Netflix found a pretty clever way to justify shooting hours and hours of Malaise-era cars roaming dejectedly around the streets of overcast, gray 1970s landscapes: wrap them all up in the context of a series about the FBI and serial killers set in 1977. The series is called Mindhunter, and if you want a taste of the bleak 1970s American car landscape, there’s no better place to see it.
The series is loosely based on the true story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, which is where the term “serial killer” was first coined, and where nearly all of the modern research regarding such murderers was started.
The show is set during an especially miserable time in American history. As people have lost faith in government and other institutions after Watergate, these FBI agents wonder whether these gruesome, mysterious, sexually motivated killers—a relatively new thing at the time—were somehow the future of crime. And they set out to figure out what makes them tick.
But there’s plenty of places to learn more about the show and the events it’s based on; I want to focus on the cars.
I get the feeling people working on the show are at least interested in cars. Not only is the car-scape of the series very carefully executed, there’s lingering shots of cars and lots of interaction with the ‘70s land-barges that are the medium these characters flow in. Also, the main protagonist, based on real FBI agent John E. Douglas, is named Holden Ford.
As in the names of two large car companies. That can’t be just a coincidence, right?
There’s no way I could show every car used, but I went through the episodes to try and find some of the key or more interesting cars. In doing so, I found some cars that show up over and over, which is fun, and makes sense: 1970s-era everyday cars in near-new condition aren’t exactly common. I suspect the production team had a pool of about, oh, 60 or 80 total cars, with maybe 40 or so good enough for close-up work.
I’ll point out when I think we see a repeat car-actor. It’s fun!
One thing to note about the 1970s car-lanscape portrayed here: it’s overwhelmingly American. That’s pretty close to the truth, and when there are imports, they’re almost always Volkswagens, with a couple notable exceptions.
I think this is mostly accurate for the era—America was primarily domestic and Volkswagen then—but not exactly. I do think Japanese cars are underrepresented here, especially in the scenes that take place in California. There should be at least a few Civics or Datsuns buzzing around, but so far I’ve seen none. I hope they can fix this in season two.
Okay! Let’s see what we’ve got! I’ll try to just talk about cars to minimize spoilers, so I think this will be relatively safe for you spoiler-allergic types.
Oh, if there’s some you thought I missed and are curious about, check IMCDB—they’re the best raw resource for stuff like this.
One of the first cars we meet is this AMC Matador police car. A sort of unusual choice for a cop car, so I’m really excited to see this.
The main character, our own Holden Ford, drives neither a Ford nor an imported Australian Holden. He’s a Chevy Nova man, and I think this is a ‘75 or ‘76 one. It’s a fitting car for his personality—practical, conventional, straightforward, maybe a bit stodgy. Still, I like the light blue.
The first of many, many Ford LTDs you’ll see. Growing up in the ‘70s, I remember these everywhere—my family had a huge LTD Country Squire wagon. It’s amazing how completely they’ve disappeared from the roads.
Holden’s girlfriend is a post-grad student, a little more open and unconventional, and the choice of car for her is spot-on: a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Perfect for a young academe on a budget, but not such a budget that she couldn’t splurge for the Super Beetle, and revel in that curved windshield and much bigger trunk, and those modern-seeming McPherson struts.
Another LTD! Is it the same one we saw before? Maybe. Probably.
There’s a nice blue ‘74 or ‘75 or so Dodge Dart sedan. We’ll see this guy a bunch more.
More VWs! A lovely butter-cream Ghia, and there’s a tail end of a Wrigley’s gum-colored ‘68 Beetle zipping by. This was set by a college campus, hence the higher concentration of VWs.
Oh boy, a 1975 Mercury Monarch. So regal, right? If I recall, these cars always confused me because they had that amber section of their taillights, yet there was no bulb behind it, and the red area blinked for the indicator. Why? I think the Ford version of the same car, the Ford Granada, had amber rear indicators. So why not the Monarch?
Some very typical stuff here: a Ford Fairmont wagon, and a Dodge Coronet cop car. Oh, and a fire truck—I think a Ford-based one?
I like this scene, because it clearly shows the direction Ford was headed into the ‘80s. There’s a burgandy-vinyl-topped LTD on the left, and a landau-topped Thunderbird on the right, and in between is the much more restrained Ford Fairmont.
The 1980s would prove to be a much less exuberant period of auto design than the sometimes Baroque ‘70s, and the Fairmont was pointed that way.
That Thunderbird, though, that looks strangely fantastic to me now. I haven’t seen one of those in years. Look at that little trapezoidal opera window in that sort-of-roll-bar-looking panel that bisects the acres of wine-colored vinyl? Love it.
Also, note that T-top Mustang II at the far left. We’ll see it again.
At a main character’s house, we see that he’s a Mopar guy: a little Volare wagon and what I think is a ‘71 or ‘72 Plymouth Satellite sedan.
Pintos! Pintos end up causing some trouble for our heroes in this series. This is sort of a foreshadowing. I like the choice of the less-common wagon variant, though.
There’s a nice little montage of all of the dreary travel the characters are enduring, including a nice little part that just subtly shows frustration via finding gas filler locations on their three rental cars, all Fords.
First, the Fairmont, on the passenger’s side.
Next, the Maverick, in the middle, a personal favorite...
... and finally, an LTD, all the way on the other side.
There’s some more LTD trouble a bit later, as well. I do like the rich burgundy color with the matching vinyl top, though.
More Fords. So very many Fords in this show. There’s our Mustang II friend again, between a couple of Fairmonts.
This neighborhood breaks us out of our Ford-rut for a bit: a nice ‘68-’71 VW Microbus, an Olds Toronado in front of it, looking quite dashing, and an old Pontiac and Malibu.
Let’s take a closer look at that ‘75 or so Malibu—what is that color, caramel? You don’t really see gravy-like colors like that anymore.
Another rented LTD, and a Dodge Polara cop car—the amber rear indicators are the giveaway for that one.
We also see some car-related comedy with the LTD, the old remove-a-tire-before-the-chump-can-drive-off gag.
This time look to the right—that’s a lovely pre-’68 VW Fastback!
More LTDs, and a 1975 Buick Electra! A coupé with massive doors and a half-vinyl top. Concentrated Seventiestonium.
Yet another Ford LTD, but this time a pre-’73 facelift one! This one is a ‘71, and the face of these cars always reminded me of an owl.
At Quantico, we finally get a break from Big 3 sedans: an army Jeep!
Lots in this parking lot. We have a Lincoln Town Car, a 1966 or ‘67 Plymouth Belvedere wagon, I think a Monte Carlo there, some more LTDs, a ‘78 or so Chrysler New Yorker Brougham up front, resplendent in brown, and if you look to the far left, it’s our old pal the blue Dart.
Here’s a 1971 Plymouth Satellite. I love the front end on these things; it’s a very distinctive face. Also, a prison Econoline in the background there.
I told you Pintos were trouble for the protagonists; this ‘76 or so Pinto Runabout smacks into the Satellite. I’m impressed that they sourced enough vintage iron to crash them into each other. It can’t be easy to find either of those cars in that good condition.
(As many commenters are saying, this is very likely CGI. So shed no tears.)
That cop car looks like a ‘72 Chevrolet Impala.
Here’s a ‘72 Coronet cop car (corrected, thanks), doing what ‘70s cop cars do best: hunting for stacks of boxes in alleyways to drive through.
For this one, look in the background: there’s a Corvair! First I’ve seen in the series. That one is a first-gen coupe.
Here in the background we have the series’ only superhero cameo: the Green Hornet!
So far, we’ve only seen one make of imported car: Volkswagen. Here’s the first other imported car example I found, a tiny, cream-colored Volvo 140-series in the back right.
So far, all the older Ford LTDs seem to be cabs.
Another AMC Matador, up front and to the left. This is the coupe Matador, which had totally different styling from the sedan. There’s also that Buick, leaning into the turn.
There’s so many here, I’m not going to point them all out, but I do want to make sure you see our old pal, Blue Dart, over on the right there.
Looks like a Chevy van, a Ford Maverick, an LTD, a Caprice cop car, and an old LTD wagon, hiding by the corner.
This one is interesting, and shows the level of detail the show’s creators are giving to the cars. Hudson is waiting for his girlfriend, who drives that Super Beetle, and hears a distinct air-cooled engine sound, and looks up to see this, a ‘62 (I think, it’s quite dark) Beetle instead. Nice, subtle touch.
An MGB! Finally, another import! That brings the total to, what, three?
Just enjoy the scene, and especially that blue-and-white Chevy C10 pickup truck.
Look who’s back! It’s our old pal, the VW Type 3 Fastback! Welcome back, buddy!
Speaking of old friends, the wallflower Mustang II with a T-top from all those rental car lots finally gets a chance to shine. It’s worth the wait.
The show’s good, and worth watching for the plot and characters as well as the cars, I suppose. But definitely worth it for the cars. Or if you’re a serial killer looking to understand your predecessors, too. But mostly for the cars.