April 16, 1982 was like any other Friday morning until Eric Dahlquist, the president of Pontiac’s West Coast public relations agency, answered his office telephone in Sherman Oaks, California. After the caller confirmed he was speaking to the president of Vista Group, he said, “Be at the PMT lot this afternoon at 4 p.m. There will be three black Trans Ams there with the keys inside. Take them. They’re yours.” Click. The man hung up.
“It was all very cloak and dagger, very deep throat,” says Chuck Koch, who was Vista Group’s vice president of client services at the time. “We still don’t know who made the call. Eric didn’t recognize his voice, and the man never identified himself.”
PMT was Pacific Motor Transport, the trucking company that transported the new Camaros and Firebirds from GM’s assembly plant in nearby Van Nuys to dealerships all over the country. The cars, literally just minutes old, would be driven out of the factory and into the PMT parking lot, where they would be stored until scheduled for transport by truck or train.
At 4 p.m., Dahlquist, Koch, and television supervising producer Harker Wade were in the lot as instructed. Three black Trans Ams rolled out of the plant right on cue. “It was hard to believe then, and it’s even harder to believe now,” Koch says. “The PMT people just parked the cars and walked away. Not a word was spoken. They didn’t even look at us. We got in the cars and drove away. There was no paperwork. There was no nothing. It was as if the cars didn’t really exist. We didn’t care; we finally had the cars we needed.”
The cars were needed for a new television show, a light-hearted action-adventure crime drama called Knight Rider, and those three Pontiac Trans Ams, obtained under unorthodox circumstances, proved to be one of the most successful automotive product placements of all time.
Knight Rider, which premiered on NBC on September 26, 1982, would run for 84 episodes over four seasons and generate an obscene amount of money in merchandising, from toy cars to t-shirts to lunch boxes. It would also make an international superstar out of David Hasselhoff, who had spent the previous seven years on a daytime soap opera.
Hasselhoff and his character, Michael Knight, instantly became household names, but the real star was the show’s indestructible self-driving black Pontiac Trans Am, the one with the annoying voice and the stoic sense of humor. The Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT for short, was more sidekick than transport. And it went fast, did big smoky donuts, and performed jumps like the Dukes of Hazzard as the two fought for weekly truth and justice.
Incredibly, Pontiac originally turned down the Knight Rider deal. Pontiac’s sales promotion manager at the time, Jim Graham, didn’t like the idea of the show. He thought it was silly and corny. He told Dahlquist it reminded him of My Mother The Car, a stupid comedy flop from the 1960s, and it wasn’t the image Pontiac wanted.
Dahlquist, who had helped place GMC pickups in hit TV shows TheRockford Files, Chips, and The Fall Guy, was shocked by the response. Just five years earlier Graham was credited with placing Trans Ams in Smokey and the Bandit, which proved to be the absolute most successful automotive product placement of all time. After that success, Graham also placed Trans Ams in Hooper and Smokey and the Bandit II, movies that also featured GMCs placed by Vista Group. But Graham was getting this one wrong and Dahlquist knew it.
TV shows with star cars got hot in the early 1970s and would continue to be popular for most of the ’80s. If you were a kid at the time, you know the shows we’re talking about, as they no doubt influenced your love of cars. Here’s how they fell in chronological order: The Rockford Files (1974–80), Starsky and Hutch (1975–79), CHiPs (1977–83), Vega$ (1978–81), The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–85), Magnum P.I. (1980–88), The Fall Guy (1981–86), Simon & Simon (1981–89), Knight Rider (1982–86), Hardcastle and McCormick (1983–86), The A-Team (1983–87), Riptide (1984–86), Miami Vice (1984–90), Stingray (1985–87), and Spenser: For Hire (1985–88).
Also, Pontiac was struggling in the early 1980s. Sales were down radically, profits had dried up, and Pontiac’s new general manager Bill Hoglund was hoping the all-new 1982 Firebird, the first in 12 years, was going to jump start the brand. Dahlquist also understood that Knight Rider was being created by Glen A. Larson, one of the most successful producers in television, with many shows including McCloud, Quincy M.E., Battlestar Galactica, Magnum P.I., and The Fall Guy on his resume.
Thinking Graham was going to approve the project, Dahlquist had already mentioned it to Pontiac’s design chief John Schinella and Los Angeles zone manager John Kitzmiller. Both were in favor of the placement. “There was so much enthusiasm for it, Eric decided to press on despite Graham’s resistance,” Koch says. “And in the summer of 1981 he mentioned it to Hoglund, who also liked the idea.” Hoglund said he wouldn’t overrule Graham, but if Dahlquist could make it happen, he would sign the paperwork.
That fall, with the help of Kitzmiller, Dahlquist and Koch secured support of important players in Pontiac sales, marketing, engineering, and design departments, plus some influential southern California Pontiac dealers, the manager of the Van Nuys assembly plant, and the manager of PMT. “The cars would have to come out of dealer allocations, so there was some horse-trading involved, but everyone agreed,” Koch says. Kitzmiller then sent the paperwork to Hoglund, who signed it as promised. He then submitted orders for three loaded black 1982 Trans Ams, which would be built in April.
As all this was going on, Schinella met with Wade and Koch at Vista Group’s office to discuss the look of the cars, including KITT’s radical front end design with its iconic cycling red light. “It was modeled after the Cylon Warrior from Larson’s show Battlestar Galactica,” Koch says. “So Schinella picks up a cocktail napkin and sketches it out quickly. ‘That’s it, that’s exactly what Glen wants,’ I remember Wade saying.”
Schinella would later provide detailed drawings, and with the cars finally in hand they were quickly shipped to John Ward’s shop in nearby Agua Dulce to receive the modifications, which took six weeks to complete. Michael Scheffe, an independent studio designer also hired by Larson, would design and create KITT’s elaborate interior with its wild computerized dash. Scheffe would install the interior in two of the cars and provide a stationary buck, which would be used for close up shots of the controls.
Of course, none of KITT’s gadgets and gizmos functioned in real life. The interiors were a maze of faux screens, mock digital readouts, and fake buttons. The dashboards were made of fiberglass and fitted over the originals. To make KITT drive itself, the first car, known as “Camera Car #1,” was fitted with redundant controls on the passenger footwell and would be driven by a stuntman lying on the passenger floor. Incredibly, all three of the original KITTs survive today.
“Despite many rumors to the contrary, George Barris had nothing to do with the original design or creation of KITT,” Koch says. “Although Scheffe did tell me that he did help with a slight refresh of the cars for the fourth and final season.” Some reports do credit Barris with the creation of the Super Pursuit Mode version of KITT, as well as a convertible.
Larson had an initial order from Universal Studios for 22 episodes, and production began in earnest. But it was quickly realized that more black Trans Ams were needed for all the stunts in the scripts. Car jumps became very popular after The Dukes of Hazzard hit big in 1979, and Larson had many written into the scripts for both The Fall Guy and Knight Rider. He had KITT constantly flying, as well as performing other stunts like driving through walls and skiing up on two wheels.
But going back to Pontiac for more new Trans Ams wasn’t really an option. Not so soon. And Dahlquist wasn’t going through all that again. Then Koch heard about The Train Derailment.
“It was a train loaded with new Camaros and Firebirds. It came off the tracks in Selma, California, just south of Fresno on November 11, 1982,” Koch says. “It was bringing the cars to dealers, but several freight cars filled with Firebirds had landed on their sides. Although some of the cars weren’t damaged very badly, they could no longer be sold. After I heard about it I immediately got on the phone.”
Once the cars were shipped back to GM’s Van Nuys plant, Koch got permission to look them over. Now that the heavily damaged cars were worthless to General Motors, a deal was struck pretty easily. Koch and Wade grabbed a dozen. “They weren’t all Trans Ams,” Koch says. “In fact, if memory serves, almost all of them, if not all, were normal Firebirds.”
By this time most of season one had been filmed, but the cars were repaired and modified as quickly as possible and put into service. They became a fleet of stunt KITTs for the production that would be used for the duration of the show. They were then crushed.
It was all meant to be. Knight Rider became a huge hit, KITT helped Pontiac sell a lot of third-generation Firebirds, and David Hasselhoff would become a rock star... in Germany. And it was all because Eric Dahlquist wouldn’t take no for an answer… after answering that cryptic phone call 37 years ago.