Some cars just aren’t practical. Unfortunately, that’s what makes them so desirable. There must be a formula: a vehicle’s impracticality plus its innate charisma multiplied by its exorbitant price equals the buyer’s desire to own it. Rarely do these dream cars roll into our everyday lives.
For me, that most-desired car has always been a Pontiac Firebird Esprit, just like the one driven by Hollywood star James Garner on The Rockford Files. The series, which ran from 1974 to 1980, starred Garner as private investigator Jim Rockford, a Korean war veteran who lived in a trailer in Malibu and billed a $200-a-day minimum. Rockford had an insouciant sense of humour and avoided violence whenever possible. When a client asked Jim why he didn’t carry a gun, he replied, “Because I don’t want to shoot anybody.”
Once imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, Jim Rockford craved independence and freedom more than anything. These were epitomized by his Sierra Gold Pontiac Firebird (although technically the show used Firebird Formula 400s dressed to look like Esprits), which he used to navigate the sunburnt streets of Los Angeles. James Garner loved racing and did most of his own driving stunts. Garner executed the J-turn – a moonshiner’s move in which the driver reverses, brakes, spins 180 degrees and continues driving – so many times it became known as the “Rockford.”
As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I was addicted to the show and mesmerized by the car. The infatuation never subsided. In the 1990s, when I was starting a career as a freelance writer, I watched the show on A&E and Jim Rockford seemed like the champion of self-employed writers everywhere. Sergeant Dennis Becker was like an editor, a source of both threats and support. Rockford’s world was full of likeable weirdos, and he had a father who was bewildered by his son’s career choice. He lived in a trailer, had little money, indulged in a string of casual relationships and always seemed to be waiting for a cheque. I could relate.
And it was all exemplified by that shiny, unattainable Firebird.
And then, in January, 2019, it came on the market. A 1978 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 went up for auction in Arizona.
To be clear, this was not a 1978 Pontiac Firebird that was similar to the one used in The Rockford Files. This was the actual 1978 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 used in the series and later owned by James Garner himself. In fact, it was one of three vehicles used each season. They had one they kept in good condition, one for the stunts and the “sound car” which was used for close-ups while driving. It was this last one that was up for auction.
For a while, my course of action seemed clear: sell my house, fly to Scottsdale and bid on the Firebird.
After a few frank discussions with family members, this tact proved a tough sell. They were not convinced that we should sell our house, buy Jim Rockford’s car and live in a trailer in Malibu, despite my pointing out that this was the car used from 1978 to 1980 and that, as the auction advertisement stated, “it still had the original mic box, holes drilled to run recording wiring, as well as a skid plate to protect the engine and transmission from damage during stunts and a 6.6-litre V8 engine mated to an automatic transmission.”
I was left to watch and wonder as the car ultimately sold for US$115,500.
I was also left wondering why such a car would hold so much allure. The modern vehicles I had been trying out, even the most basic, had more power and technology than the 1978 Firebird. They were not doubt more ergonomic and more comfortable. Why would I want what was essentially a relic from the seventies?
It all goes back, I believe, to Jim Rockford and his quest for independence. With today’s talk of autonomous self-driving cars, it is hard to imagine a guy like Rockford getting by. How would Jim whip his Tesla Model S into a J-turn? I realize that it’s not so much what Jim Rockford’s Firebird has that we covet – it’s what it’s missing. No navigation system. No cozy interior. The only thing that’s autonomous is the driver.
The Pontiac Firebird is to today’s high-tech vehicles what James Garner’s Rockford was to handsome, successful private investigator Lance White (played by guest star Tom Selleck, who went on to become Magnum P.I.).
“No doubt about it. Lance is perfect,” Jim says, at the end of the episode. “It’s his only flaw.”
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