(first posted 6/22/2016) Few things are as iconically American as a Firebird convertible. So when the drop-top version of Pontiac’s pony car was discontinued after 1969, an empty place was left in the American highway soul. For the next two decades Firebirds would come in many iterations, but no convertibles. Finally, 22 years later, this example was built. A 1991 model, it is one of about 1,500 made that year and represents the rebirth of an American icon.
The Firebird convertible’s story of rebirth, after having long been considered dead, reads more like that of a phoenix than a firebird, but never mind… it’s an interesting tale nonetheless.
Pontiac’s Firebird was first offered for sale in 1967, in delayed response to Ford’s wildly successful Mustang, and the car was offered as both a hardtop and convertible for its first three model years. During those years, convertibles accounted for 16% of the Firebird’s 280,000 sales. But despite that good showing, convertibles were considered as being on their way out.
The 2nd generation Firebird was introduced in 1970, and throughout that generation, it indeed seemed that there was a Firebird for every purpose, except for driving with the top down. No convertible was offered, not that its absence seemed to hurt sales much. By 1976, convertibles had all but disappeared from the US market, but on the Firebird, T-tops were introduced to regain some vestige of open-air motoring. While the T-top option grew in popularity as the years went by, GM never hinted that a true convertible would return.
1982 saw Pontiac introduce a 3rd generation Firebird, which would eventually sell over 800,000 copies during 11 model years. However, neither the Firebird nor its GM F-body twin the Camaro were initially offered as convertibles. That was bound to change sometime – if for no other reason than archrival Ford reintroduced a convertible Mustang in 1983. The Mustang entered unchartered waters, as it was unclear whether consumers would again warm up to top-down driving, but Ford’s gamble paid off. By the late 1980s, Ford was producing around 30,000 Mustang convertibles annually, and with no competition from GM, that growing market was Ford’s for the taking. GM suddenly found itself wanting an F-body convertible… fast.
Fortunately for GM, there were companies that specialized in convertible conversions, and for the F-body assignment, ASC, Inc. got the job. ASC (originally American Sunroof Corporation) built quite a business around just this scenario – creating specialty cars for manufacturers who were unable to make such cars on their regular production lines. As its name implies, ASC began life as a company installing aftermarket sunroofs, and the firm rapidly grew from a one-man shop in the 1960s to an industry leader making custom bodies, such as convertibles.
ASC Founder Heinz Prechter was a German native who moved to California in the early 1960s to attend college. While still a student, Prechter established a small operation in a local body shop to install aftermarket sunroofs (common in his native Germany, but a rarity in the US). He found a great niche in this market, and his business quickly grew.
Prechter expanded his business from sunroofs to more extensive car-customization, and in the 1980s he sensed another niche. Interest in convertibles was rekindling, but the relatively low volume and high tooling costs meant that most manufacturers weren’t ready to commit to making drop-tops for themselves. That’s where ASC came in – partnering with carmakers to produce “official” convertible versions of their cars, even though the customization work was done at ASC’s own facilities. The first such car ASC produced in this way was the 1982 Buick Riviera, and that endeavor proved successful enough to bring ASC many more contracts. Many low-volume convertibles of the 1980s and ’90s were produced by ASC in just such a fashion.
It was not the Firebird, but rather the Camaro, that got ASC’s convertible treatment first. Starting in 1987, Chevrolet began offering ASC Camaro convertibles as officially sanctioned GM products. The Firebird however, while mechanically and structurally identical, did not get a convertible option.
That’s not to say that Firebird enthusiasts weren’t anxious for a convertible – they were, and had been since the 3rd generation car was introduced. Rumors of a convertible Firebird proliferated, and several aftermarket companies made their own versions.
Additionally, several hundred “semi-official” Firebird convertibles were produced by ASC from 1987 to 1989 – customers could arrange through Pontiac dealerships to have their own Firebirds shipped to ASC and converted. (Since Firebird conversions were nearly identical to Camaro conversions, such requests were easily accommodated on ASC’s part.) Cars produced in this manner were even warranted by GM, though these were still considered unofficial convertibles.
For 1991, both F-body cars received their first significant facelifts since the 3rd generation was introduced nearly a decade earlier. Firebird’s most noticeable change was the front end, which sported a more aggressive-looking beak suggestive of the 1988 Banshee show car. Mechanically, the 1991 models carried over largely unchanged, as the freshening was only intended to carry the Firebird through the following two years, until a more thoroughly revised F-body platform would debut.
The biggest change for 1991 waited until early spring – at last, Firebird’s first official convertible in 21 years! With the tease of the late 1980s Camaro convertibles, and the persistent rumors of Pontiac’s own offering, there was considerable pent-up demand for Firebird convertibles by the time the car was finally released. Pontiac apparently had dealer orders for the year’s entire production run before the first car was built. Perhaps this is why marketing was light; few ads ran for the 1991-92 convertible, and even in Pontiac’s own brochures, little was said about this car. It literally sold itself… and these cars weren’t cheap, either.
The convertible came at an approximate $6,400 price premium over the coupe. Convertible prices started at $19,649 – for a well-equipped model such as this one, the sticker price was likely around $22,500, or equivalent to about $40,000 in 2016 dollars.
“Base” Firebird convertibles such as this one were available with either the standard 140-hp 3.1L V-6, or a 170-hp 5.0L V-8. This particular car features the V-8, as well as the optional 4-speed automatic transmission and crosslace pattern alloy wheels. Convertibles were offered in Trans Am trim as well, with a higher-output 205-hp 5.0L engine. The Trans Am coupe’s optional 5.7L V-8 was not offered in convertibles.
All Firebird convertibles came equipped with the otherwise optional Aero package (rocker panel extensions, etc.); in most other respects, convertibles and coupes came similarly equipped.
3rd generation F-cars were often full of squeaks, rattles and road noise – even when new, and even when a coupe. It goes without saying that sans roof, those creaks and groans intensified. These cars are, however, considerably more solid than the 1980s ASC convertibles, with greatly reduced (though still present) chassis flex and cowl shake.
But even though a convertible version was clearly an afterthought, the Firebird’s design lent itself nicely to being a ragtop. The lines are clean – even cleaner perhaps than the coupe – and the steeply raked windshield sends wind smoothly over the passenger compartment, with minimal buffeting.
The convertible’s interior was largely unchanged from the coupe’s. Our featured car’s interior likely appears familiar to anyone who has ridden in a 3rd generation F-body car. Firebirds featured a dashboard with instruments spread out horizontally in front of the driver (the beefy airbag steering wheel blocked many of these from view), and, oddly, no glovebox. This particular car features all available power accessories, air conditioning, and the highest-end stereo system available, with a CD and equalizer.
Overall fit and finish was not one of the Firebird’s strong suits. Front seats, however, were comfortable, and the upholstery was of high quality. The comfy cloth seats, shown here in camel, helped to cushion their occupants against the sometimes-jarring suspension.
Convertibles received the coupe’s rear seat, which, as with all F-bodies, was not a great place to spend time. Trunk space, likewise, was minimal, but no one bought a Firebird to regularly haul cargo or back-seat passengers, so these shortcomings can be easily overlooked.
Although power tops were becoming common by the 1990s, the Firebird maintained a manually-operated top that folded underneath a hideaway hatch. Operation of the top was simple, and the hatch enabled the car to achieve a clean, finished look when the top was down.
source of production figures: www.transamworld.com
In 1991, 1,505 Firebird convertibles were produced, edging up to 1,928 for the nearly identical 1992 model year. Altogether, convertibles accounted for 4% of the 79,000 Firebirds produced over these two years. Despite these low production numbers, the exercise was worthwhile for GM. Firebird sales had fallen from their highs in the mid-1980s, and the convertibles were seen as a way to inject some interest in an otherwise shrinking market segment. Though produced in small numbers, the 1991-92 Firebird convertible was an important offering for General Motors, and for the Firebird model range. Serving as the Firebird’s flagship, it captured sales from an important niche, and kept consumers’ interest, even as overall Firebird sales dwindled.
More importantly, GM kept convertibles in the lineup for the Firebird’s 4th generation (though the ’93 model year was skipped for ASC to develop new tooling). In the 9 years during which 4th generation convertibles were made, they accounted for a more sizable 9% of production. For the last two years (2001-02), 16% of Firebirds were convertibles – the same proportion as in 1967-69.
Even when new, the 1991 Firebird was an old car. That’s why people loved it, and that’s why people hated it. The V-8 produced plenty of tire-squealing power, but an owner must be willing to live with certain compromises – compromises that had been engineered out of most other cars. The ride was firm, ergonomics questionable, and handling was tricky (except in the rain, in which case it was impossible). It was the feeling of driving such a car that was the main attraction.
In 1991, better cars could be bought – cars that were better built, that handled better, were more comfortable and offered more equipment. But few other cars could match the aura of a Firebird convertible. The Firebird wasn’t everyone’s idea of a 1990s performance car, but for many buyers it fit the bill perfectly.
When Pontiac brought the Firebird convertible back to life after a two-decade absence, it served as validation that the dark years of malaise had officially ended. It also served as hope that other interesting cars long considered dead might one day come back to our roads. And as for this example, even when parked on a drizzly spring morning, such as when this car was photographed, it still evokes a feeling of warm-weather driving excitement.
Photographed in Jefferson City, Missouri in March 2016.