Rob’s Movie Muscle: The Pontiac Firebirds from the Rockford Files

In addition to leisure suits, custom vans, and discotheques, the 1970s was seemingly the golden era for a private eye and detective television shows. I was just a kid then, but I can still remember how it seemed like almost every show featured a gritty, hard-nosed investigator on the trail of the bad guys. The Mod Squad, Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Colombo, Hawaii Five-0, Mannix, and Baretta are just a few I can name off the top of my head.

Many consider The Rockford Files to be the best of the breed from that era. With its unmistakable, oh-so-1970s theme song, an appealing leading man in the form of James Garner, and a main protagonist with an unusual background and raison d’etre, it was, at the very least, a departure from the rest of the detective shows on the tube at that time.

In addition to the above attributes, The Rockford Files was positively festooned with cool cars throughout its run, largely owing to Garner’s well-known obsession with anything having four wheels. His pick for his character’s vehicle was a good one: a gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit.

Though not a movie car per se, I thought it would be a fun diversion to cover this now-iconic TV vehicle in Rob’s Movie Muscle. So away we go!

James Garner as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. (Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal.)

For those too young to remember, or are otherwise unaware of The Rockford Files, it was a Friday night, primetime show broadcast on NBC from 1974 to 1980. 124 episodes in total and eight subsequent television movies were produced. It garnered (pun intended) multiple Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy, and Writer’s Guild awards over the course of its run, and was a consistent ratings contender.

In addition to James Garner, the show featured many television luminaries of the day in supporting and guest-starring roles. Tom Selleck, Louis Gossett Jr., Rita Moreno, Ned Beatty, Stefanie Powers, Larry Hagman, Joseph Cotton, Lauren Bacall, Jackie Cooper, and Lindsay Wagner all made appearances.

Tom Selleck was just one of a huge field of notable supporting actors in the series’ run. (Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal.)

Garner’s character, Jim Rockford, was a maverick, hard-nosed Los Angeles private eye who lived in a trailer on the beach in Malibu, and who specialized in investigating cold cases that the LAPD had given up on.

Unusual for a television detective character, Rockford’s personal history was less than savory and included having done time in San Quentin for an unspecified armed robbery that he claimed he didn’t commit. Rockford preferred to rely on his wits and ability to talk his way out of trouble though, rather than resorting to his fists or snub-nosed .38.

Garner did all his driving stunts in Grand Prix. Here, he races a Formula 1 car through the streets of Monaco. (Photo courtesy of Warner Archive.)

James Garner was considered one of the best drivers in Hollywood. In preparation for his starring role in John Frankenheimer’s legendary 1966 Formula 1 epic, Grand Prix, he was extensively trained by Bob Bondurant in the handling of racing machinery. In the film, Garner would do much of his own driving at triple-digit speeds. In the process, he became hooked on racing, leading to his competing at Sebring and Daytona, racing in no less than six Baja 1000s, and driving the pace car in three Indy 500s.

Garner accepted the role of Jim Rockford in large part because there would be considerable automotive action in the show. “Car chases and car action were a big part of the series, and I did most of the driving myself. That was my fun,” the actor said in an interview.

Knowing how important cars were to the actor, producers allowed Garner to pick his character’s ride. Garner considered many vehicles but ultimately chose a Denver Gold 1974 Pontiac Firebird Esprit for the first season.

Jim Rockford’s whip in the first season – a 1974 Sierra Gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit. (Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal.)

Garner’s choice was based on his idea that Rockford was continually treading water financially, owing to the empathy he had for clients who often couldn’t pay. He felt the car exhibited the perfect balance between performance and “everyman” appeal.

“Rockford’s Firebird was also a character in the show. I’ve been asked why he didn’t have a Trans Am instead. Well, he would’ve liked one – it’s much sexier – but I didn’t think he could afford it. The Firebird was more of a blue-collar car, a stripped-down version of the Trans Am, with a sticker price of about $3000. And I thought it handled better than the Trans Am,” Garner said in his autobiography.

The car was practically a character in the show. (Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal.)

The 1974 Pontiac Firebird was part of the second generation of the car that was first introduced as a 1970 ½ model and continued until it was replaced for MY 1982. It rode on the General Motors F-body platform and was refreshed three times during its run. Trim lines included a base model, the Esprit, the Formula, and the range-topping Trans-Am.

Available engines for the 1974 model year began with a standard, lethargic, 100 horsepower, 250 cubic-inch inline-six. Available as options depending on trim line where the 170 horsepower 350 cubic-inch V8, the 400 cubic-inch two- and four-barrel V8s good for 190 and 225 horsepower respectively, and the big L75 and LS2 455 cubic-inch motors, the latter in “Super-Duty” form with 290 horsepower.  Transmissions consisted of three- and four-speed manuals and the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic slushbox, again depending on trim.

Garner’s Esprit for the 1974 season of the show was equipped with the 400 cube lump and a four-speed manual. After filming a few episodes in which the car was given the spurs, the stunt team swapped out the Esprit’s suspension for Trans-Am parts. Their reasoning had been that it would enable Garner to better perform J-turns.

“When you are going straight in reverse about 35 miles an hour,” Garner explained of the maneuver, “you come off the gas pedal, go hard left, and pull on the emergency brake. That locks the wheels and throws the front end around. Then you release everything, hit the gas, and off you go in the opposite direction.”

The stunt was performed so often on the show that it ultimately became universally known as “The Jim Rockford Turnaround.”

The car’s license plate was an “in-joke” referring to James Garner’s place of birth and a career landmark. (Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal.)

Rockford’s license plate on his Firebird – 853 OKG – was an in-joke of sorts hatched by the show’s executive producer Meta Rosenberg. OKG apparently stood for “Oklahoma Garner,” combining the actor’s birth state and name, along with 853, which represented August 1953, the date when Garner landed his first acting job. Apparently, the gag was initially misunderstood by the show’s art department, as the plate in the earliest episodes read OKG 835.

General Motors actually saw an uptick in Firebird sales because of the show, as they similarly would when Smokey and the Bandit was released a few years later. As such, the automaker began to supply three, new model year cars to the production every season.

Beginning with the 1975 season though, the production used Firebird Formula 400s, with their upgraded front and rear anti-roll bars, stiffer springs, and shocks, in lieu of the Esprits, so as to enable the cars to better cope with the stunts involved in filming.

Garner still preferred the understated look of the Esprit, so the production swapped the Formula’s twin-scoop hood for an Esprit one, deleted the rear spoiler, and added Esprit badging all around. Eagle-eyed Firebird fans can spot the dual exhausts and rear anti-roll bar representative of the Formula models on Rockford’s car.

Garner reportedly did not like the front-end styling of the 1979 Firebird, so a 1978 was used for the last three seasons. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Owing to the fact that General Motors often changed paint colors from year to year, the production painted the cars every year with the same Denver Gold as on the first season car. No explanation was given to viewers as to the refreshed facias of the cars as GM periodically restyled them, but hard-core Rockford Files fans know that for the last three seasons (1978-1980) a 1978 model was used, as Garner did not like the front-end styling introduced on the car in ’79.

The 1978 Rockford Files picture car that sold at Barrett-Jackson in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

So beloved was Jim Rockford’s car, that one of the production vehicles that saw duty in the 1978-1980 seasons sold at the 2019 Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. The car still carried the production microphone connectors in the dash, as well as other filming-related modifications.

The production microphone connectors in The Rockford Files car that sold at Barrett-Jackson in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

It sold for an astonishing $115,000. Not too shabby for a car that rolled out of the factory for less than a $4000 MSRP. Jim Rockford couldn’t afford it for sure.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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