Magnum PI’s famous red Ferrari 308 GTS

Cars People Culture

Porsche missed out on becoming an icon

If you were a friend of Thomas Magnum, you’d probably have lent him money at some point.

Even the famous Ferrari he drove was borrowed.

But in this case, life didn’t mirror art. In fact, Tom Selleck, who played Magnum, had the complete opposite spending habits compared to his on-screen persona and was incredibly generous to those around him. When he was given a bonus of $350,000 to come back for the eighth and final season of the show, he bought lavish gifts for the Magnum PI cast and crew, including Rolex watches and $1,000 bonuses. He also famously bought his three co-stars Porsche 928s.

In fact, if Selleck had got his automotive wish from the start, Ferrari Dino 206’s successor, the Ferrari 308 GTS – which has since become inextricably linked with Magnum PI and is often referred to as the “Magnum Ferrari” – would never have appeared in the show at all.

Selleck had initially requested that the PI drive a Porsche 928. However, the Porsche needed to be modified in order to work for the shoot – some say it needed to be customised to accommodate Selleck’s 6’ 4” frame, while others say that the producers requested a Porsche 928 with an extra large sunroof for aerial shots.

Blue Porsche 928 parked outside with moody sky overhead
Selleck wanted to drive a Porsche 928 for the Magnum PI series

Whatever the reason, when the show’s producers approached Porsche to see if they were willing to modify the Porsche for the show, they refused and the producers were forced to find an alternative.

When the producers got in touch with Ferrari, the manufacturer was apparently more than happy to modify the 308 GTS for the series. The 308 was already targa topped but it needed to be modified so Tom Selleck could sit in it comfortably. To do this, Ferrari removed padding from the seats so Selleck could sit lower in the car, and the seats were bolted as far away from the steering wheel as possible to maximise leg room.

The Ferrari 308 GTSi from Magnum PI
One of the Ferrari 308 GTSis that Thomas Magnum drove. Image credit: Pat Loika

Even then, the PI mainly drove with the top down for shoots to improve comfort. Given the show was set in sunny Oahu, Hawaii (supposedly so the studio could make the most of the Hawaii Five-O set), this thankfully matched the setting anyway.

The Ferrari, which Thomas Magnum borrows from multimillionaire author Robin Masters in the series, followed the world-famous PI through eight seasons, 162 episodes and two Golden Globes to become one of the most famous cars of its era.

Of course, a single Ferrari wasn’t used for the duration of the show; in all, three were used for the eight years the series ran, all with the licence plate “ROBIN 1”:

  • Season 1: 1979 308 GTS
  • Seasons 2-6: 1981 308 GTSi
  • Seasons 7-8: 1984 308 GTSi quattrovalvole

Ferrari had become so pivotal to the original series that the 2018 remake saw Magnum driving around in another Ferrari. This time, it was Robin Masters’ Ferrari 488 Spider’s turn to take centre stage – in the same colour combination as the 308 of the original series (red with a tan interior).

It does make you wonder what could have happened had Porsche agreed to customise the 928 according to the Magnum PI’s producer requests. Many people view the 928 as a flop for its time and highly misunderstood despite it offering peak Porsche performance.

Perhaps it would have been just as recognisable and iconic as the 308 GTS is now if it had been the motor star of Magnum PI instead.

Regardless, whoever made that call at Porsche probably still struggles to watch a single episode of the hirsute Hawaiian private dick.

Advert with Selleck and the Ferrari 308 GTS front and centre