The Trans Am – America’s Premiere Muscle Car
Pontiac started out to build a sports car, but what they came up with was one of America’s most successful muscle cars: the Trans Am. It’s one of the most premiere muscle cars in the world today. It combines power, agility, comfort, and beauty in a package that also offers fuel efficiency and safety. This combination was unheard of just a few years ago. Traditionally, the muscle car buyer has always been forced to choose between performance ad fuel efficiency, agility and creature comforts. But today’s Trans Am is one of the best examples of what a muscle car can be. It’s a combination of the best performance, comfort, and safety issues of the past 35 years. Building a car like this takes commitment, years of development, and a dedication to building great cars.
Pontiac’s Firebird was introduced late in 1967 and it wasn’t what their general manager, John Delorean wanted to build. His vision was four a two seat Sportster. Instead, GM forced Pontiac to build their muscle car on the same platform as the Camaro. Keith Maney explains: “The popular conception for the first generation Firebird was simply that it was a copycat of the Camaro. That really was not the case. Pontiac did a very good job with differentiating the FIrebird from the Cmaro. They saw the Firebird as more of a sports car than a muscle car.” The Camaro and the Firebird hit town just as a new American road racing series was becoming immensely popular. Capitalizing on the huge popularity of the pony cars, the sports car club of America had created a new racing series called Trans Am and it was made for these cars to compete head to head.
Jim Wangers was responsible for GM’s advertising during this time. He recalls Trans Am’s recent popularity with car buyers. “The Trans Am racing series was, at that time, gathering some public interest. It was the introduction of the American car into the activity of, in the early days, motor racing.” The 1969 Firebird Trans Am was made for the popular SCCA racing series but they weren’t really good racers. In a few short years, the Trans Am racing series had run its course but Pontiac’s Trans Am has continued to endure through four generations. During its over 30 year lifetime, Pontiac has sold over 2 million Trans Am. The Trans Am has earned fame as a character in some of America’s most popular movies. It served as the pace for the world’s most prestigious races. And through the ages, Pontiac’s engineers have continued to refine this car until the Trans Am has become a world class muscle car. In what must be its greatest achievement, the
Trans Am has created a following as strong and loyal as any car ever built: a loyalty which spans generations. Jim Wangers goes on: “The Trans Am was really an opportunity for the guys and gals who were a little too young for the GTO to get the feeling of what it’s really like to have a true American muscle car.”The 60s had been good years for the Pontiac: GM’s poorest performing division during the 50s had risen from near extinction to the third largest selling car company in America in just a few years, all because of a carefully created racing image and cars that backed up that image with real performance.
The Man Behind GM’s Rebirth: Bunkie Knudsen
The man who engineered Pontiac’s re-birth into GM’s excitement division was the legendary Bunkie Knudsen. “Knudsen came on in 1956. In a five year period he turned that division around. One of the first things he said was, ‘We’re going to change the personality of this car. We’re going out to beat somebody.’” With this mandate from Knudsen, Pontiac’s engine shop went on a ware fight. Very soon, Pontiac started winning on Sunday and selling like crazy the rest of the week. But the automobile business in America is all about numbers and by the mid 60s, the biggest sales number in history were being rung up by America’s first pony car: the Ford Mustang.
Between 1964 and 1966, Ford sold almost two million Mustangs. The message was clear. Across town at GM, Pontiac Division general manage John Delorean sounded the wake up call. Chevrolet reacted first, bringing out the Camaro at the beginning of the 1967 model year. Pontiac was still pushing its two seater roadster concept called the Banchee. Says Keith Maney : “Delorean wanted his own two seat sports car kinda like the Corvette. The GM guys didn’t particularly like the idea.” Adds Jim Wangers: “At that time, this country was dominated by the Chevrolet Corvette and the corporation with good rational thinking said, ‘Why should we go in competition with ourselves?’”
The Pontiac Pony Car aka the Firebird
Using the ’67 Camaro shell as a pattern, Pontiac rolled out its version of the pony car: the Firebird, which hit the streets six months after the Camaro and the two cars looked a lot alike. But, where it counted, Pontiac’s engineers made sure this car was no pony. Jim Wangers explains: “Camaro insisted all Firebirds have 7 series tire.
And the car did look macho, it looked tougher, it looked sporty.” The Firebirds for 1967 and 1968 sported a number of styling touches that set them apart from their sister Camaros, the most noticeable of which was the Pontiac split grill and the wrap around front bumper. The Firebird’s most endearing quality, particularly for muscle car fans, was its acceleration. The Firebird’s top of the line 400 cubic inch engine with 335 horse power and gobs of torque would put you back in the seat better than any ’67 Mustang or Barracuda and would hold itself nicely with Chevy’s SS 396 Camaro. Plus, thanks to John Delorean’s original vision for the Firebird, they were also excellent handling cars. KM describes the Firebird: “Pontiac did a very good job with differentiating the Firebird from the Camaro, therefore you saw, in suspension tuning with a variety of different engines. It was more of an upscale car than the Camaro was.”
In the muscle car world, handling was a new world. All mega motored muscle cars could lay rubber a mile long. But this new pony car could turn corners, too. This came in handy when the sports car club of America created a new event, which showcased pony cars, called the Trans American sedan racing series, or Trans Am for short. The competition was furious and the series was massively popular. Ford, CHV, and even American Motors were all in it up to their axles. Going into 1969, if you were a car maker and you weren’t into Trans Am racing, you had a problem.
The 1969 Pontiac Trans Am
Pontiac didn’t necessarily want to go Trans Am racing, but they always recognized the value of a strong name. So, when their new upmarket Firebird for 1969 was ready to roll out, they decided to call it Trans Am. There was one minor issue, though. The Firebird’s standard 400 cubic inch engine was a little too big for Trans Am racing. The limit was 5 liters or 305 cubic inches. The motoring press took issue with this little detail. Keith Maney remembers: “The automotive press of the day was fairly harsh with the car. They didn’t understand the concept of having a pony car named after a popular SCCA racing series in the day and, in fact, not be able to compete in that series.” Jim Wangers goes on: “They just beat this car to death.” It didn’t matter the Trans Am looked great, handled great, and had gobs of power. The press just wasn’t buying car named Trans Am that wasn’t legal for Trans Am racing.
By the end of the 1969 model year, Pontiac had managed to make enough Trans Ams to qualify the car for SCCA competition. Just barely. Whether the car could survive without actually competing in Trans Am racing was another story.
The Pontiac Trans Am, still reeling from the dissing it had gotten from the press when it was introduced, was trying to get into the racing game. The problem was, Pontiac didn’t have any engines that were even remotely legal for Trans Am competition. Keith Maney says: “Pontiac did embark on an engine development program to try to create an engine to make the car eligible to run in the Trans Am series like the Ram Air 5. That’s some pretty intensive development.” The trouble was there was just no way to de-stroke Pontiac’s 400 cubic inch engine to 300 cubic inches and make enough horse power to do racing. George Siegal currently races a Trans Am in SCCA’s vintage car series. He remembers Pontiac’s difficulties in getting the Ram Air 5 on the track. “They had developed a head for that motor just like the heads for the 427s. Unforunately the 303 didn’t make any horse power and it made even less torque.” So, the Trans Am wars waged on for 1969 and Pontiac was struggling along without a brand of power plant. But the car was a favorite with muscle car fans on the street and that was the most important thing.
Explains Keith Maney . “Even though the Trans Am series was predominantly a road racing series, once you got out on the streets on the highways of America, it was pretty much a drag racing war, so while the Trans Am wasn’t necessarily a true road horse competitor, it was a great drag car because it had tremendous acceleration.” Pontiac’s 400 never suffered for horse power. The Trans Am’s standard Ram Air 3 engine kicked it up a few notches.
The Ram Air 3 package added better breathing exhaust manifolds and a cold air system which opened the Firebird’s hood scoops through the carburetor. And if that wasn’t enough, you could choose the Ram Air 4 option, which was the ultimate Pontiac performance engine. This stuffed car used a different Cam carburetor and some round cylinder heads to make additional horse power. “If you can’t race,” says Keith Maney , ‘then you better make one really neat street car. That was the idea behind the Trans Am.”
The Firebird really began to establish its own unique identity in 1969 with its first body restyle and long list of luxury options. Firebird owners could deck their cars out with such non racing goodies as air conditioning for $476, Rally gauges for $84, leather and vinyl trim for $199, a power driver’s seat for $74 and tinted windows for $33. “It has factory air conditioning,” explains R.J. Stanelle as he describes his ’69 Firebird, “It has the power steering cooler. It has power steering, power breaks. It’s really loaded with options. When I bought the car, though, I liked the idea that it was loaded with options. I wanted a car that had factory air. I wanted a four speed car and this was a four speed originally and, of course, I wanted the 400 engine.”
Trans Am was the Firebird’s top option. The Trans Am package sold for $725 with the Ram Air 3 engine or about $1100 with the full tilt Ram Air 4 motor. This package included either the four speed manual or three speed turbo hydromatic transmission, rally wheels, power front disc brakes, 355 to 1 rear axle ratio, heavy duty shocks and springs, fiber glass belted tires, and a 1″ stabilizer bar. The Trans Am option also included front fender vents, a working rear spoiler, full length body stripes and special identification decals. Despite what the press might have thought about the car, it was one of the most distinctive and best running Pontiacs ever made. 1970 would be a much different year for the Trans Am in sales and with respect for the motoring establishment.
The 1970 Pontiac Trans Am
The new Firebirds hit the showrooms in February 1970. They were a bit late but they were worth waiting for. The new body style was spectacular and when decked out in the Trans Am’s American racing colors, the whole package said, “Where’s the race track?” In the Trans Am’s second year, Pontiac continued to do what they always do with a new car: they made it better. George Siegel explains: “Herb Adams was actually the, I believe he was the engineer that came up with the Trans Am concept. He knew from his racing efforts that if you put a little bit stiffer springs, big fat sway bars you could improve the handling. One of these off the showroom floor in 1970 would pull about .88 lateral Gs cornering so it was a pretty potent performer.”
The 1970 engines remained the same as the previous year. But the Ram Air 4 engines still were the bad boys in the lineup. It would propel a 3550 pound car to a 14.3 second quarter mile and run 0 to 60 in under six seconds. Inside, the Firebird was redesigned into something resembling a fighter plane’s cockpit. There were bucket seats, a console, and a leather wrapped steering wheel. A full set of rally gauges and a tach were installed in the engine turned dash. The whole effect was rich and racy. And still without a competitive engine, Pontiac went Trans Am racing again. But 1970 was an unhappy year. George Seigel talks about the disappointment: “Pontiac had given Terry Goodsall $50,000 to start up a team. He hired Jerry Titus away from Ford. They got started late. They were behind in their engine development program. Things just generally didn’t go well. They had not finished any races up until the point where Titus was killed in Wisconsin.”
The Trans Am never won a race in the series for which it was named. But that was never the point. “All we needed was the name. The name was very exciting and said exactly what we wanted to say about this car.” Says Jim Wangers. The next three years saw little change in the Trans Am’s body style but, like everywhere in the auto industry, the new government controls on exhaust emissions were having an effect. The big engine in the ’71 through ’73 Trans Am was the all new 455 HO. With lower compression and less horse power. Keith Maney discusses: “In 1971, GM mandated that all their engine had to run on regular unleaded gasoline which meant a drastic drop in compression ratio. Of course, you drop compression ratio, you lose performance.” The unlimited horse power party appeared to be over. Like the last couple at the dance, Pontiac and the Trans Am refused to leave the dance floor. Starting in 1973 and continuing through 1974, there was a bright spot at Pontiac amid all the muscle car gloom. It was the new 455 super duty engine. This was to be the standard bearer for American performance for years to come. 1974 and the years ahead would be interesting years for America’s last muscle car.
The muscle car buyer looked out over a bleak landscape in the years after 1973. The street Hemis were gone. So were the Stage I Buicks, the 428 Cobra Jet Fords, and the big block Chevelles. Even the Corvette was a shadow of its former self. But there was one car left that could still give you the old feeling. Under its hood, there was a throbbing 455 cubic inch power plant. On top of the hood was a very large, angry bird. It was the ’74 455 super duty Trans Am. And if anyone thought the muscle car era was over, well, Pontiac hadn’t gotten word. The new federal bumper regulations caused the designers to give the Firebird a nose job this year. But the rest of the car was pretty okay with the car buying public so Pontiac left it alone, which caused the world to rush to Pontiac’s door and buy almost five times as many Trans Ams in the previous year. It was the reason people loved the car in the first place. Pure, flat out acceleration. Keith Maney explains: “The ’73-’74 was really the best performing Trans Ams built. That includes the ’69 and ’70 Ram Air 4 cars. It has a cast iron intake, which is quite unusual. Pontiac tended to put limited intakes on their hottest engines. It makes use of a special quadrajet four barrel. The cars were good straight off the showroom floor for mid 13 second quarter miles. So, they’re all in all very unusual engines and quite rare. I think around 600 were created.” Adds Bob Walters: “In 1993, I got lucky and with this car, I won the world championship in the stock division. Its best time that year was a 13.05 at 106 mph on street radials.”
Pontiac sold over 10,000 Trans Ams in ’74, 27,000 in ’75, 46,000 in ’76, almost 120,000 in 1979, and it just keeps going. Keith Maney elaborates: “There was a terrible performance lapse through the early 80s. In the mid 1980s that started to change. The factories had been working hard on electronic fuel injection. By the mid 80s, all that work was starting to pay off and performance and the fun to drive aspect of performance cars started to rise again.”
Today’s Trans Am
The modern Trans Am draws its lineage straight from the muscle machines of the 60s. Pontiac has always known that any car they called Trans Am has a lot to live up to. RJ Stanelle talks about his Trans Am: “In order to get this car, I had to trade a ’65 tri power GTO convertible. And it was a real difficult choice but, then again, this was for my senior year of high school and it’s such a unique car that I just couldn’t pass it up.” Nobody can say why some cars come and go and some stay around, but muscle car buyers are pretty good at distinguishing the genuine from the fakes. The Trans Am has always been an honest muscle car. It had the stripes and scoops and spoilers and all the gimmicks, but it also had the power to back it all up. And it was the one muscle car that kept the flame lit during the dark times. It lives today as a testament to what a car can be when its builders never stop until the car is the best they can build. Jim Wangers concludes: “The staple of the muscle car is exactly that, it’s a reflection of their heritage. The heritage of true muscle cars and true seriously performing pony cars.”