Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, James Garner: Hollywood’s original holy trinity of car guys. Each of them owned and drove great cars, and equally proved themselves to be highly talented racing car drivers at professional levels. Cars, and often motorcycles, worked their way into the plots and scripts of the movies and television shows made famous by each of them; McQueen was unforgettable for his serious car guy exploits in Bullitt and Le Mans; Newman really drove Indy cars at speed while shooting Winning, and later voiced the Doc Hudson character in Pixar’s Cars. James Garner proved himself a capable Formula 1 pilot in Grand Prix, and worked lots of motorized mayhem into his long running (1974–early 1980) TV detective show, The Rockford Files.
Jim Rockford was a private investigator that, assuming his often marginal clientele paid him, made maybe $200 a day. He was tall, handsome, and self-deprecatingly charming, transparently much like Garner in his day-to-day life. Rockford drove what appeared to be a stock looking Pontiac Firebird Esprit, finished in glowing Solar Gold, replete with whitewall tires. Garner once explained that “Rockford would have probably rather had a Trans Am, but realistically couldn’t afford it.” And of course the handsome but decidedly more humble Esprit was a bit stealthier than the rumbling, grumbling big-block Trans Am with its flashy mag wheels and phoenix hood decal graphic. But would a 350-cubic-inch, two-barrel carbed, single-exhaust Esprit been able to burn miles of rubber or pull off the occasional chase scene stunt? Not so much.
The Firebird Esprit just wasn’t up to that job, but the Formula 400 sure was. So Garner’s Cherokee Productions and Pontiac’s PR team, a company called Vista Group (headed by former Hot Rod magazine tech editor and Motor Trend former editor-in-chief Eric Dahlquist) spec’d up Formula 400s for the show, with the tan vinyl interior and automatic transmission, and then “backspec’d” or “downdated” them to look like Esprits; in other words, with no hood scoops, rear spoilers or “Formula” badging. The effect was amazing. The car looked more subtle but still packed the 400-cu-in engine and more robust suspension.
Rockford got a “new car” each season from 1974 through 1978. Typically two to three cars were used for each season’s filming. Yet the ’78 models did extended duty from the 1978 season until the show wrapped in early 1980? Why no 1979 or ’80 Rockbirds? The story goes that James Garner didn’t like the “boxed headlight” redesign of 1979–80, electing to stick with the earlier look that had served so well from 1977–78.
The 1978 “Rockbird” VIN 2U87K8L147393, as seen in these photos, was special among all of them, serving as the “sound car” during filming. That means it was specially wired and mic’d in order to capture not only the sounds of the actors inside the car talking, but of equal importance, the sounds of the Firebird’s rumbling V-8, screaming tires, and possibly the sounds of sirens, cars crashing or other noisy things happening on set. Pay particular attention to the microphone plug-in junction box mounted in the floor console, just ahead of the shifter: it’s still clearly marked that one input was for “Garner” with another designated to capture the sounds from the (engine) “Bay. ” There were in fact several mics mounted all around the car, and if you are watching the show and do some careful freeze-framing, you’ll spot a mic showing up here and there. Usually it all went by so fast as to not have been noticeable on the clunky curved-glass TVs of the ‘70s. The Rockford Firebird is also unique in that it’s the only among these cars to appear in the series that had factory-installed AM/FM radio and power windows.
After production of the show, James Garner owned and drive the car until mid-1981, when it ultimately moved along to subsequent owners. It was never wrecked or substantially damaged post-Rockford and Garner, but it fell down on its heels a bit and needed a total restoration.
Then, it luckily found its way into the sympathetic ownership of Steve Reich; Reich is a long experienced “picture car” guy, in the business of supplying vehicles for film, TV and commercial use (he currently works for Jay Leno in the management of his car collection, and in the production of Jay Leno’s Garage). A big Rockford fan, Reich commissioned a complete and absolutely authentic restoration of the car, ably executed by noted Pontiac restorer Mike Flaherty, with the instructions to “make it look set ready for The Rockford Files in 1978. ” Fortunately the microphone junction box and some of the wiring and mountings were preserved along the way, as was a stack of documentation, letters, builds sheet and other provenance documentation underpinning the car’s significant Hollywood history. The effect is time-machine stunning, and were he still with us, you’d expect James Garner to amble out, hop in the car, fire it up, shift into reverse, and execute one of Rockford’s patented tire burning, smoking “Reverse J turns” that were a trademark of the show.
As we write this, the Rockford Firebird has a date with the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction block, to be sold on to its next TV fan owner, at no reserve. Looking absolutely right and ready, this screen-used and star owned Rockbird is no phony, no cloney, or “tribute” but instead an absolute real-deal Rockbird, and some genuine Hollywood car history to be sure.
Editor's Note: The auction has ended and the Rockford Firebird has sold for $115,000.
1978 Pontiac Firebird Formula "The Rockford Files"