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Trans Am’s Fabulous 40

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

The history of Pontiac’s Famous Musclecar

The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (T/A) was introduced in 1969, and 2009 is its 40th anniversary. The T/A was the ultimate expression of GM’s sports-compact concept. It was a sporty, high-performance machine that evolved from racing.

In 1968, a Firebird with a special 302-cid Camaro V-8 was campaigned. Pontiac then developed a short-stroke 303-cid, 485-hp, tunnel port V-8, but built only 25 of these experimental engines. Production T/As looked like the sedan racer, but used a Ram Air 400 V-8 that was too big for the 5.0-liter racing formula. Pontiac did pay a $5 per car royalty to SCCA for the Trans Am name.

The first T/A was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show and released on March 8, 1969. The option included a heavy-duty three-speed gearbox with floor shift, 3.55:1 axle, glass-belted tires, heavy-duty shocks and springs, one-inch front stabilizer bar, power front discs, variable ratio power steering, engine air exhaust louvers, a spoiler, a black grille, full-length body stripes, white and blue finish, a leather covered steering wheel and special identification decals for $725. Pontiac’s L74 400 H.O. V-8 with 335 hp was under the hood. Prices were  $3,556 for the coupe (689 built) and $3,770 for a convertible, of which eight were made.

A completely new T/A made the ‘70 Chicago Auto Show. Changes included an Endura nose with two recessed grilles, single headlights, flush door handles and a smooth, clean, curvy body. Only a coupe was offered. The T/A had front air dams, spoilers, a shaker hood, side air extractors, a spoiler, aero mirrors, front/rear stabilizers, heavy-duty shocks and springs, an engine-turned dash, Rally gauges, hidden wipers, bucket seats, carpets, vinyl upholstery, power brakes and steering, 7x15-in. Rally wheels and F60-15 tires.

A 335-hp Ram Air 400 H.O. (Ram Air III) V-8 was standard. The base gearbox was a wide-ratio four-speed manual with Hurst shifter. Priced at $4,305, the T/A came only with white or blue finish with contrasting racing stripes. Only 3,196 were made.

Styling changes for ’71 were minor. High-back seats were new. Sticker price rose to $3,578 and production dropped to 2,116 units. The 455 H.O. with a four-barrel, 8.4:1 compression and 335 hp was standard, as was a heavy-duty three-speed with floor shift.  B.F. Goodrich’s “Tirebird” ran third at Watkins Glen.

The possibility of dropping the Firebird was raised in 1972 when changes were minimal. There was a new honeycomb grille and new interiors. The T/A was a great car for $4,256, but only 1,286 buyers agreed. Performance-wise a four-speed T/A could do the quarter mile in 14.3 seconds at 98 mph. The T/A was getting attention for being as fast or faster than the contemporary Corvette.

An improved Endura nose with an “egg-crate” grille met 1973 U.S. government crash standards. The T/A’s interior was redesigned with molded lower door panels. A big change this season was release of the optional ($55 extra) "chicken" or “big bird” hood graphics treatment by stylist John Schinella.

A hot Super-Duty 455 V-8 option evolved from Pontiac’s racing program. Not to be confused with the regular 455, SD 455s were low-compression, extra-horsepower V-8s made in limited quantities. Out of 4,802 T/As, only 252 were SD 455s. The 310-hp V-8 had reinforced webbing, big forged-steel con rods, special aluminum pistons, heavy-duty lubrication with dry sump pump provisions, a high-lift cam, four-bolt mains, a special intake, special dual exhausts and high-revving valve train goodies. An SD 455 tester did a quarter mile in an impressive 13.54 at 104.29 mph.

For 1974, Firebirds had a shovel nose, slotted taillights, a lower rear fender line and vertical grille blades. The standard engine was a 400-cid 225-net hp four-barrel V-8. The 455-cid 250-net hp L75 engine was optional. A rare option was the SD-455 engine. Pontiac built 4,664 T/As with the base 400 V-8, 4,648 regular 455s and 943 SD 455s. The latter sold for just a tad under $5,000.

Motor Trend made the Firebird “Car of the Year” and called it the “best combination of pure performance and handling in the U.S. Grand Touring market.” In a survey, 1,500 Japanese car enthusiasts picked the best car in the world and Firebird beat the Mustang by a slight margin––and whipped the ‘Vette.

For 1975, GM added catalytic converters. T/As got a new roof with a larger wraparound backlight. The grille had new rectangular running lamps. The $4,740 T/A had flares, air dams, air extractors, a shaker hood and hood decals. The biggest V-8 was initially a 400-cid 185-hp four-barrel. At midyear, a 455-cid 200-hp four-barrel H.O. V-8 was reinstated. It included a tuned exhaust system with dual “splitters” behind the converter. The 400 did 0-to-60 in 9.8 sec. and a 16.8-sec. quarter-mile. Pontiac built 26,417 T/As and 857 H.O. models.

The 1976 T/A had a twin-section grille with a mesh insert in a sloping front panel with single round headlamps in square bezels. All Firebirds featured body-colored urethane bumpers. Brake systems met new federal standards. Axle ratios were lowered for fuel economy and V-8s idled slower. There were upgrades to cooling and air conditioning. The seats had vertical ribbing, with tri-section seat backs. The door panels had twin, vertical ribbed sections. A brake fluid level sensor was new and Turbo-Hydra-Matic was required in California.

In February 1976, at the Chicago Automobile Show, Pontiac introduced the Limited Edition T/A priced at $5,553. It featured Starlight Black exterior body finish, gold pin striping, gold interior accents (including gold anodized instrument panel appliqués and gold steering wheel spokes), gold grilles, gold headlight liners, gold honeycomb wheel rims and other distinctions. The car was promoted as a commemorative edition for Pontiac Motor Division’s 50th anniversary.

The Limited Edition models were inspired by a 1974 show car themed after black-and-gold John Player racing cars. The package was designed by John Schinella and featured a big, gold hood “chicken.”  Hurst built the cars on an off-line basis and 643 had Hurst Hatch roofs. This T-top was devised for the 50th Anniversary Grand Prix, but there were problems adapting it to T/As. Production was delayed until April so only 25 percent of the Limited Editions had that roof.

CARS magazine named the 1976 T/A “Top Performance Car of the Year.” Editor Joe Oldham said it was the “best looking” T/A. In April 1976, Car and Driver wanted to find America’s fastest car. The 455 T/A finished second behind the L82 Corvette! The T/A had a top speed of 117.6 mph, it did 0-to-60 in seven seconds, and it ran the quarter mile in 15.6 seconds at 90.3 mph.  Pontiac built 37,016 base coupes and 7,099 H.O.s, Limited Edition cars were 1,628 and 533 T-tops with the 400 and 319 coupes and 110 T-tops with the 455.

New front-end styling for the ‘77 F-cars featured quad rectangular headlamps and an “aggressive” grille. The T/A package was again available. The Limited Edition T/A became the Black Special Edition, which had about the same features. Pontiac built 68,745 T/As. Of these, about 54,000 were base models and the rest were Special Editions. Total model-year production of Firebirds rose to a record 155,736 units and the big boom in T/A popularity really helped.

Burt Reynold’s 1977 cult film Smokey and the Bandit had given national exposure to a Trans Am, and Pontiac tried to capitalize on its popularity by featuring the actor, in his “Bandit” attire, in the centerfold of the 1981 Pontiac sales catalog.
Marking Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham’s initial try at film directing, the movie starred Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason. Bandit (Reynolds) played a decoy who tries to get a Sheriff (Gleason) to chase him so a bootlegger (Reed) can sneak by with a semi full of beer.

Needham and Reynolds were looking for shooting locations in Georgia and got invited to a Pontiac dealer meeting at Road Atlanta where the ’77 Trans Am was being shown. The duo took a few laps and decided they had their car star. Six 400-cid powered Trans Ams were used in the film, which was little more than a glorified car chase lasting an hour and a half.   

Smokey and the Bandit did not do much to help the Firebirds’ sagging model-year production, which came in at 20,541 base Firebirds, 10,938 Esprits, 5,927 Formulas and 33,493 Trans Ams. One thing driving sales down 34 percent may have been the price tag on the black-and-gold Special Edition Trans Am.

The summer 1981 release of a sequel movie called Smokey and the Bandit II—featuring a Turbo 4.9 Trans Am—prompted a New Jersey company called SLP (Street Legal Performance) to release a Trans Am Bandit model that had aftermarket upgrades like a 380-hp, 462-cid V-8, Doug Nash five-speed manual gearbox, Recaro seats, a Blaupunkt sound system and Goodyear Eagle GT tires for $30,000.

Car and Driver road tested a 1978 T/A with the 400-cid V-8 and Turbo-Hydra-Matic transmission and concluded that it was “very sophisticated and impeccably well mannered.” The car did 0-110 mph in 34.8 seconds. Total model-year production of Firebirds rose to another new record of 187,285 units. The T/A’s contribution took another big leap up to 93,341 units. What a contrast from the early 1970s!

The Black Special Edition was continued and a new Gold Special Edition was added at midyear. It came only with a new Fisher T-top roof and included Solar Gold exterior body finish, dark gold body striping, a dark gold and bronze “big bird” hood decal, a Camel Tan interior, gold snowflake aluminum wheels and the removable hatch roof. Pontiac built 7,786 with the 400-cid, 180-hp Pontiac L78 engine and 880 with the 403-cid 185-hp Olds L80 V-8. A hotter engine was the L78/W72 Pontiac T/A 6.6 V-8 with splitter exhaust that made 220 hp.

A third and final facelift for Gen II Firebirds came in 1979. Pontiac described it as “a broad new forefront cast in durable urethane.” Four-wheel disc brakes were a new T/A option. In a return to the past, raised white letter tires could be ordered as a separate option without the WS6 package. Engine options included the 4.9-liter four-barrel V-8 for a credit and the higher-performance T/A 6.6-liter four-barrel V-8 as a $90 option. Total production of Firebirds surpassed 200,000 units for the first time, and the T/A was built a record 117,108 times.

In addition to the ’79 Black Special Edition with gold striping and accents, gold aluminum wheels and a removable hatch roof, several collectible packages were released. A 10th Anniversary model was announced on Jan. 26, 1979 and bowed at the Chicago Automobile Show. It was shown there with four special concept cars and a T/A with a rear jet engine from the movie Hooper. It included all T/A features, plus a host of extras for $10,619. Most 10th Anniversary T/As had the base L80 (403-cid) V-8 with Turbo-Hydra-Matic, but a few were produced with the T/A 6.6 linked to a four-speed. A limited number of the 7,500 10th Anniversary T/As built were also Official Pace Car Replicas patterned after the car that paced the Daytona 500 stock car race on Feb. 18, 1979.

For 1980, Firebirds got lightweight dual exhausts and new low-friction ball joints. New options included dual front radio speakers, extended-range dual rear speakers and an ETC seek-and-scan radio. During the year a wheel cover lock package and audio power booster were added to the options. The electric clock now had a quartz mechanism. T/A engines included the L37 4.9-liter four-barrel V-8, a 5.0-liter V-8 in all California-built cars, and the 4.9-liter Turbo V-8. The gas crunch put a crunch on sales and only 50,896 T/As of all types were built.

The Black Special Edition returned with gaudier gold graphics and accents. A T/A Turbo 4.9 was available, which included a 301-cid (4.9-liter) V-8 with a TBO305 AiResearch turbocharger. The Turbo became the basis for a collectible (5,700 built) Indy Pace car with a white upper body and gray lower body, tri-color accent stripes, optional Indy 500 Pace Car door graphics, Oyster bucket seats and embroidered door pads. There was also a Turbo Daytona 500 Pace Car.

With small detail changes, the ’81 T/A included low-drag front discs, a quick-takeup master cylinder, an early fuel evaporation system, a lightweight side-terminal Freedom battery and GM Computer Command Control. A big roll-out of special packages included a Black Special Edition, a Turbo Black Special Edition, a Turbo, a Turbo 4.9 NASCAR Pace Car with black-and-red Recaro seats (2,000 made), and a Turbo 4.9 with Daytona 500 Pace Car door graphics.

All-new ultra-aerodynamic Firebirds joined the Pontiac lineup in January 1982. Available in three distinct models—sporty base coupe, performance-oriented T/A, and sophisticated luxury SE—each Firebird had its own identity. Base engine was a 2.5-liter EFI four, while the SE had a 2.8-liter V-6. T/As were powered by a 5.0-liter four-barrel V-8. A four-speed transmission was standard. Extensive wind tunnel testing on the Firebird resulted in an excellent drag coefficient that made it one of the most aerodynamic cars ever produced.

The Third-Generation Firebirds were a hit with critics, but production of T/As was modest: 52,960 in 1982, 31,930 in 1983, 55,374 in 1984, 44,028 in 1985, 48,870 in 1986, 32,890 in 1987 and just 20,007 in 1988. In 1989, Pontiac offered a low-volume T/A 20th Anniversary model utilizing the turbocharged, intercooled 3.8-liter V-6 from Buick’s Grand National. It was capable of 13.4-second quarter-mile times, and was one of the quickest cars built in the 1980s. However production of the flagship Firebird fell to 15,358, and hit 2,507 the next year. In the spring of 1990 the Firebird took on its new “1991” look, but it didn’t help much. Despite more muscle and an exterior overhaul to improve aerodynamics, the sales picture was bleak at just  6,343 T/As.

The fourth-generation Firebird arrived in 1993 with only a coupe. It had a 68-degree windshield, new aluminum wheels, new tires, composite body panels, new instruments, new suspensions and a standard 3.4-liter V-6. A new 5.7-liter LT1 V-8 was used in T/As, which had a six-speed manual transmission. Advanced four-wheel ABS was standard with four-wheel disc brakes on Formulas and T/As.

In 1994, a convertible returned in each series. The T/A ragtop came as a GT. New features included Dark Aqua Metallic paint, floodlit interiors, visor straps, Delco 2001 radios, CD players, and a 5.7-liter SFI V-8. On Jan. 27, 1994, Pontiac announced a special model to honor the silver anniversary of the T/A.

The 25th Anniversary Edition T/A included Bright White exterior finish, a bright blue center stripe, anniversary logos and door badges, lightweight 16-in. aluminum wheels painted Bright White, and white Prado leather seats with blue 25th Anniversary embroidery. Buyers received a special 25th Anniversary portfolio when they picked up a car. As a special nod to Trans Am history, PMD headquarters announced that it would build a very limited number of 25th Anniversary T/A GT convertibles to honor the eight famous T/A ragtops made when the sports-performance model was first released in mid-1969.

Pontiac’s lone rear-wheel-drive model for 1995 was offered as a coupe or convertible in three series, including T/A. The Canadian-built F-cars had several changes like traction control with V-8s and either manual or automatic transmission, three new exterior colors and two new leather interiors. Also new were 16-in., five-spoke aluminum wheels, speed-rated tires, a power antenna, a four-spoke Sport steering wheel and a remote CD changer.

A V-6 was the standard for 1996 Firebirds, but an optional WS6 Ram Air Performance and Handling package for Formula and T/A coupes with the 5.7-liter V-8 was big news for enthusiasts. T/A models and engines for 1997 were carryovers. A Ram Air Performance and Handling kit was offered for ragtops.

For 1998, T/As got a new, all-aluminum 5.7-liter LS1 V-8 making 305 hp, along with a six-speed manual transmission. A Ram Air package provided 320 hp. Styling was freshened with a front fascia that incorporated a new headlamp design. There were updated taillights, too. V-8s with four-speed automatic transmissions had a larger torque converter and all Firebirds got standard four-wheel disc brakes.

The Firebird section of the 1999 Pontiac sales catalog was the same as in the 1998 catalog, but a new 30th Anniversary Limited Edition T/A added a little distinction to the year’s offerings.

In the little-changed 2000 Firebird line, T/As were available with new 17-in. wheels as part of a Ram Air package.  Things continued about the same in 2001. For 2002, Pontiac advertised “Pontiac Excitement. Pass It On,” but on Sept. 25, 2001, GMs announced that it would stop selling Firebirds due to slow sales. A $3,000-plus 35th anniversary package was released to help spur sales, which were down 28 percent through August 2001. The plant that built Firebirds and Camaros, in Ste. Therese, Quebec Canada, closed in the fall of 2002.

Through Trans Am’s storied history, it was always regarded as a special and high-powered vehicle. Though later model years didn’t have the knockout styling of their predecessors, LS1 engines delivered stunning horsepower (340-plus flywheel was common, despite lower official ratings), and the quickest models delved into the 12-second zone bone stock. No one knows if Trans Am will ever return, but it had a hell of a run.

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