Pop Culture Face-Off: Mach 5 vs KITT
In TV land, there are two fantasy techno-wonder cars from simpler times that entertained millions and became cult hits. Speed Racer introduced many kids to their first Japanese anime, with mandatory terrible dialogue and nonsensical violence. Knight Rider brought a cartoon idea into sexy real life, yet it also somehow remained cartoon-like. Racecar vs crime fighter, kid vs cop, ‘60s vs ‘80s. Who will win the battle of the neckerchief versus the mullet? Let’s find out!
While “Speed Racer” wasn’t a great title, it was certainly better than the Japanese translation of “Mach Go! Go! Go!” The cartoon featured a boy race driver and his family pit crew as they race around the world and encounter various James Bond-ish adventures and intrigue. In the first episode, Speed points out the multitude of offensive and defensive capabilities of the Mach 5. There are onboard jacks that create incredible jumps, night vision, an armored canopy, and even a submarine mode. The most powerful weapons are gigantic dual circular saw blades that pop out of the front of the car, allowing Speed to conveniently murder offending racers.
Realistically, what we are looking at is something like a Prince/Nissan R380 Le Mans racecar. Cars from this era, class, and country of origin often had inline six cylinder engines, which is consistent with the excellent angry and raspy revving you can hear at the show’s intro. Expect in the low/mid-200 range for horsepower, which sounds terrible until you consider that these cars were under 2,000 lbs. Add 500 or so for all the tech shenanigans, and you still have a very light and capable sports car driven by a young, but race winning, professional driver.
Knight Industries Two Thousand is the creation of a benevolent billionaire and tool of the Foundation of Law And Government. Think of FLAG as a 501c3 dedicated to picking up babes. The Hoff does his best to fight evildoers every week, and looks snazzy while throwing punches and showing off the acting chops of a young William Shatner. Fortunately KITT is pretty cool, with a number of advanced fighting capabilities. The onboard AI could drive itself long before Google figured it out, and unlike those redneck Duke boys that have to jump off plebian ramps, KITT can jump over semi-trucks at will. Useful tech like voice recognition, recording, and disguising allow Knight to play private eye on Bluetooth hands-free phone calls 35 years ago. Possibly most important, a powerful scanner lets him find empty parking spots downtown directly in front of any important building important to the plot. ‘Cause that’s how life works.
In the real world, KITT is a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am with a whole lot of customization. For the real-life show vehicle, approximately $100,000 was needed to turn the TA into the hero car. I’m guessing most of that went pay for multiple CRT monitors and a bulk order of lights and switches in the interior. While a stock vehicle would weigh around 3,000 lbs, fitted with the latest and greatest of mid-1980s technology, it’s a safe bet that KITT is north of 4,000 lbs. The smog era engine was useful for converting gasoline into noise, but not much else. The 5.0 liter V8 of weaksauce has been ripped out for a jet turbine. You can hear it in most driving scenes, and it allows speeds over 250 mph on everyday roads, physics be damned.
Speed and Michael meet outside of town, on one of those mostly deserted highways both programs were so fond of showing. Things are tense from the start, with Speed making exclamations and quickly narrating everything that is happening, while Michael does his best steely-eyed look while gripping that dreadful steering wheel.
Being a former cop, Michael goes for the arrest, and guns it. KITT’s turbine spins up and the car launches to 60 in under 1 second. Speed yelps, throws the Mach 5 in reverse, and guns it. Quickly passing 100 mph, in reverse, KITT picks up the chase as they go barreling down canyon curves at triple digit speeds, nose to nose. On a corner, Speed whips around, pushes a button on his steering wheel, and drops an oil slick. KITT’s advanced AI is no match for his $60 215/65/15 Firestone tires in these conditions, and he goes flying off the road.
Speed celebrates with a grin and high-five to Chim-Chim, but Michael Knight knows he’s not in a Subaru STi or Local Motors Rally Fighter, and hits the road in Super Pursuit Mode. Spoilers and useless do-dads all over, KITT seems to have tripled in power. Watching the digital speedometer noisily clack away the speed, KITT quickly catches up to the speeding racer. Speed, still trying to get away, activates the buzz saws, and slows to get them in range. KITT pulls alongside and Speed directs the saws along KITT’s fuselage. The incredibly sharp blades throw a shower of sparks and flames, as both cars streak down the highway. After a moment, the Speed pulls away, but reveals only superficial damage to the extremely hard armor of FLAG’s weapon of law and order.
Speed is dismayed, giving an extended close-up surprised/crestfallen face for the camera. At the dry, wordy suggestion of Mr Feeny KITT, Michael spins the ridiculous steering wheel and slams the smaller, lighter Mach 5 into the guardrail. Both cars grind to a halt, dust billowing as the drivers get out. Speed angrily asks why he was chased and attacked by a stranger. As the dust clears, Michael Knight raises an eyebrow and says, “You don’t know me?” He pauses for effect, then, “Speed, I’m your brother.”
Roll end credits.