There’s no telling when a new TV show is first aired what the audience reception will be. Some shows immediately flop, others start off strong and soon fizzle, and then there are those that strike a chord with the audience and become mega hits and later classics. The 1970s had its share of great TV shows. The most popular of these shows were police and private detective themed. With the plethora of shows catering to this genre the one that stands out as top of the heap is The Rockford Files, which was the brain child of Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins, originally aired in Fall of 1974. From the start the magic was there – a well selected cast with James Garner playing the lead role as Jim Rockford, a Mike Post written and performed catchy hit theme song, good storylines, and plenty of action. Garner was perfect for the role as private investigator Jim Rockford. His performance as Rockford was par excellence.
Rockford, a crusty and opinionated ex-con who took on cases only to keep the bill collectors at bay, always seemed to get in over his head. The cases he agreed to work on, usually seemed straightforward on the surface but soon turned into hornet nests very quickly. What made Rockford different from prior detective shows was that Rockford was not the typical TV private investigator. And it was not just that he was an ex-con but he was a working stiff unlike most TV private investigators who were more like Frank Cannon – the lead character on the popular TV show Cannon (1971-1976). Frank Cannon wore expensive clothes, lived in a posh condo, and drove a new Lincoln. Rockford in contrast did not have two nickels to rub together; he lived in a trailer located in a parking lot near the beach. Rockford was a bulldog in the sense he would work a case until it was solved. However he hated confrontation, his style was using his wits to talk his way out of trouble which would sometimes work and sometimes not. When it did not work, he usually was on the receiving end of a beating or would be shot at. Another problem Rockford had was even after he solved a case, he would sometimes discover his client had no money to pay. It was Rockford’s one-liners and dry sense of humor that kept the audience watching. No matter how hard the hit or close a brush with death was, Rockford would dust himself off and soldier on after reciting a few funny quips.
Rockford was on a tight budget yet he was still concerned with appearances. This is where his car comes into the picture – a Pontiac Firebird which was the perfect stylish car for someone looking to get the most bang for the (private investigator on a tight budget) buck. After-all Rockford did need something sporty to drive his beautiful dates to dinner. The Firebird also took as many beatings as Rockford. The Firebird was in every episode, in some it performed amazing stunts. Whether it was an intense car chase or plowing through a park at high speed to escape from some bad guys, the Firebird made memorable impressions on many viewers. One such viewer back in the day was Jim Suva who was so impressed with the Firebird, he bought back in the day a gold 1974 Firebird Esprit just like the one Jim Rockford drove during most of the first season. Unfortunately Suva sold the car after owning it a year. Fast forward many years later to 2002 and Suva stumbled across a great find – a very nice conditioned gold 1977 Firebird Esprit. As all The Rockford Files aficionados know Rockford drove gold 1974-1978 Firebird Esprits during the show’s life. The first season started off with a gold 1974 Firebird Esprit and the last season ended with a gold 1978 Firebird Esprit. Essentially Rockford would upgrade his Firebird soon after a new model release. Now Jim Suva is not your normal Firebird fan, over the years his research and love of these Rockford Firebirds has made him an expert. In fact recently when a new Rockford pilot (which is still awaiting executive approval before release if it ever gets released) was shot for NBC with Dermot Mulroney cast as the lead role, Suva was summoned by Hollywood to act as a Rockford Firebird advisor. Among Rockford fans the 1977-1978 Firebird Esprit is the most popular used on the show, so when Suva stumbled across a well preserved gold 1977 Firebird Esprit he knew he had to have it.
Now there’s an interesting twist, the Rockford Firebirds may all appear to be Esprits but in reality only the 1974 Firebirds used in the pilot and most of the first season were Esprits according to Suva. And he mentions the rest of the Firebirds were all Firebird Formula 400s, which even included some 1975 Formula 400s used at the end of the first season. Suva also points out that the studio repainted all the Rockford Firebirds in their own mix of gold (a color hue Suva was able to get from an owner in California of a genuine studio painted Rockford Firebird). This was a wise move on the studio’s part to standardize on one gold color, since Pontiac had a habit of changing color hues or cancelling some colors on a whim. Suva mentions the studio wanted consistency from year-to-year and wanted the audience to see all the cars used over the different seasons as the same car.
The studio had its hands full in terms of prepping the Formulas. This included a lot more than just repainting the cars; in essence the studio had to dress the Formulas up to look like Esprits. This included replacing the Formula twin scoop hood with a flat Esprit hood. And for 1977-1978 the Formula came standard with the Trans Am’s flashy rear spoiler which Suva points out had to be removed by the studio and all the holes left behind had to be patched. Part of the trickery also entailed using Esprit type white wall tires on these Formulas and removing the Formula’s chrome spilter exhaust tips. So you may ask why did the studio order Formulas instead of Esprits? Suva’s answer is it was simply a matter of the studio needing the Formula suspension for the stunt work. The Formula shared the same tight Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) suspension with the Trans Am during these years. The need for performance is also the reason the studio only used Formula 400s from the end of the first season until the last episode) since these Formulas were equipped with Pontiac’s 4-bbl carbureted 400 CID V8. The low compression Pontiac 400 V8s used in the Formula from 1975-1978 may have been lighter on the horses than the high compression 400 V8s from 1967-1970, however they still packed a good punch with plenty of low-end torque. And as any Pontiac fan knows it does not take much to wake up these low compression 400s with some slight mods to make them into real screamers. So you can bet that the studio had fun tweaking these 400s for some of the stunts.
James Garner like Steve McQueen is one of those Hollywood guys who love high performance cars. He’s a real car guy not like a lot of the Hollywood stars who drive performance cars in the movies and on TV but in real life know as much about these types of cars as Mickey Mouse. Garner has owned his share of personal high performance cars. Garner (like McQueen and Paul Newman) was into car racing – he’s most famous in car circles for the three L88 1968 Chevrolet Corvettes he purchased for his American International Racing (AIR) team back in 1968. The one thing usually mentioned by Stephen J. Cannell about James Garner is how he really got into the role of Jim Rockford. For Garner, his playing Rockford was not just a job but it was something he gave his all – he even did a lot of his own stunts. This included giving his input into important aspects of the show. According to Suva it was Garner who picked the Pontiac Firebird Esprit as the Rockford car – Garner liked the idea that it was not a flashy car and that it fit the lifestyle of a private investigator on a budget. Suva also points out that in most interviews when the subject is broached, Garner has said he loved the Firebirds he drove on The Rockford Files and he remarked that these Firebirds could do anything. In a recent interview last February with Garner and Cannell, both raved about the Rockford Firebirds used in the TV show.
Suva’s 1977 Firebird Esprit is a dream come true for any fan of The Rockford Files and the same is true for any Pontiac Firebird fan. Even most Trans Am fans would love to own a Rockford Firebird. So Suva’s is lucky to have found his Esprit in such well-preserved condition. Suva’s pristine gold Esprit has spent its entire 33 years under careful watch of middle age owners (all of which have been 45 years or older). This ironically was exactly the age bracket that Pontiac execs had marketed the Esprit. Pontiac packaged the Esprit to the buyers as the Firebird for the sophisticated buyer. "Esprit" is the French word for liveliness of mind or spirit.
In the 1970s there were four model Firebirds: the base Firebird, Esprit, Formula, and Trans Am. The base Firebird was marketed to the cost conscious buyer. The Formula and the Trans Am were marketed to the performance crowd. The Esprit was the luxury Firebird with an upscale interior. Most Esprit buyers were older than the Trans Am and Formula buyers. With the Esprit, Pontiac offered a sporty product to those middle-aged buyers who wanted the looks but weren’t interested in high-performance – they were completely satisfied with a smooth accelerating engine. Jim Suva’s Esprit is equipped with a factory original Chevy small block 305 CID V8 backed by a 3-speed automatic transmission. This was the era when other GM brand engines were available in the Firebird lineup. This 2-bbl 305 produced 145 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque, which was not the tire burning option in the 1977 Firebird line-up but it provided enough power to move the 3513-lb Esprit with authority. For comparison sake, five years later the 1982 Trans Am had as its base motor the same 305 CID V8 equipped with a 4-bbl carb producing 145 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque. The Esprit’s 2-bbl 305 provided excellent gas mileage for a V8, so in the frame of mind of 1977 when many consumers wanted good fuel efficiency, it was a good choice. The same 145 horsepower 2-bbl 305 was also a very popular option on the full-size 1977 Chevrolet Caprice. Suva remarks that his 305 "has nice power and is better on gas mileage than the larger displacement Pontiac 400 and Oldsmobile 403 V8s" which were available on the 1977-1979 Trans Am. The other engines offered on the 1977 Esprit were the following: a Buick (105 horsepower) 2-bbl 231 CID V6, Pontiac (135 horsepower) 2-bbl 301 CID V8, Pontiac (145 horsepower) 2-bbl 301 CID V8, Oldsmobile (170 horsepower) 4-bbl 350 CID V8, Pontiac (170 horsepower) 4-bbl 350 CID V8, and Chevrolet (170 horsepower) 4-bbl 350 CID V8.
The 1977 Esprit’s handling was good; it provided enough balance in the turns. Suva when comparing his Esprit to previous Trans Ams he has owned, remarks "it has a smoother ride but does not handle as tightly." When asked what he would change on his Firebird, Suva says he would only like to add stiffer shocks and a rear anti-sway bar. With these two items Trans Am like handling can easily be attained. Braking was good with the Esprit’s mandatory front disc and rear drum brake setup.
Suva’s Firebird Esprit is a survivor with only around 69,000 original miles on the odometer. Finding a good survivor Trans Am and even Formula is easy compared to finding a good survivor Esprit. One stroll around a large car show will yield a lot of second generation Trans Ams and even a few Formulas in attendance, but usually no Esprits. Even at all-Pontiac car show events, Esprits are a very rare bred. Part of it has to do with the Esprit being a niche car that was not produced in really large numbers, another is that a lot of hobbyists and collectors passed over Esprits because they were overshadowed by the Trans Am and Formula. So Suva’s Esprit is certainly a rare find, it’s the type of car even a Trans Am and Formula fan would love to own. The Esprit in a lot of respects is a more graceful and beautiful design than the almost brutish Trans Am and Formula. The lack of spoilers and hood scoops gave the Esprit a smoother look (however later second generation Esprits could be equipped with an optional rear spoiler). Think of the Esprit as a beautiful woman who does not need to wear makeup. However as Trans Am and Formula prices continue to soar, second generation Esprits and base Firebirds are beginning to gain in popularity with the collectors. The following appearance package Esprits have already caught the attention of collectors and have begun the big move up in value – the 1977-1978 "Sky Bird", 1978-1979 "Red Bird", and 1980 "Yellow Bird", so watch for Esprit values across the board to move up the price scale soon.
Suva’s Esprit has an interesting mix of options. His Firebird came equipped from the factory with a rear spoiler and a stripe which Suva believes were removed at the dealership when the car was new. It also came equipped with wire wheels – a popular Esprit option that gave the car the exterior luxury touch Pontiac was trying to convey with the Esprit. A previous owner however swapped out the wire wheels for a set of Pontiac Rally II wheels (an available factory option on the 1977 Esprit), to make the car look like a Rockford Firebird. Also found on Suva’s Esprit is the sporty and beautiful gold accented Pontiac formula steering wheel. The formula steering wheel (RPO code "NK3") is listed on his Esprit’s original build sheet which for the Esprit meant a silver trimmed formula steering wheel; however Suva is not sure when and where his Esprit’s gold trimmed steering wheel was installed. Officially the only 1977 Firebirds to get the gold trimmed formula steering wheel were the Y82 and Y84 Special Edition (black and gold) Trans Ams. However it’s not beyond the realm of possibility it may have been installed at the factory assembly line due to the whim of a worker or other factors. This would not have been the first time something like this had happened on a Firebird assembly line. More than likely, it was one of the previous owners or a Pontiac dealer that was responsible for the swap. Never-the-less the gold formula wheel sure looks good on Suva’s gold Esprit – in fact so good it should have been a factory option on every second generation gold Firebird. His Firebird has power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, and a tilt steering column. Like most survivor cars that are well preserved not much besides regular maintenance had to be done to Suva’s Esprit. He has only replaced a few items; the wheel well chrome all around and the water pump. He also installed a period correct factory AM/FM radio with two rear speakers. Suva has added to his Esprit antique license plates with the writing "853 OKG" which is the same as Jim Rockford’s California license plates used in the TV show. The plates actually have meaning, it was Garner’s agent who came up with the plate combination – the "OKG" was an abrevation for Oklahoma Garner (Oklahoma was where Garner was born and raised) and "853" denoted August 1953 which was when Garner landed his first acting job.
For those who want to own a Rockford Firebird. Suva has the following advice – "carefully select a Firebird Esprit or Formula in the best shape possible. Repairing rusted areas can cost a lot more than buying a well preserved car." Suva also notes that "an Esprit comes standard with the custom deluxe interior that was used on the show." Suva recommends – "try to purchase a Firebird with the tan interior, especially if the interior is in good shape. This will save you money and time you would have spent re-dyeing interior pieces."
The title of one of The Rockford Files episodes – "Never Send a Boy King to Do a Man’s Job", summed up Jim Rockford’s no-nonsense persona perfectly. Rockford meant business and his car just like him took punishment without losing a beat. The Rockford Files made James Garner a TV legend and it has done the same for the Pontiac Firebird Esprit. It is one of the most identifiable TV cars, and will more than likely remain so for many years to come. Jim Suva is lucky to own such a nice representation of TV history.
Special thanks to Jim Suva who provided the pictures and information used in this article about his Firebird Esprit and the Rockford Firebirds. For more information on his Firebird and the Rockford Firebirds please visit Suva’s website at http://jimsuva.typepad.com/blog/.
Written contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved