Most of the old TV shows that earned a place in Classic TV history had one thing in common: the protagonist had a cool sidekick. The Lone Ranger had his horse, Silver, while Batman had his crime-fighting partner, Robin.
World-famous TV Detective Lieutenant Colombo, however, did things a little differently. He had and old, busted up 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet as his official sidekick.
In fact, he looked nothing like the typical protagonist of the 70’s: clean cut hair (let’s say his hair was disheveled, just to be nice), clean health habits (he smoked fat cigars), and an athletic build (you can’t put muscles in the same sentence as Detective Colombo, but this is an exception).
The car almost didn’t make it
Fans of the show watched how the role of the car eventually developed into an integral part of the show. However, most people don’t realize that the car was added at the 11th hour, literally just before filming actually began on the first episode.
The show’s producers, Richard Levinson and William Link, wanted Colombo to have this junky-yet-endearing car as Colombo’s main ride from crime to crime. However, Colombo actor Peter Falk wanted no part of it and complained that the show would risk becoming too gimmicky for its own good by adding the car.
By gimmicky, Falk meant that Colombo already had a wife, his cigar and his generally disheveled look. However, he gave the producers the benefit of the doubt and took a peek anyways at the cars available on the Universal backlot.
Universal’s backlot would be a dream come true for any car aficionado. The lot was huge and was filled with cars of countless makes and models. Despite this, Columbo still wasn’t sold on the idea of adding a car for his detective character.
On the day right before shooting began, Mr. Falk (Colombo) caught an odd sight out of the corner of his eye. It was just the nose of a peculiar-looking car sticking out on the row. It was the Peugeot 403, which couldn’t even start. In fact, it didn’t even have an engine, yet it was perfect for Falk’s now clearly and fully-defined vision of his character.
The Sidekick: a 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet
Needless to say, Colombo having a car as a sidekick made the series a little more unique and intriguing to their audiences. In fact, Colombo didn’t even fit in with the traditional hero stereotype of the day: clean-cut hair, athletic build, and again, he had an old car as a sidekick!
Instead, Colombo’s appearance was that of a scruffy older man who smoked cigars and usually wore a trench coat. Although these characteristics might have seemed laughable on the surface, they were cleverly used to make a stark contrast with his uncanny crime-solving abilities.
Let’s take a look at what made Columbo’s 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet such an unlikely fan-favorite among the TV show’s fans.
Meet the Peugeot 403
When the 403 was first first came onto the scene, there were only about 400 of the 4-doored models available in the market. When the series was dropped by NBC in ‘77, there rush was on to get a replacement model when ABC picked up the rights to resume airing the series.
One interesting bit of nerd trivia is that during the NBC years, Colombo’s car had a license plate that read 044-APD. However, by the time ABC bought the rights to air the show on their channel, the license plate number had inexplicably (it’s ok, it didn’t really matter) changed to 448-DBZ.
The Peugeot 403 was made in France and featured a 4-cylinder, in-line engine with an I-head design. It used a rear wheel drive system which enabled it to have greater acceleration and with improved handling. This resulted in a exotic-looking car with superior balance and which offered a really great driving experience.
The vehicle could reach a top speed of about 81 mph with an acceleration force of 0-60 mph in 22 seconds.
As you can see, the TV series portrayed Columbus’ vehicle as a junker but in reality this car was full of exotic flare. In addition, the 2-door version that was actually used in the series was considered to be ultra-rare at the time. Today, it has become a timeless classic.
What made the 403 such a unique part of the series
The Peugeot 4093 was by far the closest thing to being a supporting character in the Columbo series. As the episodes progressed, many fans would compare his 403 to any popular sidekick of the day. In addition, the car in certain instances seemed to act like Columbus’ alter ego.
After all, the car did appear in most of the episodes aired and it was involved in accidents on two occasions. Not surprisingly, this raised concern amongst the loyal viewers which the producers obviously.
In some cases, the imagination of the show’s writers went up a notch or two when the car was used a comedic prop in episodes like “Short Fuse” and “Etude in Black” among others.
What happened to the car?
Once NBC decided to end the show’s run, Falk was under the impression that the car would be safely stored somewhere within the Universal backlot where he first came across the vehicle. However, once ABC decided to revive the series, Link, one of the original producers of the show was surprised to find out that the car had actually been sold off.
Needless to say, this spurred a search operative as the car had by that time become an iconic figure of the show. Replacing the TV car with another 403 would likely not satisfy the show’s loyal fans. Claims form supposed buyers started coming in from around the country, like San Diego and Florida.
However, the original car was finally found in Ohio under the ownership of James and Connie Delaney. Although the couple refused to sell the vehicle back to Universal, they did agree to let them borrow it for filming purposes.