Anyone who was around in in the 1980s would be familiar with the American television series Knight Rider.
A big hit in its day, the crime-fighting show followed the adventures of the eponymous hero Michael Knight (played by David Hasselhoff) as he fought for the underdog against the evil-doers of the world with the help of an artificially intelligent car named KITT.
KITT was virtually indestructible and carried an arsenal of technological wizardry that would put even the most advanced James Bond gadgetladen car to shame.
In reality, KITT was a modified Pontiac Trans Am Firebird and this is where the hero of our story — Phil Candy — enters the picture.
Phil’s journey to the ownership of a KITT-type car has occurred after a flirtation with a variety of other vehicles.
His first car was a Holden LC Torana two-door hatchback which he had at age 18.
‘‘Then I had a HQ Holden wagon and then a Ford XC V8 panel van,’’ Phil said.
‘‘When I got married we had a HX Holden Premier with a 350 Chev in it.
‘‘It dawned on me recently that I sold each of those cars for no more than $2500, but if I had kept those four cars I would have $100,000 sitting in my shed.’’
Phil works in the milk industry and is the president of the Echuca Basketball Association.
Throughout his working life, he always seemed to be driving a company car.
‘‘So I never really needed to own my own car as such,’’ he said.
‘‘Buying this (the Trans Am), I just love sitting out in the shed at night making repairs.
‘‘I’m no (mechanical) expert so that’s why Google and YouTube have become great friends.
‘‘I’ve got the car to the point where it’s reliable and running well. Being able to do the struts, ball joints and shockers yourself adds to the joy of owning it.’’ the front like its TV counterpart KITT had, but it is still one cool looking piece of machinery.
Phil’s Firebird has the original 350 Chev V8 engine under the hood and has been converted from an automatic transmission to a five-speed Toyota Celica gearbox.
It also has the original Pontiac Trans Am alloy wheels.
‘‘When I bought it off an old Italian guy it was running on LPG gas,’’ Phil said.
‘‘So when I drove it back from Melbourne, the first thing I did was rip off all the gas fittings and the gas tank.
‘‘I’ve put a new clutch in it and rebuilt the carbies which had been damaged after running on straight gas.
‘‘It is bizarre to own a quick, light V8 car and then fit it to run on LPG gas.
‘‘In my view if you can’t afford the fuel, don’t own the car.
‘‘I had the engine conditioned, compression testing and everything and the motor is rock solid.’’
Phil said the Trans Am Firebird was a popular model in the United States.
‘‘It was twinned with the Z28 Camaro,’’ he said.
‘‘It was popular among college kids. It was very affordable and a lot of them were made, but not many found their way out here.
‘‘For something that’s coming up 40 years old, it must have been pretty cool in its day.’’
Echuca Signarama put the firebird emblem on the bonnet.
When released in 1984, the car came with the option of emblazoning the firebird.
‘‘The yellow colour is quite substantial and I wanted to break it up a bit,’’ Phil said.
Phil did investigate transforming the car from its factory colour Yellow Glow to the black of the Knight Rider model and it seemed the best option was a vinyl wrap.
‘‘You can buy the KITT dash and steering wheel and front end, but everyone assumes I’ve had my mid-life crisis and to take that extra step would be just ridiculous,’’ Phil said.
The car also has a similar appearance to Bumblebee from the Transformers movie.
‘‘In the movie, Bumblebee is this car which transforms into a giant robot but when it’s a car, it looks like my Trans Am,’’ Phil said.
‘‘I can be driving along and I can hear a kid yell out: ‘Mum, look, it’s Bumblebee’.’’
WHERE DID YOUR CAR COME FROM?
Phil’s Trans Am was built in Detroit, Michigan in the United States and shipped to Australia in 1987.
‘‘There’s a Trans Am website you can go to and type in the VIN (vehicle identification number) and find out where and when it was made and everything else,’’ he said.
Being an American car, it was a left-handdrive but was converted to right-hand-drive in Queensland in 1992.
Phil has owned the car for four years, having bought it off a private owner in Dandenong.
‘‘The old guy who had it had arthritis in his knees and could no longer operate the clutch,’’ Phil said.
‘‘I took a massive chance when I bought it because it had a substantial oil leak and I was hoping initially it might have been the rocker covers.
‘‘But when I got down further into it I found it had non-matching head gaskets left and right. So I cleaned up the block and put new head gaskets on.’’
Phil also had to readjust the seat track positioning in the driver’s seat.
‘‘The floor well in the front passenger seat is actually less restrictive because it was designed to have the room for the pedals for the left-handdrive,’’ Phil said.
‘‘When it was converted to right-hand-drive, they just did a straight conversion so it was quite restrictive.’’ only about 15 inches off the ground, which is why it handles so well.
‘‘And there are very few of these in Australia. They’re quite limited, there’s not many around and I love that I own it.’’
SO WHAT’S YOUR PERFECT CAR?
Phil’s dream car would be a 1977 anniversary Trans Am model as seen in the high-speed chase movie Smokey and the Bandit.
‘‘But that model has been pushed out to $35,000 to $40,000,’’ Phil said.
‘‘I had a Harley-Davidson motorbike but that’s a bit selfish and I thought we would get more enjoyment as a family if I bought this (the Trans Am).
‘‘That wasn’t the case because when we crammed the kids in the back seat their knees were up around their ears.
‘‘I wasn’t able to afford the ’77 anniversary model, but at least this got me into the Trans Am ownership.’’
AND WHAT’S NEXT?
Phil is doing up a 1971 Mini Moke which is nearing completion.
‘‘All the hard stuff’s done, I’m just down to the body work,’’ he said.
‘‘The engine’s done, the front and rear subframes are done. It’s just a matter of replacing the floor.
‘‘Typical Mini Moke, traditionally they rusted out in the floors.’’
And continuing the theme, the colour of the Mini Moke will be canary yellow.
‘‘We’ll get to the point when I say to my wife when we’re going into town, ‘are we taking the quick or the slow yellow car?’,’’ Phil said.
Until then, Phil is happy to just drive the Trans Am around in summer with the targa roof off and feeling the wind through his hair.
He also pulls up to basketball matches — in his role as president of the association — in the Trans Am, even it it does mean copping a fair bit of flak and some good natured ribbing.
‘‘Everyone asks me if I’m having a mid-life crisis,’’ Phil says, ‘‘or another one is ‘who do you think you are — Michael Knight?’.’’