Home » Today I Learned That KITT from Knight Rider Had A Rubber Shell And There Was A VW-Powered One

Today I Learned That KITT from Knight Rider Had A Rubber Shell And There Was A VW-Powered One

Kr Rubbervw Top

I can’t recall exactly what sent me down this particular path into the world of David Hasselhoff and the sentient, fussy-sounding Trans Am known as KITT, but I recently learned about two related Knight Rider facts that are just too fascinating to not tell you about. Both of these come from the Knight Rider Historians Official YouTube account, so you know that they’re for real and well-researched, and possibly funded via a MacArthur Genius Grant, though I have no proof of that. They’re both remarkable behind-the-scenes details that mostly have to do with how a TV show that relied on a hero car that gets put into potentially damaging situations every week deals with the realities of what that means. And, even better, it involves lots of rubber and air-cooled Volkswagens.

Do you need to be reminded about Knight Rider? Probably not, but it can’t hurt, right? Here you go:

The first fact feels like one of those ideas you’d have that seems so obvious, but you also half expect that there’s likely a reason why you could never actually do it. Like the old cliché about making the whole airplane out of whatever the black box flight recorder is made from: doing so would be far too heavy and expensive, and you know the deal. So, when it comes to having your hero car bash into other cars every episode and yet you somehow need it to not look like a beer can on the floor after a frat party, could you just, you know, make a huge rubber shell to cover the whole car and protect it?

Turns out, you can, and that’s exactly what the prop people on Knight Rider Did:

The rubber shell seems to have been part of the production plan from the very start, showing up in a pre-pilot video used to sell the show in the first place. If you have a slight masochistic streak and regularly watch old episodes of Knight Rider, you can spot when KITT is wearing the rubber shell by looking at the A-pillars:

Rubber1

The tell-tale for the early episodes with the shell is that, because it’s a thick rubber shell that fits over the car, things like the glass of the windshield will appear more recessed. Overall, they did an excellent job making a rubber mold of the car for the shell, though soon after the show went on the air the Trans Am front end was updated, so the rubber shell just had its face lopped off, and that was that. You can see this shell far more obviously as a result:

Rubber2

Of course, in the era of CRT, low-definition televisions and lots of motion and explosions, most people would never notice watching the show. It’s only in our modern era of being able to grab high quality freeze-frames that the inherent crappiness is apparent.

That’s not really fair of me to say, though; the shell was an impressive bit of prop-making, and while it’s not clear exactly who made the shell, but it’s possible it was either made internally, or, as the video speculates, by none other than car customizing legend George Barris.

Rubber3

In addition to protecting KITT from getting all dinged up, the rubber shells made also served another purpose: they formed the entire body of what is now my favorite version of KITT, the one used for the really damaging or dangerous jumps and other potentially destructive stunts. The one the production team called the Flivver, which was essentially a VW Beetle-based sand rail.

When it came to doing stunts that demanded KITT really catch some air or crash hard into or onto something, the team needed something more rugged, lighter, and, especially, cheaper than the Trans Ams they used for KITT. They couldn’t just replace Trans Ams or Trans Am parts like candy, after all. But, in Southern California in the 1980s, there was a rugged, very adaptable and wildly cheap and available car that would work: the Volkswagen Beetle.

Flivver Stunts

Beetles had been converted into dune buggies and sand rails for years, and were great at doing jumps and landing and generally taking all sorts of abuse. If something broke, VW parts were plentiful and cheap. So, the production team built what is essentially a tube-framed VW sand rail:

Flivver1

…but designed to fit the dimensions of a Pontiac Trans Am, and especially one of the rubber bodies the team had already made for the rubber protective shell for KITT. Look at all that empty front overhang! You can also see the tell-tale VW double torsion-beam front axle there, and the normal air-cooled VW engine is out back there, with what appears to be some kind of periscope-looking air intake sticking up.

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live anything approximating a fulfilling life before I knew these details about KITT and Knight Rider.

 

 

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41 Responses

  1. Knight Rider was single handily responsible for an entire generation of people not knowing how a turbo charger works. Turns out that it does not actually make you fly through the air.

    Man, I loved this show and Airwolf as some others have mentioned. Its funny to me how the two are somehow linked in other people’s brain besides mine. Thinking of one, always elicits memories of the other for me.

  2. Love it.

    My favorite bit of Knight Rider lore is how they filmed the scenes of KITT driving itself. You’d see KITT speed into frame when Michael summoned him on his watch (see my avatar) and as a kid, I always wondered how they did that.

    Turns out they used the most wonderfully low-tech possible solution – a stunt driver…wearing a Pontiac Firebird seat cover and a tan long-sleeve shirt!

    You can sometimes catch a glimpse if you look reallllly closely just as the car comes to a screening halt but before they switch to footage of an empty seat.

    1. The “driving itself” KITT is probably still in the STAR CARS museum in Gatlinburg. They used to park it on the sidewalk in front of the place to get pedestrian traffic to come and notice. I took a lot of photos of it many years ago (35mm film mind you) for somebody building a scale model.

    2. It’s like when you’re watching the ’89 Batman when the Batmobile drives itself and see the hand on the steering wheel through the tinted windshield.

    3. My favorite are the scenes where KITT screeches to a halt in front of Michael and he jumps in without a cut scene, because you know he just sat in the stunt driver’s lap 🙂

  3. “Of course, in the era of CRT, low-definition televisions and lots of motion and explosions, most people would never notice watching the show. It’s only in our modern era of being able to grab high quality freeze-frames that the inherent crappiness is apparent.”

    Yeah, watching old childhood favorites on modern TVs has ruined a lot of the magic for me. I re-watched Airwolf a few years back. On the old CRT, the rockets just looked like orange blobs flying through the sky. On a modern HD TV, I could tell that the FX team drew them in not as blobs but in a rocket shape. Man, was that a sad day.

        1. I love Airwolf. It is probably my favorite 80’s action show. JMV was my hero. It’s amazing how bad season 4 gets. The less said about “Tracks”, the better. Airwolf vs man with a bow and arrow; and not those fancy exploding arrows Rambo had. I can’t even stomach season 4…

          Also, we all know KITT had a molecular bonded shell, not rubber! While the series as a whole was a by the numbers “Mystery of the week”, the pilot is very good IMHO.

          I’m surprised Torch didn’t comment on all the potential Frunk space.

          And one last thing, is that what Torch unleashed looks like while David is gone? I expected a TRS-80 or C=64 theme to overtake the Autopian during this time. Maybe some Atari 2600 graphics depicting a space invaders clone where David destroys rusting Valiants.

          1. Props for calling out the Knight Rider pilot…totally agree. It blended a harder-edge action show with a much more measured touch of the high tech than we’d see in the series proper.

            I mean, is an 18 wheeler with some rockets, driven by Hasselhoff with a goatee really that scary of an opponent?

  4. I always thought that outer shell was there to make it look more high tech and racy than a run-of-the-mill Firebird. It is amazing what they got away when the TV standard only had 525 interlaced scan lines.

    1. I wonder how much of the planning to “how to pull off KITT” was “lessons learned or observed from Dukes”. Much of the production for Dukes was very “this is how we do these stunts in the movies” where you only need stunts for one 90-100 minute movie, not a hour long weekly TV series with 20ish episodes per.

      Even if there were not a lot of folks involved in Knight Ridder who were ever worked on Dukes, folks in the industry had to know how they were just blowing thru absurd numbers of cars on that show.

  5. C’mon Dolores, we all know you did no such thing. I’m sorry that you lost your past business and have to go around peddling e-snake oil. But look, you’re not even good at it. You say things like “tip top vocation” and “subsequent to perusing this article”. That shit won’t sell.

  6. Surely there was another reason for using VW Beetle machanicals for the jump vehicle.
    A front-engined car, like the Trans-Am, would land nose-first, sustaining a lot of damage ahead of the front wheel. A rear-engined car is more likely to land flatter, on its wheels. Make the suspension, and the structure supporting the suspension, just right and maybe the car wouldn’t sustain any significant damage, allowing re-takes, or just re-use for another shot, with minimal expense and minimal down-time.

    1. Oh I am sure that was a main reason too. The production team for Dukes of Hazzard had to put 200-300lbs of weight into the trunks of the General Lee’s so they would not just nose dive on jumps (or nose dive as much, as they still tended to oft dig in nose 1st on landings).

  7. Anyone else appreciate how David Hasselhoff leaned into the cheesiness of the whole thing by actually owning KITT replicas over the years?

    To me, it enhances his cornball coolness somehow, say compared to Paul Michael Glaser who did nothing but constantly complain about Starsky’s Gran Torino, only to eventually embrace it later in life when he kinda had no choice.

  8. Dude, the Knight Rider Historians are truly doing some good work. You guys could write a few articles about how they managed to track down the original semi and then later the trailer. I mean, I’ve already watched the videos but I’d certainly click on and read an article or three about them.

  9. “[I]t’s not clear exactly who made the shell, but it’s possible it was either made internally, or, as the video speculates, by none other than car customizing legend George Barris.”
    If not made internally it’s more likely it was made by somebody else & George Barris took the credit for it…

  10. These articles are so unhealthy for me. I see myself disappearing down Knight Rider click holes yet again, then going and shopping for all the necessary parts to convert my Firebird…

    1. If you look closely at the front overhang of the sand rail vehicle in the last picture, just in front of the shocks, it seems the whole nose is designed to move up and absorb part of the energy of landing nose-first, to mitigate damage to the rest of the frame.

      1. Looks to me like a camera platform. There’s way too much overhang to fit under KITT’s skin, but it looks right for a cameraman to sit on. The crossmember is even padded.

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