Curbside Classic: 1971 Pontiac Firebird Esprit – From Pony Car To Chicken Car

Why has it taken over ten years for an early (1970 – 1973) gen2 Firebird to make its first appearance in a CC? The answer is simple: they sold poorly, so there’s just not a lot of survivors. The gen2 F-Bodies (Camaro and Firebird) were such sales laggards that GM came very close to pulling the plug on them in 1972, when only 30k Firebirds found buyers, of which a mere 1,286 of them were Trans Ams.

We all know how the story turned out: the market rediscovered the F-Bodies, sales went up every year thereafter, and in 1979, Pontiac sold a whopping 212k Firebirds, of which over one half (110k) were Trans Ams. Perhaps it should have been named the Phoenix. This is the story of a car that arrived in the dying days of the pony car market and eventually came to define a market of its own.

Why were these stunning new Firebirds and Camaros such slow sellers? They arrived at an awkward time, just as the pony car market was melting down. The Mustang, which had solely created this market segment, was down some 70% in 1970 compared to its peak years (1965-1966), and its sales would fall significantly further yet. Chrysler had always been the laggard in the segment, and their new 1970 E-Bodies (Barracuda and Challenger) were DOA.

What exactly was behind the phenomena of the original Mustang? It’s rather simple: ever since WW2, there was a steadily growing segment of the US market that wanted something other than a big American sedan, which is the just about the only thing the Big Three built until 1960. Hence the huge import boom of the 1950s: These buyers wanted something different, with flair, sportiness, economy, trimmed nicely, and most of all…different. This was the beginning of the great fragmentation of the car market, as a younger, more affluent and better educated segment of the market wanted to express their identity through their cars.

One American maker, Nash, successfully entered this market with its stylish and nicely-trimmed compact Rambler, resulting in buyers’ demographics that were substantially higher in income, education and more female than average. It was the key element that allowed American Motors to survive and prosper into the early sixties, when it then failed to innovate and was badly hurt by the Mustang. The Rambler was the first American antecedent of the Mustang.

The Big Three sat on their hands until 1958, when they suddenly saw how serious this segment was getting and were forced to jump in. The Ford Falcon mostly just cannibalized big Ford sales. The Valiant was the odd outsider that appealed to those that could appreciate its qualities despite its quirky appearance. But the Corvair was something all together different, especially so when Chevy introduced the Monza coupe as a mid-year 1960 addition to the line.

With its standard bucket seats, floor shift, nice trim and optional higher-output engine, it created a new market niche, defined by those very characteristics. It brought in new buyers, many of them former import owners who had become disenchanted with reliability, service and parts issues. A domestic car that had genuine import car qualities: what’s not to like?

I called the Monza “The Most Influential Car Of The Decade” because it revolutionized the thinking at the Big Three. Isolated in the suburbs of Detroit, their executives had been utterly stuck on the notion that imports and compacts were penalty boxes, bought by those that simply couldn’t afford a proper (full-sized) car. The Monza changed everything: suddenly compacts were seen as having serious potential, if marketed as sporty, high-trim cars with a decent profit margin instead of just something to offer to cheapskates.

And it wasn’t just the Monza; cars like the 1962 Olds Cutlass and Buick Skylark, and starting in 1963, the Dart GT, Falcon Sprint, Comet S-22 and other other high-trim compact coupes all sold well, for all the same reasons: They were trim, stylish, well-equipped, and projected a sophisticated and/or sporty image. This last quality was the most important one.

There’s no need to regurgitate the Mustang story again. But its wild success was just the convergence of this trend that had been building since the Monza arrived in mid-1960. It hoovered up all the sales that had been going to the sporty/high trim compacts, and then some. Who would buy a Falcon Sprint, Nova SS or Dart GT or Valiant Signet or such after the Mustang arrived? Compact car sales tanked starting in 1965, unless you count the Mustang as a compact, which it rightfully was, along with the other early pony cars.

But small import car sales started soaring again, none more so than Toyota, whose Corolla took the market by storm. Why? Early Mustang (and pony car buyers) were not baby boomers, unless they had generous parents and were born very early in that demographic group. By 1969-1970, an avalanche of boomers were coming into the car buying market, and not surprisingly, they wanted something low-cost and economical, fun to drive that projected the right image as their first new. Imports, increasingly Japanese ones, filled all those priorities.

After a few years of tumbling, domestic compact sales roared back, also fueled largely by young boomers. The Maverick and Duster in particularly satisfied the segment that wanted a stylish domestic low-cost coupe, and the Duster 340 was the coup de grace for the high-power pony cars (and muscle cars).

The Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto, which arrived in 1971, also played their part in eroding pony car sales, especially so the sporty-looking Vega.

Ironically, it was John DeLorean that created the car that was perhaps most responsible for the death of the pony cars: the 1969 Grand Prix. It and the 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo defined the affordable personal luxury coupe, which became a much more dominant and vastly longer lasting phenomena than the Mustang and pony cars had ever been. Somewhat older Mustang buyers traded up to these larger and more comfortable coupes en masse.

The new Firebird (and Camaro) arrived in the very zenith of this upheaval of the market. Despite their stunning shape and style, they were actually rather out of tune with then-current rapid swings of the market, and renderings like this one projected a rather confused image. Was the Firebird targeted to the Thunderbird demographic? It rather seems so.

1969 – 1972 was a rather tumultuous time in America, and not just in the automobile market. The anti-war movement was peaking and a wide range of other social issues were in full boil. Despite a healthy economy, younger buyer were drawn to imports and cheap domestic compacts. These projected the zeitgeist profoundly more accurately than the Firebird. Cars like it were suddenly out of fashion, as much as that woman’s hat in the rendering above. She and the rest of those folks look so…1964, and just dying for a new Mustang.

Well, that is, unless your middle-aged Mom drove you there in the big Fury wagon (not likely in the Citroen).

That’s been a rather long-winded preamble to our featured car, but the inevitable question always seems to come up: Why was the Mustang so madly popular? It was simply a fortuitous convergence of trends that had been building for a long time, and that finally found one single car to focus on, because it was seen to be new, different, stylish, and cool. But all that changed quickly, as it invariably tended to, at least back then.

As we’ve covered in great depth before, the social changes in the seventies brought a reaction, expressed in the automobile market in two dominant trends: broughams and the side-burn/mullet mobiles. They were both powerful conservative trends, projecting traditional American values in the face of what appeared to be a dismantling of many of them. The culture wars were off and running, and the Firebird TransAm (and Burt Reynolds) became the poster boy of the non-brougham side of the two, the forerunner of today’s jacked up, coal-spewing diesel 4×4 trucks.

That explains it huge resurgence. These were not pony cars anymore.

Let’s take a closer look at our featured car. It’s a 1971, based on the high back bucket seats, one of the very few obvious differences from 1970. There were some differences were under the hood too, as the 1971’s had some revisions to their engines due to the requirement to be able to run on unleaded regular, meaning no more high compression engines.

That’s not to say the 455 HO wasn’t still potent: the 1971 brochure, which conveniently has both gross and net hp ratings, shows it with a still impressive 305 net hp. Its 335 gross hp rating was obviously grossly underrated. On the other hand, the 350 V8’s disparity between gross (250) and net (165) is about as wide as I’ve ever seen.

I know gross hp ratings were not always spot-on, and were commonly reduced after 1969 or so, due to insurance reasons, but the net ratings I generally consider to be fairly accurate. Clearly the 250 gross hp rating on that 350 included some wishful thinking, especially since it had just a two-barrel carb and single exhaust. The disparity on the 400 two-barrel is just about as great.

It was a sunny day and the windows were dirty, so it’s a crappy shot (as were a number of other shots of this car, for some reason). The Esprit was one trim level above the base Firebird. In 1970 and 1971, those two versions made up the lion’s share of sales.

The Formula, which was called Formula 400 in 1970 and just Formula in 1971, was the third most popular version. As befitting its name, it came standard with the 400 V8 in 1970, but starting in 1971, it came standard with the 350, and the 400 and 455 (not 455 HO) were optional. Suspension and wheel/tire upgrades improved handling, which was already quite good on the base cars.

The F-Bodies benefited greatly from new front suspension and steering geometry, and although the rear axle was still suspended on leaf springs, there was increased suspension travel and other enhancements. These were the best handling American cars at the time, hands down.

And of course the Trans Am was the ultimate performance version, and arguably the best all-round performance car of that time period. Pontiac included every chassis and performance item in their arsenal, which was quite well stocked. I’m not a fan of the gaudy “screaming chicken” TA’s of the later seventies, but these early more understated TA’s, along with their Camaro Z/28 cousins, speak to me considerably. They were rightfully the crowning achievement of all that represented the best of American sporty cars; genuine driving machines of a world-class caliber, especially given their prices.

The Endura nose was still something of a novelty, even after two years since first seen on the GTO. It was even more bold and pronounced, and was something of a sensation at the time. I still struggle to reconcile myself with the later versions that were necessary due to the 5-mile bumper regulations. This is what the Firebird was meant to have up front.

It was of course the key identifier from the Camaro, along with the round wheel openings. The tail is as weak as the front is strong: the Camaro’s bumper, concave panel and twin round tail lights are much better. But then the Firebird was really just a Camaro handed to Pontiac, somewhat reluctantly, and Pontiac did what it could to differentiate it given the modest budget at the time.

For that matter, I prefer the Camaro’s wheel openings too.

Let’s close out with a chart showing the Firebird’s sales from 1967 through 1981, the last year of the gen2. undoubtedly 1970 would have been higher if that had been a full year, since the ’70s were not introduced until January of that year. And 1972 sales were depressed by the protracted UAW strike. But the trend line is all-too obvious, as is the amazing climb back up. That was of course rudely nipped by the energy crisis and recession of 1979 – 1981; who knows how long that momentum would have lasted otherwise.

Born into a rapidly changing market and almost axed, who would have thought then that the Firebird would come to define a market essentially of its own making: the chicken-car market.

Related reading:

CC 1979 Firebird Trans Am: Not Quite Screaming Chicken