Curbside Classic: 1979 to 1981 Pontiac Trans Am – Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

(Posted to the CC Cohort by William Rubano)

(first posted 1/1/2018)      Seeing this Trans Am at the CC Cohort prompted genuine excitement followed by a pretty sobering realization – this car is old.  Figuring this is a 1979 model (although it could be a 1980 or 1981), it is from the same time period as The Dukes of Hazzard premiering, Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister of the UK, and Pope John Paul II visiting Jimmy and Roslyn Carter in the White House.

That wasn’t exactly yesterday.

Once upon a time, Pontiac F-bodies were as common as stink.  From plain-jane Firebirds to high-end Trans Ams they always seemed to be more plentiful than any other Pontiac.  That really wasn’t the case, especially if looking at the relatively paltry 1981 sales tally, but the seeming plentifulness can easily be attributed to their being more memorable in appearance than any contemporary and boring B-body Catalina or Bonneville.

The realization the number of screaming buzzard Pontiacs has dwindled to being slightly more common than a pregnant mule wasn’t a surprise.  Perhaps due to the visual and visceral stimulation these were endowed with, and the subsequent fan group, the F-body always seemed to have a more pronounced downward life spiral than most cars.

Sure, Burt Reynolds could afford a new T/A, but some Cousin Eddie type could always be counted on to be a subsequent owner down the line.  Say what you want about the Cousin Eddie’s of the world (and there are an abundance of them), but just like they know when the shitter is full, they also know when it’s time to purge themselves of that old, ragged-out T/A.

And thus the life cycle ends.

Was it really all that long ago when these Trans Ams, in all their peel-and-stick gold-flecked finery, were the ultimate in slightly upscale sporty car for many a young man with means enough to afford one?  The related Chevrolet Camaro was just too common and unsophisticated.  For those of a certain disposition, the T/A was it.  Even better, it possessed a flavor of being the anti-Everything Else type of car.

Long ago, my first job was at a fast-food joint.  I was supervised by a man who had had a ’79 Trans Am as his first car.  He reveled in telling stories of the nefarious and lurid deeds that included his Trans Am.

He would almost be misty-eyed when finishing these stories; he fit the knee-jerk stereotype and really loved his T/A.

I currently work with an engineer who still has the ’79 Trans Am he purchased new.  Powered by the 185 horsepower Olds 403 cubic inch V8, the engine which replaced the Pontiac 400 quite early in the model year, he has taken great strides in caring for his Pontiac – but only in the last couple of decades.  Another co-worker has told me about the many times he witnessed the proud, thirty-odd years younger owner blissfully smoking the rear tires of that white T/A with wild abandon through residential neighborhoods in the wee hours of the morning.

Bill and his T/A have matured together, having a very enviable relationship over portions of five decades.

Even in the small town of 450 where I grew up, there was a twin to our featured Trans Am blasting around.  For quite a while Jeff, a young man of dubious character in his early twenties, used it every evening to deliver that day’s issue of the Southeast Missourian newspaper.  During the summer, it was quite easy to hear Jeff’s rumbling Trans Am coming down the quarter-mile gravel lane to our house.

As an aside, Jeff’s T/A would later make way for a Corvette.  Yep, he delivered newspapers from his ‘Vette.

One warm afternoon Jeff was following my school bus home.  On the bus that day was Tiffany, a perpetual senior in high school.  Tiffany, a good-hearted but frequently misguided young woman, would periodically, as she put it, “whip out” a specific body part at motorists – often truckers – who followed the bus.  She’d unbutton, unclasp, and plaster her bare bosoms on the rear window of the bus, often shrugging her shoulders just enough to provide further displays for her hapless spectators.

The amusement from those onboard perpetually drowned out the howling disgust of her critics.

Bored that day, Tiffany opted for some variety by deciding to sail her bra out the window.  Never in a thousand T/A lifetimes could she have aimed better (plus she somehow still managed to expose her glandular appendages to everyone onboard).  That brassiere sailed beautifully out the window, glided into the open T-top of Jeff’s Trans Am, and bounced across his head, providing everyone a terrific showcase about how airflow works – enough to inspire one of her witnesses to enter into an aerospace career at Boeing in St. Louis.  The bus driver nearly ran off the road from laughing and looking.

The Trans Am was as inspirational as it was aspirational.

I digress.

These Pontiacs rewarded the lead-footed with a euphoric auditory symphony of engine and exhaust chat while providing pretty respectable motivation for the times.  The appeal was simple.  Nothing currently can mimic that.

Or can it?  There is a reason many young males enjoy diesel pickups and have less affinity for docile, well-muffled engines.  These pickups are the spiritual yet unintentional descendant of the F-body, providing stimulating tones that sooth raging hormones and emit torque that can be measured by the pull on one’s neck.  It doesn’t take any advanced sociological studies to realize the appeal of these mildly modified pickups.

The anti-Everything Else phenomenon is quite alive although it takes different forms around the world.

Yet part of the discovery of this Trans Am, in the definitive color of black, included another sobering realization.  As this Trans Am has grown old, so have I.  Thankfully human years aren’t as quick and cruel as automotive years, but time still ravages everything nonetheless.  This passage of time also includes the evolution of tastes.

Graduating high school in 1990, these Trans Am weren’t exactly new anymore, but weren’t dismissed as being old and out of style either despite the body style being introduced within a few years of our birth.  Most anyone in my high school would have happily driven one to parade around the school parking lot and for blasting around pokey school busses on rural two-lane roads.  Driving was a great thing as a teen, an experience that would have been heightened immeasurably by piloting a Trans Am (or Firebird) of any ilk.

Fast forward twenty-seven years and I’m now the one with a high schooler, one who isn’t being exposed to the shenanigans conducted on a school bus.  While still not of driving age, it is evident she, like her contemporaries, isn’t chomping at the bit to drive.  A recent inquiry revealed she’s too distracted with other interests and activities.  Whereas I and my cohorts eagerly exploited any opportunity to drive at the sacrifice of other things, the tradition of anxiously awaiting driving privileges isn’t universally vibrant these days.

It also makes for some pretty boring parking lots as this was where I parked upon taking her to a school function recently.  It’s evident I wasn’t the only chauffeur in attendance.

As most of these youngsters were born in the 2000 to 2005 range, any mental image of a Trans Am is likely of the more antiseptic and plastic cladded variety – if they even know what a Pontiac Trans Am is.  How times have changed.

To co-opt an old movie title, it looks like Sad Times at Ridgemont High.

At this point, Mrs. Jason has heard these 1,300 words of middle-aged memories and philosophical musings, observing it isn’t the most abundant with technical details.  While amused about the smoking tires, for whatever unfathomable reason she wasn’t thrilled to read about flying bras and bare breasts.  To this I countered no other car has ever embodied these things as triumphantly and comprehensively as a black Trans Am.

On this, she could only agree.

More technical reading:

CC:  Not Quite Screaming Chicken