I have an identical twin brother. He stayed with me for a few days recently, and insisted we watch an episode of the 1970s cop show Columbo on Netflix. “Columbo, really, is that any good?” I said. “I never watched it while it was on.”
“It’s great, he says. “It always starts with the murder, and eventually Lieutenant Columbo and his raincoat show up and he slowly unravels the smug murderer’s alibi.”
We watched. My wife and I got hooked. It’s a charming show, and intelligent and complex in a way that would never make it onto the networks now. Luckily, it’s less challenging than Perry Mason—I tried to watch one of those recently, and the plot was way over my head. But John didn’t mention Columbo’s car, which just happens to be a rare, and really beat-up, 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet—a rare car even back when the series was made. Only 2,030 were made globally over a five-year run.
The legend has it that star Peter Falk was offered a tour of the Universal back lot to find a car for Columbo to drive. He saw the 403. “I just saw the nose of a car sticking out,” he told the definitive Columbo freak site. “It didn’t even run.” Or have an engine, according to one source. But Falk said, “This is the one.”
The poor car, which looks worse and worse as the series goes on (it was actually hit as plot points in as many as four episodes), gets disparaged by the upper-class LA murderers on the show. Two separate killers, I noted, drove Ferrari 365 GTB/4s (in contrasting colors). One of ‘em, a gal who murders her own brother, has the Ferrari delivered but doesn’t even get to sit in it before she’s hauled off to jail. It’s a quirk of the show that car model names are apparently never mentioned, even when they’re Ferraris.
Back to the Peugeot. The 403 was a ubiquitous French car of the period, but the overwhelming majority were four-door sedans. Wagons and a truck version were made, as well as that cabriolet, which in ’58, with leather upholstery as standard, cost 80 percent more than the luxe version of the sedan. The convertibles were only made through the spring of 1961, and were replaced by a drop-top version of the newer 404.
Those 404s are rare, too, but as it happens the sports editor of my first newspaper drove a bedraggled example before he traded up to a BMW. Well, his parents owned the paper.
Universal owned the 403 (which was carefully moved to location on a trailer), but at least two or three others were reportedly leased from Peugeot. What, they happened to have beat-up 403s lying around? So anyway, finding the definitive Columbo car must have been difficult. But the authenticated original 503 was supposedly dredged up in Ohio for the revival of the show in 1988—and pretenders in Florida and California were disavowed. At one point Columbo says, “There are only three like it in the country,” which is unlikely. But then he also says it’s a “rare” 1950 model, and that ain’t true, either. Today, there are at least two 403 droptops in the Universal motor pool, and visitors gawk at them all the time.
The Garage Blog maintains that the 403 was never seen with the top up, but I stoutly maintain I’ve seen it so on at least two episodes. What did I say about becoming a fanatic?
Columbo tells an admiring valet on “Any Old Port in a Storm” (1973), “It’s got over 100,000 miles on it. You take care of your car, it’ll take care of you.” He admits on “Candidate for Crime” (also 1973) that he has another car, but “my wife drives it.” That one is “nothing special, just transportation.”
The Peugeot had two license plates, 044-APD, and then later, 448-DBZ. Other cool cars I’ve noted on the show include both 230SL and 300 “Adenauer” model Mercedes-Benzes. The former was driven by Leslie Nielsen, later to make a fool of himself on the Naked Gun series.
Here are seven great Columbo endings—who knows, you may spot the Peugeot 403 convertible.