The highly controversial return of Knight Rider in 2008 saw KITT shift from a classic Pontiac Trans Am to a Shelby Mustang.
The black Pontiac Trans Am of Knight Rider fame will forever be one of the world’s most famous on-screen cars. This automotive star captured the imagination of millions with the ‘car of the future’ narrated by an often sassy artificial intelligence. The Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT, was the real protagonist of the American TV show alongside David Hasselhoff. When a decision was made continue the legendary series decades after the original franchise ended, the big question was which form would modern-day KITT take?
In 2008 a pilot episode of the new Knight Rider series aired to an excited, if doubtful, audience. A break-in to a house full of curious technologies finds a group of ‘baddies’ in a darkened room. On the table amongst a series of computers are recognisable components of the Knight Industries Two Thousand. A distinctive red scanner flashes before a car erupts from the garage to evade the armed men, but the shadowy figure was not a Pontiac. It was a Ford!
Any Knight Rider reboot was going to have issues with what car KITT should be. The new show opted to move away from the classic Trans Am, a logical decision for a new-era show, but there was no modern-day alternative to the iconic model. According to reports, executives originally wanted to use the latest Chevrolet Camaro — a car that would have likely become a modern-day Trans Am had Pontiac survived. However, the Camaro’s starring role as Bumble Bee in the then recent Transformers movies put an end to that.
The four-wheeled casting net went from General Motors to Ford and Shelby. Mustangs had a great heritage as hero cars, they are American icons, and the new Shelby Mustang GT500 KR had hood nostrils perfect for a scanner. Budgets were tight and so when Harald Belker was tasked with modifying the car, he couldn’t be quite as creative as he had been with projects such as George Clooney's Batmobile. The enhancements were subtle, primarily focusing on making everything black and giving the interior a futuristic feel.
KITT again featured a more extreme Attack Mode consisting of deployable intakes and wings for added high speed performance. The mode seen in the pilot was relatively subtile in comparison to what was to come.
The Knight Industries Three Thousand, voiced by none other than movie star Val Kilmer, busted onto the scene in glorious autonomous driving sequences. KITT’s amusing character remained, and all-in-all the Mustang was an acceptable successor to the Pontiac we know and love. The pilot episode went down a storm with people pleasantly surprised by the NBC show. A full series was commissioned with KITT to remain as a Mustang.
Everything was looking good for Knight Rider to make the comeback it deserved, with David Hasselhoff even appearing at the end of the pilot to set up Season 1. However, things went downhill very quickly with KITT transforming into a Ford F150 pickup — a clear piece of product placement — in an opening sequence.
While KITT’s technology of the new millennium neatly explained away its ability to turn into a totally different vehicle, show makers couldn’t turn the tide of tight budgets and an overly complicated plot. The beauty of the pilot was that it was simple and harked back to the nostalgia of the old show, but the new series kept trying to reinvent the wheel to no avail. The new Attack Mode that appeared to turn KITT into some form of dragster also didn’t go down well.
KITT’s arch nemesis KARR also returned as a Mustang, but his transformation into a giant killer robot took what little value there was in the character and quickly disposed of it. Season 1 finished with poor viewer ratings and even worse reviews, marking the end of a disappointing return of Knight Rider. A second series was never commissioned.
The show featured several stunt cars, but the ‘hero car’ was bought at auction by Richard Morey, who had never actually watched the series. This example was used for all of the beauty shots and interior dialogue in the show, and looks every inch the star we thought the Mustang would be from the pilot. However, the car might appear like a Shelby Mustang GT500 KR, but as mentioned budgets were tight, and so a Mustang GT V6 was dressed to look like the 540-horsepower supercharged model. What you hear on the show are some well-dubbed V8 clips.
Many hardcore Knight Rider fans will be quick to disregard KITT’s Mustang escapades as something that should never have happened. However, let’s not forget that the pilot episode actually showed enough promise to warrant a full season in the first place. Who knows what might have happened had the show received a bigger budget and a bit more direction.