Old Friends

40 Years Ago, One Show Pulled The Most Iconic Car Stunt In TV History

How one turbo boost changed Knight Rider.

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KNIGHT RIDER -- Season 1 -- Pictured: (l-r) -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank
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Kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s know that the list of best TV show cars is very short. While you could debate endlessly about the merits of various awesome ‘80s movie cars — the DeLorean from Back to the Future versus Ecto1 in Ghostbusters — the best TV car was pretty much a lock. The all-black 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am known as KITT, the true star of Knight Rider remains one of the most iconic TV cars ever. And exactly forty years ago, on January 28, 1983, Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) took KITT for a ride that everyone would remember — even if you don’t actually remember it.

In a lot of classic TV shows, certain special effects shots, or big stunt moments would get reused over, and over again. This was especially true of shows produced by Glen A. Larson, the creator of Battlestar Galactica (1978) and, yes, Knight Rider. And in Season 1, Episode 16 of Knight Rider, one car stunt debuted for the very first time, which would later be reused on the show, repeatedly. You may not remember Knight Rider, Season 1, Episode 16, “The Topaz Connection,” but one specific stunt featured in the episode was recycled often enough to burn it into your brain.

Boom. David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider.

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A brief setup: Michael Knight is a heroic vigilante who technically is not really Michael Knight. In the debut episode — 1982’s “Knight of the Phoenix” — detective Michael Long (Larry Anderson) is shot in the face and gets reconstructive surgery to become Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff). From that point, Michael Knight is kind of a low-rent James Bond crossed with Batman, if Batman constantly popped his collar. And just like Batman has the tricked-out Batmobile, and Bond has his Aston Martin, Michael Knight is never without his 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am, powered by an AI named “KITT.” The car can also do all sorts of turbo boosts and has the consistent ability to drive over 200 MPH without getting a speeding ticket.

In “The Topaz Connection,” Michael Knight is assigned (sort of?) to investigate the murder of a magazine mogul named Philip Royce (John Ericson), who is, more or less, a faux version of Hugh Hefner, editor of a magazine called Escape. The mystery all connects to one of Royce’s locked files stored on a comically huge green computer screen and can only be opened by a six-digit passcode. In the soap opera style of Knight Rider, Michael starts hanging out with the daughter of the murdered magazine editor, Lauren Royce (Jeanna Michaels) in the hopes of unlocking the secret of locked computer files, codenamed “Topaz.”

Eventually, we learn that a bunch of people who worked for Lauren’s dad at the magazine conspired to knock him off because of a corrupt pharmaceutical ad deal, which is hastily explained. The real-life version of this would be like if Hugh Hefner was a secret investigative journalist and was murdered for trying to run an expose in Playboy that outlined the addictive qualities of like, any perception pill, ever. But, because this is Knight Rider and 1983, we’re more interested in the car chase scene, right?

In the end, Michael has to rescue Lauren, who has been kidnapped by the corrupt magazine ad guys, who have employed a psychopath obsessed with saving money on groceries. (Really!) And, during the car chase that follows, Michael has to jump a ravine with KITT in order to cut off the bad guys. This is crucial.

KITT in action.

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Now, like all classic corny action shows, what makes Knight Rider great is the fact that most of the stunts were done for real, because in the ‘80s, they couldn't just CGI a scene in which somebody hangs off on an airplane, or, jumps a Pontiac Trans-Am over a ravine. In “The Topaz Connection,” Michael blasts KITT over a specific ravine, in a scene that feels innocuous, because if you’ve seen one Knight Rider, you’ve seen them all, right?

But, in the case of this moment, the effect was transformative. The footage of KITT jumping this ravine was later reused in five other episodes and holds the record for the most reused “Turbo Boost” shot in all of Knight Rider. The scene itself was filmed at Lang Ranch Parkway, in Thousand Oaks, California. The road was intentionally cut by a bulldozer on the instructions of Knight Rider’s stunt coordinator, Jack Gill. According to Gill, it was “85 or 90 feet” to get to the far side of the ravine. A ramp was used to propel the car into the air, which, caused the famous “KNIGHT” vanity license plate to fall off the car.

The shot was accomplished by cameras filming the jump from afar, but also a camera attached to the side of the car, capturing the point-of-view of the jump. Over the years, eagle-eyed fans have noticed that in one piece of footage, you can actually see the camera falling off the side of the car in the non-pov shot, along with the license plate. And, according to Knight Rider Historians, if you watch the scene closely, you’ll also see Michael Knight’s slick leather jacket flying out the window. Why? Well, stunt driver Jack Gill had had the jacket draped over him at the last moment, even though he was wearing a helmet and other crash gear. So, as the jump was completed, the force of the jump pulled the jacket off of Gill and into the air.

Chances are, most ‘80s and ‘90s kids don’t remember any of these small details. But, we do all remember how awesome KITT was, throughout the entire show. There were other great stunts on Knight Rider, but this single scene in which KITT jumps this ravine is brilliant, simple, and best of all, beautifully imperfect. It’s a testament to a simpler time of television when a stunt could be awesome, even if a leather jacket and license plate were torn off in the process.

You can buy episodes of Knight Rider, including “The Topaz Connection,” on Amazon Prime and elsewhere

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