Knight Rider KITT is one of the famous automotive stars in the ’80s. The glamour of the car is still shining. The car’s concept was far beyond time, and it has a nice story about how it became the KITT.
In early 1981, Glen Larson moved his production company from Universal studios to 20th Century Fox. Still, he had to fulfill one last commitment to the Universal studio by creating a TV show for them. Larson had around 8 to 10 scripts with him, and he randomly picked one from it, sitting around his temporary office at Century Fox, and it was this awesome talking car, Knight Rider. As per his last commitment to Universal Studios, this was the selected storyline for his upcoming TV series.
In the interim, Pontiac was struggling with its sales. As the general manager, Bill Hoglund had to reorient the focus of Pontiac and make decisions with his team about whether they were going to continue as a division of General Motors or not and decide what they needed to do to rectify the problems they had then with the sales decline if it is supposed to continue. The decision was to move as a viable division of General Motors.
Hoglund had the challenge of saving his division. He handed out some assignments to get Pontiac involved in top-level drag racing or finding a movie or television show with a high-tech or James bond type car they could replace with Pontiac. Eric Dahlquist, president of Pontiac’s West Coast public relations agency vista group, was involved in this assignment.
In the late spring of 1981, Wade Harker approached Eric when he attended the same church on a Sunday; he mentioned that they would do a pilot for Universal Studios, which involved a high-tech car. He further mentioned the attributes the car needs to possess in the pilot and Larson’s interest in 1982 Trans Ams. This was the same product replacement that Hoglund had in his mind for Pontiac.
Eric wrote a mail outlining the Knight Rider placement and the parameters established by Hoglund to Jim Graham, the sales promotion manager at Pontiac. Movie/TV placement fell under his purview; therefore, his approval was essential. Several weeks later, Eric received Jim’s response, and unbelievably, he rejected this proposal. Jim had emphasized that Knight Rider was not the image the Pontiac wanted by faulty understanding that this would be another ‘My Mother the car.’
During this time, Eric had already mentioned Knight Rider to several people at Pontiac, and they all favored the placement. Eric had spoken with the Hoglund mentioning the placement to Knight Rider during the late summer of 1981 when he was back at the Pontic headquarters. Luckily Hoglund was also impressed with the information. Still, he couldn’t directly countermand Graham as he was one of his managers. He wanted not to undermine Graham’s authority as it could compromise the division’s effectiveness. But, still, there was a chance. Hoglund mentioned that by any means, if Eric can organize various people who would be involved in this and figure out a way to do so, and if the request comes across his desk, he will approve it.
After a while, when Eric was back in Los Angeles, there had been a series of meetings around placement for Knight Rider with John Kitzmiller at Pontiac zone, Pontiac dealers in South California, and managers of the Van Nuys assembly plant. John Schinella at design staff was already on board, and the Engineering team had bought everything they wanted as ’82 Firebird was planning to start production in November.
Kitzmiller wrote to Hoglund, outlining the program and its support among the department and the dealers. He recommended the Knight Rider placement as he acted the Pontiac’s in-house man in Los Angeles. Hoglund signed the papers as he promised.
New 1982 Firebirds were scheduled to start rolling off for the assembly line in November 1981. Kitzmiller has submitted orders for three fully optioned black Trans Ams. Unfortunately, production was delayed several times. Initially, it was planned for early January but was delayed until mid-April.
Pacific Motor Transport (PMT), General Motors’ transportation company, was involved in delivering the cars, as there were several legal issues with the ordinary delivery process. Still, these three cars were not part of any budgeted promotional program. And it was even more complicated when Glen Larson did not want the cars to be delivered to Universal Studios.
On Friday, April 16, 1982, a guy called Eric and informed him to be at the PMT on the same afternoon at 4 PM to collect the three black Trans Ams with keys in them. At the given time, Eric, Chuck Koch, the vice president of client services at Vista Group, and Harker got the cars and drove away. There had been no paperwork or loan agreements.
John Schinella, head of Pontiac’s design studio and the man responsible for the Trans Am, visited Harker. At that meeting, Harker described the desired nose of the car with the iconic red light. Schinella had quickly drafted a design from the inspiration he gained from the Galactica series ‘Cylon Warrior.’ And it was the exact design that Harker wanted.
The modification work to the cars was done by a Southern Californian car builder named Jon Ward. It took six weeks to complete the modifications with the detailed rendering from Schinella. Michael Scheffe was hired to design the computerized dashboard for the KITT. The dash built was fixed to two of the cars, and a stationery buck was used for close-up shots.
In the meantime, Larson was trying to get approval for the real production from the executives from Universal Studios. 5 million dollar budget was put for what could be a television pilot, a two-hour made-for-TV movie, or a feature-length movie. The studio had kept balking at the cost, and finally, they informed that Larson would get enough budget for 15 minutes short of presenting to NBC network executives. Still keeping this in mind, Larson took a crew for the recordings. The preview was supposed to be shown to the NBC executives on Monday, and the video was done by Sunday afternoon. On Monday, they watched the short and bought 22 episodes.
The rest is history. Knight Rider went as a hit and ran for four years. It has generated millions of dollars, made a star David Hasselhoff, marked Glen Larson as a producer, and helped to sell a ton of Trans Ams.
This is how Pontiac Firebird Trans Am became the KITT.
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