K.I.T.T. Pontiac’s Knight Rider Firebird Star Car
The great thing about having a car as a favourite hero in childhood is that you can recreate it exactly in the metal as an adult, and own it.
By Patrick Harlow, photography by Patrick Harlow and Scott Harvey
K.I.T.T. Pontiac’s Star Car
When Scott Harvey was nine years old, his parents moved from Matamata to Blenheim. As it was his family’s first big move, it was a fairly big deal. But what happened within a week of moving was an even more momentous event for young Scott. The star of his favourite television programme arrived in town. For the previous four years, Scott had been watching the TV programme Knight Rider (1982-1986). In its final year on New Zealand TV, Universal Studios had sent a specially built replica of the iconic Firebird for a countrywide tour.
In Scott’s opinion, the Knight Rider Firebird was streets ahead of The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–1985) Dodge Charger — it was easily the better looking and more interesting car. The new Firebird was a sensational new American car at the time and this one talked and could drive itself. Anything the Dukes of Hazzard car could do, the Knight Rider car, known as ‘KITT’ (Knight Industries Two Thousand), could do better. And it was in Blenheim.
Seeing the car with his own eyes already had Scott fizzing, but when the curator of the car let Scott sit in the driver’s seat it became a truly unforgettable day. There was no way Bo and Duke’s orange stunt-jumper could compete with this. To top it off, a photograph of him sitting in the car turned up in the local paper, so he started a new school with an added aura as the kid in the Knight Rider car.
After those heady days, Scott grew up, left school, and took on the trade of cabinetmaking. At age 20, Scott moved to Christchurch and completed a degree through the University of Canterbury.
Scott still thought about the Knight Rider car from time to time, but if he had not gone with his wife Abbey to the Selwyn Motor Fest in 2018, it may have remained just a treasured memory. At the show, Abbey asked Scott what his favourite car was as they ambled round. The man she had married instantly connected with his nine-year-old self, but in a deeper voice he said, “KITT from Knight Rider”. Had she just said, “That’s nice, dear,” and left it at that, life might have continued as normal. However, unaware of the hole she was about to start digging, she said that she had never heard of it.
At home, the conversation continued. Scott enthusiastically googled Knight Rider and video clips of KITT the car in action to enlighten the discussion. Then his search list turned up a black Pontiac Trans Am for sale. The possibility of ownership started playing its siren song. A couple of days later, as it happens, a KITT replica drove past him in Christchurch. What are the chances of that happening? Clearly it was a portent. This would have been an opportune time for Abbey to give him a metaphorical clout with her imaginary shovel, but she remained unaware of the thoughts circulating in Scott’s head.
The minute he got home he googled ‘Knight Rider KITT Christchurch’ and his search led him to Steven Sykes, a computer and software engineer who was also a fan of the TV series. He had already built three Trans Ams, two of which he had converted into KITT cars. Scott’s thoughts turned from simply buying a Trans Am as a reminder of his youthful passion to buying the car to convert it into his own version of KITT. The owner of the watchlist Trans Am had apparently had similar thoughts as the list of extras included a replica of KITT’s front bumper, the bowling-ball hubcaps, and the iconic gullwing steering wheel. He shared his idle dream of building the Knight Rider car with Abbey, and she said if that was what he really wanted to do, he should do it. Clearly, the planets were in alignment and a couple of days later the black Trans Am had a new owner.
Scott had intended to drive it home from Takanini, Auckland, to Christchurch. However by the time he got to see it for the first time in the metal, the planets had moved slightly out of alignment. The car was looking a lot more tired than it did in the pictures. Every panel had some form of damage. The right front wing had a big dent and KITT’s fibreglass nose had cracks all the way through it. The bonnet was after-market and the unique Trans Am air scoop was ready to fall off. All the interior panels would need a lot of cleaning up.
The front seats were a different colour from the back seats, the headlining was hanging down, and Scott did not even want to think about what had been on the carpet. At some stage during its life, the original 5.0-litre V8 engine had been swapped out for a Chev 5.7-litre V8 engine as used in the Corvettes, which was a bonus, albeit it came with multiple mechanical issues. Still, he believed he had got a reasonable deal considering the purchase price of the car.
Scott saw it as an opportunity to return the car, where possible, to excellent condition. It would take longer but it would be all the better for it. The car arrived in Christchurch in 2018 and Scott started what became a two-year project. He met up with Steven Sykes and the two immediately became friends, Steven mentoring Scott and assisting throughout the build process. Scott says if it had not been for Steven’s enthusiasm and confidence he would have given up a few times along the way.
His first task, with the help of his good friend and ex-panel beater Mike Campbell, was to start stripping it down. While the exterior would be one big panel-beating and painting bill, Scott got started on the interior which entailed lots of little purchases. Thanks to the popularity and interest in movie and TV cars that has been on the rise since the late ’90s, various companies were selling all the necessary bits for the conversion process.
Naturally, the dash panel was the most important part of the interior. Supplies of these vary in quality and accuracy. The amount of accuracy you get depends on what you want to spend and, being a man with a young family, Scott opted to have a car that was pretty close to the original but not a nut-and-bolt copy.
Steven knew where to find the best items and how to avoid the worst of the fakes. Telltale treasures included the unique dashboard, instrument cluster, and bumper spotlights. Without these things, Scott says, it would have just been a Pontiac with a funny bumper. After panel and paint, the last job was fitting all of the electronics and the laborious task of getting it all working. Seats were reupholstered locally to look as close as possible to the screen car, complete with the ‘KITT’ labels in the centre. He modified the season two dash panel that he bought from KRW in the US to have one TV screen, because he thought it looked better and gave a better picture.
He also bought a wiring loom and the correct plugs to connect it to the existing Trans Am loom. Plug it in and the car was ready to drive. At least that is what the website said. The plugging in was the easy bit; getting it to work was a process of systematic problem-solving, one part at a time. At this point the help of electronics guru Steven was invaluable. In a short while the electronics were working and KITT was talking to him.
The oscillating scanner light fitted to the front of the bonnet was one of the easier tasks. It turned out that Steven was also an expert in this area. A few years earlier he had designed his own scanner light and now they were in demand worldwide. When it came to the roof console Scott was able to design and build his own one from the inside door panel of an old Mazda sourced from a local wrecker’s yard. There were some issues replicating the T-top which the original screen car had. Scott’s car had a solid roof and as the T-tops are famous for leaking he opted to add fake seams and joins. To the casual eye, it appears to be a T-top and it would need a careful inspection before the observer realised that it was only cosmetic.
Although Scott was building his dream car, he also wanted to use it to give something back to the community. Steven told Scott about how he often used his car at events that supported the Child Cancer charity. One of the themes of the Knight Rider TV series is that “One man can make a difference”. Taking this theme to heart, Scott also wanted to make a difference with Child Cancer and immediately committed his time and his car to the charity to assist in any way he could. Abbey was behind him all the way.
The car was finished in 2020 and its first public outing was a fundraiser for a prostate-cancer charity event. Scott decided to dress up as Michael Knight, the part played by actor David Hasselhoff. Sadly, his big hair days are long gone so he decided to wear a thick wig, leather jacket, black shirt with the top buttons undone to flaunt his appropriately hairy chest, and tight black jeans. When he showed his wife Abbey, she did not exactly swoon; instead she gave a convincing impression of a woman struggling to contain hysterical laughter. KITT however could not contain himself and disgracefully dumped all his oil on the floor.
In 2022 Scott decided to replicate the original 1986 newspaper picture of himself in the car as a nine-year-old with his own children. Thomas (nine) sat where Scott had sat almost 40 years earlier. His other son, seven-year-old Benji, was in the passenger seat, with Scott sitting in the rear.
DRIVING THE DREAM
So what is it like to drive a legend? Being a fan of the show myself, I was delighted when I was offered the opportunity to drive one of my dream cars. Mechanically it was just like driving any Gen 3 Trans Am, albeit with a much bigger 5.7-litre engine. But in every other detail, it was awesome. Driving along the country roads behind Rolleston, I quickly got used to the strangely shaped steering wheel. The amount of digital information on the dashboard was pretty impressive and had I driven it for long enough I am sure I would have figured out what it all meant. The Knight Rider theme playing on the stereo made the trip a real blast.
To judge the acceleration I planted my boot and immediately things became interesting, as when I lifted my foot off the pedal it stayed firmly planted on the floor. A bit of plastic had fallen from under the dash panel and jammed the accelerator fully on. With my left foot on the brake, and lots of movement from the other foot, the problem was sorted before anything too exciting happened. For the record, the 5.7-litre V8 under full power is quite torquey.
Fortunately I managed to get everything under control before KITT decided to go all Dukes of Hazzard on us and use the oncoming roundabout as a ramp for a jump. Never a good idea with the owner of the car sitting beside you. Needless to say, the rest of the trip was conducted at a more sedate rate.
That is of course if you ignored the waves from cars going in the other direction, cell phones being brandished, and pedestrians pointing. When driving to the photo shoot location we were followed by another car which drove around the block a few times while taking pictures. Scott says that some days it can easily take at least half an hour to fill the car up with petrol. Since 2020 Scott has travelled the country with the car and raised tens of thousands of dollars for Child Cancer. If people reading this story would like to help Scott and his chosen charity, head to https://childcancer.org.nz/ donate and donate. The 150 children who are diagnosed with cancer each year in New Zealand really will appreciate it.
If you want to find out more about other Knight Rider cars, look up ‘Planet KITT’ on YouTube and watch the video that Scott made.
Above: Scott aged nine sitting behind KITT’s wheel in 1986 Below: Benji aged seven in the passenger seat, Thomas aged nine behind KITT’s wheel, and Scott perched in the back in 2022
I managed to get everything under control before KITT decided to go all Dukes of Hazzard on us and use the oncoming roundabout as a jump ramp
The oscillating scanner light was one of the easier tasks. A few years earlier, Steven had designed his own scanner light and now they were in demand worldwide
The dash and electronics as it arrived from KRE
Not much you can add to this amazing dashboard
Scott had intended to drive it home to Christchurch but by the time he got to see it for the first time, the planets had moved slightly out of alignment
Ready for painting — dented panels have been repaired or replaced and rust removed from the doors As it looked when Scott bought it Car was stripped out completely before reassembly began.
He shared his idle dream of building the Knight Rider car with Abbey, and she said if that was what he really wanted to do, he should do it. Clearly, the planets were in alignment
The new Firebird was a sensational new American car at the time — and this one talked and could drive itself