The thing about the black Trans Am that starred as K.I.T.T. (Knight Industries Two Thousand) in the popular ’80s television series Knight Rider is that it was not supposed to happen—that, and George Barris had nothing to do with it. But those two startling facts bring us into the story half way through.

To start at the beginning, you have to know there were actually two separate and seemingly unconnected events that were taking place more or less concurrently some 2,500 miles apart in early 1981. At Pontiac Motor Division in Michigan, new General Manager Bill Hoglund was meeting with his managers to decide the fate of the Division. About the same time, across the country in Hollywood, California, television producer Glen Larson was in the process of moving his production company across town from Universal Studios to 20th Century Fox and needed to fulfill one last commitment to Universal.

Larson had signed a development deal with Fox in 1980 that guaranteed him pilot productions for eight television series. A guarantee of eight shows was extraordinary in 1980; it would be virtually unheard of today. But at the time, Larson was just about the most successful TV producer in Hollywood, having created such huge hits as Quincy, M.E.; Battlestar Galactica; McCloud; Switch; and Magnum P.I., among many, many others. In fact, at one time in the late ’70s, Larson had seven TV series on the air simultaneously.

“We were sitting in Glen’s very nice temporary office at Fox,” says Harker Wade, “and Glen had this stack of scripts in front of him.” Wade was Larson’s supervising producer, the man responsible for turning Larson’s ideas into cinematic reality. “There were about 8 or 10 scripts in the stack. Glen ran his index finger up and down this stack of scripts and said, ‘I have one last commitment for Universal.’ And he stopped his finger and pulled out the script and said, ‘Talking car, Knight Rider.’”

And just that easily, like a flip of a coin, Knight Rider went to Universal and not Fox. A totally random movement of an index finger running down a stack of scripts had just sent what would turn out to be millions of dollars in royalties and profits to Universal. Of course, Fox wouldn’t totally miss out on the fun, since Larson went on to produce hits such as The Fall Guy for that studio.

Meanwhile at Pontiac, Bill Hoglund was struggling to save a car company. When he became general manager in 1980, the brass on the 14th floor of the old GM Building essentially told him to either save Pontiac or shut it down. By 1981, Pontiac’s heydays of the ’60s and early ’70s were far behind it. If anything, its success in those days was the reason for the struggles a decade later.

General Managers Bunkie Knudsen and John DeLorean had forcibly yanked Pontiac out of its plain-Jane image doldrums of the ’50s by introducing truly ground-breaking products like the Catalina, Bonneville, Grand Prix, LeMans, and, of course, the legendary GTO. But then, Pontiac overreached and tried to do too much. The Division attempted to match Chevrolet’s volume in some market segments, while competing with the higher-priced Buicks and Oldsmobiles in others. The result was a proliferating array of confusing models, sub-models, and variants that left customers wondering just what the heck Pontiac stood for. It didn’t take long for this product schizophrenia to wreak havoc on the Division. Reflecting plummeting sales, Pontiac’s car production, after reaching a high of 919,872 units in 1973, dropped precipitously; by 1981, it stood at 600,543. Profits disappeared.

In order to reorient Pontiac’s focus, Hoglund held a series of meetings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, over a three-day period in January 1981 with all of his managers from Engineering, Design, Sales, Marketing, and Public Relations. These meetings would soon become known throughout the automobile industry as the Image Conference. Eric Dahlquist, president of Pontiac’s West Coast public relations agency Vista Group, and—full disclosure here—the company for which this author worked as the vice president of client services, was one of the participants in the conference.

“The idea of the Image Conference,” says Dahlquist, “was to sit down and discuss whether, first of all, Pontiac should continue as a division of General Motors, and if it was to continue, what should be done to rectify the problems with the sales decline.”

After deciding that Pontiac should, indeed, continue as a viable division of GM, the conference got down to the business of discussing how this could be accomplished. Hoglund proposed that a mission statement be written that would guide the Division in the future and asked for ideas that could be used to describe Pontiac automobiles. Words such as “exciting,” “fun to drive,” “innovative,” and “stylish” were suggested. Hoglund then turned to Dahlquist and Assistant Public Relations Director Dick Thompson and said, “You guys are the wordsmiths. Put something together and bring it back to the group.”

“I can’t remember what our draft said exactly,” recalls Dahlquist, “but it was something like, ‘Pontiac is a car company that builds exciting, innovative, well-engineered, contemporary automobiles that are stylish and fun to drive.’” The draft was presented to the conference, further refined, and adopted. Eventually, after Pontiac’s ad agency, McManus, John & Adams, had its way with the draft, the mission statement morphed to, “Pontiac: A company known for innovative styling and engineering that results in products with outstanding performance and roadability.” From the original draft also emerged the famous advertising tagline: “We Build Excitement.”

In any event, as the Image Conference closed, Hoglund handed out assignments to get the Division’s transformation underway. “Vista Group’s particular assignment—actually, there were several—was to get Pontiac involved in top-level drag racing, especially NHRA Funny Car, where the upcoming 1982 Trans Am body could be used, along with the SCCA Trans Am Series and NASCAR. And, because we were in Los Angeles handling West Coast media relations, Hoglund said that if we could find a movie or television show that had those characteristics he wanted to see—high-tech or a trick James Bond-type of placement—we should bring that back to the Division and talk about it.”

While the motorsports assignments moved ahead fairly quickly, signing up such high-profile drivers as Richard Petty and Don Prudhomme, nothing emerged right away on the motion picture/television initiative. Then in late spring of 1981, Wade Harker, who happens to attend the same church as Eric, approached him after services one Sunday.

“We’re doing a pilot for a show at Universal,” Eric remembers Harker saying. “There’s going to be a car in it and it’s going to be high-tech.” He proceeded to outline the various attributes of the car, noting it would in effect be one of the lead characters of the show, and said that Larson had seen early photos of the all-new ’82 Trans Am and thought it would be perfect for the role.

Dahlquist knew immediately that this was exactly the sort of product placement Bill Hoglund had in mind for Pontiac. “The things Larson was talking about doing to the car in Knight Rider fell in line with the design of the Trans Am,” Dahlquist says. “And also he was amenable to having someone from Pontiac kind of oversee what was going on as far as the modifications went to keep the design intent of the car intact, so that people, the viewers, would know it was a Pontiac Trans Am.”

Jim Graham was the sales promotion manager at Pontiac, and movie/TV placement fell under his purview. Graham had been responsible for, among others, the highly successful Trans Am placement in Smokey and the Bandit and its various sequels. Working through the proper channels, Eric wrote a letter to Graham, outlining the Knight Rider placement and how it fit the parameters established by Hoglund. Both Eric and I thought this was merely pro forma. After all, how could Pontiac possibly turn it down?