Last month, we borrowed a replica of KITT—the crime-fighting 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am that co-starred with David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider—to drive from LA to an ’80s and ’90s car show in San Francisco. But KITT didn’t make it to San Francisco. Actually, not even close.
The talking Pontiac left the two of us stranded on the highway and all the Hollywood magic in the world was not enough to save us.
(Full Disclosure: Peer-to-peer car rental outfit Turo paid one of its hosts to let us rent KITT, which actually anybody can rent on its site. Turo also covered the tow truck you’re going to read about soon.)
For readers under 25 or so, and all our friends who have no clue what the hell we’re talking about, Knight Rider was a ridiculously campy action show from the 1980s in which Hasselhoff, performing as permed crime-fighter Michael Knight, solved mysteries with the help of his talking, self-driving car sidekick, the “Knight Industries Two Thousand microprocessor,” or “KITT if you prefer.” (As the car mentions when it introduces itself every time the key is turned to the “on” position.)
Turo, the app that lets people rent their own cars to other people, reached out to me months ago about driving KITT, since it’s a pretty cool example of the odd and interesting vehicles you have access to through its service. We tried to get in touch with David Hasselhoff to make a video about it with us, but apparently he had better things to do than hang out with bloggers.
To be honest, we forgot about the car on Turo until we heard about Radwood NorCal 2018. KITT is an ’80s icon, so what better car to take on an epic pilgrimage from Los Angeles to San Francisco to the ultimate celebration of ’80s and ’90s-ness at this year’s Radwood car show?
About a week before the show, I got on the phone with a representative from Turo and KITT’s owner Jon, and successfully convinced them both they we would be “totally fine” if the car broke down and David and I had to get creative about getting home.
“I mean, it’s an old car,” Jon said, being honest and upfront about what Dave and I were getting ourselves into. “You probably will make it, a lot of things have been replaced, tires are good and KITT’s been running fine. But, if you’re going to take it that many miles, you’ve got to be comfortable with potentially being on the side of the highway.”
You couldn’t ask for a better foreshadowing quote, could you?
“We can handle that,” I replied. “David and I drove an $800 Jeep from Michigan to Utah and back in less than a week,” my cocky self told Jon, “Eight-Hundred miles roundtrip is child’s play.”
Fast forward to Saturday, and Dave and I are rolling out of my LA garage with a small satchel of tools and home-made “b-boy” costumes to wear at Radwood. (Hasselhoffesque attire was not available for under $10).
Andrew knew I wanted to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, since I’d never been on it before. It’s a legendary road that runs along California’s beautiful coastline, and even though the route wasn’t quite as efficient as Interstate 5 at getting us to San Francisco, it was going to be more scenic. So we decided to run a little way up the coast, from at least Santa Monica to Santa Barbara, then cut inland and make up time.
“This thing is, uh, pretty cumbersome,” was my first impression of KITT several hours before I would be physically pushing it.
Jon had provided a standard circular steering wheel, but David insisted that “It’s not Knight Rider if we don’t use the ‘yoke.’” So I swapped the novelty airplane style-steering stick onto the end of the column.
“This is kind of like steering a row boat with a ping-pong paddle,” I remember saying. “I think I remain in favor of round wheels in cars.”
Behind the hilarious “wheel” was a huge swath of nonsensical lights and switches—a perfect reproduction of the dashboard from the show was basically mounted on top of the Firebird’s existing gauges. One of the screens functioned as a backup camera, which was awesome, but the rest of it was pretty much just for decoration. That meant no speedometer, no reliable temperature gauge and no real idea of how much gas was in the car.
Driving this car is too dazzling, literally and spiritually if you’re a Hasselhoff fan, to give you much time to think about its actual performance, acceleration and braking. Which is a good thing.
Jon’s car might not have actually been used in the Knight Rider TV show, but it sure as hell feels like the real thing.
And it also feels like a 30-year-old Pontiac. Take that as you will.
In Malibu, I got to take hold of the bizarre steering device, fire up the 305 cubic-inch V8 engine, and experience what it was like driving KITT—a vehicle I’d seen dozens of times before while watching Knight Rider on the military broadcasting network Armed Forces Network.
The car wasn’t quite as quick or well built as many episodes of Knight Rider had made me believe. The black Pontiac felt torquey, but undeniably slow, thanks in part to the three-speed automatic and the wallowy suspension. But KITT still felt special, not just when looking at that awesome moving red light out front, but also while piloting the vehicle from the inside, with the wild steering wheel and the colorful, wacky dashboard capturing my attention.
I took in the slow, but loud and just generally viscerally awesome driving experience, enjoying views of the Pacific ocean and the beautiful California landscape. The speedometer didn’t work, so I just stayed in the right lane, and matched pace with the slowest vehicles on the highway. The Pontiac felt best at what Andrew and I figured was about 60 mph.
After roughly 45 minutes behind the wheel, I ran into a bit of traffic on the 101 near just south of Santa Barbara. A few minutes later, I grew tired of standing on the brake, and became just generally bored, so I chucked the Lever-With-A-Button-On-Top automatic transmission shifter into neutral. The engine died.
Andrew hadn’t noticed that there was anything wrong until the car in front began moving, and I could be seen reaching for the key, trying to get the car started.
“It’s dead!” I declared. I activated the hazard switch on the steering column, and kept trying to fire up the V8 as cars drove around, annoyed.
“We gotta push, man,” I exclaimed. Andrew was already extracting himself from the sleeping-position seats and yelling back “you steer,” as he scurried to the car’s tail to give it a shove. I kept an eye in his rearview mirror, praying that oncoming drivers were paying attention.
Luckily, Andrew successfully muscled the costumed ’80s American sports coupe away from the main string of traffic and onto the shoulder, where I popped the hood and wasted no time wrenching. I spun off the nut at the top of the air cleaner, removed the big black disc on the top of the motor, and inspected to see if any wires or connectors had melted.
I wanted to see the fuel being sprayed from the injectors into the throttle body, so I asked Andrew to fire up the vehicle. Andrew bumped the key, the motor turned over, and—after the injectors sprayed gas into the engine—the engine fired. But then fuel flow stopped, and so did the motor. I got behind the wheel and turned on the engine, but I only managed to keep it running by pumping the accelerator pedal. Holding the throttle at any set position caused the V8 to cut out.
I initially thought the issue could be a fuel pump or a fuel regulator, but after noticing the engine fire up every time initially, and then cut back off, I suspected the issue might be sensor (perhaps the throttle position sensor) or the problem could be computer related.
While wrenching, I did notice a few obvious issues with the Pontiac, particularly related to the way the air cleaner had been installed. The ignition coil—which appeared to be brand new—had been mounted in such a way that it interfered with the drop-base air cleaner, causing a gap between it and the throttle body (which lacked a gasket of any sort). This is apparently a fairly common problem among third-generation Firebirds, and I think the issue is a missing spacer like this one that’s meant to sit between the throttle body and the air cleaner.
The other concern I had was with the idle air temperature sensor that sat extremely loosely into the air cleaner. This and the coil interfering with the air cleaner were two sources that could allow dirty air into the engine. I found this suboptimal setup surprising, as—based on the copious new cooling system and suspension parts—the owner had clearly put some money into keeping the vehicle maintained.
And of course, the Firebird had been running OK for hours that day and apparently weeks before.
On that fateful day, Andrew and I spent about three hours diagnosing the vehicle while simultaneously working to schedule a tow truck. The diagnosing part didn’t go well, but—after initially calling AAA and then reaching out to Turo—getting a tow wasn’t much of an issue.
Turo has a built-in rescue system within its own app. You can contact customer support via phone, they ask where you are, and then tell you how long it’ll be until you’re rescued.
Turo covers the recovery initially, and if the damage is deemed to be the renter’s fault, they’re billed later. If it’s the car owner’s fault, apparently they are supposed to be billed. In this case, Turo indicated it would cover the cost itself.
There was barely any wait to speak to an operator on Turo’s help line, and the friendly call center employee promised a wrecker could be out to help us “in one to one and a half hours,” which was about the same estimate AAA had given the guys.
Apparently it wasn’t all that easy to find a tow truck that was willing to shuttle KITT all the way from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, about an 80 mile trip. The California Highway Patrol showed up and hovered behind KITT while David prodded and I Instagram’d, offering a little protection from potentially being rear-ended while they kept tabs on the highway.
Almost 90 minutes exactly from calling Turo—and three hours after breaking down—the police officer sitting behind KITT on the shoulder could go on her merry way, as an extremely talkative but pleasant tow truck driver had shown up in his Hino truck.
He lowered the ramp, hooked up the car, and pulled KITT onto the flatbed. Andrew and I jumped into the truck’s bench seat, and after enduring two hours of non-stop talk from the jovial tow-truck driver, not to mention a seat about as nice as what you get in a school bus, we finally made it back to LA.
More specifically, Andrew and I had made it back to KITT’s owners house, where I had an epiphany. Clearly the car wasn’t getting enough fuel, I reasoned, so what if we just pulled the coolant temperature sensor. That should enrich the mixture.
I popped the hood “one last time,” yanked the coolant temperature sensor, and asked Andrew to turn the key. Vroom! The engine roared to life. Andrew hadn’t seen what I had done, and was incredulous. This would have been a nice thing to have tried on the side of the busy highway, but it was at least cool to see the engine back up and running, even if it wasn’t exactly running properly.
After walking home to Andrew’s house, because of course we had depleted our phones’ batteries, Andrew and I drove to O’Reilly Auto Parts, and—with KITT’s owner’s permission—we swapped the coolant temperature sensor, and plugged the connector back in. Sadly, the vehicle didn’t fire up.
We never did figure out what exactly was causing the lean condition—perhaps it was vacuum leaks, ruined wiring, a bad computer, or a ruptured fuel pressure regulator.
But we did make it to Radwood, in case you were worried, by driving a borrowed brand new Volvo XC40 straight up the 5 interstate and back again the Sunday of the show.
Days later, KITT was taken to a professional mechanic as its owner scoured Firebird forums for insights. The mechanic suspected a bad fuel pump, forums seem to indicate the ignition module inside the distributor may be at fault (maybe both!), but obviously nothing that could have been fixed with the limited tools and zero parts David and I had during our stint on the shoulder of the 101.
So there were some lessons here. For one thing, yes, you really do have to be mentally prepared for a little impromptu wrenching if you take an old car on a long trip. But also, it’s important to realize that cars on Turo aren’t exactly rigorously inspected before you’re allowed to rent them. Per the company’s spokesperson:
“The overall process to list a classic or specialty car is the same as other cars, the car owner confirms the car’s info including mileage, no salvaged title, year, make, etc. When the model year for an acceptable classic car is selected (older than model year 1990) an additional box in the listing flow appears and that prompts the host to report the cars estimated market value (which cannot exceed $85k in the US, $75k in Canada/Germany), mechanical condition, seatbelts, and a brief free form note about the car.
Once that information is submitted there is an additional review process. What’s unique about this process is that it’s not automated, our team manually reviews each submission to confirm that the car is in good condition and appropriate for the marketplace.
In line with our normal vehicle inspection requirements, any reports or incidents that bring to our attention that the car is not in peak mechanical condition we delist the car and require a full mechanical inspection before the car can be re-listed on the marketplace.”
Turo sees photos and gets info from the car’s owner before it’s put into rotation, but nobody’s physically inspecting or test driving these cars besides the hosts and renters. That doesn’t mean they’re unsafe, it just means that you’re mostly counting on the host to keep their car in good shape before it’s handed off to you.
“If a guest’s Turo car breaks down on a trip they would typically work with customer support to get them into a different car or customer support would connect them with our sales team who will help book another car,” the spokesperson also told us.
In a big city like Los Angeles, you’d have no problem finding another Turo car, even though you’d probably be bummed to have to take a second choice car at the last minute. But you still have more control over what you’re driving that you would at a big chain car rental place.
Of course, a chain would also have a bigger support network and typically only rents reliable models of cars without too many miles on them.
I’m still planning on putting a couple thousand miles on a Turo Range Rover for my honeymoon. I guess we’ll see how that goes. In any case, Turo’s a cool way to borrow interesting vehicles you might not otherwise be able to drive. But just remember that your hero cars might not be as invincible as they looked on TV or in magazines.