Written by Jim Suva
In 1982, Pontiac introduced their 3rd generation Firebird and a new TV Series was about to go into production called Knight Rider. This is the story on how these two events came together.
Knight Rider first appeared on September 26, 1982 and ran for four seasons on NBC. A total of 90 episodes were filmed. The final broadcast aired on April 4, 1986. The show was based on Wilton Knight’s quote, One Man Can Make A Difference.
Michael Long was a Police Officer working undercover. He was shot in the face and left for dead in the desert just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Wilton Knight, owner and founder of Knight Industries, had been watching Michael as a possible candidate for his new idea for fighting crime. Wilton rescued Michael. Providing him with plastic surgery, and changing his identity to Michael Knight, as “a man who doesn’t exist”. Michael was given the latest tool for fighting crime, a computerized talking Trans Am, the Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT). Wilton started the Foundation for Law and Government (F.L.A.G.) to support Michael and KITT who helped defeat the criminals that worked above the law.
KITT is not only a computer, he is indestructible. KITT had other capabilities such as turbo boost (the ability jump over objects), drive by itself and analyze objects. KITT had a scanner that could diagnose the physical conditions of people, detect where people were inside a building, and of course, the ability to hold conversations.
Now the new Trans Am was a perfect fit as KITT, but it almost didn’t happen. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to meet and have lunch with Chuck Koch. Chuck worked for the Product Placement company, Vista Group with Eric Daulquist. Chuck told myself and friends over lunch the following story.
Bill Hoglund, General Manager of Pontiac, wanted to get into more TV/movie projects to advertise their vehicles. Wade Harker approached Eric about a new pilot they were going to be shooting. Wade explained that the car would be one of the lead characters and gave him an overview of what the capabilities of the car would do. Glen Larson the creator and producer of the show had seen a picture of the new Trans Am and was interested in using it as KITT.
Eric Daulquist new that this would be the perfect product placement that Hoglund wanted. They even were going to have someone from Pontiac oversee the modifications to the Trans Am so that it would be recognizable to the public as a Trans Am.
Pontiac’s sales promotion manager was Jim Graham. TV/movie placement was his responsibilty. Graham was alread responsible for placing the Trans Am in all of the “Smokey and The Bandit” movies. Eric sent a letter to Graham explaining the Knight Rider placement and how it fit Bill Hoglund’s idea to promote Pontiac. Chuck and Eric thought this was a slam dunk.
A few weeks later Graham’s reply came in a letter. He said it reminded him of the old TV show from the 1960’s. “My Mother The Car”. For those who do not remember “My Mother The Car”, it was a major flop starring Jerry Van Dyke. Graham also wrote that this was not the image Pontiac wanted. It was obvious Mr. Graham did not really understand what the K.I.T.T. placement was all about. So the placement was dead. Or was it?
Eric had already talked to several people at Pontiac about the project, including design chief John Schinella and Pontiac’s Los Angeles Zone Manager John Kitzmiller. They were all for the placement. With that much support Vista Group decided to continue the placement.
Eric met with Hoglund and listened to the placement idea and liked it. Hoglund told Eric he could not go directly go against his boss Graham’s rejection. He did say if Eric could somehow manage to organize the various people, who would be involved in this, plus figure out a way to get this done. He would approve the necessary paperwork when it crossed his desk.
Eric then went the Design Staff, Engineering, Sale, even the Assembly Division except Graham. With the help of John Kitzmiller at Pontiac, he wrote a letter to Hoglund outling the program and it’s support among the different Pontiac Departments and dealers, recommending the placement. Hoglund signed off on the paperwork when it crossed his desk as promised.
On a Friday morning April 4, 1982, came a phone call to Vista Group, which was in charge of the project for the Division. The unidentified person on the phone was looking for Eric. Just like an undercover operation, the individual said: ”Be at the PMT lot this afternoon at 4 p.m. There will be three black Trans Ams there with the keys in them. Take them they’re yours.” Eric never knew who made that call.
At 4 p.m. Eric, Larson’s producer Harker Wade and Chuck showed up outside the GM plant as instructed. Shortly thereafter three new black Trans Ams were parked in the lot. The PMT people got out of the cars and turned their backs to them. Eric , Chuck and Harker got into the cars and drove away. There was no paperwork, No loan agreements. That would follow several years later. As Chuck said: “It was if the cars did not really exist.”
John Schinella met with Harker Wade and Chuck Koch at the Vista Groups office. Harker explained the desired look Larson was looking for, which included the red scanning light in the nose. This light original came from the TV show “Battlestar Galactica” series, which Larson also created. The light in that series was used on the Cylon Warriors. Schinella picked up a napkin off the coffee table a did a rough sketch. Harker said that is what Larson was looking for. Later more detail drawings from Schinella showed up.
As Chuck Koch continues telling the story, Jon Ward a well known Southern California car builder was in charge of the body work. It took 6 weeks to complete the body work per Schinella’s detailed drawings. Of course there were multiple changes from Glen Larson
Schinella’s also provide the detailed interior dimensions to Michael Scheffe. Scheffe was hired by Glen Larson to create the computerized dash board and upper console at his studio. He also created the stationary buck used for close up shots.
Instead of doing a 2 hour pilot, Larson made 15 minute demo reel filmed and edited over one weekend. It started on Friday in Los Angeles using two film crews and was shown on Monday morning in New York. NBC executives bought the 1st season all 22 episodes based on this demo reel.
Once the Knight Rider went into production, the Trans Am’s were damaged by some of the stunt work. Unfortunately, Universal Studios were not able to get more Trans Am’s for the show. As luck would have it there was a train derailment between the Van Nuys plant and the Arizona border. Two train cars full of new Trans Am’s landed on their sides. Since the cars were damaged they could not be sold as new. Chuck Koch heard about the derailment and got permission from the Pontiac people to look over the damaged cars, when they were brought back to the Van Nuys plant. Chuck and Harker Wade looked over the cars. They selected a dozen Trans Am to be repaired and would be used on the 4 seasons of the TV series.
After the show became a big success, customer came into the Pontiac show rooms looking to order their own K.I.T.T. Trans Am. Of course that was not possible. So starting on the second season Pontiac asked that K.I.T.T. be called a black T-top instead of Trans Am. Of course Pontiac sold a lot of Firebird’s and Trans Am because of the series.