1 9 7 8 (USA)
5 x 120 minute episodes
This 1978 mini-series (from a best-selling novel by Arthur Haley) told the tale of the troubled Detroit car industry in the 1960s through the eyes of one of its executives.
The 10-hour series also followed the personal lives of those who designed and manufactured cars, including assembly line personnel and the salesmen, advertising, publicity and promotions people behind each new model.
Rock Hudson played Adam Trenton, the highly regarded executive of the fictional National Motors automotive company whose once-happy marriage to Erica (Lee Remick) flounders because of his involvement with the revolutionary car, the Hawk – a radically new, sporty model designed to win back the youth market, pitched as “the car that will make bank clerks feel like Steve McQueen” – and her affair with racing car driver Peter Flodenhale (John Beck).
Trenton was plagued with other problems too – such as his secretary (Jessica Walter) spying on him for his immediate boss.
In preparing the Hawk’s advertising campaign, Adam worked closely with the brilliant and attractive account executive Barbara Lipton (Blair Brown). They fell in love, but Adam’s plan to divorce Erica and marry Barbara was destroyed when Peter Flodenhale was killed in a crash and the shattered Erica returned to him.
Adam’s advertising executive son, Kirk (James Carroll Jordan) – unaware of his father’s former relationship with Barbara – then fell in love with her.
The Trenton’s younger son, Greg (Howard McGillin) had to be extricated from a blackmail scheme involving a teenage seductress (Debi Richter) and then added further to his mother’s depression by volunteering for duty in war-torn Vietnam.
Executive infighting at National peaked when Adam’s Hawk failed its tests and was shelved – despite Adam’s protests – by board chairman Lowell Baxter (Ralph Bellamy) and scheming company president Hub Hewitson (Tim O’ Connor).
Baxter, jealous of Trenton’s competence and that fact that he married his only daughter, then selected Adam to represent the company in a nationwide TV debate with consumer advocate Emerson Vale (Anthony Costello).
Adam was caught off guard when Vale substantiated charges that National Motors had bugged his phones and followed him, and threatened to sue National Motors in front of a national TV audience.
Meanwhile, Erica went on shoplifting sprees as her mental health deteriorated and Adam learned that the Hawk tests had been rigged, convincing him that the car should be reactivated, also rekindling his affair with Barbara Lipton.
Adam’s widowed sister, Teresa (Adele Mara), meanwhile, asked Adam to investigate former racing driver Smokey Stevenson’s (Anthony Franciosa) car dealership, in which she had invested her entire inheritance.
Despite the success of the Hawk, Baxter promoted production supervisor Rusty Horton (Gerald S O’Loughlin) to company president, rather than his son-in-law.
Wheels first aired in May 1978 and was highly successful. When it was repeated a year later, however, as part of NBC Novels for Television, hardly anyone watched – leading to one of the fastest re-editing jobs ever seen on network television.
The repeat was supposed to run for five consecutive weeks, but when the network saw the disastrously low ratings for parts one and two it quickly compressed parts three, four, and five into a single concluding episode. The next week, surprised viewers saw the entire remainder of the novel flash by – and disappear.
Erica Baxter Trenton
James Carroll Jordan
Tim O’ Connor
Gerald S O’Loughlin