Rockford Files Screen-Used Firebirds
By Jim Suva
The first Rockford Files Firebird was a 1974 Gold exterior/tan interior Firebird Esprit, with a 400 cubic inch engine. All the cars used for the show came from Pontiac, a GMC division, through Visa Group, to Cherokee Productions. While filming the first season, it was decided that due to the hard driving and stunts, they needed the Trans Am/Formula suspension. So near the end of the first season, all the 1975 through 1978 Firebirds were Formulas.
In March 2002, I had a conversation with a man named Vinny Imerti who maintained the Firebirds for the TV series, as well as the Rockford movies. He sold his business, Carriage Studio Rentals, which had merged with Cinema Vehicle Services around 2002.
Vinny told me that Pontiac supplied three new Firebirds per year for the TV series. They received Firebird Formulas, and then they would remove the splitter exhaust tips and the rear spoiler. They also changed the hood and rear deck lids, and filled the drill holes from the spoilers. (I believe that Universal Studios decided to paint the Firebirds a Lt Topaz color for the 1975 model year, which was the color used throughout the rest of the TV seasons.) This was done so that it gave the illusion, Rockford always had the same car
In 1978, James Garner was not fond of the 1979 Firebird styling, plus he knew the series was going to be ending soon. As a way to save money, he decided to use the 1978 Firebirds for the last two seasons.
After the last filming in December 1979, Vinny bought two of the Firebirds and James Garner bought the other one. Mr. Garner sold his 1978 Firebird Formula 400 to local TV Station WGGT (Channel 48) in Greensboro, NC. This Firebird was later raffled off by Coca-Cola on March 3, 1982. The car was presented to the winner by NASCAR Driver Richard Petty at a local Circuit City store.
The winner was a lady named Frances. Unfortunately, she chose to have the car repainted a darker color, and she had the seat covers replaced. Francis owned and drove the Firebird until she sold it in July of 1989.
A gentleman named Lloyd bought the Firebird from Frances. Lloyd was a huge James Garner fan, and he rarely drove the car. In fact, most of the time that he owned the Firebird, it was in storage. Lloyd died in 2003.
Lloyd’s daughter, Kelly, is now the owner of the Firebird. On August 29, 2009 I had the honor of meeting Kelly in person in Iowa. I took great pleasure in photographing and then actually driving the Firebird. The Firebird is all there, including the holes drilled to run recording wiring. Kelly even has a plug-in plate with five jacks for microphones. The car also has a skid plate mounted to the frame to protect the engine and transmission from any damage from stunts. This Firebird is a rig car (sound car) used for close-ups while driving. I believe it is also a stunt car. Kelly has a letter from James Garner that was sent to the Program Manager at Station WGGT. The letter identifies this car as an actual screen-used Firebird Formula 400, and that he drove this car during the filming of the Rockford Files. Unfortunately, the letter does not state the car's VIN number.
One interesting note is that this car has power windows. The plastic plugs for the power windows in the door panels can be seen in “Material Difference”, "Love is the Word" and the “Big Cheese” episodes. This Firebird was used during the last two seasons. Pat McKinney and I are 99% sure this is an actual Rockford File Firebird.
The documentation on the Firebirds from the TV series were destroyed sometime around 2000. Since there is no longer a written list of VIN numbers for the Firebirds used on the TV series, it is hard to identify with 100% accuracy an actual screen-used Firebird.
Ross Healey located a 1976 Firebird Formula in San Diego in 2008. After 2 years of trying to talk to the current owner, he purchased the Firebird in March 2010. This Firebird has a letter signed by James Garner stating the vin number and the fact he drove it on the Rockford Files. Ross also received a photo copy of an article about the original owner’s history with the Firebird. This could be the best documented Firebird from the original tv series. Pat McKinney purchased the 1976 Firebird from Ross a few years ago, along with all the documentation.
Pat Mc Kinney, who lives in Southern California has been lucky enough to have owned four Rockford Firebirds. He purchased the first one from a couple in the early 1980’s. At that time, Pat managed to get written documentation from Vinny proving he now owned a screen-used car. He also found a prop plate with 853 OKG on it, in the trunk of the car. He kept this Firebird for a while, and then sold to a friend, whose wife had an accident with the car. Sadly the car was totaled, but she was ok. This car and the other three Firebirds that he currently owns all came through Livingston Pontiac in Woodland Hills, CA. All four Firebirds were special-order cars with similar equipment. In fact, the VIN number of Pat’s original 1978 that was destroyed, was only a few numbers off the 1978 Firebird that he owns today.
Pat currently owns a 1977 Firebird that was a rig car. It is unique in that it was the only car that had holes drilled near the bottom of each of its fenders for sound wiring and microphones. According to a Roy Clark stunt coordinator and stunt double for James Garner, this was the only car that was rigged in this way. When this Firebird was used as a Hero car for filming of the outside of the car, painted plugs were put in to fill the holes. These plugs are clearly visible in several episodes in the 1977 season. “Quickie Nirvana” and “Requiem of a Funny Box” are two of the episodes. The Firebird is currently being restored by Pat. You can see pictures of the restoration on the Rockford Files website. There was a spoiler that was put back on the Firebird after filming. When Pat removed the spoiler, the original Rockford paint was clearly visible. Pat had a paint chip analyzed, which matched the paint on his 1978 Firebird. The color is Lt. Topaz.
Pat’s 1978 Firebird was purchase from the daughter of a stunt man for the Rockford Files. I believe the stuntman's name was Create. This car was used in the episode “Rock in Roll will never Die”. Its right-front fender and passenger door were smashed, and sold as-is to Mr. Create. Mr. Create purchased the car for his daughter who had the car painted grey. When Pat purchased the car from her, the paint was peeling and worn off in areas. You could see the Rockford paint coming through. This Firebird will be his next restoration project. The car also has low mileage, making it easier to restore than his 1977.
Because of the Firebirds that Pat owns, we now have resources to help identify the Firebirds that were used on the TV series.
I asked Vinny about the two Firebirds that he supplied for the Rockford Files movies. He told me that he and his partner tried to sell the cars. He told me that the Firebirds were repainted and made into something completely different. In fact, I saw one of these Firebirds on e-bay in October of 2002. It is painted a bright gold color.
The three movie Firebirds were a 1977 and two 1978 used cars. They rebuilt them and painted them. In fact, Vinny said they were actually painted the wrong shade, but no one noticed. He said that everyone always remembered the 1978 Firebirds, which is why they were rebuilt that way. These Firebirds had the standard interior with power windows.
Vinny said it was a pleasure working with James Garner. He was really a great guy!
If anyone has any other information about any original screen used Rockford Files Firebirds, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope that this information will help other Rockford Files fans!