That’s about as rare as rare gets!
In that first year of production, the option code for the Trans-Am coupe was UPC WS-4, for which you paid an extra $724.60 over the price of the base Firebird. As originally envisioned, the Trans-Am was supposed to have been powered by a Pontiac-built 303 cubic inch engine, to comply with now-defunct Trans-Am race series rules regarding maximum engine displacement (the 1967-’69 Camaro Z28 had a 302 cubic-inch small block Chevy V-8). Five liters was the max allowed. But Pontiac didn’t have a small V-8 and development problems with the stillborn 303 project resulted in all production 1969 Trans-Ams being equipped with 400 cubic-inch V-8s, making them, ironically, ineligible to compete in the race after which they’d been named.
Two versions of the Pontiac 400 were offered.
Standard was the L-74 code engine, rated 335 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. If that didn’t do it for you, option code UPC L-67 would get you the sideways burnout special – the Ram Air IV 400, complete with forged high compression pistons, aggressive camshaft, 4 bolt main bearing caps, high flow “round port” cylinder heads and header-style exhaust manifolds.
Customers could go manual or automatic – and enjoyed such amenities as power steering, windows and even air conditioning – a muscle car rarity. The early TA was much more luxurious than the early Z28, a tradition that would continue for many years to come.
The Pontiac engine’s virtue , meanwhile, was its ability ot generate pavement-rippling low end torque while retaining better driveability than the more high-strung Chevy 302 small block that powered the early Z28.
In 1971, the second year of the restyled “second generation” Firebird, Pontiac dropped the high- compression 400 but compensated by upping the displacement of the Trans-Am’s standard V-8 engine. The mighty 455 HO had round port, high-flow heads, the Ram Air III camshaft, cast-iron headers and – for 1971 and 1972 – a working shaker hood scoop. A vacuum-actuated flapper door at the rear of the scoop would open under full throttle to feed the big V-8 cooler outside air. The 455 HO would power the Trans-Am into the early 1970s with 335 gross horsepower (305 under the then-new “net” horsepower ratings).
The number of cars built was still low, however, with total production ranging from 2,116 in 1971 to just under 10,000 in 1974, which was the final year, incidentally, for what many consider to be the last true muscle car – the 290-hp SD-455 Trans-Am.
“SD” stood for “super duty” and the engines were among the most powerful ever factory installed by Pontiac. They featured provisions for dry-sump oiling and had numerous upgrades (and parts) specific to these engines only – including higher-flow Quadrajet carburetors that differed in several key respects from the Q-Jets used on other Pontiac V-8s.
SD-455 Trans-Ams could run the quarter mile in the low 13-second range, a figure that would not be bested by a Firebird for more than 20 years. By this year, too, the TA could be ordered in various color combos, not just the former white with blue accent (or blue with white accents) used on the early second generation cars.
Strangely, the dread year 1975 – the first year of “catastrophic converters” and the year when the Trans-Am was effectively de-plumed (the SD-455 was gone; initially, the strongest available engine was a pretty sorry low-compression 400 rated at 185 measly hp ) – sales shot upward to almost 30,000 units. Mid-year, Pontiac brought back the 455 HO – only it wasn’t really high output anymore. Standard D-port heads, low (7.6:1) compression) and single exhaust. But still, the car looked great and by the standards of the time, its performance was acceptable.
By 1979 – the high water mark – Pontiac was selling almost 100,00 Trans-Ams alone.
Total Firebird sales were about 250,000 – a monster number for a specialty car.
In 1976, to celebrate Pontiac’s 50th year in business, the first black and gold limited edition Trans-Ams – code Y-81 – went on sale. These cars featured black exterior paint with gold German style lettering and an enormous gold hood bird — a combination that proved immensely popular and became the basis for the 1977-81 black and gold special editions.
The package was immortalized forever by Burt Reynolds in the classic 1977 film, Smokey and the Bandit.
Power came from either base 185 hp 400 inch engine or, in short supply, the very last 455 cubic inch engines ever to be factory installed in a Firebird. There was no “HO” after the “455″ badges on the shaker scoop but still,Pontiac tried to infuse as much performance as was possible, given the times. The 455 could only be had with a manual transmission and put power to the pavement through a 3:23 geared axle. Power output, though seemingly meager at just 200hp, was impressive for the day and made the ’76 455 Trans-Am the second fastest new car in America, just a tick slower than the L-82 Chevy Corvette.
With a few backyard modifications – such as removing the block off plate that the factory installed on the shaker scoop (which restored the scoop’s scoop), throwing away the gimpy factory exhaust system and catalytic converter (which you could get way with back then) and replacing it with headers ad true dual exhaust, the 455 TA’s power could be bumped up to 230 or so and all of a sudden, you had a fast car on your hands.
According to the files, 2,400 total 50th Anniversary LE cars were built, 643 with Hurst T-Tops – code Y-82 – another new Trans-Am feature that became quite popular during the ensuing years, despite leakage problems.
In 1979, a loaded to its shaker hood scoop 10th Anniversary (for the Trans-Am) silver and gray trimmed car was offered for sale. The body code was X-87, and listed for $10,619.55 – with dealers often asking twice that. And getting it.
For parting with all that coin, you got special two-tone paint (silver with charcoal accents and red pinstripes) plus an extra large hood bird with wings that overlapped onto the front fenders, silver tinted T-Tops, 15×8 inch aluminum wheels, silver leather seats with specially embroidered birds in five colors sewn into the door panels and rear seat divider, red instrument lighting, air conditioning, digital AM/FM stereo radio with 8-track tape player (that was high ticket stuff back then), power locks, windows and trunk, rear defrost and, to top it off, a silver leather wrapped “Formula” steering wheel. You could also specify the very last of the big-cube Pontiac V-8s. Production of the 400 was ceased in 1978 but Pontiac held over a relative handful of these engines for the ’79 model run. These “T/A 6.6 liter” 400s were – like the ’75-’76 455s – only sold teamed up with the 4-speed manual transmission and 3.23 rear gears. Most ’79 TAs – special editions and otherwise – came through with the less desirable, less powerful 185 hp Oldsmobile-sourced 403 V-8. These cars can be identified by the “6.6 litre” (note spelling) callouts on the shaker scoop. Pontiac used the Olds engine because it at least had the cubic inches (if not the power) that people had come to expect in a Trans-Am.
In 1980, both the Pontiac 400 and the Olds 403 were gone. You could still get a Pontiac-built engine, though. Ironically, Pontiac now had a 5 liter V-8 that would have been eligible for Trans-Am racing back in 1969. Unfortunately, the little 301 was designed as a lightweight economy V-8, not a performance V-8. Still, Pontiac did what it could, by adding a turbocharger to the 301, which bumped the power up to a not-too-bad 210 hp (200 in 1981). But the engine was limited by primitive electronic controls, the use of a carburetor rather than fuel injection, a very restrictive exhaust and the TA’s curb weight – which by this time crested two tons. As always, though, the cars looked great – especially the off-center hood scoop (which replaced the center-mounted shaker scoop). It had three light bars to inform the driver how much boost was being generated.
Sadly, Pontiac was never allowed to further develop the 301 turbo – which could have become a contender, given time.
After 1981, all Trans-Ams came with Chevrolet-built engines – which arguably contributed to the car’s falling popularity and utlimately, its demise after 2002.
From 1982 onward, the Firebird Trans-Am had become for all practical purposes a rebadged Camaro Z28.
Though popularity surged again in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, it was never quite the same. The massive popularity of the late 1970s was never recaptured. Just before GM pulled the plug, combined Firebird and Camaro sales totaled about 30,000 vehicles annually – less than Trans-Am production all by itself in 1976. Ford’s Mustang outsold the Firebird/Camaro combined by a ratio of 3-1.
It was a good run, though.
And the memory of the “screaming chicken” will live for decades to come.