Pontiac Firebird - Classic Muscle Car Review 2020 - Muscle Car

Pontiac Firebird – Classic Muscle Car Review 2020

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Elise

Written by Elise

6th January 2021

Pontiac Firebird – Classic Muscle Car Review 2020
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Pontiac Firebird – Classic Muscle Car Review 2020

By Charlotte Iggulden

The mythical Firebird appears in cultures around the world. Slavic folklore tells of a prophetic glowing bird from a distant land; beautiful and dangerous, it is simultaneously a blessing and harbinger of doom to its captor. 

Meanwhile, Ancient Greek mythology records a Phoenix, an immortal bird that regenerates from fiery ashes and has come to symbolise renewal.

The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am’s decal is arguably an interpretation of a Native American symbol.

According to Car and Driver, the Trans Am was “a hard muscled, lightning-reflexed commando of a car.”  Immortalised in popular culture and with prices rising, the Pontiac Firebird can still be found for sale in the UK, remaining one of the most desired automobiles of all time.

This is our short car review of the Pontiac Firebird in its classic years.

History of Pontiac Firebird

Created in 1926 by General Motors (GM), Pontiac was named after a Native American Chief who led the Ottawa tribe in a failed uprising against the British. 

Akin to the first Mustangs, mid 1930s Pontiacs were high-style yet inexpensive, positioned between the Oldsmobile and Chevy.

Automotive design and engineering were synonymous with jet themes in the 1950s and ‘60s. Although unrelated to Harley Earl’s Firebird concept series, the name pre-empted Pontiac’s muscle car. 

Following Earl’s Firebirds, Pontiac planned to produce a two-seater sports vehicle based on the 1964 Banshee concept car.

However, the arrival of the 1964-1965 GTO, an optional package on the Pontiac LeMans, spurred muscle car rivalry and the creation of the Ford Mustang, Mercury Cougar and Camaro, all of which inspired Pontiac engineer John DeLorean (inventor of the Back to the Future cars) to create a four-seater automobile to compete. 

DeLorean’s 1967 Pontiac Firebird 400cid combined the Camaro’s F-body platform with Pontiac styling and long hood, short deck profile made popular by the Mustang.

The Firebird was the base model; performance options included Sprint, Esprit, Formula and the powerful Trans Am (T/A) and Ram Air. Appearing in ’69, the T/A typically had the larger engine. Unlike other muscle cars, Firebirds focused more on handling and design as opposed to horsepower. The Trans Am became Pontiac’s most popular performance car, more so than the GTO, spanning four generations until its demise in 2002. 

Pontiac Firebird Specs 

First generation (1967-1969)

The inaugural 1967 Firebird was available in five different options, with each engine positioned as a separate model: Base sprint 6-cylinder 165hp or 215hp, and popular V8 options: Firebird 326 and 326 HO 250hp to 285hp, plus the high-performance 400cid V8 from the GTO. 

Costing $3,800, 400cid Firebirds peaked at 325 horsepower at 4800rpm, with 410 torque at 3400rpm. It went from 0-60mph in 6.2 seconds, with a 14.7 second ¼ mile at 98mph. 18,632 produced. Costing $616 extra, Ram Air was capable of 400rpm higher at 5200rpm.

The 1968 400cid Firebird had improved road handling and a smoother engine featuring $42 adjustable Koni shock absorbers. It was possibly the best sporty compact and all-round performer, faster than many popular muscle cars at the time.

Ram Air was the strongest and rarest engine option. 2,087 400cid HO’s were produced, costing $3,950. Rated 335hp at 5000rpm and 430 torque at 3400rpm, it had a fast 5.5 second acceleration rate and 14.2 second ¼ mile at 100mph.

For $725, the 1969 Pontiac Firebird offered the new Trans Am performance and appearance package, named after the Trans-American series which the Firebird raced in in the ‘60s and 1970s. Not advertised, it was limited to 689 Firebird coupes and eight convertibles.

The base engine was a three-speed, 400cid HO 335hp V8 engine, with standard ram air induction known as Ram Air III. 

With Ram Air IV, the Trans Am cost $3,950 with 345hp at 5400rpm, and 430 torque at 3700rpm, achieving 0-60mph in 6.3 seconds, and a 14.1 second ¼ mile at 101mph. Available for 55 Trans Am coupes and eight convertibles in four-speed, it had heavy duty suspension, front stabilizer bar, Polyglas F70 wheels, and power steering. 

Pontiac engines were used until the 1970s when 185hp Oldsmobile and Chevy engines replaced them, then 105hp Buick V6’s to increase speed.

Second generation (1970-81)

The 1970 Pontiac Firebird T/A was pure American muscle, with functional scoops, spoilers and standard 345hp Ram-Air 400cid. 

Costing $4,600, only 88 of 3,196 Trans Ams were ordered with Ram Air IV. Bigger ports and better valves produced 370hp at 5500rpm and 445 torque at 3900rpm. Despite 57% weight over its front axle, the car reached 60mph in 5.6 seconds, with a 13.9 second ¼ mile at 102mph. Sport Car Graphic said its overall handling was nearer to a front engine race car than they had ever driven. 

The rare Ram-Air V included solid lifters producing 500hp. Its new rear facing shaker scoop captured cool air over the hood. Standard 4-speed hurst shifter, optional Turbo Hydra-Matic. 

The ‘71 Trans Am offered the biggest V8 in pony class to date; its 455cid 335hp eclipsed the GTO as a performance car. With 480lbs-ft torque, 5.9 second acceleration rate and 13.9 second ¼ mile at 103mph, it was as fast as the best 1970s performance cars. 2116 produced. $4,850. A Super Duty V8 was available on Trans Ams and Firebird Formulas.

Emission regulations and fuel economy following the oil crisis reduced its horsepower to 250.

1974 was the last year of the Super Duty 455 without catalytic converter. $4,446. 10,255 produced.

The ’79 400cid Trans Am was rated 220-260hp and 315lbs-ft torque, with 112mph top speed.  

Third (1982-92) and Fourth (1993-2002) generations 

Like the Camaro, the mid ‘80s Trans Am was smaller and more practical, sharing nearly all its engine choices. The ’87 T/A could have the Corvette’s 350cid V8 with 225 horsepower, available in automatic.

’96 was popular in Europe, either V6 or V8, and five spoke alloy wheels.

In a final blaze of glory, the 2002 Trans Am produced 325hp with the WS6 option, before Pontiac was discontinued in 2010 due to financial problems.

However, in 2012, GM signed a deal with Trans Am Depot to use the name and Pontiac logos where Camaros are stripped to their components and transformed as custom coach-built Trans Ams. The ‘Bandit’ Edition debuted in March 2016, signed by Burt Reynolds; the 2021 car is reportedly the natural successor to the 1977 Pontiac Firebird S/E.

Pontiac Firebird Model Variations

Over 250,000 first generation Firebirds were sold as coupes or convertibles, with the Jet Age’s ubiquitous coke bottle styling. The Firebird, Camaro, Chevelle and Corvette had flaring fenders and a narrow waist. Although it shared the Camaro’s wheelbase and chassis, the Firebird’s bumpers merged into the front to appear more streamlined.

1967 400cid Firebirds had a longer split grille and GTO inspired taillamps. Base models had decorative vents. Ram air and functional vents were offered with 400cid. 

1967-1968 Firebirds looked identical, aside from the fender marker lights and removal of side vent windows. 

In the same year that the Vietnam War escalated, and man landed on the moon, the Firebird transformed. The 1969 Trans Ams now had Polar White paintwork with blue racing stripes, tail panel, decal, and rear spoiler, alongside an exclusive hood with functional air inlets operated by the driver. Its Firebird interior included bucket seats, console, tuned steering and suspension. Side marker lights were a federal safety requirement.

Second gen (1970-81)

Two-door coupes with distinctive twin snout radiator grille, the Firebirds were referred to colloquially as the ‘Bull Nose.’  

Like 1969, 1970 had bucket seats and a formula steering wheel. 1970-71 Trans Ams were identical, with new honeycomb wheels and blue/white paintwork with contrasting stripes.

After John Schinella’s intervention, the Firebird graphic, designed by Norm Inouye and Bill Porter, appeared in 1973, boosting sales. 

‘74 was even better looking, with ‘shovel-nose’ front and horizontal ‘slotted’ taillights. 

643 Special Edition Trans Ams (S/E T/A) were created for Pontiac’s 50th anniversary in 1976. Designed by Schinella, they had Starlight Black paintwork and gold pinstriping, removable windows and Hurst T-bar roof. 

Arguably the most elegant Trans Am, it was later overshadowed by the ’77 S/E T/A following Smokey and the Bandit. 

1978 Firebirds outsold previous years, bringing in huge profits until 1982.

Third generation (1982-92)

Firebirds were redesigned to deliver better aerodynamics than any GM car to date. Two door liftbacks and convertibles, they pacified an environmentally aware American public with four-cylinder engines and efficient 2.5 litre inline sixes.

Following a front styling change and lower nose treatment, the ’91 Trans Am looked awkward, which reflected in its sales of that year. 

Fourth generation (1993-2002)

High powered options returned, including the LS V8, combined with amplified aerodynamic styling and the best handling ever for a pony car. The 1996 design echoed the Banshee concept car.

Funny car champion John Force replaced the Oldsmobile Cutlass he had used since 1988 with a Firebird body, pictured below, winning all three 1995-97 NHRA seasons. 

Oldsmobile, pictured below as a Cutlass in 1988, had won nine consecutive NHRA titles by 1992, also driven by Warren Johnson and Randy Ayers, a record unequalled today.

The Firebird body also replaced the Cutlass in the 1995 Pro Stock class.  

Pontiac Firebird in Popular Culture

A Starlight Black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am starred in the 1977 film, Smokey and the Bandit, and subsequent TV series. A ‘76 model, it had a ‘77 front end and new decal. Driver Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville distracts law enforcement from Cledus ‘Snowman’ Snow’s truck carrying 400 illegal cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta. 

Actor Burt Reynolds owned three T/A’s after filming Smokey and the Bandit, and Hooper, which featured a Mayan Red 1978 Pontiac Trans Am. A new SB TV series is currently in development at Universal Content Productions.

In December 2020, Jay Leno’s Garage reviewed the 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am; although not a decal fan, Leno loves the car, saying it is fun to drive and better handling than other GM offerings. 

In the Knight Rider TV series (1982-86), KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) is a virtually indestructible, technologically advanced black 1982/3/4 Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am controlled by an artificially intelligent talking computer. In the show’s intro, the muscle car emerges from the desert like a mirage, its driver an enigmatic silhouette. The narrator says “Knight Rider. A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.”

Summary 

Akin to its Phoenix-like ability to regenerate, the Pontiac Firebird has enjoyed muscle car longevity, remaining the only classic car to carry the Pontiac flame into the seventies, surviving over 30 years of oil crises, recessions, and legislations. Its enduring legacy has inspired the new, GM-approved Trans Am Depot editions.

Author: Charlotte Iggulden


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