The last real Trans Am – and the end for Pontiac

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Let’s dial back the clock a quarter century and return to the early days of the Reagan Era – when Pontiac made a last-ditch effort to keep the Trans-Am from becoming a re-skinned Camaro powered by the same Chevy-built V-8 found under other the hood of its sister “F” car. 

The Pontiac-built 400 that powered the TA during its Great Days in the mid-late ’70s (when hundreds of thousands were made each year) was gone – killed off by GM corporate over concerns about fuel economy and complying with federal emissions rules. The big V-8, which dated back to 1955, needed an update – but GM didn’t want to spend money on it – so no more were made after 1978 and the last ones (left over in inventory) were installed in a few lucky 1979 Trans-Ams (and even fewer Formulas). 

Rolling into the 1980 model year, the Trans-Am was in real danger of being seen as a toothless, over-heavy Gimp. 

Its only engine choices were a Chevy-built 305 or the flimsy little 4.9 liter 301 V-8, the last Pontiac-made V-8 still being manufactured. The downsized 301 had been conceived as an “economy” engine for lower-caste Pontiacs. It had only a two-barrel carburetor (originally) a very low compression ratio and a block and heads made of relatively fragile, lightweight materials – all intended to take weight off the front end of the cars into which it would be installed – and to reduce fuel consumption. 

No thought was given to the 301 as a potential performance engine – at least when it was conceived.

But by 1980, Pontiac had no other V-8 of its own to work with, and if the Trans-Am was to remain respectable – and Pontiac powered – Pontiac would have to work with the 301. 

Turbocharging, at that time, was becoming somewhat popular as a way to goose the output of a smaller engine “on demand” while keeping the fuel economy reasonable the rest of the time. Buick, in particular, had done a lot of work in this area and was having some success with its turbocharged 3.8 liter V-6 engine – a powerplant that would become famous (and feared) by the mid-late ’80s in cars like the Buick Regal Grand National and GNX.

Buick’s efforts probably inspired engineers within Pontiac to consider turbocharging the 301 V-8,  which circa 1979 was producing just 150 horsepower. 

A specially reinforced block and other internal improvements laid the foundation. A unique cam was installed – and of course, turbo-specific exhaust plumbing, along with a low-restriction dual outlet exhaust system similar to the earlier “T/A 6.6″ 400 V-8s.  

Capping it off was an AIR Research turbo that fed compressed air to the engine through a specially calibrated Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carb. 

This resulted in 210 hp at 4,000 RPM and even better, 345 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2,000 RPM. 

On paper, this looked really solid. The 301 turbo’s rated output was only 10 hp off the rated output of the old “T/A 6.6″ 400 V-8 (220 hp) despite the deficit of 100 cubic inches of displacement. And the 301 turbo’s rated torque output was actually higher – and came on sooner (345 lbs.-ft. at 2,000 RPM vs. 320 lbs.-ft. at 2,800) than the 400′s. 

Actual performance, therefore, ought to be very close, ’79 vs. ’80. 

Maybe even better, given the torque advantage. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t shake out that way. For one, the actual power output of the  “T/A 6.6″ 400 was (like the earlier ’73-’74 SD-455) almost certainly underrated. The published peak hp of 220 and the 4,000 pound ’78-’79 TA’s factory stock low 15 second quarter miles times and 130-plus top end speed don’t line up. The car’s performance indicates the The 400 V-8 was probably making closer to 270 honest hp. The 301 turbo’s 210 hp rating was much more realistic  given the 1980 Trans-Am’s 16 second quarter mile time and top speed of just under 120 mph, all out. 

The turbocharged Trans Am suffered another handicap, too. It was not offered with a manual transmission – whereas the ’79 400 had only been sold with a 4-speed manual. The reason? Pontiac, despite its best efforts, could not “emissions certify” the 301 with a manual transmission. (In the days before engine management controls and especially, electronic fuel injection, getting a manual-equipped car through the certification process was very difficult.) 

The best Pontiac could do was fit a “performance calibrated” three-speed Turbohydramatic automatic to the car. 

Another problem with the 301 turbo was that it was carbureted. Carbs and turbos don’t work well together – chiefly because carbs can’t meter the fuel as precisely and also because the turbo must “blow through” the carburetor – and carbs are by design intended to operate under vacuum, not boost. 

The final nail in the 301′s coffin was its not-ready-for-prime-time electronic controls. 

Like early jet engines, the 301 turbo was still going through its teething phase when it was put into a production car. It actually did have a great deal of potential, but that was hard to see through the enfeebled performance (even when things were working right). 

Had Pontiac been given time to massage the technology, the 301 turbo almost certainly would have matured into one of the most formidable performance engines of the ’80s. Doubters should look across the aisle to the miracles Buick eventually worked with the 3.8 liter turbocharged V-6. EFI, intercooling and digital controls turned this engine into the most powerful production engine GM made in the mid-late ’80s, when it was installed in Regal Grand Nationals and the 1989 20th anniversary Trans-Am. 

These were cars capable of low 13 second quarter mile times and 150 mph top speeds right off the showroom floor. Indeed, the ’89 20th Anniversary Trans-Am equipped with the turbo Buick V-6 engine was the first Trans-Am in 15 years to beat the performance stats of the V-8 powered ’73-’74 SD-455 Trans-Am.

Pontiac clearly hoped it would get the chance to develop the 301 to its full potential. And for a brief moment, it seemed as though that was going to happen. 

When the redesigned third generation 1982 Trans-Am appeared, it had an offset “turbo bulge” hood scoop, just like the ’80-’81 Turbo Trans Am. The car’s front subframe was designed to accommodate the Pontiac V-8, too. In the smaller, much lighter third generation Trans Am, a 250-300 hp turbocharged 301 would have been a tremendous performer. Probably, it would have been quicker and faster than the Buick Regal Grand National given the same advances in EFI/intercooling but with two more cylinders and more displacement to bring to bear  - in a more aerodynamic and lighter package.  

A five-speed equipped, mid-1980s Turbo Trans-Am would have been a memorable ride. And with a real Pontiac V-8 under its hood, it would have retained its Pontiac personality – as well as assured its future collectibility.

And very possibly, the survival of Pontiac. 

Unfortunately, GM management decided to kill the development of the Pontiac V-8 altogether. The 301 would be the last-ever Pontiac V-8. 

Beginning with the ’82 model year, all Firebirds from that day forward to the final year of production in 2002 would have the same engines as the Chevy Camaro. That meant from ’82-up, there was no meaningful difference under the hood between a Camaro Z28 and a Trans-Am. 

It has become a “Pontiac” in name only. 

Arguably, this is the thing that eventually killed off the Firebird line itself. And eventually, Pontiac too.

After all, why bother with the (so-called) Pontiac when the same car was being sold for less money at the Chevy store? It’s true there were exterior and interior differences, but these were superficial. The Pontiac’s still-beating heart had been ripped out of its engine bay – and the transplanted Chevy mill could never provide more than artificial life support. 

It’s sad to ponder what might have been.

Had Pontiac been given the chance to work out the 301′s bugs, not only might the Trans-Am have survived to the present day, but Pontiac itself might have also. By taking away its unique, Pontiac-built V-8, General Motors took away the fundamental quality that made a Pontiac different – and thus, desirable. It took away the reason for people to buy a Pontiac – since without a unique, Pontiac-built engine, the cars it was selling were just rebadged Chevys and Buicks.

Eventually, people stopped caring.

And that was the end of Pontiac.

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  4 comments for “The last real Trans Am – and the end for Pontiac

  1. Tom Pilcher
    March 30, 2012 at 7:31 am

    I actually owned a 1980 Trans Am with a carbureted 301 V8, and it was a pretty good ride. That is, until that performance tuned automatic tranyy gave out. Desperate for a better solution than just pushing another 350TH into the hole, I went to the local salvage yard and managed to purchase all the parts I needed to turn the TA from automatic to manual transmission. All I could afford at first was a little Saginaw 4-speed, and it did alright for about a year. By that time I had lucked onto someone with a Borg-Warner Super T-10 setup, and it was back to the garage for the weekend. The new tranny really woke the little 4.9, and I was putting down some good rubber for the first time since I owned the car. If I ever get lucky enough to find another one, I’d definitely do it all over again!

    • March 30, 2012 at 9:36 am

      Great car!

      If I recall correctly, Pontiac did offer a factory four speed (manual) with the non-turbo 301; they’re pretty rare. The 301 gets gets a lot negative press – but to be fair, it wasn’t given time to mature. Pontiac intended to develop it further – the third gen. ’82 Trans-Am was originally designed to be powered by the 301 turbo – but GM killed off Pontiac’s V-8 engine program. It had a number of advantages, including being much lighter than the old 400. But because it was conceived (originally) as an economy-minded engine, it didn’t do very well as a performance engine – in factory stock trim, anyhow.

      It’s too bad..

  2. Chase200mph
    June 29, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    I have a 1981 WS6 Turbo right now and I’ve been fighting with myself as what to do with the car. Thanks to your insight I’ve decided to keep and restore this rare bird eventually. It’s not in the greatest of shape (though rust free), but it runs and a turbo rebuild will make it drivable. Again, thanks for the insight and historical support.

    • June 29, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      Hi Chase,

      I suspect a large percentage of the ’80-’81 turbo TAs have been attrited by time and neglect; it’s rare to see a restored one these days – or even a decent driver.

      Good to hear you’ll be saving this one!

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