CONCORD, N.C. (Aug. 23, 1999) – People tend to mellow with age, but the Pontiac Trans Am, which reaches the “Big 3-0″ this year, has only gotten nastier. The flashy T/A’s birthday will be celebrated through a special display at Lowe’s Motor Speedway’s Food Lion AutoFair, Sept. 16-19.
The Trans Am was born of Pontiac’s desire to have a hard-charging competitor in its stable to run with Ford’s Boss Mustang, Chevrolet’s Z-28 Camaro, Dodge’s R/T and a handful of other tire-smoking, growling, snarling musclecars.
When Pontiac introduced its Firebird in 1967, the horsepower wars were just mild skirmishes compared to what was to come. The Firebird was an attractive, sporty two-door designed around the long hood/short rear format made popular by the Mustang. Engine choices included everything from a sedate inline six-cylinder to a muscular Ram Air 400-cid V-8.
As competition for buyers’ dollars increased, Pontiac began developing a version of its ‘Bird that would grab everybody’s attention. The new model, introduced March 8, 1969, was called Trans Am after the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans-American Challenge Cup in which it was intended to race. During development of the car, Pontiac decided to kill the special 303-cid engine that would have given its new model legitimate entry to that series and instead offered a Ram Air III 400-cid/335-hp V-8 or a 345-hp Ram Air IV. (Firebirds did race in the Trans Am series, but those were Canadian-built cars that ran Chevrolet’s 302-cid V-8s.)
Cosmetic additions were surprisingly subtle for such a powerful performance vehicle, with only a small rear wing, twin narrow stripes running over the top of the car, low-profile scoops on the hood and front fenders and a tiny “Trans Am” decal the only clues to the car’s beastly nature. All 697 T/As produced were Cameo White with Lucerne Blue stripes that first year, and only eight convertibles were made.
The Firebird was completely redesigned for the ’70 model year, evolving from a Mustang clone to something that looked like it should be wearing Jaguar or Ferrari badges. This low-slung, second-generation ‘Bird was the platform for what would eventually become the most famous Trans Am of all — the black and gold ’77 “Bandit” car.
From ’70 to ’73 the Trans Am developed into a real supercar, reaching its performance pinnacle with the 455-cid big-block SD (“Super Duty”) powerplant that was capable of pushing the pointy ‘Bird through the quarter-mile at a terminal speed of more than 103 mph.
During that same period, the car’s cosmetic package began evolving along more flamboyant, less subtle, lines. The small, stylized flame-throwing bird emblem that covered the original T/A’s gas filler door grew to the point that its wingspan spread across the entire hood. Air-cheating ground effects, spoilers, hood scoops and fender-mounted air extractors screamed “Wanna race?”
Despite the car’s reputation for speed and sex appeal, the T/A only sold around 12,000 units in its first four years of production combined. In an amazing twist of fortunes that proves the virtue of perseverance, the American auto industry went through a firestorm called the Arab oil embargo and the gas-guzzling, tire-squealing Trans Am drove out the other side a hero.
Automotive historians consider 1974 to be the end of the musclecar era, when nearly every automaker either watered down its performance cars or ceased model production entirely. Ford neutered and miniaturized its Mustang; Chevrolet dropped the Z-28 from its Camaro family; the Barracuda and Challenger became footnotes in Mopar history books. With long lines at gas stations and prices for fuel doubling and tripling, people just weren’t interested in going zero to 60 in six seconds if it meant getting 12 miles per gallon.
Pontiac must have realized that the Trans Am would have the macho car market to itself with the competition gone because the T/A returned in ’74 with a redesigned front and rear. The company had to make some concessions to the reality of the economic times, which meant the end of the high-output 455-cid big-block V-8 supercar engine options. The 400-cid V-8, also known as the 6.6-liter, became the most powerful engine option. Flying in the face of logic and traditional economic theory, sales of the gas-thirsty T/A reached a new high, selling more than 10,000 copies that year.
During the next couple of years, while the T/A’s performance continued to decline, its appearance became increasingly garish and the public bought more and more of the “screaming chicken cars.”
The real spike in sales, however, came with the car’s big movie role. In ’77, Burt Reynolds and a black, T-topped Trans Am drove from Georgia to Texas and back in 18 hours in “Smokey and the Bandit.” Along the way, the rambunctious Pontiac outran about 100 law enforcement officers and played rabbit for a shipment of bootleg Coors beer being hauled in an 18-wheeler by Jerry Reed. The film was probably responsible for a considerable amount of Trans Am sales through the next five years — especially black ones.
In ’82, Pontiac offered a completely new, third-generation Firebird and Trans Am. Gone were the disco-era graphics as well as the early ’70s high-performance engines. The screaming chicken decals — when ordered — were quite small and unobtrusive but so were the motors. The biggest powerplant available was a 305-cid (5.0-liter) V-8. While trim and stylish, the new T/A was still a few years away from the musclecar renaissance that would kick in toward the end of the ’80s.
During the next decade, the American automakers used exotic and innovative technologies to create a new breed of musclecars that were every bit as exciting as their ’60s counterparts but with modern necessities, lower emissions and less than half the fuel consumption. The Trans Am additionally benefited from powertrain development first engineered for its corporate cousin, the Corvette.
The fourth-generation Firebird was introduced in 1993, sporting the most aggressive styling and sexiest curves Pontiac had ever put into production. Combining the clean good looks with a couple of high-performance engine options made the new Trans Am a hit among the go-fast crowd.
The T/A’s evolution has culminated in the 30th anniversary model — a special limited-edition version of its ’99 Trans Am. With a 346-cid (5.7-liter) Corvette-derived, all-aluminum V-8 sitting under its low hood, the car cranks out 320 horsepower when equipped with Ram Air induction. Transmission choices include a four-speed automatic or six-speed manual. All 1,065 anniversary coupes and 535 convertibles are available only in the original T/A’s white and blue paint scheme.
Compared to the ’69 model, the new T/A is more spaceship than musclecar. It will run zero-to-60 in less than six seconds and get 26 miles per gallon of 91-octane unleaded on the highway. The driver is completely surrounded by power accessories and computerized controls. Both driver and passenger are protected by dual airbags. Eight speakers and 500 watts of audio power deliver realistic concert sound — whether it’s Johann Sebastian Bach or Smashing Pumpkins.
The famous flaming screaming chicken appears no less than a dozen times on the special ‘Bird’s birthday car.
To illustrate and honor the legend of the sportiest Pontiac, the Food Lion AutoFair will display “30 Years of Trans Ams,” with four generations and three decades represented.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205.