford Pinto.

The Torino line was discontinued in ‘77, and the television series was canceled after the 1978-9 season. A quarter-century later, the Torino is a collectors’ car from an uninspired era of American automobile production when new-car lineups were littered with models destined for ridicule and the scrap heap: Pacer, Vega, Volare/Aspen, Gremlin, Chevette.

Jim Cain, a spokesman for Ford, said he thought part of the car’s appeal was that the mid-70’s was a drab period for car enthusiasts. ”It was just a bland, colorless time, and the Torino painted red with a white stripe was pretty cool,” Mr. Cain said recently in a telephone interview from his office in Dearborn, Mich.

”The great thing about the Torino,” he added, ”is that it was a normal car.” As opposed to, say, the car in the later series ”Knight Rider,” about a Trans Am that could drive itself and talk.

Ford has no plans to revive the Torino, Mr. Cain said. After a brief pause, he added, ”But you can never say never.”

Of the 1,000 or so ”Starsky and Hutch” Torinos produced, few remain. John Quirk, 36, who works for the city of Stevens Point, Wis., and operates, knows of about 75. Bob Caldiero’s is one of them. Resting inside his two-car garage in Stony Point, N.Y., are his Harley and his ”Starsky and Hutch” Gran Torino. Harley is a friendly yellow Lab on a dog bed. The Torino, gleaming red, sits on a lift. One has dog tags; the other, New York tags: ”ZEBRA 03.” Zebra 03?

”Zebra Three is the call sign from the dispatcher to Starsky and Hutch in the car,” Mr. Caldiero explained. Although Mr. Caldiero’s Torino does not appear in the movie, he is lending it to Warner Brothers, which is releasing the new film, for promotional events in Manhattan. (The movie uses nine retooled mid-70’s Torinos, including one of the limited-edition cars.)

Mr. Caldiero, a 40-year-old executive sales manager for I.B.M., acknowledged that he was an earnest but not obsessive ”Starsky and Hutch” fan (and prefers Starsky to Hutch — ”he was the more rational guy, and the driver of the car”). He bought his Torino about a year and a half ago for $13,000, intending to sell it for a profit. A citizens band microphone is attached to the dashboard, but only for show.

On weekends, Mr. Caldiero and a group of neighbors, whom he affectionately calls the Ford Heads, work on one another’s cars. ”Between all of us, we can do about everything,” he said.

Mr. Caldiero said he recently rejected an offer of $19,000 for the car, and he guesses, or fantasizes, that it could now fetch $25,000 because of increased demand. Unlike mainstream classic cars like the Mustang and the Corvette, the ”Starsky and Hutch” Torinos have no established market value. According to Mr. Quirk of (who is a former owner of Mr. Caldiero’s car), $10,000 to $12,000 will get you a solid-running ”Starsky and Hutch” Torino in need of at least some restoration. He has seen cars in better condition go for $15,000 and $20,000, he said.

”The best-conditioned cars are rarely sold,” Mr. Quirk said in a phone interview. ”Their owners wisely turn down all offers.”

Mr. Caldiero is not likely to sell his Torino soon. ”I’m getting a little attached to the car,” he said. His 3-year-old daughter, Victoria, loves the Striped Tomato, and his wife, Tracey, has warmed up to it, he said.

On Wednesday evenings from April to October, Mr. Caldiero drives the Torino along Rockland County’s rolling hills to Bear Mountain Cruise Night, when upward of 1,200 cars, mostly classic, convene at Bear Mountain State Park. His ”Starsky and Hutch” Torino is always the only one, he said. Whenever he takes the car out of the garage, people notice. ”They come around in droves,” he said. ”I had a cop pull me over and say, ‘I just want to look at it.’ ”

As Mr. Caldiero’s Torino recently sat idling in his driveway, exhaust billowing from its twin tailpipes — the brightness of the car highlighted by the colorless winter landscape — he placed a red beacon light on the dashboard and flipped it on. Moments later, a 21st century Cadillac appeared at the cul-de-sac below his steep driveway. ”Nice wheels!” called a woman in the passenger seat. He waved, enjoying the moment.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on February 27, 2004.

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