Curbside Classic: 1990 Pontiac Trans Am “Knight Rider” Replica – Knowing When To KITT

There are lookalikes, and there are lookalikes. How many Cadillac hearses – of various vintages – have been predictably turned into ECTO-1? What about the dozens of DeLoreans that got the inevitable Back to the Future treatment (Great Scott!)? Those are usually rather half-assed, as it should be, given the rarity of those cars. With a cheap base like the Pontiac Trans Am though, the temptation to impersonate David Hasselhoff can be overwhelming. Take that to local otaku levels of commitment to the bit, and you get a pretty convincing piece of KITT.

I don’t think I’ve seen an episode of Knight Rider in decades, though I do remember some of it – especially the theme tune and, well, the car. The show, produced by Glen Larson and Universal, ran on NBC for four seasons from 1982 to 1986. I would have seen it on French TV, where it was known as K-2000, sometime in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s. It was a pretty successful show, both in the US and abroad, though it chiefly appealed to a younger demographic not overly concerned with plot, acting or reviewability, the latter being probably pretty dismal. Different times, different entertainment…

For those of you who have no idea what the deal is with this black Pontiac with a funny nose, the show Knight Rider’s premise was that a guy called Michael Knight solved crimes and righted wrongs by riding around in the Knight Industries Two Thousand (KITT), an “intelligent” car that had a bunch of cunning gadgets, plus an A.I. that could talk to the hero and even drive itself. The car was the sidekick, conveyance and the hero’s superpower all rolled into one.

I’m not sure why they picked a Pontiac in particular, but they could have done worse, from a looks perspective. There was the fact that this was a completely new model in 1982, so one could hope it would stay visually fresh for a while – which it certainly did.

Universal forked out a small fortune to purchase three Trans Ams. One was turned into a star/hero car (for close-ups), one became a high-performance driver with a rubber skin, one was a tricked-out car so a stuntman could drive it from the back seat, giving it the appearance of driving itself. A few faux KITTs were made from VW Beetle chassis as lightweight “jump cars” for harder-duty stuntwork.

This was still a pretty precarious way to film a series where the car was, in essence, a main character – not a bit-player like Columbo’s Peugeot 403. In 1983, a train carrying a bunch of Pontiacs derailed in California. By law, GM were forbidden from selling them, even though many were unscathed, but they did contact Universal to see if they’d be interested in a dozen Firebirds for $1 apiece. Suddenly, the Knight Rider folks had a bunch of KITTs made, allegedly with the help of George Barris.

They re-built the “hero car” in 1984. There were a few notable changes to the interior, but nothing externally. As far as I know, the Firebird’s engine (the 5.0 litre V8, I’m guessing?) remained stock, but it’s said the transmission got uprated to a Turbo 350 3-speed for most cars used on the show.

A KITT replica’s pièce de résitance is, of course, the dash. This one is about as convincing as these get, down to the carpet.

The single large screen on the right-hand side, which might well be a cleverly-disguised satnav, makes this a “mark II” dash, i.e. the one that was featured on the third and fourth seasons. Originally, there were two small TV screens there. The steering…er… yoke should also have a little “Knight Industries Two Thousand” in white, located in the groove just below the red logo, but that’s the only small inconsistency I can discern with the show car. Keeping all that clean and shiny must be a job and a half.

So why is this a 1990 model? Because it is. For once, I remembered to take a picture of the VIN. This also tells us that this car has the 225-235hp 350ci (5.7 litre) V8, which is what you’d want to have on a car like this.

It’s not all that difficult, to be fair, to turn your Firebird into a TV star replica. There are at least a couple of specialist shops whose stock in trade is this very thing, though some people have also built their own from scratch. The trickier thing is to find a good base car, which is not as simple as it sounds nowadays, and to keep the replica bits in top nick. Nothing would kill the suspension of disbelief like dead red bulbs in the front light bar or a dirty interior.

Despite the popularity of the show abroad, GM did not export many of this generation Firebird / Trans Am. Out of 839k units made from 1982 to 1992, only a few thousand at most were shipped overseas (not including Canada) each year. It’s a little odd that they utterly failed to capitalize on this fad, which they must have had some inkling about at the time. Another Deadly Sin, but of a purely PR nature?

Maybe not. This is more an exercise in nostalgia than in selling new (and pretty expensive, for export markets) cars. it took a couple of decades for the kids who watched Knight Rider to have the means to buy 3rd gen Trans Ams and turn them into the KITTs of their dreams, both in the US and elsewhere. This was the first installment of “American ‘80s Week,” by the way – yes, with a MY 1990 car, but one that was firmly rooted in the mid-‘80s.


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Curbside Classic: 1985 Pontiac Firebird – Fast Fashion, by Joseph Dennis

Curbside Classic: 1988 Pontiac Trans Am GTA – Generating Teenage Appreciation; Now, Getting Transglobal Attention, by Jason Shafer

In-Motion Classic: 1985 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – Model Citizen, by Joseph Dennis

Curbside Capsule Redux: 1991 Pontiac Formula Firebird – The Subtle Trans Am, by Ed Stembridge

CC Capsule: 1992 Pontiac Trans Am GTA – Kitt and Caboodle, by T87

COAL: 1987 Pontiac Trans Am – The Beginning, by Danny F Cabrera