Inside 'Knight Rider'

Smart Car

Actor and singer David Hasselhoff poses next to the computerized car, KITT, c. 1985.
Actor and singer David Hasselhoff poses next to the computerized car, KITT, c. 1985.
Universal Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images

KITT in its normal mode is a production model Ford Mustang GT 500 "with some tuning and suspension modifications," says Ray Claridge, founder of Cinema Vehicles, a North Hollywood firm that builds and customizes rolling stock for movies and TV shows. Claridge's team added features like a rear spoiler with lighting, mirror lights, strip lights and what he calls "heartbeat lighting" as part of the design specifications ordered by artist Harald Belker. But other design elements were a bit trickier.

"In the original design, the front of the car was probably an inch and a half off the ground. That isn't gonna work. You can't drive a flat surface everywhere you go. You hit a bump and that's the end of that. So we made some adjustments so it could function on the highway while staying true to the design," explains Claridge, who worked closely with Ford "to make sure that the integrity of their product was kept in place. When you see the car, you know it's a Mustang."

To date, he has created six KITT cars, four facsimiles of the normal 'hero' version for beauty and stunt use, and two attack vehicles, with performance enhancements. While producers wanted to use as many practical effects as possible, time and budget precluded some of that. Television producers "have a feature mentality on a beer budget," observes Claridge, noting that each vehicle costs around six figures.

"Compromises have to be made. [The network] wanted a lot of it to work practically, but budget constraints get in the way," notes Claridge. "So some of the mechanical effects are now going to be CGI [computer-generated imagery]." When KITT transforms from normal into attack mode, "the transition will be CGI. Our product is the end-product." So far, KITT has morphed into other Ford models including a pickup truck and a Predator.

Computer effects also come into play in KITT's interior. "There's a touch screen across the front windshield, much like an iPhone, so you can download information and view 3-D objects while driving the car," outlines Thompson. "KITT has satellite surveillance that can track anybody and anything around the world. And KITT is learning, through artificial intelligence. KITT operates from a logic point of view. He's almost more human than the humans are."

KITT's voice, however, is not digital, and in fact may sound familiar. It belongs to actor Val Kilmer, about whom Thompson raves. "He gives you multiple options and multiple ways every time he says something." Kilmer records independently, so Bruening does his KITT dialogue scenes with a voice double "who can impersonate Val very well -- same cadences and everything." But does Bruening actually drive the car himself, or does he have a stunt double do the driving for him?