Private-investigator shows have been a staple of network television almost from the beginning. Martin Kane Private Eye in 1949, the classic Ellery Queen, Peter Gunn, and, of course, 77 Sunset Strip come to mind, among so many others. But there was one PI show that broke the mold and set new standards for TV detectives.
Forty years ago, a new type of private eye show burst onto home screens across the country, and along with it a gold Pontiac Firebird. The Rockford Files was notable, if for no other reason than its central character was a detective who actually charged for his work. In every episode, James Garner as Jim Rockford always told his client, “My fee is $200 a day plus expenses.” He usually got paid, too.
Photograph courtesy of Vista Group
James Garner poses with [Pontiac’s west coast PR agency
Unlike most other TV private dicks who tended to be suave, dapper crime solvers, Rockford was decidedly blue collar, even down to living in a trailer, albeit a trailer parked on the beach at Paradise Cove, and dodging bill collectors. Far from the buttoned-down and monogrammed likes of a Peter Gunn, Rockford possessed the distinct patina of a con man, doubtlessly left over from Garner’s days playing Bret Maverick.
To Pontiac fans, the gold Firebird coupe that character Rockford drove every episode for six seasons (Garner received a new Firebird directly from Pontiac every year from 1974-1978) was as much the co-star of the popular TV show as a black-and-gold Trans Am was to Smokey and the Bandit and a futuristic, crime-fighting Trans Am was to Knight Rider.
The reasons a fairly standard Firebird was chosen as Rockford’s wheels are tied to that blue collar ethic, Garner once saying that a Pontiac Formula or Pontiac Trans Am model would not have suited the character. That, and it was probably a reaction to the ever cool Frank Bullitt and his hot-rod Mustang.
No matter the reason, that Firebird became an indispensable part of The Rockford Files, gaining every bit as much fame as Bullitt’s Mustang during the 122-episode run of the series. A run that began forty years ago on March 27, 1974.
Here's Jim Garner at NBC Studios gate, as he arrives for a The Tonight Show appearance in
James Garner often parked The Rockford Files Firebird in front of his home in Southern Cal
The Rockford Files Firebird takes a break between its on-camera duties at Malibu, Californ