A Trans-Am Retrospective

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People often think of the Pontiac Trans-Am as a commonplace car. But in 1969, the very first year, only 697 were built – just eight of them convertibles. All were white with blue stripes.

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.

RA IV Trans-Ams are among the most collectible Firebirds – and the rarest.

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.

So it wasn’t a surprise when GM dropped the ‘Bird – and a few years later, Pontiac itself.

It was a good run, though.

And the memory of the “screaming chicken” will live for decades to come.

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  14 comments for “A Trans-Am Retrospective

  1. March 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Completely by accident, I bought one of the early ’70 & 1/2 Trans-Ams (blue w/ white stripes) at a dealer in Portland, Or. This car had the super rare Tunnel Port Ram Air V engine. I paid $4,200 for it and today, in excellent condition, is worth about $80 grand. The motor was built to drag race and in stock form off the showroom floor, the car was 12.2 in the quarter. An automatic, I had the transmission rebuilt by a guy who had won Superstock automatic at the ’69 Winternationals, and the TA’s times dropped to 11.9. Damn, I wish I still had that car!

    Gary

    • March 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm

      Wow, Gary – I’d still be kicking myself today for letting that car go!

  2. beerdude67
    March 27, 2012 at 12:13 am

    Wow! I didn’t think the RA V ever made it into production. I think that engine was put into two cars, but I have no idea where they are. I had a ’74 SD-455 auto for a while, but traded it for an ’86 SVO Mustang. I am not sorry I made that trade. The car is beautiful, but not very refined.

    • March 27, 2012 at 9:43 am

      I don’t think it did…. my books (and everything I’ve read about it over the past 20-plus years) indicate that the RA V was never a regular production engine. The only way to get it in a Trans-Am was to order it over the counter and put it in yourself. It’s possible that one or two were made as factory racers for some connected lucky person.

      SVO Mustangs: I remember them! I always liked the looks (especially the off-center air scoop). It’s too bad they weren’t developed further – kind of like the ’80-’81 Turbo Trans Am!

  3. beerdude67
    March 28, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Right, the RA V was never put into production. I heard that a couple of them (all aluminum) made it into a couple of cars that were used for drag racing. I think the RA V program was shelved by Pontiac in ’69 or ’70. It was taken off of the shelf in ’72 (I think, but I can’t verify) for the SD-455 project. That, of course is not aluminum and really watered down.

    • March 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

      From what I’ve read and heard, the SD-455 was a much better engine – for a street car. Relatively mild (Quadrajet carburetor, hydraulic cam) but still capable of low 13 second passes right out of the box – and high 12s with a little tuning. For ’73-’74, this was incredible! Even the later “smog” 400s were pretty much the strongest/best-performing engines of their time. A 220 hp “T/A 6.6″ 400 Trans-Am or Formula was 30-40 hp stronger than the same-year Z28 and as powerful as the L-82 Corvette.

      Too bad Pontiac’s engine program got killed. I’ve always maintained this was the beginning of the end for Pontiac itself.

  4. Kirk
    August 2, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I still own my 72 T/a after 35 years or so. To say that older muscle cars aren’t fast is not a true statement. Yes there are many cars called muscle cars, but the high end of the range is still fast today, and with some mods they will blow the doors off the new so called muscle cars. Ram air II firebirds from 67 are an example. Look to the pure stock racing for what I mean…

    The super duty cars are neat, but they are slower than the 455 HO cars. they weigh in at more than 250lds heavier as the bumper laws changed in 73 and made them heavy. Yes they were a tougher otor capable of more abuse, but made no more power than the HO’s of the 71,72 time fame.

    Lots of old muscle cars are faster now than when new as the owners took to raising the performance over the years. In the so called shoot outs, I notice only bone stock babied museum pieces are being matched with the new cars. Let some of my buddies or me loose with our modifided cars and see who’s ass gets kicked. We will BEAT our cars to win, not baby them and loose..

    Regards, Kirk

    • August 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      Hi Kirk,

      Great car!

      And: Yeah, I hear you. My ’76 is plenty quick… after some work,of course:

      RA III cam, RA III (repro) cast iron headers; late 6X heads (W72, T/A 6.6), MSD box and, tuned Q-jet and 3.90 gears out back.

      On the 455 HO being significantly stronger than the SD-455:

      According to the official numbers, there’s a 15 hp difference in favor of the 455 HO: 305 net vs. 290 for the SD. (310 – supposedly – for the very early ’73 SDs, before they had to swap to a less aggressive cam to meet smog).

      But both engines were likely under-rated. It’d be neat to take two bone stock examples and dyno them in factory-delivered condition.

      The 1/4 mile numbers I’ve got in Lamm’s Fabulous Firebird (well-regarded by Pontiac people) has the ’73 SD (automatic) running a 13.8 at 103.6 MPH. My other books list the ’71-’72 455 HO running in the same ballpark.

      With slicks and some tuning, these cars (both the SD and the 455 HO) could get into the high 12s – which is still solid, even by today’s benchmarks.

      But of course, then they’re not stock!

      • Kirk
        August 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm

        But the new “Stock” cars are equipted with tubular headers from the get go…

        A 67 Ram Air II firebird in pure stock (Glued track factory tires) has set a new record this summer, deep in the 11′s…Besting big block Vett’s and Hemi anything out there. He runs a Cliff Ruggles quadrajet on it…Cliff did my 455 H.O. carb for me as well…

        Bear in mind these engines in pure stock are able to take advantage of production tolerances to maximise HP. They are dyno tuned as well. But compare this to a modern engine, cut on CNC equiptment, one with a computer and see how crude they are. To be this fast takes torque and big cubes, and sadly they are still lacking in most of todays “muscle cars”

        Small engines with peeky power bands are not as much fun as a stump pulling Pontiac 400/455…Nor as fast in most steet situations…

        Regards, Kirk

        • BrentP
          August 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm

          A production part, even when machined on CNC equipment is not as exacting as parts made with attention to detail (using CNC or not) and the labor that goes with that.

          Now while a modern engine would not benefit as much percentage wise from the same sort of make it absolutely perfect treatment, it would benefit.

          There’s also more horsepower in the engines than the factory programming allows. Now provided that this class allows for things like ignition timing and so forth to be changed then a software change would also be fair.

          • BrentP
            August 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm

            OOps I thought this comment was in the muscle-cars-slow thread…

        • August 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm

          “But the new “Stock” cars are equipped with tubular headers from the get go…”

          Sure! But that’s stock – for them. Which goes back to my original point: In stock form, the original era stuff (most of it it) was not as quick in stock form as the current-era stuff. Once you start blueprinting and dyno-tuning, you’ve got a modified car. One not representative of the factory production car’s performance as delivered.

          The majority of the cars from the original era ran in the 14s and 13s – stock.

          Very few posted ETs in the 12s – and those that did were very high strung, not suitable for everyday street driving.

          Today, you can take a new CTS-V that makes almost 600 (honest) hp and drive the thing in heavy traffic, back and forth to work every day.

          Try that in a Hemi ‘Cuda or AC Cobra!

          And: If we’re going to go by the performance capability of a tuned/blueprinted classic era car then it’s only fair to allow the modern car to be tuned, too. So, reflashed computer or “chip” it. Tweak the thing for maximum performance. How much more hp (and performance) do you suppose you’d get out of something like the CTS-V?

          And of course, then you’d have the performance numbers for that particular car, modified that particular way. Again, not representative of the performance as delivered of the factory-stock version.

          Just my 50 –

  5. Kirk
    August 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    BTW, My 72 has a Doung Nash 5 Speed and 2.73 rear gears. First gear is 3.26, and 5th is not an overdrive, but 1:1.

    It’s still deaper than the 2.26 1st and 3.42rear gear, and I have so much more top end as well. Plus the milage is good at 18-19 mpg. Much more modern gearing than stock.

    I have 1LE 12.5″ front brakes and discs in the rear as well. Composite rear springs replaced the steel behind the Moroso frame connectors. Graphite impreg bushings in the front suspension, Koni shocks, stock sway bars are 1 1/4″ forn and 15/16″ rear, in poly bushings.

    Warren Brownfield ported heads and a stout but old Comp Cams camshaft. Ported manifolds to match the heads. Needle bearing converted HEI and 80 psi oil pump. Crower rods and TRW pistons.

    All balanced internally and blue printed 25 years ago…

    Never ran a drag, but when I was auto crossing with the SCCA they would ask me to do a lap and make sure the course was such that I couldn’t hit 100 MPH….Many times they had to change things…

    Regards, Kirk

    • August 5, 2012 at 9:27 pm

      I have a 2004R in mine, which (IIRC) has a .67 final (OD) ratio. The RPMs at 70 are around 2,200 – that’s with 3.90 gears in back. Very drivable.

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