Knight Rider: Why K.I.T.T Was The Best Car On TV

Knight Rider
courtesy: NBC

There have been a lot of great shows featuring some iconic cars over the years such as the Batmobile or the General Lee but one show stood out as having the sweetest ride of all.

Knight Rider was a TV series that aired on NBC from 1982 to 1986. It starred David Hasselhoff as Michael Knight and featured K.I.T.T which was an artificially intelligent and self-aware customized 1982 Pontiac Trans Am.

I owned a Pontiac 1990 firebird and let me tell you it was nothing like K.I.T.T. It was my first car, and it had synthetic red vinyl for the interior and handled like a shopping car. This Pontiac was a far cry from the glory of the Trans Am from 1982.

Knight Rider remains one of my favorite shows ever and an iconic part of the 1980s. I was still a touch too young to be the targeted audience for it at first but when it comes to kids and cars K.I.T.T may be the greatest of all time.

K.I.T.T looked cool as hell and could talk. Knight Rider has a lot of interesting background in the show’s development and features one of the greatest opening theme songs ever made.

Let’s look back at Knight Rider and why K.I.T.T was the greatest car on T. V

Developing Knight Rider

The whole series was created and developed by Glen A. Larson to be aired on NBC and it was the last show he would produce for Universal Television before moving to Fox. Larson had been involved in some other standout shows and movies including:

  • Bears, Beets, Battlestar Galactica
  • Magnum P.I
  • Buck Rogers In The 25th Century
  • The Fall Guy
  • The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries
  • The Six Million Dollar Man

There had been the idea that he only created small screen versions of big movie blockbusters but he made a lot of iconic TV over the years. He also may have “borrowed” the idea for Knight Rider from some previous shows.

One intent with Knight Rider was that Larson wanted to recreate “the Lone Ranger but with a car”. The Lone Ranger would ride across the countryside trying to prevent crimes and he had his “trusty steed” Silver. This would be a modern retelling of this classic narrative as the hero would fight crime but travel in his car that can assist him.

Knight Rider would follow a classic good guy vs bad guy formula but Larson would still incorporate aspects of some other films to create the structure of Knight Rider. K.I.T.T would be partly based on HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the red LED display on the front was from the scanner lights used by the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica.

Creating K.I.T.T

credit from:

To make Knight Rider memorable they needed a pretty amazing car as it would basically be the supporting character on the show. K.I.T.T would stand for “Knight Industries Two Thousand” and this was based on the fictional creator of K.I.T.T named Wilton Knight.

Originally K.I.T.T would be called T.A.T.T. which stood for “Trans Am Two Thousand”. I honestly think that’s not a bad name either but eventually, K.I.T.T stuck.

K.I.T.T took a lot of development and for the first two seasons was based on that F-bodied Pontiac Trans Am but still had some alterations to it. The Universal prop department changed some of the look of K.I.T.T by adding in that LED display on the front but early on they didn’t do a ton of alterations that kept it like it’s normal Trans Am self.

Pontiac apparently wasn’t on board with this and didn’t want any reference to the car being a Trans Am. You got it Pontiac! There’s mention that the original K.I.T.T made in 1982 cost $100,000 to make but there are variations on if that was true or not. They would need multiple K.I.T.T’s on the show and they would have four of them initially and each car would cost around $18,000 to modify.

Creating The Voice Of K.I.I.T

The way we think of K.I.T.T was never the original intention but developed thanks to voice actor William Daniels who we, of course, know as Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World.

The original intent was that the voice of K.I.T.T would be a straight up robotic and synthesized sounding voice. This made total sense as it seemed like the obvious way a machine would communicate with people. Daniels thought that K.I.T.T should have more of a personality and have a brighter and more amusing voice to it.

The early seasons and shows have a bit more of that robotic tone but nothing like they originally intended. This allowed for some personality to develop which Daniels had been slowly incorporating into his performance. Eventually, this fully opened up and Daniels could be more expressful and charming as he brought more character and life to K.I.T.T

Some interesting situations arose with the whole process of Daniels doing the voice for K.I.T.T. He was never credited as providing the voice throughout the run of the entire series. They apparently had the genuine idea that they wanted people to actually believe that this was a machine created voice just for the car. No one really knew of Daniels yet but after a while, everyone realized who he was and that there was a genuine person behind the voice of K.I.T.T.

Another interesting thing is that Daniels and Hasselhoff never even got to meet face to face till the Christmas party of the first year. Daniels could roll in and record all his dialogue in an hour or less. He would just get a script that had the lines for K.I.T.T and read out the lines that would be spoken by Hasselhoff then answer them as K.I.T.T.

Creating The Iconic Theme Song

To a kid in the 80s this is one of the coolest TV themes you may remember. The interesting story behind it is that it’s not entirely an original theme.

The Knight Rider theme was composed by Stu Phillips who also did the music for Battlestar Galactica, The Amazing Spider Man show, The Six Million Dollar Man and also made some 50s classics such as “Johnny Angel”.

Phillips would use an 18th century piece of music from the ballet called “Sylvia”. This original piece was composed by Leo Delibes and was called “Cortege de Bacchus”. He took this piece as the basis for the Knight Rider theme but gave it an 80s twist with more of a synthetic effect.

The Knight Rider theme has been used is some super lackluster songs specifically by Busta Rhymes and Lil Kim who should not be allowed near classic TV themes. It was hilariously used as a ring tone in the movie “Ted” though.

Here’s a YouTube link to that original piece of music so you can actually hear where the influence came from.

Shooting Scenes With K.I.T.T

Since K.I.T.T was a self-driving car this would take a lot of work from a production standpoint. George Barris was in charge of everything to do with K.I.T.T and he was also the guy who brought us the original Adam West Batmobile along with the Munster Koach.

To make it look like K.I.T.T was driving itself, Barris had to create a driving position that was on the right side of the car but was lowered down below the dashboard. The stunt driver would then have to get in on the passenger side and sat on a special seat that would not be picked up by camera.

Barris then had to help orchestrate the driving scenes, along with the filming, to make sure that the driver would never be detected. The driver still needed to see where he was going so this is where the editing of Knight Rider played a pivotal part of the show.

Barris would design 16 various versions of K.I.T.T that would be used during specific shots and he would also start making some big upgrades the time the third season rolled around. He added some spoilers, wings, and a new hood scoop along with some other new functional additions. There were also versions of the car that had a rubber-like coated shell so that bullets could bounce off it

If you want to see the full detail, and pictures of the new design and build head here to who was the artist who helped design it.

This new versions of K.I.T.T would take around 8 weeks to create and he would also spend time working on K.A.R.R. Do you remember this? There is nothing more specifically burned in my brain than when K.A.R.R came on the scene. K.A.R.R was like the evil twin of K.I.T.T and it stood for Knight Automated Roving Robot. Every good hero needs an adversary and K.A.R.R would be that adversary.

And who did the voice of K.A.R.R? None other than Optimus Prime himself, Peter Cullen.

The Plot Of Knight Rider

So the show is all up and running but in case you needed a refresher here’s a basic plot synopsis of the show: Wilton Knight was a self-made billionaire who one day rescues a detective named Michael Arthur Long. Long had been shot in the face and helps to fix him up with plastic surgery along with giving him a new name; Michael Knight.

Wilton chooses Michael to be his primary field agent in a new organization he has developed called FLAG (they love their acronyms on Knight Rider) FLAG stood for Foundation For Law and Government and was designed as a public just organization. Sort of a vigilante type situation but with more leather.

The other half of this program involved K.I.T.T who not only had artificial intelligence and was controlled by a computer but had a very durable and resistant frame and body. The idea is they would team up K.I.T.T and Michael when action would be the only solution possible.

FLAG was run by Devon Miles who would always give the assignments out to Michael. There was also Dr. Bonnie Barstow who was the technical assistant to Miles and the chief engineer for K.I.T.T. There’s a lot of James Bond to this now I’m noticing.

So here’s who rounds out this whole cast and some other notable things they’ve appeared in.

  • Wilton Knight– Richard Basehart (The Island of Doctor Moreau, Little House on the Prairie)
  • Devon Miles– Edward Mulhare (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Baywatch Nights)
  • Dr. Bonnie Barstow– Patricia McPherson (Matlock, Dynasty, MacGyver)
  • April Curtis– Rebecca Holden: She would take the place of Bonnie Barstow after McPherson left after the first season but would come back in the third season (Love Boat, Three’s Company, Magnum P.I)
  • RC3– Peter Parros (Charles in Charge, Hangin With Mr. Cooper, and was a cop once on Seinfeld)

The Release & Success Of Knight Rider

Knight Rider would debut on September 26, 1982 and would run until April 4, 1986. Knight Rider would find a good audience which was very difficult going into the mid 80s that featured some of the biggest, and most iconic, shows of all time.

It would usually finish in the top 30 shows with ratings averaging around 14.4 million viewers which today would make it the number one show by far. This was a tough time for TV if you think how there were only 3 main networks and VCR’s weren’t totally common place yet. Everything was watched live and you could only watch a few shows over the course of a night.

Not surprisingly, Knight Rider was a hit with kids and would end up being more successful than a majority of the shows out there due to merchandising. I had a Knight Rider lunch box and thermos and I don’t recall seeing those for The Golden Girls.

Toy cars would obviously be a huge seller along with t-shirts and all other sorts of toys. Glen Larson had a lot of foresight and saw that he had a good product on his hands that would create a lot of appeal to kids. He was able to negotiate to get a huge percentage of the merchandising rights as that was still not a big thing at the time, especially for a TV show.

This is 1982 and a lot of big toys such as G.I Joe, Transformers, He-Man etc haven’t come out yet. Star Wars had been a huge success toy wise but the idea of merchandising a TV show was pretty much a new idea. Universal definitely didn’t know how profitable merchandising was and agreed to a 50/50 split on profits with Larson for all products sold.

This is an insane deal that would never happen now but one that he had the ability to foresee.

Speaking of merchandise, If you’re the ultimate Knight Rider fan you need to check out this 1/15th scale model of K.I.T.T on Amazon from Diamond Select Toys

It’s seriously epic. It has working lights, sound effects, and even the voice of K.I.T.T.

There’s also a smaller 1/24 model also on Amazon. Still very cool.

The Future Of Knight Rider

Knight Rider definitely did not go away quietly into the, um, night, but would reappear in various forms over the years. Here are the different iterations of Knight Rider we have seen:

  • KNIGHT RIDER 2000– This was a made for TV movie from 1991 that was based on the original series so it could be considered canon.
  • KNIGHT RIDER 2010– This came out in 1994 and I have no recollection of it. It was another made-for-TV-movie that was loosely based on the original series.
  • TEAM KNIGHT RIDER– This ran for one season from 1997 to 98 and is about a new team that reassemble FLAG. It did pretty poorly.
  • KNIGHT RIDER– this was a 2008 made-for-TV-movie which was created as a way to introduce a new Knight Rider series. They call this a “backdoor pilot”. K.I.T.T becomes a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500KR and is voiced by Val Kilmer. It has more connections to the original Knight Rider, features the estranged son of Michael Knight, and ignores everything from Knight Rider 2010 and Team Knight Rider. It has good ratings but was panned by critics. They released the Knight Rider weekly series intending for at least a 2-year run but it was canceled after just 17 episodes.

Probably Val Kilmer’s fault…

Wrapping It Up

So that’s the story of Knight Rider and the coolest car ever created. I think it made for the perfect TV series of the 1980s as it combined technology and drama. It had a bit of Bladerunner feel to me even though if I went back and re-watched the whole series I’m sure it wouldn’t hold up as well as it did when I was 8 years old.

But for any kid in the 80s, Knight Rider was a big part of it whether it just be for the love of the show or for all the merchandising that it spawned. And don’t forget...

Germans LOVE David Hasselhoff.

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