Vintage Reviews: 1973 Pontiac Firebird Esprit – Trans Am Not

When you think of a second generation Pontiac Firebird, the image that probably comes to mind is a Trans Am.  While that model certainly did become popular during the lengthy lifecycle for Pontiac’s seventies-era F-Body, it wasn’t always the best seller.  In fact, for 1973, the most popular Firebird was a bit of a sleeper, though it did get some press back in the day.

Pontiac offered four varieties of Firebird during the second generation run: the base coupe, the comfort-oriented Esprit, the performance-oriented Formula and the top-of-the-line Trans Am.  After nearly being cancelled during the ‘72 model year, the Firebird managed to hang on (along with the Camaro) and enjoyed something of a sales resurgence for 1973, with sales climbing 55% compared to the depressed 1972 levels.  Leading the pack in ’73 sales was the cushy Esprit model.

Not that Pontiac wasn’t promoting performance: both the Formula and Trans Am models were halo cars for the whole division, flaunting hood scoops and go-fast imagery (even if the cars themselves were getting choked down with emissions plumbing).  For 1973, the Trans Am even offered the gaudy super-sized hood graphic—affectionately known as the “screaming chicken”—an option that listed for $55 ($331 adjusted).

But let’s face it, in 1973 muscle cars were on the way out and buyers were gravitating to a variety of stylish cruisers, whether that was a mid-sized Personal Luxury Coupe or a “posher” version of a traditional Pony Car.  And the Esprit fit that bill perfectly.  Pontiac even saw fit to feature a Navajo Orange Esprit on the cover of the ’73 Firebird brochure, replete with the standard equipment Deluxe Wheel Covers!

In addition to the wheel covers, the Esprit also came standard with all sorts of cosmetic frippery like special badges and plenty of chrome trim compared to the basic ‘bird.

Inside was where the Esprit upgrades over the base Firebird were most apparent.  The “Custom Interior” featured new, deeply contoured buckets seats (this seat design was also found in the newly redesigned ’73 Grand Prix and all-new Grand Am, although those models also received seatback recliners with the buckets, unlike the Firebird).  Interestingly, the Custom Interior was optionally available for the Formula and Trans Am models, in addition to being standard on the Esprit.  Thanks to the added standard features, Pontiac was able to charge 8% more for the Esprit compared to the base Firebird V8, a sweet premium for the GM bean counters.

So the Firebird Esprit was popular in 1973 and was nicely trimmed for a Pony Car.  But what was it like to drive?

The car that Road Test Magazine reviewed in their June 1973 issue was a brand spanking new Esprit with the optional 400 V8 that was assigned to Pontiac Engineering.  And it was finished in a color that wouldn’t necessarily inspire a Firebird enthusiast.

That’s right, the test unit was dark beige (or tan if you’re being charitable), though officially the color was called Desert Sand.  The RT Esprit also sported a matching Chamois Cordova vinyl roof and a color-coordinated Saddle interior for that complete “Café au Lait” look.  But hey, it was the 70’s and the Road Test editors liked it.

Apparently so did Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.  The title character (played by James Garner) drove a ’74 Esprit 400 in that year’s version of tan called Denver Gold with a color-matched Saddle interior.  But I digress—back to the road test!

Given that the test car carried a very heavy option load, it’s surprising that air conditioning wasn’t included.  Even though the car was in Michigan, the hot, humid Midwest summers would certainly have warranted that option.

Equipped with the 2-barrel 400 CID V8 and Turbo-Hydramatic, the Esprit was smooth and reasonably quick.  With comfort-oriented suspension tuning, the Esprit 400 was well set-up for easy cruising—as long as you didn’t need to haul much cargo rather small trunk.  Given the newness of the Road Test car, braking performance seemingly suffered because the car wasn’t fully broken-in, but RT’s editors still declared the Esprit’s stopping ability to be satisfactory.

Overall Road Test found the Esprit to be a good example of the evolving Pony Car.  It was stylish, performed reasonably well and was fairly agile.  The Pontiac was also a good buy: the editor’s recommended specs priced out at $4,078 ($24,544 adjusted).  A quick check of Edmunds 1973 Domestic Car Prices indicates that the actual car Road Test drove would have priced out at $4,435 ($26,692 adjusted).  The Cordova top was $87 ($524 adjusted)—pure margin for GM.  A buyer would have done well, both aesthetically and financially, to skip that one and add the A/C instead.  $397 ($2,389 adjusted) for that option might have seemed steep, but would have paid back at resale time.

Of course the editors at Consumer Guide were very focused on value as they evaluated cars across all the market segments for  the ’73 Auto Test.  Featured prominently on the cover is a Firebird….

….And sure enough it’s another Esprit (this time in Sunlight Yellow, which was better color on a Firebird than Desert Sand, at least for my tastes).

Like the Road Test editors, Consumer Guide also found the Esprit to be comfortable and well balanced, offering good performance and roadability.  It was their second-highest ranked Pony Car for ’73, losing out to the AMC Javelin on practicality measures.  However, a quick look at the specs proves that none of these cars were economical or practical.  They were about style and responsiveness, and that is where GM really shined with the F-Bodies in the 1970s.

Luckily for GM, they stuck with the F-Body while all the other competitors in the segment either vanished (Javelin, Challenger, Barracuda) or were significantly transformed (subcompact Pinto-based Mustang II and midsized Montego-based Cougar).  So the Camaro and Firebird were the last old-school Pony Cars left standing after 1974, and sales began to take off.

In the Firebird line, the primary beneficiary of the sales surge was the Trans Am, which became the best-selling Firebird model in 1975.  Sales soared from there, and by 1979 the Trans Am sold more than the other three Firebird models combined.  Little wonder we think of the Trans Am as defining this generation of Pontiac F-Body.  But the Esprit certainly held its own over time, undoubtedly pleasing less flamboyant Firebird buyers—and certainly satisfying General Motors, given the added margin over the base car.

So the next time you see the abundant number of Trans Ams typically found on display at car shows or cruise nights (I look forward to the day when we can enjoy those once again!), don’t forget its little luxury brother, though you’re not likely to actually ever see one.  But who knows, scrutinize that Trans Am closely: underneath all that plumage, the car could be a clone that started life as a Desert Sand Esprit.