Best of 2020 – Curbside Classic: 1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – Instant Attitude

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am - front view

One of my regular babysitters when I was a young kid was a friendly young lady named Ellen.  Her family and mine attended the same church, which must have been an automatic plus for my parents.  Our folks were friends, even if I don’t remember going to Ellen’s house for dinner, but having that church connection and the recommendation of Ellen’s parents certainly must have been supplemental to her landing the job.

My early memories of her and what kind of a ship she ran at the Dennis house when left in charge of us three boys aren’t crystal clear, but based on the number of other babysitters I had heard we had besides Ellen (Jodi, Jill, etc.) and with her being one of the last, I came to the conclusion that the spirited liveliness of the Dennis brothers might have made order somewhat challenging to maintain in the absence of our parents.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, driver's side view

I’m speculating on some of this.  I refuse to believe I was that much of a handful, simply because my default setting has always seemed to be that of peacekeeper (most of the time).  I theorize that this comes innately with the territory of being a middle child.  At some point later on, my parents decided that my older brother was mature and responsible enough to make sure the younger two Dennises didn’t burn the house down when they were both away for whatever reason, so Ellen was essentially “laid off” by our family as would have been the case in the early-to-mid 1980s for many people in the Flint area who had worked for General Motors.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, Screaming Chicken decal detail

From that point on, I would see Ellen only on Sunday mornings at Our Savior Lutheran, but by maybe my fifth grade year, I started noticing some changes in my former babysitter.  Seemingly all of a sudden, there was a black leather maxi-skirt, short hair with blonde-frosted tips (long before Madonna underwent the “True Blue” blonde chop), nicely fitting knit sweaters, and a generally sullen change in her facial expressions, mannerisms, and way of speaking that I found disconcerting.  Maybe that last adjective is too strong a word, but I do remember my mom talking to my dad about whether or not the leather skirt in question was appropriate for walking up the center aisle for communion.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, rear three-quarter view

As I recall, Ellen’s leather skirt was neither short, nor skin-tight.  My old babysitter certainly didn’t look like she had spent the previous night headbanging at Contos, the local live rock music venue (though it’s entirely possible she might have been).  Quite the opposite: to me, she looked chic, in control, and a bit intimidating – and all by design.  Her manner of dress probably rubbed my mom the wrong way because: a.) Lutheran; b.) my mom; and c.) the less demure way Ellen was now presenting herself was somewhat removed from the church girl next door.  She was a beautiful young woman, and she was styling herself in a manner that expressed this self-realization in a new way.  She also seemed to have adopted a bit of an attitude.  I loved that all of this irritated my mom.

Our Savior Lutheran Church & School, Flint, Michigan, 2/19/2011, front stairwell

Our Savior Lutheran Church & School. Flint, Michigan. Saturday, February 19, 2011.

 

The parking lot of Our Savior on the north end of Flint usually had its share of both well-worn “transportation cars” and nice, not-yet-classic older cars that were rolled out on Sunday morning following Saturday’s wash and fresh coat of wax.  A substantial proportion of attendees were employed by one GM factory or another, and Buick City was about three miles away from Our Savior in this same part of town.

One otherwise ordinary Sunday morning, there was a gorgeous, black, late-second-generation Trans Am in the parking lot, much like our featured car.  In the mid-’80s, an ’81 Trans Am like this would not have been a raggedy beater or “stoner car” (as my peers and I would later refer to them in high school), but a really nice ride on the secondhand market.  I’ll say it all day long (and I have, here at Curbside) that the Firebird’s ’79 restyle was very attractive and still does it for me today.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, close-up of t-tops

It was parked two spaces over from our  ’77 Plymouth Volaré (which was slowly rusting from the bottom up, even after it had received its replacement fenders) with no car in between.  I gazed from the hot-to-the-touch, pleated burgundy vinyl back seat of our car through the triangular rear quarter window at this black beauty two spaces over, resplendent with its gold pinstriping and exotic, smoke-tinted glass t-tops.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, front three-quarter view

Then, out of the rear glass doors of the church near the narthex came the edgy-looking blonde and her younger brother, John, talking loudly and enthusiastically about something.  Ellen was now walking straight to the driver’s door of this black Trans Am… with keys in her hand!  John might have said something like, “Ellen!  Wow!  This is a really sweet car!”, as if he had never seen it before.  That part is still foggy in my mind, because what she said in response has remained seared into my brain over the ensuing three decades.  Looking at John with an expression that appeared to border on disgust and after a short, dramatic pause, Ellen flatly responded, “It’s not a ‘car’…  It’s a toy.”  She might have put her sunglasses on between her delivery of those two, short sentences.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, "The Bandit" door handle decal

I have to stop for a second and hail Ellen for delivering one of my favorite, car-related bons mots of all time.  Her new-to-her black Trans Am was, to me, the perfect car to complement her newly reinvented persona.  Ellen had clearly committed to establishing herself as a strong presence with her new look, clothes and manner of speaking.  It was her ownership of this Trans Am, however, that seemed to have made it all jell together.  This had given her an instant, rolling, roaring V8 announcement to the world that, yes, she now had an attitude.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, passenger's side view

I did really like the redesigned-for-’82 Firebird when I had first seen it as a second grader, but the years between then and now have solidified the outgoing, final second-generation ’81 model as my preference if given the choice between just those two years.  There is a healthy, cornfed, all-American heft to the older car that really can’t be masked, regardless of the color combination of paint and decals.  One could wear a powder blue, Stafford oxford shirt (with Dockers khakis) to cover up one’s sleeve tattoos and deliver a lecture on macroeconomics without raising any conservative eyebrows.  However, with this generation of Trans Am, there’s no way it can look other than loud, brash, and unapologetic.

1981 Pontiac Firebird brochure photos, courtesy of www.oldcarbrochures.com

1981 Pontiac Firebird brochure photos, courtesy of www.oldcarbrochures.com.

 

By contrast, the lithe, sleek ’82, while a beautiful car that looked futuristic at the time, seemed like a more smoothly-styled helping of, well, less.  Kind of like the difference between a plate of sashimi rolls versus a steak dinner.  I love both, but sometimes more is more, and depending on my mood and appetite, no amount of raw fish will satisfy my craving for a big plate of cow.

Firebird sales were rapidly eroding following ’79s high water mark of over 211,000 cars (55% of which were Trans Ams).  They were about half that number (107,000) the following year, with only around 71,000 sold for ’81, the model year of our featured car as determined by a license plate search.  This Trans Am is one of about 33,500 of this submodel produced in this generation’s final year.  Overall sales of Pontiac’s F-Body then would rebound back into six figures with the ’82 redesign, with over 116,000 examples finding buyers that year.

1981 Pontiac Firebird brochure page, courtesy of www.oldcarbrochures.com.

1981 Pontiac Firebird brochure page, courtesy of www.oldcarbrochures.com.

 

Three V8 engines were installed in the ’81 Trans Am, including Pontiac’s 301 with 150 horsepower, a turbocharged version of the 301 featuring 200 hp, and Chevy’s 305 with 145 horses.  Nineteen Eighty-One would be the last year for Pontiac’s 301.  The top engine choice for the ’82 Trans Am would be a 165-horse Chevy 305.  Combined with a 10% weight loss over the ’81, the ’82 Trans Am was capable of 0-60 mph in roughly 8.9 seconds, according to a period test by Motor Trend.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, rear view

The downsized Firebird’s new hatchback body might also have had the benefit of added utility versus the previous fastback’s trunk, but the redesigned ’82 version’s cargo area was shallow, and its hidden compartment under the rear floor wasn’t useful but for maybe a few bags of groceries or a styrofoam cooler and a boombox.  Nobody was buying a Firebird to double as a small station wagon, though my Fox-body Mustang hatchback served that purpose quite well with the rear seats folded down, when I was a college student.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, snowflake wheels

I did eventually get to see Ellen again on two, major occasions.  My family did attend her wedding, and she was a beautiful bride.  At their wedding reception, Ellen and her husband danced, smiled, and mingled with their guests.  It was great to see her beautiful smile again following this celebration of Holy matrimony, and she looked genuinely happy.  I remember feeling being both pleased and relieved about this.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, passenger's side front three-quarter view

I would see Ellen just one more time after that.  Maybe five years or so after her wedding, my family was planning to move away from the Flint area.  My parents had since transferred their membership to a different church, but we were back at Our Savior one last time.  By that point, I was now a high school senior and prone to my own sullen expressions.  I was downstairs in the church’s lower level, next to the very same classroom where I had attended both kindergarten and Sunday school, when I heard a voice call out: “Joe??  Joe Dennis?  Is that you??…”  I looked up and saw a conservatively dressed lady with shoulder-length brown hair and those giant, window-pane plastic-frame glasses that were very popular in the ’80s.

Our Savior Lutheran Church & School. Flint, Michigan. Saturday, February 19, 2011.

Our Savior Lutheran Church & School. Flint, Michigan. Saturday, February 19, 2011.

 

“I’m sorry… I am Joe.  And you are?…”  “You mean you don’t recognize me?  Think hard!”  I started wondering if she had been one of my former Sunday school teachers, or perhaps some friend of my parents whose kids I had been forced to play with when they came over.  I was drawing a blank and my silence was making it uncomfortable for both of us, before the lady in front of me said, “It’s ME!  Ellen!  Your old babysitter!”

I’d like to think my jaw didn’t drop when she said that.  However, with the newfound popularity of video calls in the midst of quarantine related to the COVID-19 virus, I can now see exactly what my face usually does in reaction to what I’ve just heard.  She had gone from looking like an MTV video vixen to a conservative housewife and mom in maybe five years.  We hugged each other, and it was a happy reunion, even despite my initial faux pas in not recognizing her at first.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, rear three-quarter view

I mentioned, somewhat shyly, that I had remembered her black Trans Am, thinking to myself of the time she had referred to her prized Pontiac as her “toy”, and she nodded in recognition.  “Do you still have that car?”, I asked.  “Oh, boy.  It hasn’t run for a while, but, yes, we still have it.  You could say it would be a real fixer-upper.”  And with that, any trace in my mind of Ellen’s former, newfound “attitude” had vaporized into the coffee-and-perfume scented air of that church basement.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, September 23, 2018.