Firebird is an every-man's car with Hollywood charisma

  • 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit

    1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit Courtesy of Prestige MotorCar Photography

  • Jim Suva of Westchester has become somewhat of an expert on James Garner and the actor's "The Rockford Files" TV show.

    Jim Suva of Westchester has become somewhat of an expert on James Garner and the actor's "The Rockford Files" TV show.

  • Suva's 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit is the same model and paint color of the auto used on "The Rockford Files."

    Suva's 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit is the same model and paint color of the auto used on "The Rockford Files."

  • This is the plate number used on the show. Suva says 853 represents August 1953, when Garner got his first acting job. OK stands for Oklahoma, Garner's home state, and G represents his last name.

    This is the plate number used on the show. Suva says 853 represents August 1953, when Garner got his first acting job. OK stands for Oklahoma, Garner's home state, and G represents his last name.

  • The auto's sun visor was signed by the late Garner. Over three more years, Suva had a number of people associated with Garner and the show sign the visor, too, at various "The Rockford Files" gatherings.

    The auto's sun visor was signed by the late Garner. Over three more years, Suva had a number of people associated with Garner and the show sign the visor, too, at various "The Rockford Files" gatherings.

  • The 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit model had upgraded trim, badging and optional equipment.

    The 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit model had upgraded trim, badging and optional equipment.

  • The Pontiac Firebird's Esprit version came with extras such as a "Deluxe" interior and steering wheel.

    The Pontiac Firebird's Esprit version came with extras such as a "Deluxe" interior and steering wheel.

 
 
Updated 12/8/2014 10:43 AM

One of the hit TV shows being broadcast over the airwaves in 1974 was "The Rockford Files." The series followed easygoing police detective Jim Rockford, played by actor James Garner.

While Garner had charm enough to draw in many fans of the show, the reason Jim Suva tuned in to watch was the actor's four-wheeled co-star.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I started watching because of his car," the Westchester resident said. In the show, Garner piloted a gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit, often in high-speed pursuits and tire-screeching car chases.

Garner did most of his own stunt driving. "He performed all those tricks effortlessly. The things he could do with the car were just amazing," Suva said.

One such incredible maneuver was the "J-turn," or the "Rockford" as it has become known. In it, Garner would drive in reverse, then hit the brakes to spin around 180 degrees and drive away. Suva was so won over, he purchased a used gold '74 Esprit.

Pontiac's Esprit package came with optional equipment such as trim moldings, power steering and a "Deluxe" interior and steering wheel. Garner picked the Esprit model specifically for the show.

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"He considered it more of an 'every man's car' for the character. It wasn't flashy like 'Magnum PI's' Ferrari," Suva said.

While channeling his inner Rockford was fun, a year later a new TV series aired. This one also featured a likable rolling star that led Suva to trade in his Pontiac.

"After watching 'Starksy and Hutch,' I went and bought a red '74 Torino. I even put stripes on it, just like theirs," he said. Over the next several decades, more cars came and went but Suva always desired for another Firebird. Being a die-hard fan, he had a specific model in mind.

"I wanted an actual vehicle used on the show," Suva said. Unable to find one for sale, he settled on his 1977 Esprit. He purchased it in 2002 from a seller in Rhode Island.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The vehicle hadn't been used on the set, but sure looked the part. The coupe had been bought new in Eugene, Oregon. It came equipped with wire wheel covers, which were swapped by a later owner for Rally wheels. Under hood is a 305-cubic-inch V-8 paired with a three-speed automatic transmission.

Suva used the Firebird as his daily driver for almost a year, performing only routine maintenance. He also addressed cosmetic issues on the interior.

While the "Rockford" TV show ended in 1980, Suva continues to enjoy displaying the tribute coupe at area car shows and events. In 2010, he had the chance to act out his fantasy detective memories in front of the camera. Producers of the "Pioneers of Television" TV show did a crime drama episode with a segment on "The Rockford Files." Its production crew staged a crime scene near Milwaukee and called on Suva to fulfill a vital role.

"I got to drive my car as James Garner's character. It was a super thrill for me," Suva said.

Back in 2003, Suva started a blog, jimsuva.typepad.com, dedicated to the "Rockford" show. Over the years he's been able to connect with other enthusiasts from around the world, from places as far away as Europe and Japan.

"Many fans relate to James and the series," Suva said. "He played it so well and came across as just an average guy."

• Email comments, suggestions to auto@dailyherald.com.

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