5.0 Mustang & Super FordsCar Reviews
Knight Rider Shelby GT 500 - Snake KITT
A Drive In The KITT Shelby GT 500 And The Story Of How It Drove Onto Your Flat-Screen
Horse Sense: Rumor is that our next show-biz Mustang might center on a Bullitt remake. Sounds right on target. We can see Jason Statham reprising the Steve McQueen part.
You may have been asleep in English class when it was taught that there are only seven plots in fiction writing. Or was it six? Three? Whatever-we only remember two: boy meets girl, and boy meets hot car and wins the big race.
Hollywood makes its living repackaging both of these old saws, even if they dangerously romanticize the first and hooey up the technicalities of the second. But then, techno-hooey is the point of Knight Rider, in which our man about town employs the super powers of his sidekick car to lay waste to the bad guys.
In 1982, David Hasselhoff and a tarted-up Trans Am redlined our 10-year-old imaginations. David was there to get the girl, but that Trans Am was awesome! It had an electronic brain, and talked and everything. It even had a red light in its hoodscoop, like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. And turboboost! It could jump intersections at 300 mph, and it could even drive itself. It could shoot flames and crack jokes, and it had cool video games, smoke bombs, ejection seats-it had everything!
We've since grown older, if not up. Today Trans Ams are the butt of mullet jokes, and when NBC went courting for a new Knight Rider pilot movie, the obvious selection for KITT was the Mustang. The producers wanted an American performance car with broad appeal, and if that doesn't describe the Mustang, what does?
However, just because the Mustang was the obvious choice, that doesn't mean the ponycar was already in NBC's barn. Getting a product on the tube is big business today. Auto manufacturers maintain product-placement specialists near Hollywood, and television cars are procured after much maneuvering. Each side gets the exposure or the hardware it needs, but costs are controlled and strings tightly attached lest a hint of negative publicity is unintentionally generated or an opportunity overlooked. The business is intense, to the point where the negotiations take most of the time needed to produce the show. But hey-that's entertainment; have your people call mine and we'll do lunch.
It's no surprise that KITT designer Harald Belker needed to rush. Harald, a German expatriate, has an extensive line of movie credits, from Armageddon to The Cat in the Hat, but this was his first television exposure. However, it was most definitely not his first automotive assignment. Graduating with honors from Art Center in 1990, Harald went straight to Porsche in Germany, then back to California at Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design, then on to the Batmobile Conceptual Design in 1996, numerous other movie jobs, some Mattel Hot Wheels work, and he even worked on the E-Bike project for Lee Iacocca. Harald, rest assured, is A-list.
At first, the deal-makers flirted with GM and Chrysler, but Ford moved first. Nevertheless, Harald was under contract for two months before Ford signed. To have something to show in meetings during this early phase, he put together a supercar that could be the next KITT car. "I had to put something down for the meetings."
Once Ford was announced, Harald hoped to work with the exotic GT, but it was out of production so the Mustang was locked in. He sketched a few quick ideas for the daily driver Hero and specialized Attack versions of KITT, then moved on to computerized rendering. This started with downloaded images of a Shelby GT 500KR, with Harald doodling over its basic shape.
Naturally, Ford didn't want to lose its identity in the new KITT. "I did a few things that Ford absolutely hated," says an understanding Harald. "It took the car to another level, but [the company] wanted to keep the flair of the Mustang." One of the nixed elements was vertical wings sprouting from the Mustang's triangular quarter-windows on the Attack KITT. Those were shot off in a hurry.
In the end, the Hero KITT is almost a completely stock Shelby GT 500KR, the car Ford wanted to highlight. This was a trick, as the KR was well into the future when Harald was penning KITT, but he had Shelby drawings as a guide. In the end, Hero hit the streets looking like a GT 500 wearing a KR hood fitted with the KITT red light. That's plenty of pizzazz for anyone needing a menancing look, but not a totally standout profile.
Ford also wanted to keep the interior simple, the better to show the Shelby's dash. Thus, Hero KITT remains remarkably stock inside, save for the cut-out steering wheel, the in-dash computer screen, and a super computer in the back seat with the keyboard in the glovebox. "That was the creative part [of the interior]...making the rear seat portray a lid to represent a super computer," says Harald. Other elements had more prosaic concerns. The seats, for example, were designed after shopping to find out what could be bought and modified since there was no time to start from scratch.
Another consideration is computer graphics. It's often easier and less expensive for production companies to digitize dashboard details rather than ordering harried technicians to build mock-ups, but designers like Harald still have to plan the gee-whiz biz. Time is also a huge factor. There's so much work to be done and so much time consumed by contract maneuvering that the designing and building of the cars is squeezed to the max. Harald, like nearly everyone else with their hands on the KITT cars, scrambled to squeeze in what had to be done.
"Because the timing was off, I was already on [another] movie, so I had to work a double shift. And, of course, the movie I was on, everything was flying...everything was a couple hundred years in the future." In the end, Harald had "two weeks for sketches, which the producer and writer pretty much left up to me after a discussion." Total time on the project? "Creatively for three weeks, then twice a week to The Picture Car Warehouse and talking with the modelers. Because they were working with only renderings, they had questions. So six weeks." And as a second job, we'll add.
Lest this sound like belly aching, Harald is pleased to have worked on Knight Rider. "I thought it was prestigious; everyone knows Knight Rider. It was a fun project, it's an impressive final product, and all of the people were fun."
We sense that Harald is happy with the results, too, especially the quintessential Attack KITT. Of course, designers are always willing to try again. "Personally, the rear spoiler could have taken more planning. There's no time, literally one sketch. If you want it really sculpted, it takes a lot of time to produce. That would be the only thing I would change."
Because several different Mustangs and Mustang parts were used to film the TV movie, there is no single car that can be said to be the KITT Mustang. A single prototype was built, followed by several Hero versions and one Attack KITT that were used for filming. Additionally, a Pod and Buck KITT were required.
The Pod is a car with a second driving station "pod," or cage, on the roof so that a stuntman can drive the car while the stars act inside. The Buck is an open or breakaway interior section of a car that allows the large cameras access. When the action got too hot for humans, a Remote KITT was used, which is a car rigged to be operated by radio control.
These on-screen TV cars were built from four V-6- and two V-8-powered Mustangs, along with a wrecked Mustang that was used to make the cutaway Buck. The one Mustang GT Hero gained a Ford Racing Whipple supercharger so it would have the grunt to spin the tires and otherwise stand in for the GT 500KR Shelby. All of these cars used automatic transmissions-stunt drivers work with automatics and actors are too busy to flip their own gears should they even have the knack.
Galpin Auto Sports [(877) GO-GAS-GO; www.galpinautosports.com], the custom-shop portion of the huge Galpin dealership in the northern Los Angeles area, did the exterior work, essentially the body-kit installations on the Heroes, and installed the Whipple on the one Attack car.
Interior work and much of the heavier-duty mechanical and Attack exterior work came from The Picture Car Warehouse (www.picturecarwarehouse.net). Owned by Ted Moser-a hopeless car nut by all accounts-The Picture Car Warehouse is one-stop shopping for vehicle-needy movie and TV producers. Its specialty is meeting unrealistic production schedules, overnight miracles, and swimming the adrenaline river that is Hollywood at work.
Ted's rsum opens when he was nine years old and working at his dad's gas station. Later it was college, his own auto repair shop, then wrenching on movie cars. Finally, The Picture Car Warehouse opened five years ago, for Ted's total of 20 years in the movie-car biz. His long list of movie credits include endless taxi, police car, and limo rentals, along with the obviously over-the-top car features such as xXx and Too Fast, Too Furious.
For the six KITT cars, Ted's team of 20 technicians toiled for two and a half weeks, most of it around the clock. Again, the producer's and Ford's legal departments had consumed all of the time, leaving the hands-on work to the harried techs. "We were exhausted after that," Ted says.
In addition to long hours, dogged aggressiveness is also required. Above all, the Shelby's KR hood was required right away. However, there was one KR hood in the world at that time, and it was bolted to the KR show car that Shelby was putting in front of eyeballs and camera lenses. To make matters worse, KITT production took place during the '07 SEMA show, so parts were impossible to get as the aftermarket car world was hob-nobbing in Las Vegas. Ultimately, Ted drove to Las Vegas so he could track down Shelby personnel at SEMA and arrange to borrow the KR hood, along with other parts.
The KR hood got as far as Palm Springs through Shelby, where a Picture Car Warehouse driver took over. It went straight to the PCW's fiberglass department, where it was splashed, and "six or seven copies were made." The original was trucked back to Shelby and the game continued. "I didn't even see the Shelby hood," Ted explains. He was too busy with other parts of the KITT build.
Filming followed immediately, with PCW dealing with the inevitable damage. "We had two stunt cars," says Ted. "They wrecked one on the set and brought it to me at around noon. It had hit a tree and was totaled; it bent the right rear axle back several inches and ripped the right rear control arm right out." Ted and crew had the car ready for on-camera action and delivered by the next morning.
The news that one Attack and one Hero TV movie car had been auctioned at Barrett-Jackson's Palm Beach event for $300,000 had just been released when we talked to Ted, which was followed instantly by the good news that NBC was going with a weekly Knight Rider series. We thought it unusual that the TV cars would be sold just when needed for weeks of additional shooting, but Ted brushed it off. "We'll build new cars; [the auction] was just Ford trying to get more promo."
Like Harald, who Ted has worked with many times before, Ted was definitely happy to be thrashing on KITT Mustangs. "KITT was a great project, great dealing with Ford. We're really proud of what we built. And when they sell for $300,000, I guess we did OK."
The KITT Hero standing studly in these pages isn't one of the TV movie cars. It's actually the final car built as part of the TV pilot program-call it the seventh KITT Mustang. Assembled by Galpin Auto Sports, it's the only KITT built off of an honest-to-Henry Shelby GT 500 and packs far more punch than the showy-but-standard-performance on-screen cars. It was used for a handful of promotional photography and articles such as this, more promotional work, and then the glue factory. Man, the budgets are huge in TV land.
Jesse Kershaw at Ford Racing talked us through our KITT's list of Ford Racing Performance Parts. To get things moving, 3.73 gears went into the rear axle, and for more power, the '07-'09 Mustang SVT Power Pack of a cold-air kit, stainless mufflers, and computer recalibration was slipped in place by the Galpin techs. Ford Blue valve covers from the Ford GT provide some underhood dress-up.
Chassis-wise, the main attraction is an '07-'09 Mustang SVT Handling Pack. Besides the expected spring, bar, and shock package, it includes adjustable shocks specific for this car; the production Shelby KRs make do with nonadjustable shocks. With an eye toward road-course work, Ford Racing's brake-cooling kit went on, and an FRPP short-throw shifter finishes off the factory hot-rod parts.
The hood is the only KITT-specific piece. Our car sported one of the ill-fitting fiberglass KITT hoods The Picture Car Warehouse hurriedly splashed from the KR prototype engine lid. It's good enough for the small screen in mainly night shots, but it was no doubt replaced by a carbon-fiber production KR hood sometime after our photo session. Galpin, of course, installed production KR bits, but the subtle matte stripes were outsourced.
If our test car didn't have any screen credits, it did have one outstanding and unique specification: a manual transmission. It's the only KITT Mustang so equipped, and it was our pleasure to run through a few gears during our photo shoot. Pedaling the car at a police training facility, we were thrilled with the KR's-er, KITT's-ample thrust and greatly improved handling.
Aside from the red light glowing and pacing in the hoodscoop, we knew something was up from the pronounced blub, blub, blub idle allowed by the Power Pack mufflers. They proved plenty vocal, but not obnoxiously so for enthusiast driving. Likewise, the stock clutch and short-throw shifter combine for perfectly acceptable daily manners. We're still enjoying the improved shifting from all the '08 Mustangs, and we're pleased to say we barely noticed the KITT's short-throw transmission controller. Too many of these are cover-ups for sticky, wrist-spraining gear changes, but the Ford Racing unit is clearly designed for daily living.
A reputed 40 extra horsepower was to our KITT car's credit, but what had us smiling was the photo car's much-improved response. Stock GT 500s are anemic down low on the tach thanks to the factory tuning and 3:31 gears. With the Ford Racing recalibration, the throttle picked up with authority right away and kept building linearly across the tach. Wringing out the loud pedal definitely hoisted the bulged hood and thrust the musclecar off into the zoom zone, so call us happy. Print!
Just as improved was the handling. Again, stock GT 500s tend to the sloppy side of grip. They eventually stick when asked to corner, but in a softly rolling sort of way. On a road course, they're one-line cars, steaming battleship-like through the apexes with nearly no ability to jinx or juke to unexpected challenges. Given the slightly firmer Ford Racing Handling Kit, our KITT KR clone was willing to carve a line. Precision and poise were definitely better, and combined with more precise power, it had us admiring the black beast right away.
Credit also, we suppose, to the 20-inch Nitto NT555 rolling stock on Shelby's forged rims. The 225/35ZR20 front and 275/35ZR20 rear rubber telegraphed its grip well and did what it could to balance the weighty KITT's pavement grip. The trouble is, our KITT is clearly from the same corn-fed GT 500 stock, and all that weight, especially the high and forward blower and iron engine block, means understeer is more than desirable. While easily sensed and countered with the throttle, the whole rig simply gave up grip too soon.
In other words, the KITT was a tremendous musclecar, able to get around corners in a predictable, fun fashion, if not giving Lotus Exiges handling doubts. Our overall impression of the KITT's driving experience-which we're sure presages all high-end Shelby KR and Super Snake dynamics-is that while grip is consumed by excess weight, the tautened chassis and better power are far easier to control, handle tighter, and are ultimately in harmony.
Maybe it was the lack of bad guys on the loose-there were plenty locked-up nearby-but ours was not a crime-fighting Hollywood experience. We smoked the KITT's hides almost 100 miles east of Tinseltown in the desert in near total privacy, relishing in the KITT's sideways antics. From the driver seat, the KITT's red light is invisible (indeed, the display on our car was none too bright in daylight); the interior is stock GT 500, leaving only the bumped KR hood to sweeten the view. Personally, we looked at the car as a muscularly handsome Mustang; a real musclecar presence. If only the car had talked back...
Knight Rider is a modern western, with a high-tech horse and solo-riding hero who lives by the code. The original '82 series with David Hasselhoff set the story line of a millionaire named Knight who bankrolls David's police-investigator character from near death into a private crime fighter, free to select the prettiest damsel in distress or most action-packed syndicate opponent. For crime-fighting wheels, enter the super-tech KITT, or Knight Industries Two Thousand, a Pontiac Trans Am with a wise-cracking, nagging computer; self-driving ability; and a gnarly weapons suite.
Today's Knight Rider remake stars a new crop of young studs and beauties, along with the KITT-Knight Industries Three Thousand-a Shelby Mustang GT 500KR. As before, Justin Bruening's character, Mike Tracer, is amply financed and free to roam for trouble in KITT, which is more than amply prepped for action. Updating means KITT now sports a supercomputer, along with indestructible bodywork that morphs with nanotechnology into a vengeful Attack form-or into the camouflage of a plebian Mustang GT.
Just as your grandmother hopefully watched The Sound of Music only for the scenery and singing, Knight Rider's juvenile premise, wooden acting, and running-advertisment feel assure it fleeting TV fame, but the imaginations spurred by the inventive KITT Shelby will have lasting virtue.