It may be the funniest show on TV, but for car nerds, Archer is like a kiss on the mouth from Bar Refaeli. The animated spy comedy is swarming with cool cars. Watch any five minutes at random and you’ll see so much automotive eye candy, it's as if Hemmings, not the FX network, produced it. We grilled executive producers Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, and the show’s art and animation wizards, on how and why Archer provides the best car spotting on TV, from the pitch-perfect choices of its main characters’ rides, to the baffling selection of automobilia creeping across the backgrounds.
They gave us the inside story on how they pick the cars, how they build and animate them, what vehicular surprises might await in future episodes and which cars helped make them the top-class creative nutbags they are today.
It was back in 2009, four minutes into the first episode of the first season of Archer, and there it was — a squinty low-angle shot of headlights and grille.
Was that a Renault 12?
No, of course it wasn’t a Renault 12. Don’t be ridiculous. It was its far nerdier Eastern Bloc cousin, a Dacia 1300. Parked nearby, a VW Type 2 bus. In the background, a Porsche 356 snuck past, its flat-four bubbling faintly. A mid-‘50s Buick coupe flashed by, ghost-like, and exited stage left.
Had someone slipped a microdot into our single malt? Was an obscure Romanian car appearing in a prime time TV show that, incidentally, had just made a dick joke about the KGB? Either way, this was going to be good.
Now in its fourth season, Archer turned out to be one of the best things in our lives. A brainy, raunchy, razor-witted masterpiece that slams against its mature-audiences rating like it’s trying to snap the V-chip off viewers’ TV sets. And by the way, that taxi is indeed a mid-60s Mercedes-Benz "Grosse Heckflosse" with freaking Euro headlights.
The executive producers of Archer, Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, couldn't have blown our minds more utterly if they’d put nukes in our ears and then pressed some big, red cartoon button.
To appreciate why Archer is the way it is, you have to remember that, some time ago, cartoons didn’t show nipples or beheadings, allude to obscure British authors or build narratives around talking meatballs and coke-snorting clowns. In 1994, Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast To Coast came along, and — mining the vast Hanna-Barbera library — started edging dorm-room stoner comedy toward the cable TV mainstream. Space Ghost begat Adult Swim in 2001, proving that 18- to 34-year-old viewers’ appetite for fucked up animated shit was no fluke.
It was Adult Swim that greenlit Reed and Thompson’s two proto-Archer animated series, Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, giving them something awesome to do for a living, and us something to watch after, you know, self-medicating. But let’s rewind a bit.
The two were grunts at the Cartoon Network in the 1990s. They met on the job and became drinking buddies, and (we’re fast-forwarding quite a bit) wound up producing a lead-in show for a three-hour block of cartoons. High-Noon Toons featured two hand puppets that said weird shit to each other while their hand-puppeteers got drunk and – at least once — set fire to the set, and then got reprimanded by their bosses.
Later, Reed and Thompson moved from Atlanta to New York, and after doing some time at other cable networks, launched a production company called 70-30. (Reed would do 70 percent of the writing and 30 percent of the producing, and Matt did the opposite.) They got to work on a project they’d started at the Cartoon Network – Sealab 2021, a redubbed parody of a short-lived 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Sealab 2020. Now, with the network about to launch Adult Swim, Reed and Thompson got the go-ahead, and moved back down south get it done.
Like Archer would later, Sealab 2021 didn’t hew to any time period. Its dialog merged current pop-culture references with 1960s plot points. It was funny and clever and bizarre. Four years later, the two created Frisky Dingo, an equally unhinged send-up of the superhero genre that was just as screwy and detached from physical time as Sealab. It lasted two seasons.
And then, in 2008, Reed split from 70-30 to travel in Europe. It was while bumming around Spain that he dreamed up Sterling Archer, a Type-A superspy and self-centered asshole who always has the perfect thing to say – or fails trying to come up with it. Archer works at a struggling private spy agency — the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) — owned by his ice-queen mother, Malory, and employs an elderly British valet whom he abuses mercilessly. The agency provides a backdrop for most of the show’s workplace comedy, which ranges from slapstick to pop-cultural riffs to S&M and triple-X innuendo.
To the producers, the concept of Archer is as simple as TV plots get.
"It's a way to tell the 'bickering roommate' story,” Thompson says, “only juxtaposed against a spy thriller, so you get this extreme contrast."
It’s that contrast, matched with Reed’s whip-smart writing that makes the show a killer. And what would a killer spy thriller be without cool cars?
“Cars are like the Bac-Os of the character salad,” Reed says. It’s a way of adding nuance to a character ’s personality, he says, “without verbalizing it.”
“[The car is] the modern day horse, if you think about all the classic heroes of the original westerns,” art director Neal Holman says. “It's the familiarity of it. We obey the speed limit, but we don't do what these guys do with them.”
When it comes to casting those automobile “characters,” Archer’s time-period mutability gives Reed license to pull from a range of cool cars, from what some would consider the historical sweet spot of automotive design.
“That was one of the reasons why the Archer setting is so ambiguous, because I really wanted to make sure there were cars in there from basically ‘67 to ‘73, but I preferred the clothes from the early 60s."
Reed says his personal automotive tastes run largely in the muscle-car realm. His first car, however, wasn’t in that league.
“It was a 1977 Datsun B210 Honeybee,” he says, referring to the special-edition Japanese econobox. “It was yellow with black racing stripes. It also had a cartoon bee with racing slicks instead of legs on it. I loved that car, but girls weren't super crazy about the honeybee; the cool guys drove GTIs. I'm not sure where the muscle car love came from, but when it did it really hit me hard. I would always devour the new Year One catalog.”
Back when Reed and Thompson moved to New York, Reed had procured a ’67 Skylark convertible in Georgia after browsing AutoTrader. “It was way out in the country, and I could just barely afford it,” He says. “I got my mom to reupholster the interior. I Tom Sawyered her. ‘It's just like two sofas,’ I said, and she cussed me for weeks.
“It had a '70 GM 350 in it and it was really pretty darn fast, but it was really unsafe. There were no headrests, the steering column was basically a spear, and the accelerator was prone to sticking, which made it a little treacherous for city driving.”
Later, Reed had a VW Westfalia Syncro, with full camping gear, including a refrigerator that, he says, ran on “propane and magic.”
Despite the breadth of cars in a typical episode of Archer, Reed’s method for picking which ones make the cut, isn’t quite as meticulous as a deep-diving car nerd might hope.
“I don't think I put that much thought into it; it's usually just like a quick thing,” Reed says. “I kind of do the same thing with people's guns, like ‘What would this big giant lanky dude shoot?’ A lot of times, I won't specify a make and model in the script. I'll just say some cool muscle car and Neal or [animator] Chad [Koerner] will pick one and sort of run with it.”
“Sometimes Adam does get very specific,” Holman says. “[Like] the Dodge Challenger birthday present episode. So then I try to find that car online at a 3D warehouse — and you can find the exact model — or I talk to our 3D teams and see if there's an earlier or later model, or if we're just going to build it from scratch.”
“There's a great thing that happened, in that you can go online and buy the digital 3D model for pretty much any car in existence,” Thompson says. “It's not that much more money to put some sort of Russian car in Russia. And so because of these sites like Turbo Squid, and because of companies like Jim Lammers’ [Trinity Animation, the company charged with creating background animation for the show] they have a large inventory and we can [choose] these very specific cars.”
“A lot of the cars we handle are stock model cars that have been heavily modified,” Koerner says. “We edit the textures and geometry on the car. We’ve also built several from scratch. The Mazda RX-2 (Pam's car in the drifting episode) was built entirely from scratch by Neal Biggs at Trinity. Using reference images, he built and textured the car seen on the show.”
“For the most part, the other cars are purchased models that have texture modifications or small geometry modifications,” Koerner says. “Due to the tight turnaround time that comes with working on a TV show [for Archer, it’s three weeks from script to completion], we often start with a stock model and then adjust it to fit the needs of the show.”
Viewers who’ve stuck with Archer since Season 1 have seen a serious uptick in the quality of animation, with some of the biggest improvements made in how cars look in chase scenes. Holman says they’ve been working to improve the show’s realism by incorporating new 3D techniques that allow a 360-degree view of a car, not just approximated 3D. You can really see the difference if you compare the Monte Carlo episode in Season 2 and the Burt Reynolds chase scenes in Season 3, especially when the cars make quick turns around corners, he says.
And so, with the show kicking on all cylinders, what’s Adam driving these days?
“I’d say to Adam after the show had been a little successful, ‘So, are you going to buy yourself something kickass?’ and he's gone the absolute opposite way," Thompson says. "He's got one of those Russian bikes with a sidecar [Ural] and a BMW trail bike, and now he mostly shows up on motorcycles.”
What cars might we see in Archer in the future? Holman says they’ve got a BMW Isetta and a Messerschmidt in the 3D library, but doesn’t know when and if they’ll wind up on the screen.
“The El Camino [Archer’s car in Season 4] was my one big ask; that and an '84 Bronco II. We’ll see about that one.”
"I'd like to work in a  Lancia [Scorpion],” Reed says, “The rally car from Herbie [Goes to Monte Carlo], but we haven't had the right character for it yet.
Better yet, what would you want to see?"
Well? He’s listening.
Sterling Archer: Top ISIS agent, “World’s Most Dangerous Spy”
1971 Dodge Challenger 440-6 pack (Season 3), 1970 Chevrolet El Camino (Season 4)
Season Three hosted one of the most car-intense episodes of the series, with Archer receiving a Dodge Challenger as a birthday present. The “spy car,” a 1971 model (with the 440 six-pack option), was modified with tire-shredding spikes (they're called caltrops — thanks, Adam), a Bond-like oil slick apparatus, and a wet bar in the glove compartment.
“A lot of people thought the Dodge thing was a product placement,” Thompson says. It wasn’t. In fact, a prior bad experience with a Scion product placement during the production of Frisky Dingo soured Reed and Thompson on such deals.
“Do you know what we got for the Scion thing? They gave us a keychain. A fucking keychain. We were like ‘You can shove that keychain up your fucking ass.’”
And so, while Thompson and Reed are both quick to mention the Challenger wasn't motivated by commerce, they did get the okay from Dodge beforehand.
”No money changed hands,” Reed says. “We just called Dodge and asked them if it would be cool, and they said, ‘Of course, stupid.’”
“I took a [3D] model of a Dodge Challenger we’d purchased,” Trinity’s Chad Koerner says, “made edits to the geometry, and built a custom interior that included the fold-out mini bar in the glove compartment.”
Another detail that was prone to rumor-passing. Some assumed the Challenger’s glove-box bar was stocked with “apple juice” as per Dodge’s request. In fact, it was the FX network's own no drinking and driving policy that dictated the disclaimer.
"Archer can be shitfaced and shoot people with guns, but he can't drink behind the wheel of a car," Reed says.
The El Camino (Season 4)
Lana Kane: Top female agent at ISIS, Archer's (and Cyril’s) ex-girlfriend
1970s Aston Martin Vantage, 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO (one episode)
What kind of car would a gorgeous international spy drive? In the real world, probably a Chevy Malibu (stealth over speed). But in Archer land, Lana Kane – she’s got gargantuan hands, get it? – naturally drives the archetypal ‘70s British muscle coupe, the Aston Martin Vantage coupe.
In one episode, temporarily poached by a rival agency, Lana burned around Paris in a Ferrari 250 GTO company car.
Cyril Figgis, ISIS Comptroller
1969 Dacia 1300
Poor Cyril. He’s great at accounting, but terrible as a field agent. He dated Lana after she broke up with Archer, but – naturally — he was too clingy (and he cheated on her by accident), so she dumped him. He wears sweater vests, shoots blindly and uses “Jeezy Petes” as an exclamation. What car would you have him drive?
“[Adam] originally wanted [Cyril] in an old Renault,” Thompson says. “But as we looked through the models, the one we’d wanted wasn’t right. We didn't know [the Dacia 1300] existed. When we saw it, we were like, 'That even looks shittier.’ It's supposed to be small, shitty, beaten. It's conservative but has a distinctive look. It's like Cyril tried to buy a nice import but failed."
Pam Poovey: ISIS HR Director
1972 Mazda RX-2
Ah, Pam. Who doesn’t love Pam, the textbook-standard HR director in Talbot’s ensembles, who also happens to street-fight for money (it’s how she got through college), was deported from Jamaica — maybe for marijuana trafficking — chases her shandies with absinthe, and has had sex with most of her co-workers. Of course she competes in an underground drifting ring in a ‘72 Mazda RX-2. Why wouldn’t she?
The Yakuza underground drifting episode in Season 3 (which happens to also be the Dodge Challenger birthday episode) came out of the producers’ desire to expand Pam's character into unexpected situations, the producers say.
"Our producer, Casey Willis is the biggest Japanophile,” Reed says, “and he said Pam should be a drift racer in her spare time. So that episode basically came out Casey's love of both Japan and Pam.”
“Pam’s car needed to be a Japanese import, but something that was from back in the early '70s,” he says. The Yakuza drifters had a lineup of early Japanese iron that included a Datsun 240Z, a Toyota E50 Corolla, a Mazda 323 and, of course, a Toyota AE86 Corolla.
“We had a lot to build, like that shipyard, it was sort of a massive undertaking and we didn't have a lot to put to original builds and hunting too,” Holman says.
Dr. Algernop Krieger: Head of ISIS applied research
Assorted Rush-themed Chevy vans (e.g., “Vanaspheres.”)
Though Dr. Krieger was introduced in the first episode as the office “food rapist,” he’s also a genius who can build workable bionic limbs, may be descended from Nazis, and happens to be in a mutually passionate relationship with a hologram of a Japanese anime bride. And, of course, he drives a custom van with a chain steering wheel and — depending on the episode — a mural of himself superimposed on the cover of some Rush album. Because how could the casting be any more spot-on?
I really don’t have to explain the Rush references do I? You know, Rush is a heavy prog-rock band, with a rabid following of really smart people who should know better. And yet, to them, you’re the one who’s wrong for insinuating that the band’s schtick can be a bit much.
“A lot of the input on the Rush vans comes from the background department, “ Thompson says. “[Reed] will name the album and he'll let them do their thing. I can't even remember all of them right now.” “Vanaspheres,” if you were wondering, is a take on the 1978 Rush album, “Hemispheres.”
Ron Cadillac: Malory Archer’s husband, Sterling Archer’s stepfather
1967 Cadillac Coupe DeVille (assorted)
Season 4 starts with Malory Archer having been remarried to Ron Cadillac, a former mobster and owner of six Cadillac dealerships. The recent episode, in which Ron rescues Sterling Archer from a tough spot in Canada, and the two embark on an epic road trip back to New York, is one of the best things to happen to television since cursing and nudity was allowed on basic cable (aka, the “Sipowitz’s Ass Act of 1994).
The Ron Cadillac episode also has some serious historic car action, with prohibition-era and 1950s iron starring in a flashback scene.
Monaco Grand Prix (Season 2)
The “Monaco Grand Prix” episode of Season 2, the first confluence of Archer and racing, is spectacular. While they hadn’t yet move to the later 3D animation process, the level of detail they got was astonishing for a cartoon, while still hanging on to a bit of the old Scooby Doo sensibility.
Why Grand Prix? "It's the nexus of sexy spydom and the utter coolness of racing,” Reed says. “Monaco is just a crazy country anyway. There aren't many principalities left. So it's got a much more international flavor than if they went to Talladega."
The episode featured several Lotus race cars created by the team at Trinity Animation. “For this car,” Koerner says, “We took a purchased model and heavily modified the geometry and applied new textures.”
As is the case in most Archer episodes, some of Reed’s sharpest dialogue in the Monaco Grand Prix episode comes out of juxtaposing contemporary situations against a lurid interpretation of 1960s-era attitudes. One of the best examples is the race announcer’s surprise when he sees Lana Kane has commandeered one of the racecars to chase down a villain:
(In a Scottish accent, a la Jackie Stewart) “Dennis, It’s a strange turn of events here at the Grand Prix, because — look here now, who could believe it? A woman driving in a Formula One race – and, a negress at that! No, we don’t see that every day.”
Fun fact: Actress Jessica Walter, who once played Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development — basically, she’s got the batshit matriarch thing completely sewn up — was in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 racing epic Grand Prix with James Garner. You can thank us on trivia night.
Burt Reynolds Episode (Season 3)
“I think America needs to be having a much larger and deeper conversation about the work of Burt Reynolds,” Reed says. “Matt and I grew up crazy about Burt Reynolds. It seemed like Hooper came on every Sunday night as the ABC movie. That was back when people used to die filming car chases. I’d wanted to be a stuntman forever.”
Working with Reynolds, who’s still got his mustache, and is now in his late-70s, turned out to be a positive meet-your-heroes experience.
“He was great,” Reed says. “We went through the script before we recorded and he called and said ‘I have some notes,’ which is never you want to hear from anybody. But the notes he had were amazing. He was much more self-deprecating than I’d originally written it.”
“We went down to Florida to record him, but he was in a big, black truck and it was awesome, and it had a bash bar and a tiny Bandit logo on it, because he’s Burt Reynolds and he can do that.”
Photo Credits: FX, Turbo Squid