Words and Photos By: C. Van Tune
Additional Photos By: Paramount Television & Barris Kustoms
The mystery of the most famous TV private-eye car of the 1960s
Before Jim Rockford and Thomas Magnum were even a gleam in the eye of their TV creators, the most famous television private-eye of all was Joe Mannix. Hard-boiled and two-fisted, the lead character in Mannix was an old-school negotiator. He’d just as soon throw a bad guy off the roof as wait for the cops to arrive. Factor in the numerous car chases, booby-trapped warehouses, and the occasional ride up a rock quarry’s conveyor belt during a prolonged gun fight and it’s obvious why the series would become very popular.
The star of Mannix for its eight fast-moving seasons (1967-75) was Mike Connors. The inaugural season of the show had Joe working for “Intertect,” a high-tech detective agency where computers solved the crimes. but the ratings were mediocre despite Mannix wheeling around in a wild George Barris “Kustomized” Oldsmobile Toronado with the roof cut off. Fortunately, when the show was re-tooled for its second season, Joe was on his own as a P.I., working out of his office villa at 17 Paseo Verde and driving a snazzy dark green 1968 Dodge Dart GTS convertible, subtly modified by Barris.
From that point on, Mannix was a top-rated show with all the action and suspense anyone could ask for. According to the Mannix page on Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), Joe got shot 17 times and knocked unconscious 55 times through the years.
The car stunts were as exciting as any of the fights that Mannix got into. “From day one, cars were an integral part of the show,” Mike Connors told us. “Bruce Geller, our executive producer, loved cars and said we’re going to make race cars Mannix’s hobby. So, before we started shooting, I went out to Bob Bondurant’s racing school and took a lot of race car driving lessons, which was a fabulous experience.”
Mike Connors, like his Mannix character, is also a lifelong car enthusiast. “I started collecting cars as soon as I could afford to. I had a 1937 Bentley convertible, a ’67 Maserati Mexico, and an old Jaguar coupe. I just loved old cars.”
In one episode, a bad guy siphons out the Dart’s brake fluid, and causes Joe to take evasive maneuvers down a canyon road. This type of car stunt was seen weekly on the highly-rated CBS TV series from 1967-75. There were no green-screens or computer-imaging in those days. It was all done “practical” by stuntman Dick Ziker, and actor Mike Connors himself.
The George Barris “Kustom” work on the Dart was subtle, including hood bulges with air scoops, a trunk-lid lip spoiler, a racing style gas cap, and painting the car green over its factory red paint. All of the factory nameplates were removed and special “Barris Kustoms” logos mounted on the front fenders.
In the 1960s, auto companies typically didn’t give a TV series multiple “star cars” to use, so Mannix (and Barris) had to make do with a single 1968 Dart GTS.
“Originally it was a red car, and Bruce Geller said that’s too bright, let’s make it a racing car green. I think this car, underneath, still has some red paint on it,” Connors remembered. (And yes, the floor pan retains its original red.)
George Barris and Mannix producers agreed the Dart should not be a gadget-laden machine like the James Bond Aston Martin. After all, Joe Mannix was a regular guy working for a hundred bucks a day, not a British secret agent. “We wanted the Dart to have a performance look, but downplayed it to make Mannix’s visibility as a private eye not so obvious,” Barris told us.
The Barris Kustoms work included:
- Restyled hood bulges, with small air scoops
- Lucas Flamethrower driving lights
- Special taillight lenses, to eliminate the backup lights
- Ducktail rear spoiler
- Racing style gas cap and side mirror
- Rader wheels (like the Batmobile used.) Later changed to Cragar S/S
- Motorola radio-transmitter car phone (a very expensive item in 1968)
- “Barris Kustoms” emblems on each front fender
- Special dark green paint (originally a matte finish to reduce reflections; later re-sprayed glossy)
In addition to being a certified Barris Kustoms creation, this Dart is rare in its own right, being one of 271 ’68 GTS convertibles built with the 340 V-8 and TorqueFlite automatic. The hi-po 340 sported 10.5:1 compression and churned out 275 hp at 5,000 rpm and 340 lb-ft of twist at 3,200 rpm. With a curb weight of 3,350 pounds and a 3.23 ring-and-pinion, the GTS ragtop was a good runner, turning 0-60 mph times in the low sixes and quarter-miles in the mid-14s, at around 95 mph, according to various magazine tests of the day.
On screen, Joe Mannix’s Dart peeled rubber in both the 1968 and 1969 seasons. In mid-season ’69, George Barris was asked to create an exact duplicate of the ’68 car with a 1969 Dart. However, for reasons unknown today, the ’68 car continued to be featured in the show even long after the ’69 Dart was introduced. That’s where the mystery begins.
After Mannix producers were finished with the ’68 Dart, it was reportedly sold to a secretary at Paramount Studios. Then it was lost for decades, and assumed destroyed. That was, until a hiker in a remote part of the Southern California mountains happened across what first appeared to be just an abandoned old Dodge. Although partially buried under years of fallen foliage, the Dart was identifiable as something special by its unique Barris-created hood scoops. The hiker, a Mannix fan, knew he had stumbled upon the find of a lifetime. He located the owner, bought the car, and began the restoration.
Time Machine: Same car, same building, 42 years apart. In 2010, we took the Dart to Barris Kustoms in North Hollywood, and parked it in the exact same location where George Barris photographed it in 1968.
George Barris told us that, in 1969, the Mannix producers had him build a duplicate to the ’68 Dart with a 1969 car, but it was not used on-screen as often as the ’68 Dart was. Some episodes used both vehicles, interchangeably.
The Dart’s condition was rough, but amazingly straight and rust free. Even more good news arrived when one of George Barris’ painters from back in the era was rediscovered. With his expert application of a new metallic dark green finish, the legend of the Mannix Dart began coming back to life.
Because the 1969 Mannix Dart was reportedly destroyed in a wreck while being transported to the wife of a studio executive after its final scene, that makes this ’68 the one and only surviving Mannix Dart.
In 2010, the Dart was purchased by yours truly. To complete the circle of history, we reunited the car with Mike Connors, George Barris, and Mannix stuntman Dick Ziker, none of whom had seen it for 40 years. Although viewing the car on separate days, they each grinned at the famous green Mopar like they were greeting a long lost friend. The men instantly recalled unique things about the Dart, just like it was 1968 again.
“They were plenty tough on cars in the Mannix series,” Barris remembered. “They didn’t have any animation like we have today, where they put cars in front of a green-screen for all the action.”
“Car chases became an integral part of our show,” Connors told us. “I loved it. I was able to do a lot of the stunts. But my stunt double, Dick Ziker, had a lot of close calls in cars. We really beat those babies to death.”
Ziker, an Emmy-award-winning stuntman credited with more than 150 films, including The Fast and the Furious, Gone in 60 Seconds (the remake), and The Blues Brothers, remembered the Mannix car chases. “I was just there to wreck them,” he recounted. “Mike Connors was well built. Anything I could do, he could do better.”
“That was a great era in television. I think there was an integrity to the show. I constantly get people saying that they just don’t do shows like they used to,” he replied.
No doubt, the tire-screeching action of this 1968 Dodge Dart GTS convertible added to the show’s popularity, and became forever etched into the memories of millions of TV-watching baby boomers. The excited comments and thumbs-up the car still receives on each drive confirms that lasting impact like a Joe Mannix right cross to the jaw.
Even at age 85, Mike Connors looked ready to reprise his Joe Mannix role and go chase some bad guys.