All the TV Shows I Faithfully Watched as a Kid, But Only for the Cool Vehicles

All the TV Shows I Faithfully Watched as a Kid, But Only for the Cool Vehicles

Looking back, there was definitely a theme to all those years of couch potatoing.

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To say I watched a lot of TV as a kid is an understatement. My brain is a more comprehensive resource on ‘80s and ‘90s TV shows than the Library of Congress, and while I probably couldn’t put my finger on a favorite genre when I was younger, looking back, it’s clear I endured countless shows—good, mediocre, and bad—for one specific reason: their cool vehicles.

Although I grew up across the river from The Motor City, I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as a ‘car guy.’ As soon as the engine light comes on, I high tail it to the shop instead of diving under the hood. But I know a cool vehicle design when I see it, and TV during the ‘80s and ‘90s delivered those in spades; on the road, in the air, and on the water. If a show put more effort into its vehicles than its script or character development, I wouldn’t miss an episode, and these were some of my favorites.

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Airwolf

Airwolf

Airwolf Intro

Airwolf, probably best known for having one of the most ‘80s of ‘80s synthesizer themes, was an action show centered around a supersonic attack helicopter with stealth capabilities that would fly around the world undertaking Cold War-esque missions for The Firm, a branch of the CIA. The show’s most notable cast member was Ernest Borgnine, but I didn’t tune in for McHale’s Air Force, but the helicopter itself, a modified Bell 222, that still looks as cool as it did to the seven-year-old version of me.

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Viper

Viper

Viper Season 1 Intro HD

TV in the ‘80s and ‘90s was notorious for being nothing more than a thinly-veiled commercial for something else, and it’s impossible to describe Viper, a show centered around a crime-fighting version of the Dodge sports car, as anything but that. It was even backed by Chrysler itself, and while 17-year-old me knew he was watching terrible ‘Big Three‘ propaganda, the cheesy effects of the stock Viper RT/10 transforming and morphing into an armored urban assault vehicle were impossible for the teenage me to resist every week.

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Knight Rider

Knight Rider

Knight Rider - Original Show Intro | NBC Classics

Originally airing from 1982 to 1986, I was too young to really enjoy and even understand Knight Rider during its initial run, but I devoured the series in syndication. Arguably one of the most iconic vehicles of the ‘80s, the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that KITT was based on looks horribly dated now, but at the time, a talking car with a red light that ping-ponged back and forth across the front was the epitome of slick, futuristic tech. To this day I still wonder what it’s like to drive in and out of a moving semi truck.

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Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (intro)

Speaking of propaganda, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, one of the lesser known cartoons of the ‘80s I was obsessed with, is about a group of heroes called the Lightning League who drive a fleet of Mad Maxian vehicles equipped with claws, saws, and all types of bizarre weaponry designed to hack and slash at villains who were all organic plant-based creatures. If you wanted to make the destruction of the rainforest seem cool, and even necessary, this was the way to do it. And to be honest, even if I understood the subtext as an eight-year-old, I probably would have still watched.

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M.A.S.K.

M.A.S.K.

M.A.S.K. (1985) Intro

Yet another ‘80s show that I wish had behind-the-scenes footage of the band recording the theme song in the studio, M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) completely justified incorrect spellings for the sake of a cool acronym. Yes, it was just another cartoon designed to promote a toy line, but Kenner’s offerings could never live up to how amazing these transforming vehicles appeared in the cartoon. I still can’t look at a car with gullwing doors and not secretly wonder if, at the right speed, it could actually take flight with the doors open. Please, nobody spoil this fantasy with science.

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TaleSpin

TaleSpin

TaleSpin - Theme Song | Disney+ Throwbacks | Disney+

If there was a moral of this show, it was that capitalism eventually comes for us all. I don’t know what missteps led Baloo the Bear from a life in the jungle relying on just the ‘bare necessities’ to being a full time cargo pilot, but as a kid, I didn’t really care. Not only did Disney’s TaleSpin deliver a theme song that still slaps, but it also had some of the best aerial action a burgeoning aviation enthusiast could ask for. I was especially obsessed with episodes featuring air pirate Don Karnage and his Iron Vulture: a flying aircraft carrier that, for me, was a precursor to the Helicarriers in the Marvel movies.

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The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage

The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage

Classic TV Theme: The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage (Full Stereo)

Until I looked it up on YouTube the other day, I had assumed that only my family had ever watched and remembered a short-lived Disney TV series called The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage. The show’s concept was out there. A Wall Street con artist dodged a trial by escaping to the Caribbean, where he encounters a pirate ghost who managed to avoid a one-way ticket to hell. Together, they must save 100 lives to cancel out their sins and eternal damnation. Only seven episodes were ever produced, which made complete sense if you watched it, but I stuck around for all seven because the main character often used a ‘definitely not a rip-off of KITT’ stealthy super boat that was both completely out of place and completely awesome.

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Inspector Gadget

Inspector Gadget

Inspector Gadget - Gadget Mobile

Even the incredibly talented Penny and Brain wasn’t enough to make me love or even like Inspector Gadget. But it always managed to find a time slot where nothing else was on, and it’s not like I was going to turn the TV off and reach for a book. The show’s only redeeming feature was Gadget’s physics-defying Gadgetmobile which could transform from a spacious minivan to a compact and speedy sports car at the push of a button. I desperately wished my parents had opted for that feature on our own van, but I could never find that button.

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COPS

COPS

COPS Cartoon Intro

Debuting just a year before Fox’s nearly infinite reality show of the same name, the animated version of COPS was set in the near future (2020 when the show debuted in 1988) and followed a special unit of police officers who protected Empire City using everything from robot dogs to a fleet of vehicles that wouldn’t be out of place in the Blade Runner universe. I remember being particularly obsessed with a police helicopter featuring an incredibly inconvenient design with dual cockpits that were completely separated from each other.

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Seaquest DSV

Seaquest DSV

[HD] Seaquest DSV Season 1 Intro

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Star Trek: The Next Generation, SeaQuest DSV was a big-budget NBC series set in the depths of Earth’s oceans instead of the outer reaches of space. The premise was that the planet had exhausted its resources except for those on the ocean floor, where new colonies were now thriving with the help of protection from seaQuest DSV 4600: a futuristic submarine (deep-submergence vehicle) that basically looked like an underwater spaceship. As with TNG, the show focused more on what was happening inside the sub, but I happily stuck around for the occasional underwater submarine battle, brought to the screen through very ‘90s visual effects.

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Dino Riders

Dino Riders

Dino Riders (1988) FULL episode 01

If you had offered the 11-year-old version of me the choice between a brand new Lamborghini Countach or a brontosaurus wearing an armed battle station I could ride, the decision wouldn’t have taken very long to make. Dino-Riders was yet another short-run animated series designed to introduce a new toy line (from Tyco Toys before it was bought out by Mattel) but the concept was impossible to resist: time-traveling space explorers who end up on prehistoric Earth and turn the local dinosaur population into their new weapons of war. Rolling up to school every morning on a T.rex instead of an Italian supercar was definitely a fantasy of mine.

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BraveStarr

BraveStarr

BraveStarr Intro Opening Theme

There was a time when westerns dominated TV, but that time came to a close after Star Wars arrived. To make an animated western series like BraveStarr interesting to ‘80s kids now obsessed with spaceships and robots, the distant planet of New Texas (I kid you not) was a retro-futuristic world where cowboys and poachers rode around on flying robotic hover horses and cattle. Absolutely absurd, but for some reason, flying horses felt more plausible and attainable to me than Star Wars’ Speeder bikes ever did.

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ThunderCats

ThunderCats

Panthro’s Thundertank Mods

Lion-O might be an iconic ‘80s cartoon character on par with other great leaders like Optimus Prime, but that’s not why I watched ThunderCats. I tuned in for one character, and one character alone, that never spoke a single line of dialogue: the ThunderTank. The perfect accessory for a band of humanoid cats, the vehicle was half tank complete with treaded wheels, and half robotic feline, with articulated paws and a working mouth on the front that could chomp through obstacles. It was ridiculously impractical and awesome all at the same time, and thanks to Panthro’s engineering skills, it could be adapted to help solve whatever problem the episode threw at the ThunderCats.

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G.I. Joe

G.I. Joe

G I Joe The Movie 1987 1080p BluRay

Until Pokémon arrived, no animated series had a larger cast of unique characters than G.I. Joe. But as cool as Snake Eyes was, or comically unhinged Shipwreck seemed, the reason most kids tuned in week after week was for the incredibly over-the-top arsenal of vehicles used by both the G.I. Joe forces and Cobra. The series started with the usual military mainstays like tanks and F-14 fighter planes, but quickly expanded to some of the wackiest purpose-built machines of war ever imagined—and I was there for all of it.

Some defied physics, while many defied basic safety concerns, putting soldiers in the direct path of rocket exhaust or dangerously close to spinning propellers. That didn’t matter. I desperately wanted to fly to school every morning in a Trubble Bubble, or cruise across town occupying six highway lanes at once in a rolling fortress like The General. Americans in the G.I. Joe universe must have been taxed to death to fund their nation’s military, but to the kid version of me, that was a small price to pay if it meant there was a small chance I could one day own a flying chariot.

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