Storage Yard Classic: 1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am – The Final Blow-Out

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(first posted 1/31/2013)   The near-mythical Turbo TA: One of my rarest finds? Undoubtedly. Except that all I have is a couple of crappy shots though a storage yard fence. But let’s give this legend (or Deadly Sin?) its fifteen minutes of CC fame.

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The challenges of keeping big-block engines in the late-seventies Firebirds became ever more acute thanks to CAFE regulations. The 455 had its swan song in 1976. By 1977, it was down to the Pontiac 400 and, in California, the Olds 403. And in 1979, except for a few ultra-rare leftover 400 Pontiac engines, the Olds 403 was the last large-displacement motor available in TAs. The Olds engine, while rated at 185 (net) hp, still offered some of that big-block torque-shove off the line–and of course, any of these motors were just a few after-market mods away from restoration to their former tire-melting glory.

Pontiac 1981 Turbo TA

The solution: Yes, at the time it was the only turbocharged V8 gasoline engine in the world, but what Pontiac cobbled together was perhaps more worthy of a well-run high-school auto shop.

Pontiac 301 turbo

image: cardomain

Even the first glance under the hood makes that pretty clear. Folks, this is how they turbocharged V8 engine almost twenty years earlier–literally.

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Here’s Oldsmobile’s ill-fated 1962 Jetfire V8, which represented the first time GM took a whack at turboing a small V8. It used “Turbo-Rocket Fluid” (an alcohol-water mix) injection to try to keep pre-detonation at bay: That alone wasn’t nearly enough to protect these aluminum-block V8s from   various thermal ills, never mind turbo lag. It disappeared after a short two-year appearance, as would the Pontiac 301 turbo.

Pontiac 301 turbo schematic

The Pontiac 301’s turbo plumbing was essentially the same as the old Jetfire’s, and rather primitive for the times, including a “suck through” carburator. Buick used a somewhat similar arrangement for their turbo V6 engines, which were fairly modest affairs until Buick finally got serious, doing a complete redesign for 1984. That redesign, which included computer-controlled sequential fuel injection and distributorless ignition, led to the legendary GN and GNX coupes, and culminated in the 276-hp GNX of 1987. That’s the right way to do it.

The Pontiac 301 engine did receive some upgrades to the block and certain innards; with boost limited to some 9 lbs., it was rated at 210 (net) hp in 1980, and 205 in 1981. Still, its 345 ft/lbs of torque was more than anything that had been produced under the Firebird’s screaming chicken-adorned hood since the last of the 455s.

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The Turbo 301 got a bad rep quite quickly. It had a hard act to follow; folks still had visions of SD 455 floating in their heads. The Turbo 301 performance just wasn’t as linear and satisfying. And there were reliability issues. Part of that might have been that folks didn’t take time to cool down the turbos before shutting them off. In any case, it was a bad ending to the TA’s long reign as America’s last real muscle/pony car during the ’70s. The tide was already shifting, as the light, Fox-bodied Mustang showed the way forward in the ’80s, although its first attempts at turbo power weren’t much more successful than the TA’s.

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I shot this last summer while on an evening walk. I meant to come back the next day, when the yard was open, to get better shots–and also to shoot that Colonnade LeMans coupe (similar to your mom’s, JPC?). But you know how it goes, and the next time we walked by, all these cars were gone–but hopefully, not to the shredder for the ultimate blow-out.