Ethos

The House of KITT

Don Colie’s tireless commitment to “Knight Rider” replicas

There’s no sign announcing Don Colie’s shop just south of Roanoke, Virginia. He doesn’t need one. The driveway’s full of third-generation Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams, all black, all unusually clean, all with a telltale scanner illuminated in the front valance, the red lights sweeping back and forth. The scanner’s swishing sound calls up a hundred Friday evenings watching Michael Knight battle bad guys with his intelligent self-driving car. If you lived through the 1980s, you immediately know what you’re seeing. This is this house of KITT.

Mark Murdock’s One-TV KITT is as close to show-correct as possible. He uses a KITT app to allow the car to “speak,” though a true voice recognition program is the next upgrade.

Colie’s been building “Knight Rider” replica parts and vehicles for 20 years, fabricating everything you need to turn a 1982-1992 Firebird into the Knight Industries Two Thousand. It’s too simple to say that’s the only thing his company, Advanced Designs in Automotive Technology, does. The one-bay shop off a country two-lane is a full restoration and prop production house, all helmed by one man; fiberglass, electronics, paint, and interior work fall under his domain.

It’s hard to pin down exactly where Colie got started. He mocked up his first KITT dash in high school for a project, assembling an instrument panel from 2-inch furring strips, bits of wood paneling, and poster board. After graduation, he bought a 1982 Firebird Trans Am of his own and set about building the real thing, or as close as he could come.

“The very first dash I built was kind of my interpretation,” he said. “I was pulling everything off of a VCR, freeze-framing it. I located what type of LED they used, got the measurements for it, and then multiplied that so I’d know how long each bar graph was. Then I would take that measurement of a single LED and see how many I could fit between the rows so I would know how to space them. That gave me a general description of how big to make the overall display board.”

Years later, Colie met a friend who was close with original KITT designer Michael Scheffe, who generously lent him a set of schematics. Scheffe was the mind behind a number of famous vehicles from TV and film, including Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean from the “Back to the Future” saga.

“I took the one-sixteenth plastic Ertl model and measured everything out in millimeters, then I scaled it up 1:1 and sculpted it on a car.”

Colie spent his early 20s working first in sales then in production at a prosthetics company, all the while modifying his own car. It wasn’t until he made his first bumper that he realized he might be able to make a full-time go of building “Knight Rider” replica parts.

Dante Colie, known as Don in the KITT car world, is a fiberglass master. “Everything I do is glassed and rolled by hand,” he said. “It’s a nice, strong product when it’s done.”

“I took the one-sixteenth plastic Ertl model and measured everything out in millimeters,” he said. “Then I scaled it up 1:1 and sculpted it on a car.”

He says this was the first truly accurate, show-quality reproduction bumper. Although there were other pieces floating around, some of which had been made from original molds, they were rough. These were props designed to look great whipping through an action shot, not sitting at a car show. This was in the late ’90s, years after the last “Knight Rider” episode and in the early days of the internet. When Colie began sharing photos of his car on a replica enthusiast website, he received a flood of requests asking him to build individual pieces. A business was born.

Now 48, Colie has perfected his craft. He does everything in-house, forming fiberglass bumpers, dashes, consoles, and switch pods for both the first version of the car and the final version used in season four. He also builds KITT’s unique steering wheel from scratch using a two-part urethane foam. Like all great fandom, the “Knight Rider” universe has its own language. Early cars are “Two-TV” models, so named for the two screens mounted in the dash. They also feature six foglights mounted in the lower valance. Later cars use four foglights and only have one screen in the dash. They are predictably referred to as “One-TVs,” which Colie favors for the cleaner design.

But the fiberglass and foam are a small part of what makes these cars special. A surprising number of the gauges and readouts work, including speedometer, tachometer, odometer, trip meter, oil pressure, water temperature, and estimated range. Colie builds his own printed circuit boards, starting with big, blank sheets of copper and finishing with fully populated boards; he solders each diode and processor by hand. Each board might take him up to two days to complete, and each dash uses a stack of them.

“By using all my own techniques, if I want to update something, I can just go to the computer, make my updates, and come out with a fresh board,” he said. “Every single board I make, I can make again a year later, two years later, or 20 years later. I have everything there that it takes to do it.”

Helpful, given that his replicas come with a warranty.

Colie invited two of his customers to join us for our visit. Mark Murdock and his wife, Melissa, drove their 1985 One-TV car up from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Chad Pulliam came north from Fayetteville, North Carolina, in his 1990 Two-TV machine. Pulliam’s a big guy hiding behind mirrored shades, and it’s easy to take his shyness for brusqueness. But he warms up, revealing a broad laugh once we start talking about the car and the show. His KITT was a father-son project that began eight years ago.

Although any third-generation Trans Am can serve as a donor for a KITT build, later cars first have to be backdated to 1982 specification before any further modifications can be made. Pulliam isn’t a stickler for show accuracy, but it’s clear he adores his KITT. It’s one of three TV cars he owns; he also has a General Lee replica and a KARR, KITT’s evil twin.

For Murdock, his KITT is the only one he’s ever wanted. A few years back, an on-the-job accident, resulting in multiple rounds of surgeries on both shoulders, brought his 32-year EMS career to an end.

“The doctor says, ‘You’ll never work again. You’re on a 30-pound weight-lifting restriction for the rest of your life,’” he said. “I told my wife, ‘I’m suffering through surgery after surgery. I want something out of this. I’ve always wanted a KITT, so when I get the settlement, I’m going to take part of that money and buy one.’ And I did it.”

Every electronic component that Don Colie makes comes through this tidy solder bench. A single circuit board could take him two days to complete.

But of all the things, why this? Why an aging, third-generation Trans Am with a body makeover and a new dash? Murdock says part of it runs back to his childhood, when he saw a KITT replica at a car show and had the chance to sit behind the wheel. But now, it’s about sharing the joy with other people.

“A lot of people love the show and love the car,” Murdock said. “It makes me happy to see them happy and to relive their childhood. Everybody’s got to get a picture.”

To that end, Murdock has made certain his car is 100 percent TV-correct, right down to the missing Pontiac arrowheads on the hubcaps. Both his car and Pulliam’s were partially completed when they came to Colie for interior work.

Colie will do turnkey conversions, starting at $55,000. The work is extensive and starts with a near-complete disassembly. It’s one part conversion, one part restoration, and he says the work can be done in six to 12 months depending on the donor’s condition.

Colie’s devotion is astonishing to see, a faithfulness to functionality and the original source material that likely explains why he’s been able to make a living at this. Wandering around his shop, looking at the bins of resistors and switches, it’s clear he could have done anything he wanted with his life. Everything he does here, he taught himself. In another life, he could have helped put men on Mars, ushered in our autonomous future, or simply made a tidy fortune building props in Hollywood. Instead, he dedicated his adult life to “Knight Rider.” When asked why, he doesn’t have a ready answer, talking around the question, explaining the steps that led him here rather than the motivations behind them.

Watching “Knight Rider” now, 32 years after the series finale first aired, it’s difficult to understand. The show is riddled with cheesy effects, questionable plot lines, and gimmicky stunts. Young David Hasselhoff comes across more as an obtuse goofball than a handsome man of mystery. It takes some effort to look past all that, to see what sits at the show’s core. It’s the same thing that hangs at the center of all good science fiction: genuine optimism. It’s the belief that with a little cleverness and the right car, there’s nothing we can’t overcome, no situation so bleak or so dire that we can’t triumph in the end. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days keeping that alive?

Buying Guide
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2002 Pontiac Firebird

MSRP $26,965 Base Convertible

Horse Power:

200 @ 5200

Torque:

225 @ 4000