(first posted 6/24/2014) It’s one thing to live through an era and quite another to analyze it using leftover artifacts. In the case of this particular Firebird, I’m not sure if using it to base judgments on car culture in mid-1980s America would lead to an accurate or wildly distorted understanding, but let’s give it a shot. Tastes and technology were changing rapidly enough that it seems like somewhat of a throwback even for 1983; in other ways, though, it’s such a perfect embodiment of the aspirations of its time.
It would help to look beyond all those decals and graphics to the car underneath. The new-for-1982 GM F-bodies were a commercial success, owing to their dramatic styling and the general popularity of coupes of all sorts. Handling, if not overall chassis refinement, was also a strong suit, but at a time when domestic car quality was nothing to write home about, these cars still managed to distinguish themselves as particularly shoddy.
Even taking the poor quality into account, along with front-wheel-drive mania, the Firebird still managed to win many customers over. It was the right car at the right time for a certain segment of the population, and with its Pace Car graphics, it’s hard not to treat this Trans Am as a cultural artifact. And if that is indeed a wise interpretation, the owner of this particular car undoubtedly “gets it,” having seen fit to keep the car in near-original condition with raised white letter rolling stock.
Powertrain offerings were varied, just as was the case for the Camaro and Mustang, with 2.5 Iron Duke fours and 2.8 Chevy V6s on the low end. This top-of-the-line offering, one of 2,500 made, was given a Chevy 305 (5.0 liter) V8 with dual throttle body fuel injection (aka Crossfire); the new five-speed cars got a computer-controlled carburetor instead. The decision to can Pontiac’s V8 was made late in development; no-doubt Pontiac might’ve been interested in keeping its turbo 301 on tap for the new 1982 F-body, but the decision to rationalize powertrains across the board meant that was never to be. If getting small-bore Chevy engines was a disappointment for Pontiac partisans, at least the Crossfire brought improvements over the standard LG4, with its 8.6:1 compression ratio and 145 horsepower in 1982.
The Crossfire 305 (code name LU5) doesn’t quite enjoy the reputation of the Mustang’s High Output 302 (which could have more to do with the Ford’s lower curb weight and more depressing 1970s nadir) but with a hotter cam shared with the L83 Corvette engine and 9.6:1 compression, it made solid out-of-the-box numbers for the day: 175 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque (five-speed cars made 150 horsepower out of their carbureted LG4s).
Routed through a four-speed 700R4 Turbohydramatic, it didn’t provide much in the way of performance, but as with the Mustang, upgrades would keep these fundamentally traditional sports cars relevant through the coming decade, making plans to replace them with front-drive successors redundant. Indeed, the following year would see the Crossfire injection system replaced with the computer-controlled Quadrajet V8 (the Chevy L69) making 190 horsepower. As was the case for Ford, high-output V8 options would be swapped between four-barrel carburation, throttle-body fuel injection and port fuel injection depending on the year and the transmission ordered.
When planning for the new model in the face of an initially declining performance image, Pontiac hedged its bets by offering an array of creature comforts comprehensive enough to give this more upmarket ponycar some dual-use capability as a grand tourer. This is a decently well-preserved interior and while the leather/suede seats imbue the car with a suggestion of quality, the wide, flat console is a more honest presentation of the car’s craftsmanship. Open headrests and pale grey upholstery keep it from being too depressing inside and it works far better than the coal-bin treatment usually seen in the third-gen F-body.
Superior craftsmanship or cutting-edge technology weren’t what attracted people to the F-bodies; they were about putting on a show. And if the few hundred extra pounds over the Fox Mustang went anywhere, it was in the larger, more expansive and more expressive bodywork. Luckily for the Trans Am’s reputation, the look was thoroughly contemporary and there was a functional benefit, with a coefficient of drag of about .32. This Daytona 500 edition, with its ground effects, lowered the number to .29. The contemporary Mustang wasn’t as slick, but I think the general consensus is that it’s aged better.
The Camaro, with its exposed quad-headlight face and blockier, wraparound taillamps managed to avoid some of the Trans Am’s gimmickry, but back when it was new, the Pontiac wore a very hot look. Though this particular car isn’t pristine, it’s been kept up well enough for to faithfully represent its designers’ intent for onlookers in 2014. And it’s ultimately a good thing so much effort was put into making such a dramatic statement; if a car wasn’t going to actually go fast, it at least needed to justify itself in some other manner–especially for about 18,000 1983 dollars–and more importantly, the look was fashionable enough for the Firebird to remain an attractive choice once hotter engines became available.
As this car must be someone’s pride and joy, it’s almost wrong to dismiss it as a hilarious relic, but with rapid improvements made to powertrains beginning only months after this car rolled off the line, those in the know have been aware of its lame duck status for most of its life. For casual enthusiasts, however, hotter follow-up models only bolstered its mean image, and as long as its owner wasn’t compelled to demonstrate, more than a few people in 1989 could have been fooled into thinking this was the equivalent of the hot 20th Anniversary Edition Turbo Trans Am which paced the Indy 500 that year. Now that car would’ve made quite the find.