In-Motion Classic: 1998 Pontiac Firebird – The Last Flight

I have always held the Pontiac Firebird in high esteem.  Many of us in our forties were born into an automotive landscape that had always included a Firebird in various forms throughout the years: affordable base coupe, vaunted Trans Am, formidable Formula, limited-run GTA, and posh Esprit (replaced by the S/E with the third-generation models).  The newly restyled ’79s had set an all-time sales record for the model, with over 211,000 sold, the bulk (over half) of which were top-spec Trans Ams.  The Firebird was, at one point, a very popular car.

It was also something of a cultural touchstone, with TV shows like “The Rockford Files” and movies like “Smokey & The Bandit” vaulting the Firebird even morseso into our collective, American consciousness.  Even the fictional Rocky Balboa had owned a ’79 Trans Am in “Rocky II”.  One thing I just couldn’t understand while watching this movie as a kid was the scene during the period when Rocky was down on his luck, and he tossed the keys to a friend who admired his car and told him something like, “If you take over the payments, it’s yours.”  In my head, I’m sure I was saying something like, What?  Nooooo!!  That feeling of just giving up such a fine ride would have been like the direct opposite of warm, “Yay, it’s Christmas!” feelings to the young me.

I remember the Firebird being popular also well into the beginning of my teenage years at the end of the ’80s.  The other kids in my classes at Flint Central High School who also liked cars seemed to be firmly divided into two camps on Pontiac’s pony: those who really dug it, and those who thought it was a sports car for “poseurs” who placed looks as a priority over performance.  Many in the latter camp seemed to be the ones who thought their clapped-out Colonnades that their dads who worked in the GM shops had helped them build were the greatest thing on wheels, but I had respect for the skill with which they turned otherwise-lackluster, decidedly unpretty cars into performance beasts.

My seventh and eight grade science teacher during middle school, one Mrs. Gloria Lewis (the same one who had put the C+ “stain” on the only otherwise-all-A report card I ever earned), had once told us during a discussion in class what terrible cars these then-current, third-generation Camaros and Firebirds were.  I don’t remember exactly why we were discussing GM F-Bodies in science class (but then, again, I didn’t understand why part of our curriculum included learning how to juggle three tennis balls… the world may never know), but I do remember thinking at the time that her words sounded like heresy in our little GM city.

I already hadn’t liked Mrs. Lewis by that point (I grew to, later) before she dissed two of my favorite cars, but her comments about the Camaro and Firebird had only solidified my opinion that she was just a sour lady who couldn’t be pleased.  (She later earned my respect on the basketball court by participating in a charity game among teachers as a fundraiser for a young cancer patient.)

Later, though, I came to understand about those Firebirds and Camaros of the ’80s.  The third-generation F-Bodies were notoriously lacking in assembly quality, reliability, body integrity, etc.  I remember reading a then-current Consumer Reports Auto Guide (the one with the circles that would be red to signify “good”, black to signify “bad”, empty for “neutral”, and with five different ratings on the continuum), and the Firebird’s scores across everything but perhaps powertrain (which I remember being a “clear” circle, at best) looked like the automatic ball return at one of Flint’s many bowling alleys – almost a solid row of round, black things.

This didn’t matter.  I’ve always been an aesthetics guy, and even back then as a teenager, I likely would have chosen to purchase a trendy pair of Bugle Boy trousers of hit-or-miss quality than a solid, plain pair of tried-and-true Levis.  I didn’t need to be the biggest or the baddest (which I knew I was never going to be, anyway), I just wanted to look good doing what I do in my own quiet way.  The Firebird continued to speak to me… until the ’93 redesign.

I was a college freshman when the fourth-generation Camaro/Firebird twins made their debut for model year ’93 in the fall of ’92.  I was immediately taken with the Camaro – a wide, sleek, low knockout that looked, literally, like a show car come to life as a production vehicle.  The Firebird, by comparison, looked lumpy and just a little weird at its debut.  I’m really not a fan of this current trend of leggings being worn out and about (by both women and some men) as sometimes, I really don’t need or want to “see” what everything looks like underneath a thin layer of tightly-stretched lycra/spandex/whatever, even if the wearer is hot.  (No, thank you.)

The ’93 Firebird, at the time, looked a bit like this leggings thing I’ve described, where the outer skin was stretched just a little too tightly for what was underneath.  I apologize for the visual, but this is perhaps the best metaphor I can use to describe my initial impression of the gen-four ‘Bird.  However, something about the ’98 refresh tweaked the Firebird’s looks just enough to make me do a complete One-Eighty.  (Okay, perhaps a One-Seventy.)  The new, more aggressive hood (with nostrils flared) and front fascia butched up its face a little, and I liked the new taillamps with the honeycomb pattern.  There were other changes, too, but the overall effect was just enough to make the Firebird no longer look like it was molded out of Plasticine.

I can’t vouch for the model year of this example, but if it is a ’98 from the first year of the mid-cycle refresh of the final Firebirds, it sold a decent 33,300 units over two bodystyles (hatchback and convertible) and three trim levels (base, Formula, and Trans Am).  The base coupe was the most popular variant, with about 15,900 sold.  Standard power came from a 3.8L V6 with 200 horsepower, teamed with a five-speed manual transmission with overdrive.  Base curb weight was around 3,300 pounds.  I couldn’t find a reliable source for 0-60 times for the base models, but I did discover one fact that made me a bit salty: so equipped, the EPA rated the base-V6 equipped Firebird at 19/30 mpg.  My terminally slow, 90-horse, 2.3L-equipped ’88 Mustang was rated at the very same 30 mpg highway, and would probably take twice as long to get to 60 (on a good day).

The Firebird would have two more decent sales years for ’99 and 2000, with 36,200 and 31,900 units sold, respectively.  These were not shabby figures for a car that had been in production for eight model years by the turn of the Millennium.  Sales slid by a third for ’01, with only 21,400 units sold.  For final-year 2002, sales ticked upward slightly to about 23,300 units, most of which were V8-equipped coupes.  I found it a bit sad that the final-year Firebird had sold in numbers roughly a tenth of those of its watermark sales year in ’79.

I did eventually have a chance to ride in the front passenger’s seat in one of these fourth-generation F-bodies (a Camaro, if I recall correctly).  Regardless of the fact that popularity of coupes of all types had begun its downward trajectory, I found this ride to be a really unpleasant experience.  I don’t remember the car having excessive rattles (like a third-gen car), or that it seemed like a low-buck rush job, or anything like that.

For me, it boiled down to one thing: a giant hump on the floor of the passenger’s side footwell, under which was said to be the catalytic converter.  I’m exactly six feet tall, and even a short ride in the front of that Camaro, where my knees seemed to be inches from my face, and with my long legs positioned at an uncomfortable angle even with my feet flat on the floor, completely killed the fantasy of owning one.  Part of the reason for buying a car that seats four (or in this case, two-plus-two) is the ability to carry at least one other adult.  These F-Bodies are, essentially, one-seaters, though some of the most beautifully styled go-karts I remember coming out of GM studios in that era.

I spotted and photographed this beautiful, silver base coupe while on the way to work, not far from where I had previously seen a black, late second-generation model just a couple of years ago.  I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to complete that “BINGO” card, by also spotting a first and third generation model on this city block.  In the meantime, I still lament that there is no more Firebird, or Pontiac.  With rumors in automotive news lately that the current generation of Camaro may not have a successor, I’m now even more nostalgic for a time when young guys (and gals) like me pined for the beauty of one of these all-American sports cars called “Firebird”.

Downtown, The Loop, Chicago, Illinois.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019.