Do you remember the TV series “Knight Rider”? Lots don’t, but for people who do, it invariably has a polarizing effect. One view is that the show’s real star, a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, was a great platform for showing off existing and future technologies, like artificial intelligence, self- driving cars and voice recognition. The other view is that the show was an epic explosion in a 1980’s kitsch factory, leaving the audience dodging things falling out of the sky, like unbuttoned pink shirts, plastic body cladding and David Hasselhoff’s haircut. Since this column is about unusual cars, we’ll give at least a temporary benefit of the doubt and go the tech route.
The show’s backstory reads like The Six Million Dollar Man got a fifth of Wild Turkey and spent a weekend hanging out with Speed Racer. Michael Long was a LAPD detective who got shot in the face and was about dead. A billionaire, Wilton Knight, who runs an outfit called Knight Industries, somehow swoops in, avoids the whole “hey, wasn’t there a patient in that bed a minute ago?” inquiry, patches him up and gives him a new identity as Michael Knight, crimefighter extraordinaire. But where Steve Austin got the bionic limbs, telephoto eye and Jamie Somers, all the good stuff, except for aforementioned haircut, instead goes to the Pontiac, the Knight Industries Two Thousand, aka, KITT.
The Pontiac’s features read like the writers and director simply raided every gadget from every movie car in the prior thirty years. James Bond’s Aston Martin, Speed’s Mach 5, the Green Hornet car, Herbie the Love Bug and even Christine (though less possessively) are all well represented, albeit to songs by Quarterflash and Men at Work. A rogue’s gallery of notable features are: rocket boost that allows the Poncho to jump over things.
A “scan bar” that allows the car to see in different wavelengths, an oil slick spreader to lose pursuing cars, grip tires that put out spikes for insane terrain, cutting lasers for undoing nefarious enemy cars, bomb sniffers for, well, sniffing bombs, infra-red tracking in case the scan bar was on a smoke break, architectural analysis of nearby buildings pending a guest appearance by Helmut Jahn, a bulletproof and bombproof shell for when the ratings came in, a layer of fireproofing for when the studio saw the ratings, remote manipulation of ATM’s allowing our crime-fighting hero to commit felony theft at a whim (and which is extra-odd, because the car also had its own, internal ATM).
A medical scanner fit to give the AMA hives, instantly tintable windows for unexpected trips to Florida, a voice-stress analyzer (for married guys), a chemical analyzer for avoiding DUI’s, an ability for the car to hear and understand the outside environment, an ability for the car to smell the outside environment, a fingerprint scanner, a ballistics analyzer, an induction coil to energize objects, a flame thrower for in case the George Foreman grill is out.
An interior oxygen supply for when the hukkah bar is out but you think you still stand a chance with the Harley Quinn lookalike, magnesium flares to divert random heat-seeking missiles, voice recognition to avoid those pesky keyboards, a grappling hook, a ski system to drive on snow, a hydroplane system to drive on water, air brakes for when discs simply won’t do, and a homing device to allow the car to self-drive to you if you and Speed are still working on that Wild Turkey.
Oh, and, of course, an ejection seat. You have to have an ejection seat.
In something that finally does NOT get them the Cheez Whiz award, the writers presaged some of today’s actual auto technology, some of which was reasonably foreseeable, but some which probably wasn’t. We’re talking about sensors that can look all the way around the car, sensors that can detect people and other vehicles, instant language translation, the computerized ability to match accent and language usage, the ability to adjust ride height for offroad work, retractable aerodynamic features for stability at speed (Porsche), an in-dash video display (which can also play music and run arcade games), the Apple watch, ability to inflate and deflate tires (Hummer), a satphone, computer links, a retractable hardtop and GPS.
But far and away the biggest feature which actually makes the car the protagonist is that it has artificial intelligence, which makes it sentient. As in self-aware and capable of exercising free will. The voice actor who did the artificial intelligence voice insisted that he got no credits for doing it, although fans eventually figured it out.
It’s exhausting just repeating it all, let alone contemplating using it. In the words of one contemporary critic: “The essence of a good adventure story is that the good guy might not make it. He’s facing huge odds. You have to have that tension. But he uses ingenuity and courage, puts us in a cliffhanger, and then barely makes it. That’s a story. Well, I’m here to tell you, if you have all that crazy s*&@ that is on this car, you don’t need much in the way of either ingenuity or courage, and if you still can’t win, you’re a world class a@#*&e.”
Well, a whole lot of people disagreed with that critic, and the show met with a surge of popularity, turning into a franchise, running for 4 seasons and a healthy 90 episodes between 1982 and 1986. It has been reprised with other films, re-releases, untold model cars, clones, web pages and even a French comic strip. Charlie Hebdo, this would have caused you a whole lot fewer problems. Twenty-three of the cars were built. Five of them ultimately survived.
Okay, if you are Brian Grams and you own an auto museum, and one of the museum’s specialties is movie and TV cars, well, you pretty much have to have one. While he was not able to get one of the originals, he did land a very high quality replica. This one was made to the original design specs and is essentially indistinguishable from the screen cars. And it’sautographed by the famed George Barris, who was involved in some seasons of the show.
Even non-fans will have to admit that, kitsch notwithstanding, it makes a pretty cool display. Long live the Knight Rider!