Instead of a “screaming chicken”, the 1979 Firebird Trans Am should have a pterodactyl on its hood. This is a living dinosaur, the very last direct descendant of the the genus big block/hi-po pony car. Once a thriving species during the golden performance car era, it was all but wiped out by that great natural calamity, the 1974 energy crisis. Challenger, Barracuda, Mustang, Javelin; even its stablemate the Camaro Z28; by 1975 they were all extinct or in deep hibernation. Only the Trans Am hung in there, and then just by a whisker, or a feather, in this case.
But Pontiac’s risky gamble to press on against the odds had a huge payoff: not only did Trans Am sales explode by the end of the decade, but it came to symbolize the whole genre. Rarely has one car so dominated the American public’s awareness: in the second half of the seventies, the Trans Am became the icon of the American performance car, for better or for worse.
In 1972, GM had a huge internal battle going as to whether the new-for 1970 F-Body Camaro and Firebird should be scrapped by 1973, rather than invest the sums necessary to re-engineer them for the new mandated impact-absorbing bumpers being phased. Sales of the handsome coupes had been hampered by production delays, strikes and the general fall-off of the whole segment, in response to rising insurance and other factors. Ford was pulling the plug on their oversize Mustang in favor of the Pinto-based Mustang II, and Chrysler and AMC walked away from the market altogether.
GM had the Vega-based H-bodies coming for 1975, to do battle with the Mustang II and the import sporty coupes. That seemed to be where the future action was, and big-engined performance cars were out, a relic of the good old days that ended so abruptly. But the right side won, GM hung in there, and it turned out to be one of the best choices they made in that era. Americans were not all ready to embrace a future of little four-banger Shetland-pony cars. And once gas prices stabilized in 1975 and 1976, the economy revived and GM’s decision turned out to be a gold-pinstriped mine.
The Trans Am retained its big 455 CID V8 through 1976, long after the Camaro jettisoned both the 396 or the 350 CID Z28. The glory years of the big Poncho engine were of course the earliest ones, before lower compression ratios and smog controls eroded its once awesome Ram Air.
And the 1974 Super Duty 455 still managed a respectable 290 (net) hp despite them. A genuine terror through 1974, by 1975 the TA 455 had its wings clipped, but it was still the only thing of its kind on the market.
The legend was firmly established, and it was a rip-roaring success. So much so, that Chevrolet brought the Z28 out of hibernation for 1977.5. And although it sold well enough, the Trans Am was now firmly established as a cultural icon, thanks in part to its starring role in the classic car-chase/stunt movies of the times, Smokey and the Bandit (above),
and Hooper. The Trans Am and Burt Reynolds are inextricably intertwined, reflecting the good-old boy reaction/renaissance that was taking place as an antidote to the seventies’ massive cultural changes.
Pontiac faced an uphill battle to keep the performance real in the TA, and frankly, it was mostly a losing one; not surprising given the ever-tightening emission and CAFE regs. The 455, now down to 215 hp, made its last appearance in the ’76 TA, to be supplanted by the smaller-bore 400 Pontiac as well as the Olds 403 in CA, where the emission standards were even tighter. And by 1979, the Olds 403 had taken up residence in all TAs, except for a handful of genuine Pontiac 400 engines left over from 1978, and used mostly in the 10th Anniversary edition.
But who cared if the Trans Am was powered by a 185 hp Olds 403 shared with a Vista Cruisers? The screaming chicken was still on the hood, the scoops and vents were sort-of real, and it looked like stink, even if it only went more like a well-muffled fart than a genuine cannonball. It was still the only game in town if you wanted bragging rights to a sporty coupe with something big under the hood. Step right this way, you sideburned and mustachioed young (and not so young) men of America!
And did they ever, in droves. Firebird and TA sales soared during this period, and hit a phenomenal peak in 1979: some 210k Firebirds total, of which over half were TAs. And even though the Firebird was the more visible of the two, the Camaro sold in even bigger numbers. In 1979, GM moved about a half-million of these F-bodies; a mind-boggling number compared to today’s Camaro. It was the final blowout, before another energy crisis crashed the party again, in 1980-1981. Sales crashed, and by 1982, the downsized third-gen Firebird appeared with a standard 90hp 2.5 L Iron Duke four banger.
The Firebird eventually found its performance legs again in the late eighties, thanks to fuel injection, but it never recouped its old sales moxie. That 1979 number stands as the all-time high for the Firebird, by a healthy margin. And this 1979 is also the last year for the big V8 altogether in the TA; by 1980, only the smaller Pontiac 301 and Chevy 305 were available. In a last desperate attempt to keep performance in the TA, a turbo version of the 301 was developed.
Although it was rated at 210 hp, more than the Olds 403, its performance never lived up to its hype, thanks to the limitations of its crude electronics to control pre-detonation. GM’s turbo skills with Buick’s hot V6 were still a few years away. As impressive as the Turbo Trans Am sounded (in name), it was a flop; they’re hard to find today, but I did a while back.
This clean and original ’79 TA is owned by a woman who rents an apartment above the Cornucopia, a neighborhood cafe featuring the best grass-fed beef hamburgers in town. My eyes had been peeled for a good vintage TA since starting CC, and it only makes sense it would be here, home of the best hamburgers in town. I wouldn’t exactly expect a Trans Am to live in front of one of the many vegan eateries around here. This here is all-American beef, even if it is a bit lean.
CC 1971 Camaro RS: Even Pininfarina Praised It
CC 1980-1981 Firebird Turbo Trans Am: The Final Blowout
I think it’s only fair to say that the second-gen Firebird and Camaro really are good-looking cars if you can look past all the tinsel. Both Pontiac and Chevrolet also did a pretty good job of updating the bodies to accommodate the 5-mph bumpers, which wasn’t an easy feat even for some cars that were designed for the big bumpers.
A lot of the T/A stuff is OTT for my tastes (was the screaming chicken standard on T/As or was it a separate option?), but I do think this shape needs the rear spoiler for visual balance. The louvers, though… I just don’t get it. In every car I’ve ever been in that had the rear window louvers, their primary function was to rattle incessantly over anything bumpier than a pool table (with an important secondary function of fouling the rear wiper on cars so equipped), and if they had any advantage in blocking the sun, I never noticed.
As proof that the seventies’ f-bodies looked okay in basic, unadorned, non-Z28/TA trim, one need look no further than The Rockford Files.
Of course, it could just be because James Garner was driving one. I would imagine that just about anything he was driving would be cool, sort of like the Paul Newman/Steve McQueen effect.
+1 on the Garner effect. Collared shirt, blazer, Firebird with whitewalls. I admit to a man-crush.
Rockford is one of my favorite shows, along with Adam-12 and Dragnet. I want to buy a ’70s Firebird for my wife, but she’s too frugal to go along with it. Maybe I’ll just buy one for myself and let her drive it. 🙂 I actually like the basic Firebirds of the ’70s more than the Trans Ams, but either is fine. These are the only ’70s cars I’d truly want to own.
I’ve always liked 70s TV. I wasn’t around when it was made, but it seems to have a certain level of goodness.
Sadly, on my budget, no Trans Am 🙁
But, an AMC Matador might just be a possibility! 😉
Another guy who drived a Firebird/Trans-Am was John Wayne in McQ in the first car chase of the movie.
And a Trans-Am was also used in the movie “The Hunter”, the last movie then Steve McQueen did before its death.
I instantly loved the Trans Am and Formulas when they first entered my knowledge, but a regular Esprit with whitewalls took a long long time for me to appreciate. It really did take James Garner doing J turns to get away from hired goons for me to appreciate a despoiled Firebird body.
The hood decal was standard, but could be deleted for credit. Documented “chicken delete” cars are prized by collectors.
My ’79 had no chicken. It was on the sticker and one of the build sheets I found under the front seat when I removed it to replace it with a much more comfortable Sheel seat. I don’t remember what the credit was anymore. I really regret selling that car. After a lot of money into hopping it up, it ran 13.30’s at Milan Dragway and was a great street car. I got Iroc fever in 1986, and after 5 years the T/A was gone. It’s recently reappeared on the street, complete with it’s long cracked and repaired right rear tail light. The guy who bought it from me still has it and after it sat for over 10 years in his garage, he decided to get it going again. It was parked due to a howling rear end around 2003. The engine is still the original 403, with all the mods I did and had done to it (Cam, intake manifold, heads, exhaust, gears (2.41’s were stock (??))etc), and it fired right up and uses no oil. It needs paint badly, and has a rust spot that looks like it’s an old repair on the passenger door that had some bondo fall off, and is about to perforate. If I had the $$, I would buy it back in a second, get it painted, even a cheapo MAACO job would be a huge improvement, and have the “chicken” I designed in 1984 painted on the hood that is a lot better looking than the GM sticker one.
oh absolutely. these cars look terrible without the rear spoiler.
There was a Trans Am in Vegas that someone ordered without the rear spoiler. I worked across the street from the dealership and saw it and at first I thought it was some bizarre factory screw up, but a friend who worked there told me it was specifically ordered that way. Well, it looked ridiculous, and, as everyone predicted, it soon had the normal spoiler. The guy who bought it said he had no idea why he didn’t want the spoiler, but soon realized, probably due to all the crap he took over it, that the car looked just plain wrong without it. IMHO, even a base F-Body looked wrong without some kind of spoiler on the back end.
My 79 Edmunds price guide shows that the Special Edition Appearence package included the decal but this package is optional at extra cost ($674 w/o hatch). The decal was available for $95 on the base Trans Am.
The 2nd gen F-bodies are great looking cars period. They were perfect (IMO) in their earliest forms and while big steel bumpers and bad nose jobs made them a little more homely they are great looking cars.
I owned a 72 Z28 that I wish I had never sold and I’d kill for an early 70’s TA. I love the looks of all the 70’s F-bodies except the 4 square front end Firebirds and TA’s like the one in this article. Even the 4 square headlight ones don’t look horrible though, I just prefer the earlier ones.
My friend and I looked at one of the turbo firebirds in the early 90’s, it was for sale in a KMart parking lot. We were in HS but it was too far gone for us to consider, it was a complete junker and a 301 didn’t sound as cool as a Chevy 350 (everyone wanted a 350) anyway.
> the second-gen Firebird and Camaro really are good-looking cars if you can look past all the tinsel.
I would say the exact same thing about the 3rd and 4th gen cars as well. Fundamentally attractive designs that were progressively covered with gimmicky body effects so that GM could keep them on the market for 9 or 10 years.
My fiance’ would kill for that car. I’ve promised her a T-topped F-body sometime after we’re married. Just hoping I can find one with a manual transmission, too.
The screaming chicken was an option, although in practice it was a “mandatory option”. Good luck finding one without. And I’m willing to be that said “naked” car would sell for a bit less than a full version.
I had a cousin who had a gold ’79 T/A that came from the factory without the hood decal so, yeah, it was possible.
I actually bought a new 1981 California version TA with the 305 Chevy small block and 4 speed and it did not have the hood decal. Body panel fit was pretty awful and I got a warranty replacement hood “scoop”, which came in color-matched but without the 5.0 stickers. So I had a decal-less TransAm as supplied by GM. Within a few months I really regretted this purchase, my first new car after a Volvo 122S, Vega GT, Alfetta, Scirocco and Ford Fiesta and replaced it with a Civic of all things. 30+ years later and I kinda regret selling the Pontiac but you can’t go back.
When you look at a car like that you can almost hear Sheriff Buford T. Justice cussing and threatening to “Bar-b-q your ass in molasses.”
As Little Enos Brudette thumbs through a fad wad of notes:
Bo Bandit: ‘I’m gonna need a new car……….speedy car………..speedier than that!’
For me, just as much a poster car as a white Lamborghini Countach.
Put the evidence in the back!
One of the few 70s American cars on my wish list.I still want one
Grass-fed midwestern boy here. These cars were the stuff of my dreams in my late HS years. I ran across one in blue last year at a local car show, truly the one I prefer to the “me too” black and gold Special Editions that polluted the roadways in the late 1970’s.
But, I wouldn’t kick that one out of my driveway, now…
Here’s the 1981 Turbo in the blue that I like…
You ate grass?
I hope he meant “Corn Fed” –
Wait! I thought grass-fed beef was the best!
But I am from a small town in Ohio…
I’ve actually managed to snap a Turbo T/A in Israel… Black, what else?
Yes, I think the black S/Es outnumbered any other color 2:1. At least by that much…
They certainly do NOW. Sort of like how every other classic Mopar has a Hemi or 440 six pack NOW.
When I was actively looking for one I was finding them in all sorts of colors, this was just as they started regaining popularity about ten years ago. My Dad’s was blue with a blue screaming chicken, his other choice was the 78 Gold edition which I find particularly attractive. But there were all sorts of Trans Am colors I came across in old car trader type mags, White, red, yellow, green, brown, ect. Black/gold was the least common one I came across(and believe me, I looked hard for one, because Bandit)
I still have my 1981 Nascar 301 turbo pace car replica of which only 2000 were made. it has but 29K miles on the clock and still drives and goes down the road like new. There is just something really cool about taking those T-tops off and roaring down the street on a nice calm sunny day hearing the turbo whoosh that feel very therapeutic after a long hard day at work. The car gets loads of attention at car shows and gas stations or in a store parking lot. Have had her for almost 15 years and no intention of letting her go. Premium non ethanol gas, a low restriction catalytic converter, a some very good tips from the 301 site with removing heat sources from the turbo plenum have resulted in a much better performing bird that when I originally bought her. In fact I am getting better 0-60 times than any 403 automatic car I have driven!
After writing my original comment, I got to thinking. It’s really kinda scary, and indicative of just how much the accountants had taken over that GM was ready to drop the entire F-body line three years after it came out . . . . . . . over having to redesign the front end to meet federal bumper standards.
I think that shows just how little GM management believed in the cars. THEY drove broughams, so they had very little interest in keeping a car line going that they wouldn’t be seen driving on a daily basis. In fact, they probably wouldn’t have bothered coming up with such a car, had it not been for the Mustang. And look how quickly AMC and Chrysler dropped their lines
Blinded by broughams, they came very close to making one of the stupider decisions of their careers – all because there were other lines of cars that could be marketed at less cost. After all, where’s the advantage of having to come up with a different body that would actually perform and handle against the development (ha!) costs of a vinyl roof and other fake luxury trappings slathered on a plain jane car?
In one of the more recent ‘what might have been’ moments in GM’s history, you have to wonder what would have happened if, instead of finally killing the f-body in 2002 and replacing it with the goofy Chevy SSR (!) and Holden Monaro-based GTO (which, for all intents and purposes, looked like a Cavalier with a thyroid problem), they’d have chosen that time to introduce the current retro Camaro and, presumably, a Firebird version along with it.
I don’t know how much it would have done to save Pontiac, but it seems as if the Firebird was every bit as synonymous with that car company as Camaro is with Chevy and Mustang with Ford. The GTO attempt might have worked if they hadn’t went the cheap route of just a few minor modifications to the Aussie car and completely rebodied it so it actually looked like a retro GTO. Supposedly, a retro-GTO was in the works but GM decided to just kill the company, instead.
Where the GTO went wrong is it was 10 years too late. If it came out in ’93 it would’ve been hotness. But by ’03 the jellybean look with no angles was WAY stale. Still the only Poncho worthwhile at the time…
Not true the 6 speed G8 although a 4 door is a sweet and very muscular looking car…and the 6 speed top of the line model is so sought after you have to pay above the original sticker for a nice used one FACT
Contract was up in the plant in Quebec; no way they could afford that while coupe/pony sales fell off.
And a shame, as my ’98 base Camaro 3800II T-5 with mods and Vette wheels was the best handling car I’ve ever owned, and it didn’t even squeak! Even sounded good with a Borla and Whisperlid…
I believe the St Therese plant (well the parking lot that is left) is now a Home Depot.
Part of the reason that plant went away is because it was huge and F-body production didn’t take up enough capacity to keep it going.
The other problem was the F-body didn’t meet side impact standards after 2002 so it would have needed a redesign for 2003. Unfortunately that was enough to say bye bye to it at the time.
“The other problem was the F-body didn’t meet side impact standards after 2002 so it would have needed a redesign for 2003.”
I think it was safe to say that the 93-02 F Body cars had no side impact protection whatsoever. I recently had to take the door panel off the drivers door in my 1999 Firebird to replace the window motor(a very common issue in these cars) The “impact protection” consists of a skinny metal bar that runs from one end of the door to the other. The door is made of a fiberglass like material.
Needless to say I am under no illusions that I will survive if broadsided in that car.
Last few years of 4th gen production was really just for the fans (or more likely, the union). Sales were minimal, and the primitive thing really should not have lasted into the 21st century.
the “primitive” 4th gens were actually pretty stout cars. The only really glaring downfall was the factory shocks, which were junk after you drove off the lot. Once you replace them with a quality set (at least Bilstein HD’s) the 4th gen turns into quite the nice touring car.
“Stout” is the last word I’d use to describe the 4th gens. They felt like tins cans with a bunch of poorly secured plastic rattling around inside. They certainly were drivable under certain conditions, when new, but ultimately most of them shook themselves into tiny broken worn-out pieces.
I saw two accidents right after they happened, involving the 4th Gen Trans Am’s and it was pretty obvious that side impact wasn’t the greatest. One was a kid who had been given a WS-6 T/A for a graduation present and about 3 months later, about 3am one morning, I was going someplace and saw a flash of light and a cloud of glass in the air, just as I approached a turn. When I came around the turn, the yellow T/A was wrapped around a telephone pole from the passenger side, and the driver was hanging out of the window on the driver’s side, dead. The police were there almost instantly, so I didn’t have to stop or anything. About a year later, a 30 something guy flew by me about 2 miles from my house at about 80MPH (On a 35 MPH back then street, now it’s 25MPH), and dissappeared into the dark. There is a hill with a left turn at the top of it, and he didn’t make it. He did the same thing as the other guy, and wrapped it around a pole, and he was dead too. Oddly, both of these cars were yellow. I had to make a report on the second wreck, as I was the one who first called 911 and told them about him passing me, etc. The second guy killed was just married and was coming home from work.
I understand you may not like them, but that doesn’t make what you say true. I’ve owned two, and still own one. They are actually quite a bit better than the 2nd and 3rd gens. Once you get the shocks replaced the car really tightens up. In spite of what you may have read, their unibody was vastly stiffer than the 3rd gens and was said to be comparable to its competition.
I know everyone likes to play scientist and tell their stories without taking into account all the facts they couldn’t possibly know (they’re unsafe, they are wet noodles, they all fell apart etc…) We’re all guilt of it.
To set the record straight. The 4th gens got the following ratings for the NHTSA: Front hit: driver 4 to 5 stars (depending on year), passenger 5 stars. Side impact driver 3 stars, passenger 4 stars.
We’re not talking death traps here.
Don’t forget the pony car market was drying up fast–2 door large personal coupes were making the money. Also in 1973 there was a big strike at the Norwood plant and every car on the line was scrapped because of the bumper laws for 1974. A small vocal group kept the F-cars going and like an investor that doesn’t panic when markets drop GM held and held untill gas was plentifull and good times were rolling again–the cars sold well enough that they were last on GM’s downsizing schedule
If I recall correctly, sales of the F-bodies (or at least the Camaro) actually increased for 1974, which ran totally counter to the market.
Makes perfect sense to me. The Mustang II likely turned off the normal ponycar buyer. Those ran with open arms to the F bodies, as the Mopar E bodies were biting the dust along with the Javelin. Mustang IIs likely stole buyers away from imports.
I think there might be a comparison there to the ’50s compacts: There was still a market, but it wasn’t big enough to sustain a bunch of different players. Once the E-bodies and Javelin were gone and the Mustang had changed directions, the Camaro and Firebird had a niche more or less to themselves. So, it may not have been growth so much as consolidation of the remaining market.
I bought a 76 Firebird Esprit (the TA’s were too flashy for me) a few years back. It only needed partial restoration – I lost a lot of money but it was a dream car for me, was very sad when I ultimately sold it. In 76 they were positively gutless, the 350 put out 110hp I think, and it felt like even less. But I still love the lines of the car. Someone told me once that they designed, originally, the Camaro to sell to women and the Firebird to sell to men – but I’ve never read that anywhere.
I heard that too once. If it did happen, it would have been an early example of “niche marketing”.
The lowest output GM 350 Cid engine during the 70’s was the Chevy 350 2BBL during the 75 and 76 models years I believe making all of 145 horses. The Chevy 262 2BBL V8 was the one that made 110 HP during that time period. The 4BBL engines usually made between 155 and 175 HP unless installed in a Vette where they came anywhere from 185-210 HP. By today’s standards pathetic but compared to some of Ford 351’s not bad at all.
Ford 351 examples-
1974 351-C-4V-248 HP
1975 351W-2V-143 HP
1977 351W-2V-149 HP
1977 351M-2V-161 HP
1979 351W-2V-134 HP
1979 351M-2V-152 HP
Not as disparate as you imply, definitely in the ball park.
my understanding was that (at least in ’79) Trans Ams got the Olds 403 with an automatic trans, and the Pontiac 400 with a stick. Also, the shaker decals were different, one was labeled “T/A 6.6” and the other “6.6 LITRE.”
6.6 Litre was the Pontiac engine–production had stopped the year before so most of them were saved for the 10th ann T/A
The W72 Pontiac 400 was the one that was meant to have the T/A 6.6 badge while the L78 Pontiac 400(1977) and the Oldsmobile 403 engines received the 6.6 Litre stickers. For 1979, the W72 was the only Pontiac 400 left, and it had T/A 6.6 while Oldsmobile engines came with 6.6 Litre decals. Further confusing matters, quality control was non-existent so many cars were delivered with the wrong labels. Documentation can be found here: http://www.78ta.com/66liter.php
W72 Pontiac 400s has the “T/A 6.6” decal, while L78 Pontiac 400s and the Olds 403 received “6.6 Litre” decals.
Oops…looks like you treed me, CJ!
My ’79 T/A had no chicken and no scoop decals and was ordered that way. I have no idea why. I was happy the chicken was missing, but the scoop decal delete was odd. The lack of scoop decals and the way it ran (After a lot of mods. Joe Mondello knew what he was doing) made a lot of people suspect it wasn’t a 403 car at all, but a look under the hood of a ’73-76 Cutlass convinced them it was at least an Olds small block under the hood, even if it ran way better than any other one they had seen. It didn’t sound like one either, it was very loud.
As a 15 year old when I first seen the 79 Firebirds at the dealer lots the front end just was so different than anything else–the magazines called it a bottom breather. The first one I seen was gold and we were blown away the window sticker price of the hood decal–$100.00–it was an option but most cars were ordered with it or the owner added available aftermarket decals. Don’t forget the T/A and Formula came with cool blackout taillights–If I could keep a small stable of cars a 79-81 T/A would be in it regardless of engine
The “Thunderchicken” didn`t make the car go any faster, but, admittedly, it did look cool.
I know of a gentleman In a small northwestern Alberta town who has a trio of late seventy Trans Ams in a garage. All low kms including a 79 black Trans Am. If I remember correctly they were all bought in the US.
I would never have on in my dream garage, I do agree their styling and performance at the time was the best there was.
I actively ignored these when they were new. The popularity of these grated on my non-conformist streak, and I had a serious anti-GM thing going on in the second half of the 70s.
All these years on, I can acknowledge that they were something quite unique available at the time. These really were quite good cars, even if the over-the-top graphics may not have been ones’s thing. Today, there are few vehicles that ARE the late 70s more than one of these. And to do the 70s experience properly, the huge screaming chicken is absolutely mandatory.
I am just surprised and amazed that one of these fixtures of life in the midwest turned up in Eugene! Driving a black T/A and flipping burgers can be so much cooler now than it was in, say, 1985. 🙂
I was also a big car guy and the Fs generally were not my thing in high school and college. But, they were so common that I did drive a few that belonged to friends. I had to admit the handling was quite good and that the versions I drove were fast for the times – in other words; fun cars. It did cause me to rethink my propensity for loaded A bodies, but the limited interior space and small trunk kept me away. I did a lot of golfing and the F trunk was not up to the task.
How can you NOT have a soft spot for these? And if you were a kid in the 80’s, who didn’t have SOME toy of the infamous Bandit Trans-Am? I had a few diecasts that were black and gold, as well as at least one Tyco slot car in this exact trim. Man do I miss Pontiac….
I miss Olds…
At the time I did not like them. At the time my favorite new car was the Hurst-Olds. I also liked the 1979 Mustang pace car replica quite a bit when it first came out.
Fantastic find. I prefer the Bandit look of the ’77-’78s but this is still great stuff. And yes, the Screaming Chicken is so wrong, yet so right on these cars!
Yep, these late ’70s T/As were the ‘it’ machine at the time, especially in black & gold, if you were young and your family had money. I remember a lot middle eastern exchange students who attended my university, especially Iranians, driving them back then.
During college my girlfriend (now my wife) and her older brother shared a ’76 T/A, 400 4-speed, silver w/ dark red interior. It was a pretty badass car at the time. It had a lot of low end grunt, but totally ran out of breath by 4k RPM. The redline was only 5000 RPM, IIRC. It did handle exceptionally well and with the 4 speed Muncie and very heavy clutch, it was a manly machine.
Funny story how my wife’s family acquired their silver T/A… They lived in a small town, and she and her brother attended a rural high school. So when my brother-in-law turned 16 and needed a car to get to/from school, my father-in-law turned to a good friend who owned a GM dealership in a nearby town. A Pontiac man at the time, my father-in-law had wanted a relatively inexpensive, economical, but safe car for his teenage kids, so he inquired about a Sunbird. The owner told him that, yes, he had several Sunbirds he could look at, but for the same price as a new Sunbird he could buy the less-than-1-year old Trans Am that the dealer’s son had been driving. My father-in-law asked “what’s a Trans Am?” “It’s just a fancy Firebird” the dealer told him. So my father-in-law went up and drove the thing and struck a deal to buy it. He says he remembers thinking as was driving it home from the dealer, “holy s**t, what the hell did I just buy?”
Anyway, God bless my father-in-law. My wife had a tits car to drive in college, and she’s been a fan of performance machines ever since.
“it was a manly machine.”
Maybe its just me, but the general air of ‘manly rides’ being frowned upon only adds to their appeal. The fact that a loud, over the top flashy muscle car is basically a motorized middle finger to all the bland faceless sedans sent to emasculate us just makes it that much sweeter to own one!
Regarding the “manly machine” part, I was in high school in the late 1970s. These cars were the dream cars for virtually all of us – particularly the girls!
Funny how that works, huh? You can design the most manly, macho sleds on the road (Mustang, Challenger, Wrangler, jacked up diesel pickup) aim it right between the eyes of every guy with cash and youll get a fair number of women stepping up too. If it has even a whiff of ‘chick car’, we wont touch it.
Clothes are like that too. My ex would almost always snatch my favorite Nirvana T shirt and wear it to bed during sleepovers…and wear it all the way home. Ill give you 3 guess how many times I made breakfast in HER clothes…
My university also had an Iranian population, and they did indeed drive Trans Ams. They were also fancy dressers; loud pattern long sleeve dress shirts, dress pants and shoes. The perfect part was they also wore gold chains and had the hairiest chests in the school – they had he ’70s look down, even if it was the ’80s. Totally forgot about this until I saw your comment!
I must admit a certain fondness for these, screaming chicken graphics and all. Not a car I’d actually buy, but I appreciate them when I see one. Much more-so than a Camaro at least. I think I’ve always liked Firebird styling over Camaro styling, across every generation that both were offered.
It’s a minor point, but I don’t like the font used for the “Trans Am” lettering on the tail and the front fenders; looks too gothic. The block letters used on the car in the ad look better IMO.
A guy at my high school had a new one of these back in ’76, gold and black. At the time it was just so far and above whatever anyone else was driving to school (’69 Buick Special Deluxe wagon in my case) that it might just as well have come from outer space. In looking at the ad in the story, this car is just so over the top with the hood scoop, the pukin’ chicken, the spoiler, the graphics, the T-top , the wheels. But at the time it was flat out cool. But so were leisure suits so go figure.
It’s worth noting that a 1979 TA with the 400 stick combo could run a 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds and the 1/4 in about 15 seconds, clocked by C&D I believe, which in 1979 was unheard of. It wasn’t until the mid 80’s with tuned port injection or the HO 302 Mustangs that times like that would be seen again.
The 400 Poncho mill was rated for 220 HP but to was said dinoed out more in the 250-260 range.
The question is if it was “prepped” by GM to any extent, as was so common back in the day. “Ringers”, they were called.
Maybe a CC on the practice of prepping musclecar ‘ringers’ for car magazines in the sixties is warranted. I think the whole thing might have been started by Jim Wangers, the Pontiac ad-man some believe is as much responsible for the GTO’s success as John Delorean.
Probably the most notorious occurance was when Wangers supplied a ’64 GTO to Car and Driver that had a 421 engine swapped in for the stock 389 and was used in a comparison with the ‘real’ Ferrari GTO. You have to wonder how many GTOs got sold due to that article, alone.
Good idea. The research to do it justice could be quite time-intensive, as it was pervasive to varying degrees. That example is an extreme one; just a blueprinted and carefully tuned engine, possibly not to smog specs, was probbaly more typical. Unfortunately, I don’t have an extensive old magazine collection either. Maybe just to find that one test and post it, as an example.
Yeah, that would work. I don’t think either Chrysler or Ford went so far with the prepping, as well as Chevrolet didn’t seem too much into it (probably wasn’t necessary with the good-running Mark IV big-blocks).
But Wangers seemed to be not only big with manipulating Pontiacs, but Olds (and maybe even Buick), too. I’d read Wangers used to run 442s on Woodward in the late sixties so he was probably responsible for the Hurst/Olds.
And, as just a guess, I dare say he had something to do with the 1970 Buick GS 455 that ran some unbelievably fast quarter mile times, like in the top five fastest, ever, and that includes against stuff like an early sixties Max Wedge III Mopar (the ‘race only’ one with 13:1 compression) and 427 Cobra, neither of which could really be driven reliably or safely on the street.
I don’t know if Wangers had much to do with Oldsmobile. He was pretty loyal to Pontiac, and, in those days, GM divisions competed with each other as much as with Ford, Mercury, Dodge and Plymouth. In his book he mentions that Oldsmobile was initially Pontiac’s stiffest competition in the muscle-car market.
As for the Hurst Olds – that was a bone thrown to Oldsmobile management after GM denied it a version of the Camaro and Firebird. The official story was that Oldsmobile sent the 442s to have the big V-8s installed, as official GM policy in 1968 was that the A-bodies couldn’t offer the largest V-8s. Now everyone involved with the project admits that Oldsmobile itself installed the big V-8s and sent the cars to Hurst for the finishing details. GM’s top management looked the other way while this happened.
The Hurst/Olds came about because Hurst, who was already selling shifters to Pontiac, had approached DeLorean and crew about putting the bigger 428 engine in the Firebird (which was then verboten under corporate policy). Pontiac wasn’t able to pursue the idea, but DeLorean and Estes ultimately connected Hurst with John Beltz at Oldsmobile. Essentially, corporate management signed off on the Hurst/Olds as a consolation prize for Oldsmobile not getting an F-body, which Beltz had very much wanted.
There was also that 1963 PopMech or PopSci test of 6 hot compacts where a 326 Tempest 3 speed dusted a 4 speed supercharged 4 bbl 289 Super Lark (Lark with an Avanti R2 engine).
Another interesting reference point on that are the Car and Driver Supercar comparison tests in April 1966 and January 1969. In the former, they asked for completely stock cars and got a couple of production-spec cars, a Royal Bobcat GTO, and Ford and Mercury entries that had been prepped by Holman-Moody. In the latter, the editors actually disqualified the Pontiac entry because it was readily apparent that their Judge wasn’t stock.
The tricky bit regarding the GS455 Stage One was that Buick, like most of the others, by that point had a whole bunch of hotter Stage Two drag racing homologation stuff in the catalog, some of which (like the cam and lifter kit) wouldn’t have been readily detectable without a full tech inspection à la NASCAR.
I graduated from the University of Illinois in ’79 as a rich mechanical engineer and order one of the last ones produced that year. I was sick of the black and gold, i ordered silver like the anniversary edition, but with a dark red interior (velour of course). the chicken was various shades of gray with some red accents. 403 Olds motor, had to get automatic, special order lowest rear ratio, something like 3:23. Most Pontiac 400’s went to the first units built except for some holdovers for the anniversary edition, all were 4 speeds I believe. the car was an eye catcher and really was a draw. i noticed right away that it leaned way more to the left than to the right. i looked underneath and the front sway bar was not connected to the “A” arm on one side. ok, fix under warranty. Thing did handle sweet, but acceleration was lethargic. next the power antennae broke, another warranty fix but the dealer scratched the paint. fix that after huge haggle. i’m driving to work one day and the sun visor falls in my lap, covering my slacks in grease. the washer holding the thing on was never swaged. another warranty fix. T-tops leaked from new. Sold the thing to a neighbor’s kid and bought a new ’81 Civic. Last american car for quite awhile for me. Kid nearly totals car in a few months. they fix the car. A few months later he does total it.
Norwood’s reputation for quality and labor relations was as bad if not worse than Lordstown in those days. It’s the only case I know of where GM actually cited poor quality as one of the reasons for closure when they announced Norwood’s demise in 1987.
Van Nuys was a little better, but by the time the 3rd gen F-bodies were nearing the end of their run QC had become every bit as bad as Norwood. It died along with the 3rd gens in 1992.
Even the 4th gen cars built in Ste. Therese seemed (to me anyway) tinny and cheap (but they sure were fun!) compared to both the Mustang and many of GM’s other offerings at the time. My ’97 Grand Prix felt like a bank vault compared to an F-body.
Yeah, Norwood was pretty bad. It’s not generally known but further north in nearby Fairfield was another GM plant that was closely linked with Norwood (maybe a Fisher body plant). GM warned both plants that unless they got their acts together, they were going to shut them down. Fairfield heeded their words and improved, but the arrogant Norwood employees thought GM was bluffing and did nothing. It wasn’t until it was too late that all the line workers actually began showing up. The story goes that, in the final weeks, the Norwood parking lot would be overflowing with cars as the now frightened workers decided maybe they should come in but, by then, it was too late, and neither of those cities (Norwood or Fairfield), to this day, have ever really recovered from the economic loss.
Fairfield was the stamping plant that supplied Norwood and Van Nuys and also made various panels for the A-bodies. Most of it still stands today as a partially occupied industrial park/warehouse complex.
I remember looking at a new 1979 Firebird in the dealer showroom in Raytown ,Missouri and noticing the passenger door had a Camaro logo inside. Sales came over and said “what do you think?”. He and the sales manger almost soiled themselves when I pointed it out.
Wasn’t there a few Pontiac Firebird Esprit models marketed to women from about 77-81? I recall one was called Yellow Bird but there were few others. While I love the Firebird, in regards to the 2nd Gen, I am only a fan of the 79-81 versions. I never liked the round headlight versions as those round lights made it look dated even when new and the 77-78 seems to take the “bird” in Firebird too literal with a beaky front end.
My favorite is the 82-92 birds(aka Knight Rider era)
Perhaps you are thinking of the Red Bird Appearance Package with Hobnail velour cloth ($491).
there was a Blue, Yellow and Red “special” editions marketed to women based on the Esprit package.
the blue ones were called Sky Birds because the Blue Bird bus company owned the rights to the name. The Red Bird and Yellow Bird came after.
I found the skybird in my 77 and 78 price guides. So I don’t know when the yellow version was available – I would guess 1980 perhaps.
Yes, I believe it was 1980.
I might be able to deal with a Sky Bird or Red Bird, not sure I could confidently drive around in the Yellow Bird.
LOL, it’s not that bad Phil. You are right about the year: 1980.
While surfing the net to look for more info on the Skybird,Redbird and Yellow bird. I came upon this link
It seems these special edition birds were made from 1977 to 1980.
the Skybird(Blue) was made from 77-78
The Redbird was made from 78-79
The Yellowbird was made in 1980.
Like the regular Esprit, the car could be had with or without the spoiler.
There were quite a few Sky Birds around Houston when I was a kid, and many of them were owned by men. It was during the Houston Oilers’ “Luv Ya Blue” glory years and the Sky Bird’s color scheme wasn’t too far off from the Oilers’ Columbia Blue….
Did someone say “Skybird”? 🙂
When someone mentioned a Skybird, I immediately thought of you. 🙂
Anyone notice that on the pictured “79”, the lettering on the fenders, hood scoop and trunklid are 1977-style? It was a more fanciful font, and can be compared with the actual fonts seen in the brochure pic from 1979. So either that’s an Oldsmobile-engined 1979 with some parts swapped in from an earlier black car….or perhaps it’s a ’77 with newer front and rear ends bolted on.
Also, IIRC the 455 got dropped for a year in 1975, and made its one-year comeback for 1976. Anyone else remember that?
I think the 455 was dropped for part of the year and then they brought it back as the “455 HO”, with a mandatory 4 speed only. It was the same 200hp monster they put in the station wagons at the time.
I remember Stan Chazen Pontiac in west L.A. having loads of these things on their lots. I agree, the T/A’s styling was a bit much for me. One of my favorite cars of the era was the Firebird Formula 400 which could be ordered with the 403 Olds and all the T/A’s suspension, but without all the fiberglass and Mylar. Incidentally, I was told that ‘The Rockford Files’ used to use Formula 400’s as the basis for Jim’s car in order to facilitate the car chases Rockford so often ended up in (and Garner himself usually drove). Good times.
a rare bird is the ’79 Formula 400 with the Pontiac 400 and 4 speed. There were definitely some made.
I’m not a big fan of the ’79 restyle, but I like the Formula.
Well here’s one for you I pictured in Israel:
And an even earlier one from 1973:
Was it possible to get a 400 in a non-Formula Firebird? Rockford’s car never had any kind of hood scoops, Formula or otherwise.
I know that in later years, although the latest model car was used, it was specially painted to match the earlier cars since the same gold color was no longer available and there are many shows where some shots of the older car were reused, resulting in a mixture of older and newer cars throughout an episode.
74 was the last year you could get the 400 (and even then it was only available in 2bbl form) in a Firebird that wasn’t a Formula or T/A.
In the first season they used Denver Gold Esprit’s with a 400 (you can actually see the 400 badge on the fender), for 75-78 they used Formulas and changed out the hood and I believe the gold changed to a slightly different shade.
Correct-Most of the Rockford cars were Formulas that were “de-Formulated”.
I bought a 81 turbo zam in the mid 90’s. Long gone was the 301and puffer. In its place was a built 69 rocket 455 turbo 400. With the stock 308 rear that car was mean and fast fast. It had two down falls, watching the gas gauge dwindle and having to tighten the bell housing bolts once or twice a week. I sold to a friend who drove it all summer and then he sold it to the mechanic I used who used the front subframe motor, trans and rear end for a 55 Chevrolet pick up he was building.
I absolutely love these cars. They are one of my most favorite cars from the ’70s. Especially the ’74-’78 models. GM messed up the front end on the ’79 and up, and even did away with that wonderful shaker hood scoop in ’80 and ’81. Unlike most everybody else, I actually liked the urethane bumpers back then. They were a major styling point on the Carmaro, Firebird, and Corvette. The mid ’70s Trans Am was an imposing car. Yes, it looked a lot faster than it actually was, and that’s sad. But it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the looks. I remember as a teenager straining my neck so many times just to get a look at one that it still hurts.
I liked the ’74-’77 Corvette just a little bit better (especially the white ones) and just below the Trans Am was the ’71-’73 Mach 1 Mustang.
Hard to believe, even back then, that the F bodies had a sales comeback during the recession of 1974-75. Boomers wanted sporty cars, and GM had them. The Mustang II maybe helped guide buyers to the F’s.
The 455 was dropped for ’75, but came back mid year, something unheard of. The original thinking was ‘no more’ but demand was still there, even if it wasn’t the SD version. 1976 saw a recovery of all car sales, and then ’77 was almost like 1968 again, stress the ‘almost’, the actual increase in HP of the 400 aka ‘TA 6.6’
In some respects, the Trans Am, and then the revived Z-28, benefited from being the “last men standing” in that segment.
In 1968, there had been a plethora of muscle and pony cars on the market. Buyers faced an embarrassment of riches, but more companies were fighting over the sales.
By 1977, the Firebird and Camaro were the only domestic cars left that remotely suggested “old style” performance. They mopped up whatever was left of the old muscle-car and pony-car segments.
I suspect the same, the hole in the market from the departed Challenger, Cuda, (Mustang based)Cougar and Javelin surely created a vacuum to the F-bodies, But considering the huge sales the Mustang II pulled I have to believe they got cross shopped with F bodies back then, perhaps not against a 400 Trans Am or 350 Z/28(the real “old style” performers) but a regular Firebird or Camaro I can see it.
“I suspect the same, the hole in the market from the departed Challenger, Cuda, (Mustang based)Cougar and Javelin surely created a vacuum to the F-bodies,”
dammit, up above, I pretty much said the exact same thing!
They may have been the last men standing, but even nine years into their run the 2nd gens still looked good and, with the right boxes checked off on the order sheet, performed quite nicely. Hell, here we are some 47 years or so after the design was approved for production and they still look good!
Hold on, Now just wait a minute – just what do you need all that beer for anyway?
One of my earliest memories in my life was watching Smokey and The Bandit in the basement of the first house I ever lived in, so I was younger than 5 at the very least. I think it’s pretty safe to say that this is THE car I can credit for my passion for cars, not to mention the genesis of my personal standard of what a desirable car should be. Every time I come across a second gen F body, particularly a Firebird, to this day they bring a smile to my face.
Plus my Dad briefly had a 78 in 79-80 so I think it’s in my blood to lust after these. I desperately tried finding one as a first car as well but the ones I drove were really really basket cases(my budget was about $1000 when I was looking, so I’m lucky I even found the ones I did), the best one and the most regrettable was a white 79 Formula with the 403, paint was pretty faded(but almost no rust) and it needed suspension, tires, and various other stuff replaced I’m sure so I regrettably passed since it was over my budget to begin with(the bank of parents weren’t willing to cover the extra $1200 for a car that old haha), plus I really wanted a T/A regardless. Someday I’ll own one though, mark my words.
I also preferred the 1977-78 nose over the 1979-81 but I always considered 1979 to be the last great year of the Firebird’s (wasn’t too fond of the powertrains for the 1980-81 Firebird’s at all, for some reason this Trans AM featured here reminds me of the one Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey And The Bandit 2 although the powertrain on this car is closer to the Trans Am used in the first Smokey And The Bandit movie.
I rode in a couple of 2nd generation Camaro’s, although to be fair they were pretty well used up and probably on their last owners, but they really seemed to be loose and rattled and quivered like they were coming apart at the seams, and the doors, though really heavy sagged and clunked when closing. They were early small bumper cars, maybe the later ones were a little tighter. Met a couple of people that worked at the Van Nuys plant and (to be kind) they didn’t really strike me as the type to be really focused on their job. But between the Smokey movies and the lack of other alternatives, they proved to be a great money maker for GM, especially using basically the same shell for eleven years. The great thing about them is it doesn’t cost a lot to put a powerful drive train in them and in many areas emission checks don’t exist for cars of this age. I still like the 1st generation the best, even though it is said these cars are better handlers. A hit for GM to be sure.
A legendary icon during my childhood, we even had a slightly earlier one in our garage. But I never liked the updated front; the 1970 Camaro and Firebird were just so darn handsome. This 79 looks like they grafted Charles Napier’s jaw onto Robert Redford’s face, and then made him wear bifocals. The C3 Vette wore the genioplasty with much more grace.
My favorite versions of the Trans Ams are the 1970-73 versions, white with a blue racing stripe they looked absolutely awesome. The later versions with the screaming chicken decals were simply a parody of the original version. Sure, they sold well, but I wonder how well they would have sold had one not been featured in the Burt Reynolds movie.
The 73s had the screaming chicken decal too.
Just give me a 1976 T/A in silver or white, and I’ll be very happy. I also loved the Rockford Files Firebird Esprit. Again 1976 was my favorite year. I liked the rear roofline of the ’74, but the ’76 remains my favorite for the front and rear fascia.
I’m not supposed to comment on the types of people who drive certain cars, so I won’t.
CC effect strikes again
That blue one is just like my Dad’s 78, only his had T-tops and rally IIs
Three in total
BTW, here’s a fairly easy riddle- what’s wrong with this T/A? I’m attaching four photos:
I should have waited, had to start life as a 74 unless they took the time to graft in the rear quarters and tail panel from a 74+ in the 70-73 rear end.
First off, you’re right, this is a 1974 car- but as the teacher used to say in high-school, the answer is right but the way there is wrong… (-;
Your clue is the T-roof; This was introduced from 1976 onwards. Along with the older rear quarters, this simply could not exist on a Firebird. This car had major surgery from what I know.
Shaker attached to the hood, looks like it started life as a Formula with the appearance package and it definitely started life as a 74 not a 79-81 (so my Formula appearance package theory is wrong).
I think the major appeal of the mid ’70s Trans Am is that is is uniquely AMERICAN. Neither the Asians nor Erropeans have ever built anything remotely close to it. It is audacious, bold, brash, and in your face. Nothing refined about it. It most definitely makes a statement. With all it’s flares, spoilers, scoops, and that big screamin chicken on the hood, nobody is going to mistake it for anything else, and they are going to see it. There is nothing understated about it. It screams “look at me!!” Many American cars have been called “over the top” but I think the Trans Am beats them all. For me driving such a car would impart a sense of great pride. The Trans Am is the antithesis of all the lookalike little eggshaped FWD 4 door sedans we are stuck with these days. No matter how much money you have, you cannot buy something like this today, unless it is vintage. Even the new Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger look downright dowdy compared to it. GM needs to get on the ball and build something similar today. There are private companies out there building Trans Ams out of new Camaros, but even they lack the appeal of the second generation Firebird Trans Am.
“…is the antithesis of all the lookalike little eggshaped …”
Interesting choice of words. At the time I thought the 70s Camaro/Firebird had a goofy looking eggshaped rear end. I’m talking about the earlier ones before they started adding all the spoilers and louvers and plastic bumpers. I have since come to appreciate the looks and the overall layout…the earlier plainer ones that is. I still can’t get used to the louvers on the rear window, and all the spoilers.
As I remember back, it seems like many of those cars had bad door hinges, problems with door window seals and/or window alignment and loose windows, and about every other one had a messed up dashboard and door panels from some clown trying to do a custom stereo installation.
BTW, I never used the term “screaming chicken” as I see used here on CC. I called them “flaming chicken cars” and I referred to the owners as “flamers”.
I love second gen F-Bodies. The Camaro looks great from 1970 to around 1973, before they had to fit the cow catcher bumpers. My grandma’s neighbour had an orange one, with hubcaps. They were called Super Salvaje
The Poncho, almost all of them look good. However, I don’t like the post 77, when they introduced the front end as above. Heaven permits, I’ll own a 77 T/A some day, in red and probably with EFI. And with the mandatory Screaming Chicken in that bonnet.
I am not a huge fan of the first gen.
Third gens OTOH… a 92 Formula would be great.