So I saw this preview today and thought, "wonder where a Callaway would fit on the big/small screen??"
Knight Rider Returns With a 21st-Century KITT
By John Pearley Huffman, Contributor
Knight Rider is coming back as a TV movie on NBC this February 17th. And it's a new Shelby GT500KR that gets all the best lines.
David Hasselhoff at his studliest, a black Trans Am with a dry wit and a fresh babe-a-licious starlet with big hair every week. It's no wonder that the original Knight Rider is etched into every car guy's soul. Well, at least every car guy who was a kid during the '80s and just naïve enough to believe that "turbo boost" was a miracle of modern science that would send any car flying.
Apparently NBC Co-Chairman Ben Silverman, who was 12 when the series premiered back in 1982, was vulnerable to Knight Rider's kung-fu grip on his preadolescent psyche. Now that he has juice at the network, it's no surprise that on September 26 he announced that the show's coming back.
Now all someone else had to do was actually make the movie — fast. And if someone was going to make the movie, someone else was going to have to make a bunch of KITTs — fast.
Hasselhoff, on the other hand, was all spackled up and ready for his cameo.
Picking the Pony
The original KITT was an '82 Pontiac Trans Am and by the time the TV series went off the air in '86, even then it was starting to look old and pokey. Plus today's 12-year-olds just don't care about ancient Pontiacs.
"You know what, there wasn't a lot of fighting about what the car should be," said Dave Bartis, the executive producer of the film. "Because, you know, when you go out there and you look at what the available options are, this is by far the clear choice. We wanted an American-made car and we knew we wanted a two-door. We knew we wanted something that had some muscle to it. The Mustang is just an iconic car. And the Shelby really just stood out."
It also didn't hurt that Ford wanted to supply the production with cars to portray the heroic (and sarcastic) Knight Industries Three Thousand — successor to the Knight Industries Two Thousand Trans Am. Conveniently, both those names become "KITT" when baked in the acronym oven.
But just as the original KITT was never just a Trans Am, this one couldn't merely be a GT500KR. Most of the time KITT looks just like a bone-stock Shelby Mustang GT500KR with red lights in its hood scoops and a futuristic interior. When the going gets hairy, however, the new KITT morphs into Attack mode at the push of a button.
These modifications are the work of Harald Belker.
Kitting Out KITT
Working out of his house in Marina del Rey, California, Belker has become the film industry's go-to car designer. Born in Germany and a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California — alma mater of BMW's Chris Bangle and Overhaulin's Chip Foose — Belker was a designer for Porsche and Mercedes-Benz before becoming a freelance designer in 1995. Since then he's worked on dozens of films, including 2002's Minority Report, which featured a futuristic Lexus and wall-crawling transportation system both designed by Belker.
He's not a movie guy who happens to draw cars, but a car designer who's found a niche in the movie business.
"They contacted me in the middle of September," Belker recalls. "And there was still a lot of discussion about what car they wanted. And in the end Ford was the company that was most willing to make the deal with NBC. Then we went in suggesting that it should be a Shelby. There was some reluctance at first, but we convinced them."
Now that he had a starting point, Belker got on with designing the specifics. "The car by itself is a beautiful car with a strong fan base that loves it," he said. "And the Shelby is a beautiful addition to the basic Mustang. So my purpose [with the Attack version] was to take it a step further without upsetting too many fans. The input from the producers came in the beginning with a sort of nonchalant wish list. We talked about the light strip and how we could show that. And then once we got the Shelby hood we quickly came to the conclusion the light had to be on the top leading edge of the hood. Otherwise they were just waiting for me to show them something."
Shelby to KITT
The exterior was easy — it's not like the GT500KR isn't a dramatic-looking car already. It's the interior that would need the most work.
"The story elements went more into the interior," explains Belker, "because that's where the interaction between KITT and the actors happens. There was some discussion of whether we were going to what was an LED display that reflected the voice. But LEDs are so '80s. Everything digital is possible today. So we really have to take it a step further and show something. So that's why the rear — the whole backseat — is a complete supercomputer.
"Up front is still very basic Mustang. We cleaned it up a bit and have some head-up display. And there are holographic images in the readouts." The steering wheel was also cut down so the audience could see all this dashboard stuff — virtually all of which will be added by a regiment of geeks in post-production as computer-generated images (CGI).
Of course there's no logical way that KITT could physically morph from being a regular-looking GT500KR into the Attack mode version — that's handled by CGI — but if you're looking for iron-clad logic, NBC also broadcasts Meet the Press on Sundays. And Belker didn't pay any attention to KITT's design heritage from the old TV series either. "We discussed old episodes of Knight Rider," Belker recalls laughingly. "And fortunately I didn't have to watch any of them."
Once Harald Belker had done his job, it was Ted Moser and his fabrication crew at Picture Car Warehouse in downtown Los Angeles who would build the actual on-camera vehicles. The only problem was that the Shelby GT500KR wasn't going into production until January. And the Knight Rider movie had to be filmed in November.
"We started talking about building the Knight Rider cars on October 15th," Moser told Inside Line. "And the biggest car event of the year happens at the end of October — the SEMA show in Las Vegas. So trying to get parts or anything, I actually jumped in my car, drove to SEMA and hooked up with the Shelby guys to try and get some parts for the KR. From there we finally got our first car and design on the 15th of November and the first car had to be on the set the Monday after Thanksgiving."
Getting the cars themselves was the first challenge. "The initial meeting I had with them," Moser said, "you have the Ford guy sitting on one side of the table, the designer and myself are sitting on the other side and the producers and director are on the ends. So there's [Ford] going, 'Um, well, we'll give you two cars. And then we'll let you use two other cars, but you need to return them to us in excellent condition.'
"So I listened for 15 minutes and finally I said, 'You know, you're gonna need two for first unit and two for second unit. And you're gonna need two stunt cars and a buck. So the way I see it, it's seven cars.' And you know, the guy from Ford leaned across the table and said, 'Well, we never talked about seven cars.' And I said, 'Well, you didn't have me here before.' So they ended up giving us six cars and we bought one car."
The one car they bought, a 2005 Mustang GT, was cut up to be used as the photo buck — that is a car with removable panels so cameras can get into places they couldn't with a complete vehicle.
The six cars from Ford were four regular production GT coupes and two base V6 coupes. No actual GT500KRs were used in production of the film because there weren't any GT500KRs around to use. All the cars have automatic transmissions, because show business is risky enough without trusting actors to shift gears.
It was literally a 24-hour-a-day thrash to get the Knight Rider cars ready to be shot. "Ford only had one KR hood," recalls Moser. "So we took it off their showcar, had a mold made and then built six [fiberglass] hoods from there." For the other pieces of the Attack version of KITT, all Moser had to work with was a drawing from Harald Belker.
"If you were building a house, you'd get dimensions and everything. All I get is a three-quarter front shot illustration," Moser said with the acceptance of someone who has been in the business for a long time. "So I call in a prop maker and have him build the side skirts and air spoilers and whatever else we need, out of wood. And then the body guys come in and smooth them all out, straighten the edges, make sure they're perfect. Then we send them off, have a mold made and fiberglass parts made from those molds. Then they come back, we finish paint and apply them to the car."
The interiors were similarly constructed. "On the rear seats we sculpted them out of foam, and then the designer comes down and looks at them. Well, three days before the vehicle is supposed to work he doesn't like it. So there again, we get back in the 24-hour mode."
Besides their appearance, only three of the Knight Rider cars were modified mechanically. All were equipped with the big GT500KR Brembo brakes and for shots where KITT had to look like it was at least as powerful as a real GT500KR, one of the GTs was fit with a Ford Motorsports Whipple screw-type supercharger.
Another GT was fit with a radio control system for scenes where KITT is driving itself. And finally another GT had a podlike cockpit placed atop its roof so a stunt driver could pilot the car from up there while actors in the car could, well, act.
That left one car to be used as the pristine "hero" car during filming. One set up in Attack mode. And two cars used for stunts. These were fitted with additional rear brake calipers and a second brake pedal to lock the rear wheels for dramatic slides.
On the set, the KITT Mustangs look indistinguishable from regular GT500KRs. They have the right wheels, the body pieces are nicely formed and the paint jobs are excellent. Even all the fiberglass baubles on the Attack car are clean pieces of fiberglass.
If the Knight Rider movie gets big ratings and the current writers' strike ever ends, it seems inevitable that Knight Rider will return to NBC as a regular series. Then every week, a new gadget or ability could be added to KITT and the GT500KR will become as closely associated with the series as the Trans Am was back in the '80s.
Carroll Shelby may have first used the letters "KR" to indicate "King of the Road" back in 1968. But it may well be that those letters will come to mean "Knight Rider" for the 21st-century car.
Will Shelby care? Not if Knight Rider does as good a job selling GT500KRs now as it did selling Trans Ams back in the '80s.