Curbside Classic: 1988 Pontiac Trans Am GTA – Generating Teenage Appreciation; Now, Getting Transglobal Attention

For any car lover, the various automotive offerings of their teenage years often leave indelible marks upon their consciousness.  These various cars and trucks are forever associated with their youth, with many people later spending years and fortunes as adults trying to recapture the carefree feelings they experienced during this impressionable time.

To a not insignificant portion of readers at CC, particularly for those in North America, the Pontiac Trans Am GTA is a contributor in creating those indelible marks we possess.  It is certainly true in the case of the guy typing what you are now reading.

Chalk up this indelibility to Lou Wassel.  Wassel, who came to work at Pontiac in 1982, the year the third generation F-body was introduced, was in charge of developing its successor.  This was short lived as by 1984 Wassel was promoted to what has been described as director of sporty car marketing.

As a side note, GM had envisioned replacement of the 1982 era F-body by model year 1987 or 1988.  Obviously that did not happen as the next F-body, the one Wassel had been briefly associated with, wasn’t introduced until the 1993 model year.

In his new directorial capacity Wassel had access to every car found at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds.  Wassel took full advantage of this resource, driving Mustangs, Supras, Sciroccos – everything – to better familiarize himself with the competition.  In looking at these various models and their available trimmings, then comparing them to the General Motors offerings, Wassel identified two gaps in the Firebird’s market, primarily in mid- and upper-price range (circled above).

The first gap was reflected with the Firebird SE, the trim available from 1982 to 1986, which bridged the gap between base Firebird and Trans Am models.  The Firebird SE was intended as a competitor to the Mustang GT, but its problems were two-fold; one, it was offered with both V6 and V8 engines whereas the Mustang GT was V8 only.  The SE lacked the definitive attributes of the Mustang GT.

Second, despite the sales expectation likely being of a lesser standard than the Mustang GT or Camaro, SE production volumes were truly miserable, bottoming out at 2,259 Firebird SE’s for 1986.  The base Firebird outsold the SE by well over 25:1 that year – and the base Firebird still had the 2.5 liter Iron Duke four-cylinder as a standard engine.

On the upper end of their market, Pontiac was discovering those who purchased Corvettes and Supras were not considering Trans Ams.  At this time the Trans Am was still festooned with screaming chickens and other assorted visual trinkets, physical traits that did not hold universal appeal.  Wassel identified room for improvement.

In January 1985 Wassel made a trip to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  The purpose of the trip was to study the Air Force’s use of heads-up displays in its air fleet and how it could be applied to GM vehicles.  While there, Wassel saw an SR-71 Blackbird.  He was smitten.

He was also inspired.

Wassel was captivated by the stealthy black paint and minimal striping.  He said it appeared to going Mach 3 despite being on static display.

Returning to Detroit, Wassel married his observation and inspirations.  He immediately proposed the idea of jettisoning the SE for the return of the better known Formula trim.  In turn, he wanted to bring about a more mature Trans Am.

Selling the idea of the Formula was not overly difficult; John Schinella, a design manager at Pontiac studios, had a graphics package prepared the same day Wassel floated the idea.  Receiving buy-in for this more mature Trans Am, a concept Wassel was now calling the Blackbird, was less straightforward.

In a smart move, Wassel contacted acquaintances at the Van Nuys, California, assembly plant.  His request was for a new, 1985 Trans-Am to be painted black and built devoid of all exterior graphics.  It was to be Wassel’s company car but also his guinea pig for the concept.

Wassel took this car to Schinella at Pontiac’s design studios.  Schinella said he needed the car for ironing out various details of Wassel’s concept.  Schinella also informed Wassel his idea of using “Blackbird” was not going to happen, informing Wassel it would be called GTA for “Grand Turismo Americano”.

Various different exterior graphics designs were tested but it was ultimately decided to leave the car monochromatic and with minimal trim.  The various exterior badges proclaiming it to be a GTA are referred to as cloisonné badges.

In regard to parts, these badges and the seats are the only unique parts on the GTA.  The standard WS6 performance suspension used nothing but off-the-shelf parts, as did the rest of the car.  It was strictly the combination of parts that melded to create the GTA.

One of those off-the-shelf parts is the gold lace wheels.  From statements Wassel has made on two separate occasions, it seems the weight of the ordinary Trans-Am wheels, combined with whatever weight was added due to the use of various suspension parts, would have triggered EPA gas-guzzler status.  These gold wheels were just enough lighter to escape this undesirable certification.

The Trans Am GTA is no lightweight, being in the 3,500 pound weight range.

These gold lace wheels had been around since at least 1982, having been used on the special edition “Bandit” Trans Am that year.

The GTA (and Formula) was introduced for model year 1987.  The introduction of the GTA also marked the first use of the Chevrolet 350 V8 in any variety of third generation Firebird.  All Firebirds from 1982 to 1986 had a 305 cubic inch V8 as its highest output and largest displacement engine.  However, to its credit, Pontiac was thinking performance by offering three versions of the 305 in 1986 – there was the four-barrel, four-barrel high output, and port injected high output versions.  These weren’t exactly nosebleed-mobiles for the time.

The 350 utilized by the GTA was also off-the-shelf as it was a Corvette engine with different cylinder heads.  It was standard fare for the GTA although a 305 was available as a delete option; the 305 was also the only engine available for anyone who wanted a GTA with a clutch pedal.

For its forty-five cubic inch advantage, the 350 only made five horsepower more than the 205 found in the smaller engine.  However, the 350 had a 45 ft-lb advantage in torque.  The 350 would continue to grow its horsepower output, peaking at 240 for 1991.  Similarly, the 305 kept getting healthier, making more volumetric horsepower than the bigger engine, particularly when mated to a manual transmission.

For someone who had just turned fifteen when these were introduced, the GTA seemed like one of the most powerful and fastest production cars in the history of the planet.  Hey, it had over 200 horsepower, breaking a threshold that had not been touched in quite a while.  It was heady stuff.

Squawking buzzards had been a fixture on all Trans Ams for the bulk of my life at that point.  Now, here was a Trans Am free of such tacky things, painted in black, and bestowed with wheels that provided a distinct visual pop.  These weren’t the wheels of the regular Trans Am, wheels which appeared identical to those found on nasty Sunbirds and goofy Fieros.  The GTA being a special Trans Am was obvious from the start.

It was the Trans Am I would have purchased had my father coughed up the money.  It was the Trans Am I could envision myself purchasing had I been ten to fifteen years older at the time.  It was a Trans Am presenting a higher degree of sophistication and with a minimalist aesthetic absent on all other Firebirds.

This was the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees, the berries, and a bag of chips.

Naturally, the one I mentally purchased had the 350.  Anything less was simply undesirable, unworthy, and a waste of my time.

But, as is typical in life, other things happened and I forgot about the GTA.  Pontiac continued offering it until the next generation came about for model year 1993.  Production numbers for the GTA ranged from 7,400 to 9,500 for the first three years it was offered, dropping to less than 1,000 for 1990 and settling out at 226 for 1992.

The GTA was also offered in Canada, with numbers being predictably less, peaking in its first year at 1,509 and ending at a mere 48 in 1992.

Rightly or wrongly, GM gets a lot of crap for the cars they built during the 1980s.  Sure, these Firebirds had their own various issues and the interior of the GTA didn’t present itself in a manner much different than a basic Firebird, except for perhaps the abundance of buttons.

However, with its GTA, Pontiac helped pull automotive enthusiasts out of the doldrums that had existed since the early 1970s.  The inherent inertia of despair is hard to overcome and Lou Wassel along with everyone else associated with the Trans Am GTA worked diligently to change this undesirable course.

For that alone, this automatic transmission GTA with 156,000 miles on the odometer is a remarkable car and this fine specimen of the breed deserves its due attention.  Not many cars are able to generate thirty years dormant teenage optimism quite like a black, upscale Trans Am, especially one meant to appeal to a more mature and cultured clientele.

Found June 2020

Wellsville, Missouri