(first posted 1/1/2013) The Rockford Files ran between September of 1974 and January 1980. Jim Rockford ran his private detective business from his house trailer on the beach in Malibu, California, and pursued bad guys in his gold Firebird Esprit with a tan interior. Throughout its run, Rockford starred the engaging James Garner, and he always drove a gold Firebird with a tan interior.
Although Rockford drove a new Firebird in each season, there were essentially only two different styles—the 1974-76 dual headlight design, and the 1977-78 four headlight design. Garner thought the ’79-80 Firebirds were too ugly to feature on the program. An observant fan of the program and of Firebirds can often detect both styles used in the same scene. The program was said to have been very expensive to produce, both for its extensive use of location filming and probably for the large number of cars Rockford ran through. Those Firebirds must have been extraordinary cars with the ability to self-heal running gear and body damage, sometimes within minutes.
With so much location shooting, a lot of mid-seventies (and earlier) cars can be seen in abundance in every episode. The opening credits always feature an LAPD AMC Matador cop car.
James Garner was a car guy and did all of his own stunt driving. His most famous move was his “J-Turn”, a tire smoking 180-degree change of direction. One would have to say that this stunt was directly inspired by Junior Johnson and his fellow moonshiners. I can’t help feel that being a car guy that Garner influenced his production company (Cherokee Productions) to use certain cars as incidental decoration. The ’63 Bullet Bird pulls frequent cameo duty, as do a number of other cars.
Unfortunately, this ’60 Chevy appeared in only one episode-the first. I’d love to know more about those red wheels. Directly behind the Chevy is Lindsay Wagner in a green Bug convertible, with a big fat Caddy across the street. Got to give it to Garner—he liked interesting cars and good looking women.
The bad guys in Rockford generally drive Rolls Royces or Mercedes. In this rare instance the baddie is driving a big red Eldo.
In the above shot, what appears to be everyday LA traffic has a number of cars that Cherokee Productions called upon for frequent appearances, to wit: the red Karmann Ghia; the silver Audi 100 in front of the Eldo; and the silver Vega. In fact, the GMC Fishbowl bus and Ford Country Squier may also have been part of the cast.
Although GMC fishbowls were still in production in 1974, this particular bus is sporting an awfully shiny and un-dented front bumper that just reeks Central Casting.
The above shot with Lindsay Wagner driving a green Bug will give some indication of the wide variety of vehicles that populate the typical episode: Opel GT; Buick station wagon; a ’65 Plymouth Fury sedan; Dodge Tradesman van; and a ’64 Chevy Impala 4-dr hardtop. Eye candy in every episode.
It must be an unwritten rule in Hollywood that car chases must include plenty of gravity-defying leaps. Of course, the car is always shown driving off into the sunset, which makes one wonder. Did they use two identical cars or did they film the post-jump scenes first? Regardless, the Pontiac shown in mid-air shortly will become a steaming pile of junk once it lands.
I love this shot—two of the worst cars ever made, a Vega and an Audi 100 LS. What are the odds that both of these excresences could be kept running long enough to complete a scene? Boggles the mind.
Most of the screen shots in this post were taken from the first episode, but one recurring theme in Rockford is lots of interesting cars, both static and in motion. Every episode of Rockford is available on Netflix, or if you really have to have it, I’m sure Amazon has the complete DVD boxed set.
And then there was Kathryn Harrold, a clone of Ingrid Bergman. I am so in love!
He obviously was a stickler for authenticity. The Big Blue Bus shown has a placard that reads “9 – Pacific Palisades.” Having grown up there I can attest that it is the correct line number and card. Looks just like I remember it when I used to take the Number Nine to Santa Monica for the day.
I’m of the opinion that it is a genuine Santa Monica Transit bus. SaMo used fishbowls for a long time, and 1974 was still somewhat early during its production run. Both LA Transit District and and SaMo were quite used to renting out their spare buses for tv and movie shoots.
I couldn’t add a photo in my edit. There was also talk of using a custom Firebird Station Wagon in the series as well. Never happened, though, but a picture does exist. With Garner in the picture.
It is said that Garner used new Firebirds in each season, but when it came to 1979, it is said that he thought that the styling was so hideous that he didn’t want it on the series. The station wagon would back up his statement.
My guess, however, is that the ’79s would have been too hard to slip into transition scenes in which ’74-’76 Birds and ’77-’78 were used interchangeably.
I remember that Garner ended up suing the Universal for profits. Universal said the show never made any money. They settled out of court. The lawsuit dragged out for 5-6 years.
I remember Garner being interviewed about the lawsuit, he said
Universal “rented” a Firebird for every day a Firebird was needed. The “rental” company was run by someone associated with Universal. The daily “rental” was enormous. Instead of owning the car outright, the way they did, put the show deeper into accounting debt every day.
Garner may have been joking. He’s more recently (in his autobiography, backed up by exhaustive photos and documentation on a fan page on Facebook) outlined how he owned the primary cars in the series (the Firebird and his dad Rocky’s GMC pickup) so that neither Universal, the network nor GM could screw with them for their own purposes (pushing a re-design he didn’t like, supplying one with the wrong engine, etc.).
Garner (or more likely Cherokee Productions) wrote a check and bought the cars outright.
If Universal did rent the car, it would have been from Garner…and if that was factored into the accounting that showed Rockford never making money, I’m sure that would have ticked him off plenty.
Actually I believe that car was used by one female guest star in the series. I’ll have to check out my dvd box sets and see if I can find it.
I know for sure it was used in one episode of Knight Rider also.
Gretchen Corbett drove the car in season 4, episode 11 “Forced Retirement.”
It was un the double episode “Never Send a Boy King to Do a Man’s Job” [Richie Brockelman’s dad episode]. The character Odette LePindu drove it. It was shown in two scenes.
You are wrong. They used it in the double episode. It takes a boy king or whatever it was called. It’s driven by Trish Noble early in the first half of the two-part episode and toward the end of the second part.
Interesting piece here-I always wondered how they were able to order the same color 5 or so years in a row-
Also the Firebird wagon did make an appearance in the second to last season, entitled
“Never Send a Boy King to do a Man’s Job”.
Also, GMC used the show to expose certain tricked-out pickups occasionally, ostensibly as a loaner when Rocky’s own cool pickup was in for service.
Overall, one of my favorite shows of all time, only reason I don’t watch them now is that I’ve seen each episode a dozen times since my youth, and yes I have the boxed sets.
Well, the first ’74, in pic above, is darker brown than the 77-78 lighter shades.
Supposedly, per the 1990’s reunion movies, it was the same exact car for the whole series. It was shown as ‘stolen’ and stripped bare on a trailer, and was still a 1978 model. But it was inferred that the ‘Bird “was the same one Jim owned for decades.” So, to the writers, the “newer” Birds were merely “acting” as 1974’s.
The 4 headlight cars used later in the show are Formula Firebirds made up to look like Esprits, because the 400 was no longer available in a regular Firebird and Garner wanted the 400 in the cars. Also all the cars were painted to match the same gold as the first Rockford Firebird, so they would look the same on film, the paint quality of factory gold cars would vary too much on camera.
BTW, that “mid 70’s Eldo” is a 1974 Cranberry Firemist Eldorado, rare color for 1974, and its even got the parade boot on, and I dont rememer the bad guys having Rolls or Mercedes that often, from what I remember the bad guys usually had huge black Lincoln Continental sedans.
Bad guy cars ran the gamut from Satellites and Monte Carlos and such right on up to the aforementioned. Also, the budget dictated a lot of switcheroos, example 5 or so year older version of shoot car subsituted at last second for destruction.
The ’77 still hints at its Formula heritage via the blacked-out grilles. Standard birds have argent-painted units.
Just saw “Seven Psychopaths” last night. Quite good! Good use of seventies’ vintage cars, and a similar red Eldo ragtop has a major role.
No secret Garner is a GM guy, going back to at least his desert racing days, when he ran an Olds Cutlass…If this was Steve McQueen’s show, however, he would no doubt have driven a Ford product of some sort, maybe even an old GT40…
Too this day, Garner drives a black Cadillac CTS sedan(dont know if its a V) with personalized “Rockford” plates.
I hope not; James Garner is RIP.
Except when he was pimping Mazdas for 4 years in commercials.
He can take a paycheck just like anyone else.
Jimmy Garner can do anything he wants.
I haven’t seen this show in a LONG time!
Now I want to watch it again…
Excellent story and photos to begin the New Year; always enjoyed the Rockford Files as well as reminiscing about some of the cars showcased in the series.
We can’t forget the plethora of GM full-size 4-door hardtops used by many of the goons that would invariably clean Rockford’s clock. Every time I’d see a mid 70’s Biuck Electra 4-door-I’d half expect a pair of turtleneck clad gorillas jump out to give someone a good, solid thumping.
“Rocco, Vinne….help Mr. Rockford out the door”
Hehehehe that just about sums it up Carmine. Every episode. And, like every action series of the day, the last 3 minutes of the show are devoted to the lighthaearted “last laugh”. Ths was best personified in CHiPs, where John, Ponch, Gatrare and whatever other meatheads showed up in the scene always busted out laughing, with several freeze frames mixed in for effect. Good stuff.
One episode had Jim and guest star Stefanie Powers driving a ’73 rental Buick Electra and had a short chase scene. They were being followed and they ran, but then got bad guys in the end. Stef played a fellow PI who also hated “Lt. Deihl”.
What is that “Ford” just left of the 9 bus?
It looks as though it could be an Aussie rendition of a ’72 Mercury Villager.
’72 Country Squire.
Theres also a Buick clamshell wagon in the red Opel GT pic.
I am a big fan of the Rockford files and it is great to car-watch in. You get a great shot of the big Riviera.
One thing I noticed was small Hondas every once in a while in the background. That shocked me even for street shots.
Yes, this was one of my favorite shows back in the day. I liked it for the cars, the action, and I thought James Garner was a great guy.
I hear he’s equally great in real life, a true Hollywood nice guy.
Wonderful dude. Will always be Lt. Commander Madison and Pete Aron to me.
I was finally old enough (7th grade) to stay up that late on Fridays.
It was my first favorite TV show… loved Garner’s witty lines, the SoCal scenery, the cars…. I hummed the theme song to myself walking to the school bus every day. It’s cool that it’s on Netflix – time to shard it with the next generation. ( I’ll try to keep them focused on the cars rather than the other, um, scenery.)
For some time now, I’ve been wanting to make a site entitled “The Cars of Universal Studios”. Sharp eyed viewers such as myself can spot recurring sightings of specific vehicles quite often. That silver Vega, for instance. In addition to multiple appearances on “Rockford”, it has shown up on episodes of Adam-12, Police Story, and likely many others. Other ones which come to mind: The Dragnet Fairlane has shown up on other shows, including episodes of Ironside. This car is easily spotted by the dual antennas on the rear. Other recurring cars include Colombo’s Peugeot, both the ’55 Chevy and the GTO from 2-Lane Blacktop (eg Adam-12, opening scene of “Baretta”).
The GTO from TLB also turned up on “Rockford”, poorly repainted red with an Starsky stripe. I spotted it immediately, those Keystone mags were a dead giveaway.
Here’s where you can start: http://www.imcdb.org.
The incidental cars that show up repeatedly were one of two things, according to recent interviews with Garner (that resulted in his autobiography, released last year): Cars owned by Universal Studios and cars owned by employees of Garner’s production company and the crew that worked on Rockford.
I believe the silver Vega and the gold with white top ’63 T-Bird belonged to the camera/sound men. You would see them often when they were doing on scene location shots, either parked or driving by. By ’77, the ’63 was replaced by a ’68 creme colored Bird. He obviously liked vintage Birds! And how the Vega lasted that long, the duration of the show, even in SoCal, is amazing!
James Garner is the last living member of the triad of cool, Hollywood car-guys from the sixties (the other two being the late Paul Newman and Steve McQueen). Like the Rat Pack, there’s just been no one since to compare in the pantheon of famous guys who seem to be able to make everything look smooth and effortless.
I always wondered if Paul Newman ever had any regrets on not being associated with a specific car the way that Garner will forever be linked to the gold Rockford Firebird and McQueen the green Bullitt Mustang.
How about the gray/primer Speedster in Harper?
While not a movie mobile…….. If pressed, I would say that newman’s signature car is the Red/White/Blue Canon liveried #33 Z Car. such as:
Well there was his white over burgandy Brougham in 1986’s “The Color of Money”
I don’t know. When you say ‘car’ and James Garner, gold 1974 Firebird Esprit is the first thing that comes to mind. With McQueen, it’s green 1968 Mustang GT fastback.
About the closest movie/tv car I can think of that might apply to Paul Newman is maybe the black over gold 1970 GTO he drove in Slap Shot, but even that’s a stretch. It didn’t get much screen time in the movie but it was still a cool, memorable car.
Here it is:
In the 1980 film “The Hunter”, Steve McQueen drives a ’79 Trans Am that ultimately gets blown up.
I think it gets destroyed by a combine in a car chase through a cornfield, the end of the movie has a car chase in Chicagos famous Marina Towers, aka, the Corncobs, where he drives a tow truck and chases a bad guy in a Grand Prix that goes off the edge of the parking garage.
No. The 1959 convertible in Hud!
Well, now, it’d have to be a 49 Hudson. (I think it was a 49).
Last summer, I watched every Rockford episode in order, an experiment in Internet downloading.
That silver Vega appeared is a LOT of Rockford episodes, usually in the background, but occasionally it would have a more important role.
I agree that the bad guys drove a lot of Cadillacs and Lincolns. Mercedes and Rolls were pretty rare.
That beautiful red Eldo convertible is the ride of one Lance White I believe. Fellow private detective and boy scout whom all of the ladies swooned after. While Rockford always seemed to just miss the brass ring Lance (played by Tom Selleck) always seemed to have good fortune dropping in his lap.
This show had so many terrific cars in it: pagoda Mercs, tons of GM pillarless hardtops, big old menacing Lincolns, Porsche exotics, Grosser Limos, lots and lots of black Caddies. And then there were the rental dogs he was forced to use. Ha!
Glad someone brought up the Firebird wagon driven by Odette Sorrell. I thought it was the coolest thing ever as a kid and she was hot!
David Chase (who went on to do Sopranos) wrote for that show and it shows in all of the quips and snark. Love it! I’ll never forget a line from the episode that most of those pictures came from. A hippie artist was hawking his horrible dreck and said to Rockford: “I paint what I feel” so Rockford replied “you must not feel well”.
I think I read somewhere that the goldish paint color was actually not factory spec but something they concocted so no matter what year they could paint the Firebirds all the same color.
The hippie artist “I paint what I feel” guy was played by grown up Billy Mumy, aka “Will Robinson” from Lost in Space. My bro and thought it was hilarious to see “Will” as a hippie.
In another episode, Mumy played Lindsay Wagner’s [driving the VW bug] little brother, a different character. Many guest actors appeared more than once as a different person, such as Joan Van Ark. I think Kathyrn Harold played a blind woman and a then different lady?
Kathryn Harold appeared in two episodes in which she played the same character, a blind doctor, shrink, or something like that.
The red Eldorado shown was driven by the bad guy played by William Smith in the pilot. Maybe they had Selleck drive the same car a few years later.
Lance White’s Eldorado convertible was a white ’73, not this car.
I remember an episode where Rockford had to contend with a young rookie P.I. named Ricky something ( played by a young Jameson Parker, who would later star in Simon And Simon ) . Ricky drove a ratty first-gen Mustang convertible.
Rockford’s lawyer girlfriend Beth Davenport drove a Porsche 914. Finally, I remember another episode where a reddish-orange ’70-’73 Firebird containing the body of a murdered fashion model was fished out of a local pond, and Rockford got the case.
The young PI was “Richie Brockelman”, played by Dennis Dugan. An attempted spin off, that flopped after 6 shows. He does look like J. Parker, a little.
When Jim borrowed Beth’s Porsche one time, she yelled “Don’t redline it” as he drove away. I liked her character, and she was pulled off the show in later years as a cost cutting move, 🙁
RE: “…concocted so no matter what year, they could paint the Firebirds all the same color.”
As I posted above, the Firebird was supposedly the same car all the time! Jim wasn’t really buying new cars every year, just fixing same one. The newer cars were acting the part of “1974 Esprit”.
What I didn’t like was in the 1st reunion movie, he drove an 80’s T-Bird, since the Firebird was stolen and stripped. I wanted to see him in a new 1993 Firebird!
There was another reunion movie where the Firebird was up on blocks in front Jims trailer, was this the same movie?
There was talk about a year ago of a Rockford Files movie with Vince Vaughn as Jim Rockford…..
One other thing about the Firebirds supposedly being the same car, in CA, the licence plates stay with same car. So Rockford having the ‘853 OKG’ plate each year means, again, that the 1975-78 cars were ‘acting as 74’s’. 🙂
And that plate has meaning. Garner specified it (it’s a prop, not an officially issued California plate). His first movie acting gig in Hollywood was August, 1953, he’s a native of Oklahoma and his last name begins with G…so…853 OKG.
Around the same time, Johnny Carson was running official California plates on his Mercedes SL. California did not have personalized plates yet, but what Carson wanted to say could be said with three letters and three numbers, and since the plate hadn’t been issued yet, the DMV was happy to oblige.
The plate was 360 GUY….”all-around guy”.
The opening photo is of a ’75 Firebird – not a ’74. The ’75’s started the wrap around read window. ’74’s (F bodies) didn’t have the wrap around window.
I thought the ’75 Firebird had the turn signals in the grille (the pictured car has them in the bumper like the ’74).
Maybe it’s one of those ‘converted’ cars that someone else mentioned.
That first car is def a 74. If you look into the picture of the car you can see the rear window isn’t the wrap around type. 75 models shared the same front bumper/rear bumper but had turn signals in the grill. 76’s had the bumpers that didn’t have the black sections, they looked the same form 76 through 78.
The 74 was painted Denver Gold, a 74 only color. All the rest of the Rockford birds where a different (more gold than bronze) color, very similar to or possibly the same as the Solar Gold found on the 78+ Gold SE T/A’s.
74’s are the odd year out, a little bit of “new” and a little bit of old. Not as easy to get replacement sheet metal for as the rest of the years, but at least it was the last year without the Cat-converter.
What I remember about James Garner was this article from HOTROD magazine about the 1980 Diablo Del Calle concept car. I think there were two of these Diablos built. The other one was a monochromatic white version that was featured in a Corvette vs Diablo Del Calle best two seater article in MotorTrend. I have the same 80 Diablo(powertrain wise 305/4V 4-speed), mine is black/red interior, patiently awaiting restoration. There might be something about Garner hating the new for 79 Firechicken styling as the HR story mentions the “StreetDevil” being a replacement for the TV show. I can attest to the sports car like handling of the last gen ElCamino as I was the first person on the face of the earth to autocross one back in 1978. I also owned a 76 TransAm and there was no comparison that the G-Body was the better handler. It might not compare too well against the torque of the W-72 400, though. Here’s a few pics. As soon as I can convert the text into a format that will load I’ll post it.
THAT is a pretty cool ride.
I can’t let my wife see that or she will do nothing but beg for one. She has some unatural facination for El Caminos and their GMC twins.
Copy of the HOTROD story.
And here’s a link to another Rockford vehicle. Scroll down almost to the end of the page. http://starcarcentral.wordpress.com/author/starcarcentral/page/2/
Actually that is pretty cool site so scroll through every page.
And the cover of MotorTrend showing the original 79 Diablo.
The show was a favorite of mine as well. I seem to remember MB 600 limos occasionally. Rocky’s GMC pickup was pretty cool too.
A Rolls was piloted by bad guy Ned Beatty in Part 2 of “Profit and Loss”; a Silver Shadow may have shown up in Part 2 of “Gearjammers.” An evil doctor had a 246 Dino. and a self-important minor league quarterback named King Sturdevant rode in a chaufferred Rolls or its Bentley equivalent. There were several M-B products, including a 600 Pullman leased by Rockford’s fellow PI Marcus Garvey, Porsche was represented un several episodes, most notably by the 914 driven by Beth Davenport, Rockford’s attorney.
One amusing episode had Rockford flying to New Jersey during which a passenger next to him is extolling the virtues of that state. The next scene has Rockford exiting the airport in a rental that has a inoperative turn signal. As Rockford sticks his arm out of the window to signal a left turn a thief runs up and pulls the watch off his wrist. Jersey joke.
When I was a little kid in the ’70s, I used to refer to Firebirds as “Jim Rockford cars”….
I have seen that silver vega in many episodes. It turns out one of my tenants was Mr Garners’s nurse before he passed I found that out after. Could of asked but now I guess I’ll never know the significance of that silver Vega.
I just saw a rockford rerun where he is driving an orange Porsche 914. In other episodes, His girlfriend/ lawyer drove the 914.
On a related note, I think Jonathan Byers in Stranger Things is the first TV character since about 1975 to drive a ’71 full-size Ford without crashing it spectacularly. They may be our host’s least favorite car, but it seems like for a long time the stuntmen loved them.
Love this post!! Everything about it. I’m always shocked when I discover an article from the CC archives that is “up my alley” that I haven’t read before.
+ 1 with a side of Angel Martin
I agree with both of you. Nothing better than an old one that’s new to you and then when it’s from The Kevin Martin Collection it just makes it even better.
It seems so strange looking back but the thing that sticks out in my mind more than the gold Firebird is, that Rockford had a telephone answering machine and it was featured in the intro on every show. That was very ” mod” for the times.
There was a mention that he rented the answering machine, when he didn’t make the payment and someone came to collect it.
This will always be one of my favorite shows. Garner was a class act.
I’ve often wondered how many gold Firebirds that James Garner “sold” for Pontiac.
I haven’t seen a Trans Am featured in any show in quite awhile. I was surprised to see “The Ferg” driving a 1979 ish version on “Longmire.”
Most of the Rockford Firebirds came from Livingston Pontiac in Woodland Hills, CA. (now Keyes Cadillac/Buick/GMC). I was told the studio often purchased Formula 400 models with tan interiors, replaced the hood with the standard Firebird part, and removed the stripes and spoiler. That way they got a decent engine with the good suspension and brakes. Cars were painted a particular metallic gold that Garner liked, actually a Ford color.
I remember Garner being interviewed about the lawsuit at the time. He said the production company was overcharging for everyday work like building sets, renting equipment and various everyday production items in order to wring every penny of profit out of the studio. This lowered the net profit from which he was paid (likely besides his salary).
Years later Howard Stern, in interviewing a movie star of the time, described negotiations for his cut of the movie he made in the 90’s. He insisted on his percentage being based on “first dollar gross” – the amount they brag about every weekend nowadays- rather than “net profit” after all of the costs are deducted. This protected him from this type of BS.
To each his own but I’m the opposite of Garner. I much preferred the 1979-81 car over the 74-78 versions. Still love my 1981 Nascar edition replica. And I loved the Rockford Files growing up as a kid during the 70’s.
There aren’t any down to earth great actors like James Garner anymore.
There aren’t any great TV shows like The Rockford Files anymore.
And General Motors doesn’t build beautiful sporty coupes like the 2nd gen. F bodies anymore.😢
Not sure how it’s possible but in series 1 episode 8 during the first cat chase scene the car goes from the early car to the 77 car, but wasn’t the first season 1974?