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Real Tales of the "Highway Patrol"

By Phil Skinner

Old Cars Weekly Newspaper

October 31, 2002

"Whenever the laws of any stare are broken a duly authorized organization swings into action. It may be called the state police, state troopers, militia, the rangers, or the highway patrol. These are the stories of the men whose training skill, and courage have enforced and preserved our state laws," Recited Art Gilmore at the introduction of each episode of television’s "Highway Patrol".

Like millions of other youngsters in the 1950’s, television was my special baby-sitter. In the mid 1950’s most first-run programs were carried on one of the major networks. But there was a new idea circulating in the industry known as being made for syndication. One of the first and most successful shows to take the leap into this medium was the show "Highway Patrol", produced by ZIV Productions. Originally aired between 1955 and 1959, it existed in re runs up into the early 1980’s and today has gained cult status among many fans that now professionally wear badges, as well as those who simply enjoy vintage cop programs.

Story line were simple and uncomplicated and went something like this: Bad guys (and sometimes girls) commit a crime, the men of the "Highway Patrol" swing into action, and the criminals were caught and driven to jail in a black and white. Between the start and finish, there was sure to be a pursuit, and occasional fist fight, and even a bit of gun play worked into the plot.

Academy award winning actor Broderick Crawford starred as Dan Mathews, Chief of the Highway Patrol. His character managed to catch criminals week after week with support from a number of other actors. Over the year’s up-and-coming Hollywood celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Barbara Eden, Robert Conrad, Leonard Nimoy, and Stuart Whitman became subjects of investigation by Mathews and company.

While celebrities might have been the people who spoke the words, the most important part of the show for crazy kids were the automobiles used in the production. Both the patrol cars and those driven by the bad guys were as interesting and varied as what was actually found on city streets across the country in the 1950’s.

When the show first debuted in October 1955, the squad cars looked like real patrol vehicles, because they were, in fact, real squad cars. In the first two seasons, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) was a big supporter of the show, and special arrangements were made to allow actual CHP units to be rented by the production company. To conceal the cars identities, generic "Highway Patrol" logos were placed over the seven-point stars used by the CHP, and the studio placed black taped over the "E" on the exempt plates.

In some of the first episodes, Mathews was seen driving both 1954 Oldsmobile 88 and a couple of the legendary 1955 Buick century two door sedans specially created for the CHP by Buick. Uniforms used were also based on the CHP khakis, replicating the look down to the badge and arm patch. However, upon close examination, of those sewn insignias, signs of the word "California" was removed are evident, but the official state seal and one word slogan "Eureka" remained.

Each week, Mathews would head up his squad to catch thieves, thwart a bank robbery, catch an escaped prisoner, or even break up an espionage ring. Authenticity was a major goal of this program, so you never heard the dispatcher say, "calling all cars". On "Highway Patrol", actual radio procedures were a part of the script with "attention all units" being the catch phrase. Also used were real CHP call signs, including Mathews’s call of 21-50, which was the actual unit number used by the then commissioner Bernard Caldwell. Other technical codes were also sprinkled into the script, such as "10-20" when asking for a location, or to tell the dispatcher you understood the message with the famous now "10-4" reply.

As the 1956 season rolled on, the CHP loaned the production company some of their newer models, including Mercury Customs, Dodge Coronets, and Oldsmobile 88’s. All of these models were two doors sedans, the only body style used by the patrol at the time.

Being raised in southern California as a kid, I found the two-door squad car a little difficult to understand, since all the city police and the county sheriff units were four-door models. I finally asked a neighbor, who was an officer for a city department, why the Highway Patrol used two-door models. His explanation was clear stating that the CHP rarely arrested people, so putting them in the back seat was not that common.

It is interesting to note that California Highway Patrol Officers did not have full police powers until the mid 1960’s. Major crimes such as homicide, burglary, or robbery, were handled by local agencies, which did the reports, investigations, and arrests. The CHP’s duties were limited to those involving motor vehicles such as enforcement, accident investigation, and crimes involving auto theft. Under Governor Pat Brown in 1964, the state finally granted CHP officer’s full police powers. This was done so the CHP could assist local agencies when needed with civil disturbances, disasters, and with investigations.

During the middle of the 1956 season, the CHP and producers of the television program had a falling out over the story lines and presentation of the show. This meant the CHP would no longer loan patrol cars to the show, and the producers were forced to round up authentic looking squad cars in a hurry. A couple of Mercury two-door sedans were found, but the Buick the show could acquire was a 1956 super four-door hardtop. Departing from realism for the rest of that season, a number of bad guys were hauled in the luxury a pillar less four-door Rivera.

For the 1957 season, several new squad cars were purchased by the production company and employed, including the new Exner-designed Dodge Coronet and the futuristic-looking 1957 Mercury Monterey. No longer loaned from the CHP fleet, these cars were ordered by the show to exacting Highway Patrol specifications, down to the emergency lighting and color scheme.

The fourth season of "Highway Patrol" went into production with several new squad cars, including Dodge Coronets and at least one Buick Special. Even though the real California Highway Patrol was using some rather unique custom-ordered 1958 Mercury Monterey’s that year. the television show didn’t follow its lead.

Most of the location filming for the series was done in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles County. At the time, there were still wide open spaces with ranches and rural back roads to give the show a wider variety of locales to use. Production costs were limited to about $20,000 per episode, which even at the time was relatively cheap. One way to save money was to have the on-screen patrol cars act as tow vehicles for the equipment trailers when shooting on location. Looking back at the series today, one may wonder why a police car would have a trailer hitch.

Although he never wore a uniform on the show, Mathews almost always drove regular-marked patrol cars. Occasionally, he would resort to unmarked squad cars, which were generally low-line, four-door sedans. Many episodes involved the use of a Bell 47-G helicopter, with Crawford’s character trading shots with bad guys from his snub nose .38 revolvers. In the first season, a couple of motorcycle officers were seen as background players, but bikes never played a major role in the story lines.

There was always an interesting array of vehicles used in each episode. However, brand names were never mentioned in the script. The best description they could give was a "tan station wagon" "green coupe" or "dark blue sedan". In one story line, actor Joe Flynn, who went on to portray Captain Binghamton in the 1960’s sitcom "McHale’s Navy," kidnapped a college boy, tied him to a tree and made off in his Jaguar XK-120 roadster, which was described simply as a "white sports car."

Of course, being a low budget production, stock footage was often worked into the story line and continuity suffered. It wasn’t unusual to see Mathews leave for the scene of a crime in a Mercury, have a close up of him on the radio to the dispatch driving a Buick, then arrive at the scene in a Dodge. During pursuits, it was always interesting to watch a hubcap fly off a car making a sharp turn, only to have it reappear on the wheel at the end of the chase. Incidents like that just made kids like us pay even more attention to the story line.

After the show as canceled during its 1959 season, Broderick Crawford continued to act in stage and theatre productions up until his death in 1986. In one of his last television appearances, he was featured on an early episode of "CHiPs." This updated version of "Highway Patrol" from the late 1970’s used actual CHP uniforms, badges, and logos. Crawford played himself and was pulled over by the stars of the show, Ponch and John, for running a stop sign. [A publicity still from this episode is available.]

Crawford’s line had a bit of irony when he stated to officer John Baker "You know, I was making one of those ‘Highway Patrol’ shows long before you were born." Baker’s response may have been a dig at his own program with "Yeah, they don’t make TV programs like that anymore."

What really made "Highway Patrol" interesting to watch were the realistic vehicles the show used, since they were common cars just like your parents or the neighbors drove. The scripts were not complicated with side stories involving romance, or the star worrying about getting the girl at the end of the story. It was raw and lively police action without any cuss words or situations that would make mom and dad blush. Instead of kissing a pretty lady after Mathews arrested the bad guy, he simply drove off with the suspect in custody, and on to the next episode.

Despite having the highest ratings of any direct-syndication show of the time, ZIV pulled the plug in 1959. Not having a regular time slot on network television, "Highway Patrol’s" passing was done without fanfare or ceremony. As a final word of encouragement, each week Dan Mathews would thank the viewers for tuning in, then give them a reminder about driving safely. So with that in mind, I too, thank you for reliving one of the greatest television shows that focused on cars and also inspired a number of young boys to follow a career in law enforcement. In the words of Broderick Crawford, from the close of the pilot episode "Leave your blood with the Red Cross, not on the highway."