Few know that the Pontiac Firebird was born as a result of a family feud. After General Motors rejected John DeLorean’s pitch for Pontiac to add a two-seat sports car—based on the Banshee concept car—to its lineup, DeLorean persisted and the automaker agreed to come to a compromise with its beloved performance brand and include Pontiac in the F-car program, alongside the Chevrolet Camaro. Thus, the Pontiac Firebird joined the GM family—and the pony car market—in 1967, five months after the Camaro, its cousin, though the cars looked (and behaved) a lot more like brothers, especially in the early years.
Firebird vs. Camaro – the Ultimate Family Feud
For at least its first decade on the market, the Firebird was often compared to its cousin especially because it wore Chevrolet hand-me-downs, including Camaro sheet metal. But, with the later introduction of Trans Am models into the Firebird family, and a following all its own, Pontiac’s luxury pony car gradually differentiated itself, gaining popularity and prestige on its own four wheels. Of course, proud parents Pontiac and Chevrolet—not to mention the folks at General Motors—couldn’t be happier about the family’s fortune, never mind the rivalry. Thanks to the Firebird and the Camaro, the F-car program well exceeded its quarter million quota, taking the GM dynasty to the top.
Devoted Chevrolet fans often refer to the Firebird as a Camaro afterthought, mostly because the late blooming pony car borrowed heavily from the GM family’s firstborn. Disappointed Pontiac engineer—no doubt a Banshee backer—said that the 1967 Firebird was “just kind of inherited from Chevrolet.” It’s true that the Camaro and the Firebird shared the famous Coke bottle styling of the time. And, while the Firebird sat on a Camaro chassis, used Camaro sheet metal, and sported the same front fenders, doors, and rear fenders as its cousin, with Pontiac’s influence, the Firebird managed to carve out its own unique personality and separate itself from its family.
First and foremost, Pontiac produced all its own performance engines, distinguishing the Firebird from the Camaro right out of the gate by making five models available in its debut year, in comparison to four. Buyers could choose from two 6 cylinder engines (offered with 3 or 4 speed manual transmissions or a 2 speed automatic) or one of Pontiac’s three V8 options. Not surprisingly, most drivers turned down both the 230 cubic inch engine with 165 hp and the “Sprint” option with 215 bhp in favor of the GTO-inspired heavy duty V8s, starting at 326 cubic inches with 250 bhp and topping off at 400 cubic inches and 325 bhp. The Ram Air option got you functional hood scoops, a better cam, higher flow heads, and stronger valve springs.
In addition to its very own engines, Pontiac further set the Firebird apart from its Chevy cousin with styling by splitting the front grille, fashioning a beaked hood, and adding GTO slits to the taillights. Pontiac also chose to integrate the Firebird’s bumpers into the car’s front end, creating a sleeker, more elegant look. These modifications established the Firebird as a “European” style pony car, placing it in the luxury market. For this reason, Pontiac enthusiasts have long identified the Mercury Cougar as the Firebird’s biggest competition, not its Camaro cousin. The 1967 model was available in a two-door hardtop, which sold 67,032 units, and a convertible, coming in at 15,526 units. (The Camaro might have doubled its sales, but that was to be expected with its lower price and five month headstart. The Firebird, on the other hand, surprised everyone by beating the odds with its runaway success.)
The 1968 Pontiac Firebird
The Firebird underwent minor restyling in the 1968 model year. Designers gave the interior a tweak and, on the outside, new “Astro Ventilation” meant goodbye to side vent windows. In turn, Pontiac said hello to fender marker lights, wrapping blinkers, and an arrowhead logo on each side—not to mention staggered shocks and multi-leaf rear springs for better handling. Under the hood, all of the Firebird’s engines received a blast of horsepower and Pontiac added a 400 cubic inch H.O. (High Output) V8 to its options. Buyers took to the new Firebirds, putting Pontiac over 100,000 sales for the pony car it fought for—90,152 hardtop coupes left the production line that year, followed by 16,960 convertibles.
Yet, despite a major restyling in 1969, the Firebirds didn’t continue into the next model year—sales dropped to 76,059 hardtop coupes and 11,659 convertibles. Designers resculpted the car’s front and rear, separating the headlights from the grille with broad Endura bumpers. The instrument panel and steering wheel also received a facelift and the ignition switch ended up on the steering column instead of the dashboard. However, buyers and critics were unimpressed by the changes.
Here Comes the Trans Am
But Pontiac managed to recover its investment through the introduction of the Trans Am Performance and Appearance Package, designed to coincide with the SCCA’s road racing series. Even for racing fans, the Firebird Trans Am was a fearsome automobile, coming standard with a High Output engine with Ram Air (referred to as the Ram Air III). And if you wanted even more power you could also opt for the 400 cubic inch Ram Air IV.
Despite only selling 689 units in its first year, the Trans Am was a great success. It was the only American high performance car, other than the Chevy Corvette, to maintain continuous production since its debut. Early buyers enjoyed the prestige associated with the Trans Am, maybe because you always knew when a Trans Am was coming—roaring towards you, a blur of polar white and blue racing stripes, disappearing ahead of you with its rear spoiler proudly mounted on the back.
Moving into the 1970 model year, Pontiac continued to push the 1969 model because of a few hiccups in engineering. By the time the new Firebird was ready for the sales floor, executives deemed it the 1970 ½ model for its late arrival. The 1970 ½ did away with the Coke bottle styling and the result was even more elegant and European. Luxury buyers opted for the 1970 ½ Esprit while muscle heads chose the Formula 400 or sprung for the Trans Am.
The Little Pony Car That Could
Yet, beauty and elegance couldn’t save Firebird’s sales and after dismal figures in 1970 and 1971, General Motors nearly canceled the car in 1972. But the little Pontiac pony car held on, eventually establishing itself as a performance icon, shedding all comparisons to its cousin, the Camaro. Against its own family’s expectations, the Firebird enjoyed a long run, ultimately bowing out in 2002. Today, Firebirds—Trans Ams especially—are in higher demand than when they were rolling off the assembly line. Restoration addicts frequently seek out the Firebird made famous in Smoky and the Bandit (and reappearing in all the sequels). One thing’s for sure—in production or not, Pontiac’s pony car is ones Fire(bird) that has yet to burn out.