Rockford Files and Vista Group
Written by Jim Suva
I recently had the opportunity to interview Eric Dahlquest and Chuck Koch of Vista Group. They gave me the insight into the vehicles of The Rockford Files. Eric Dahlquest is the President and founder of Vista Group. Vista Group is a product placement, public relations and marketing company. Chuck Koch has worked for and has done contract work with Vista Group since 1978.
Jim S: How did James Garner and you decide on the Pontiac Firebird Esprit? Plus how did Vista Group get involved with the show?
Eric: Jim Garner and I didn’t decide on the Firebird Esprit. Vista Group didn’t get involved with the show until later, after the Pontiacs were established. I think the original deal was made with Jim Graham, Pontiac’s Marketing Director. I recall speaking with Jim Graham about this and I think it was because the Esprit was a new model and could use the help to gain awareness.
We got involved with the show through Vick Hickey whom I had known from my days when I was an editor on Hot Rod Magazine, 1964-68. We did stories on Vic’s cars and trucks that he had developed mostly for Chevrolet because that’s where he had been a Development Engineer. Vic had worked with Jim Garner when Jim had his race team, American International Racers (AIR). If memory serves, I met Jim at Vic’s shop.
Regardless, during these years AIR fielded teams in off-road, Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring and when I left Hot Rod to become Editor of Motor Trend, I spent a lot of time with Vic and Jim on their various programs.
When I left Motor Trend in 1975, Vista Group’s first GM public relations client was Pontiac and shortly thereafter Vick recommended us to GMC Truck’s visionary Sales Promotion Manager, Jim McLane who hired us to do all kinds of promotion programs including movies and television. It was a natural step from there to The Rockford Files because we had all worked together before. Pontiac dealers sold GMC trucks, so it was an obvious product tie-in and the topper was our boss at GMC was a native Oklahoman, as was Jim Garner. It was like the perfect “old-boys” storm.
Jim S: Were the Firebirds and GMC pickups given to Cherokee Productions, Universal, or another company, or were they purchased?
Eric: I just looked though our files and didn’t find the original loan agreements, but I think it was Cherokee Productions. But if it wasn’t, it was Universal Studios, since they would have the biggest liability. No vehicles were “given”, everything was on loan for a specific time on a specific loan agreement with insurance documentation.
Chuck: Ownership was retained by General Motors for $1.00 fee for 1 year. Cherokee or Universal had to pay taxes, license plates and insure the vehicles. In fact, the support vehicles for Cherokee Productions were all GMC. These vehicles were with James Garner through The Rockford Files and a number of his movies.
In fact, Vista Group worked with Jim on his movies like “Murphy’s Romance”. They purchased an older GMC pickup for him to drive to keep him with the GMC brand. They also worked with Jim on the Indy Pace truck and the red GMC pickup “Sportside” that Jim drove and was used in The Rockford Files. The red pickup was used in the episode titled “Material Difference”.
Jim S: I know that there were 3 Firebirds per season, until the 79 Firebird style changed. Were there 3 pickups per year too?
Eric: I think there were just two pickups, but Chuck would know that.
Chuck: They had two trucks for the series. They were not replaced every year.
Jim S: Since Mr. Garner stayed with the 78 Firebirds, did Universal purchase additional Firebirds from a local dealership?
Eric: No, I remember them just keeping them [cars from the previous year] in company inventory.
Jim S: The Firebirds were painted the same color each season. What company painted them and repaired them if they were damaged?
Eric: A guy named Vince (Carriage Craft) painted the GMC’s I’m not sure about the Pontiacs. But, why wouldn’t he have done both?
Jim S: The GMC pickups were customized with Vic Hickey equipment. Who did the work?
Eric: If they had Hickey Equipment, then Vic probably put it on.
Jim S: Any cool stories about working with James Garner?
Eric: Stories? Yeah, there’s probably a million of ‘em. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the details except for a few.
When we worked on “Maverick, the Movie”, (the stagecoaches were GMC’s) with Jim and Mel Gibson and Jody Foster, I was sitting with Jim in his dressing trailer remembering some of the old times with AIR racing and Rockford, and how he got into the movie business in the first place. I recall Jim said something to the effect that even after the first Maverick hit television series where he became a star, he wasn’t sure if acting was going to be his lifetime career. At that point, 1959, he had been doing it full time for about five years. “So”, he said, “I thought, I’ll give it another five years and see what happens.”
Well, five years turned into another five years, and another five, and here we were in 1994, so I said, “What about now? Jim paused for a moment, “I think I’ll give it another five”, he said with smile.
Chuck: To expand on Eric’s comments about the GMC stage coaches in the movie version of “Maverick” and mine about the vintage GMC truck in “Murphy’s Romance” to maintain brand identity with Jim. In the late 1980s, I think, they did a TV remake of “Maverick” wherein Jim’s character owned a saloon/gambling parlor. We wanted to maintain the GMC identity with Garner, so, working with Luis Delgado, we arranged for the building next to the saloon to have a sign that read “General Mercantile Company” with the G, M, and C letters being much larger and darker than the others so you could plainly read GMC. I always got a kick out that.
All dealings were done on a handshake basis, which is unheard of in Hollywood. Most of the dealings were with Luis Delgado, Jim’s friend and partner. Luis played Officer Billings on Rockford. Jim worked with charities where they would raffle off small roles on “The Rockford Files”. Plus the winners had lunch with Jim.
Jim S: The Rockford Movies had GMC pickup trucks. Did Vista Group help get them for the movies?
Eric: If it was before 1998, yes.
Jim S: I have heard that several of the Firebirds and at least two pickups were sold to individuals connected to the show. Do you know anything about this?
Eric: If they were sold, they were sold through a dealer, but I don’t specifically recall.
Chuck: The vehicles from The Rockford Files were usually sold by GM at dealer auctions to local dealerships. In some cases, if someone wanted to purchase a vehicle, they would contact GM and they would set a price and if you wanted it, that is the price you paid.
I would like to thank both Eric and Chuck for their time and information on this story. They are both big James Garner and Rockford fans.