By on August 31, 2010

Instead of a “screaming chicken”, the 1979 Firebird Trans Am should have a pterodactyl on the hood. This is truly a living dinosaur, the very last direct descendant of the the original big block/hi-po pony car. Once a thriving species during the golden performance car era, it was all but wiped out by that great natural calamity, the 1974 energy crisis. Challenger, Barracuda, Mustang, Javelin; even its stablemate the Camaro Z28; by 1975 they were all extinct or in deep hibernation. Only the Trans Am hung in there, and then just by a whisker, or a feather, in this case.

But Pontiac’s risky gamble to press on against the odds had a huge payoff: not only did Trans Am sales explode by the end of the decade, but it came to symbolize the whole genre. Rarely has one car so dominated the American public’s awareness: in the second half of the seventies, the Trans Am became the icon of the American performance car, for better or for worse.

In 1972, GM had a huge internal battle going as to whether the new-for 1970 F-Body Camaro and Firebird should be scrapped by 1973, rather than invest the sums necessary to re-engineer them for the new mandated impact-absorbing bumpers being phased. Sales of the handsome coupes had been hampered by production delays, strikes and the general fall-off of the whole segment, in response to rising insurance and other factors. Ford was pulling the plug on their oversize Mustang in favor of the Pinto-based Mustang II, and Chrysler and AMC walked away from the market altogether.

GM had the Vega-based H-bodies coming for 1975, to do battle with the Mustang II and the import sporty coupes. That seemed to be where the future action was, and big-engined performance cars were out, a relic of the good old days that ended so abruptly. But the right side won, GM hung in there, and it turned out to be one of the best choices they made in that era. Americans were not all ready to embrace a future of little four-banger Shetland-pony cars. And once gas prices stabilized in 1975 and 1976, and the economy revived, GM’s decision turned out to be a gold-pinstriped mine.

The Trans Am retained its big block 455 CID V8 through 1976, long after the Camaro jettisoned both the 396 or the the 350 CID Z28. The glory years of the big Poncho engine were of course the earliest ones, before lower compression ratios and smog controls eroded its once awesome Ram Air. And the Super Duty 455 still managed a respectable 290 (net) hp despite them. A genuine terror through 1974, by 1975 the TA 455 had its wings clipped, but was still the only thing of its kind on the market.

The legend was firmly established, and it was a rip-roaring success. So much so, that Chevrolet brought the Z28 out of hibernation for 1977.5. And although it sold well enough, the Trans Am was now firmly established as a cultural icon, thanks in part to its starring role in the classic car-chase/stunt movies of the times, Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper. The Trans Am and Burt Reynolds are inextricably intertwined, reflecting the good-old boy reaction and renaissance that was taking place as an antidote to the seventies’ massive cultural changes.

Pontiac faced an uphill battle to keep the performance real in the TA, and frankly, it was mostly a losing one. That’s not surprising, given the ever-tightening emission and CAFE regs. The 455, now down to 215 hp, made its last appearance in the ’76 TA, to be supplanted by the smaller-bore 400 Pontiac as well as the Olds 403 in CA, where the emission standards were even tighter. And by 1979, the Olds 403 had taken up residence in all TAs, except for a handful of genuine Pontiac 400 engines left over from 1978, and used mostly in the 10th Anniversary edition.

But who cared if the Trans Am was powered by a 185 hp Olds 403 shared with a Vista Cruisers? The screaming chicken was still on the hood, the scoops and vents were sort-of real, and it looked like stink, even if it only went like a well-muffled fart. It was still the only game in town, if you wanted bragging rights to a sporty coupe with something big under the hood. Step right this way, you sideburned and mustachioed young (and not so young) men of America!

And did they ever, in droves. Firebird and TA sales soared during this period, and hit a phenomenal peak in 1979: some 210k Firebirds total, of which over half were TAs. And even though the Firebird was the more visible of the two, the Camaro sold in even bigger numbers. In 1979, GM moved about a half-million of these F-bodies; a mind-boggling number compared to today’s Camaro. It was the final blowout, before another energy crisis crashed the party again, in 1980-1981. Sales crashed, and by 1982, the downsized third-gen Firebird appeared with a standard 90hp 2.5 L Iron Duke four banger.

The Firebird eventually found its performance legs again in the late eighties, thanks to fuel injection, but it never recouped its old sales moxie. That 1979 number stands as the all-time high for the Firebird, by a healthy margin. And this 1979 is also the last year for the big V8 altogether in the TA; by 1980, only the smaller Pontiac 301 and Chevy 305 were available. In a last desperate attempt to keep performance in the TA, a turbo version of the 301 was developed.

Although it was rated at 210 hp, more than the Olds 403, its performance never lived up to its hype, thanks to the limitations of its crude electronics to control pre-detonation. GM’s turbo skills with Buick’s hot V6 were still a few years away. As impressive as the Turbo Trans Am sounded (in name), it was a flop; good luck finding one today.

I was happy enough to see this fairly clean but original ’79 TA roll up to the Cornucopia, a neighborhood cafe featuring the best grass-fed beef hamburgers in town. My eyes have been peeled for a good vintage TA since starting CC, and it only makes sense it would be here. I wouldn’t exactly expect a Trans Am to pull up to one of the many vegan eateries in town.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

88 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am...”


  • avatar
    mikedt

    Every time I read one of these I’m shocked by how little power they managed to get out of such big engines. Today must be the golden age of the ICE.

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      So I’m not the only one who has been surprised to learn that some V8s of yesteryear are underpowered even compared to mid-range I4s today? I always thought that big displacement meant more power, but I learn something new everyday. As Dan says below though, torque is sometimes more important (sorry if I paraphrased that badly).

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      No, you’re good on the paraphrase. I’ve driven many “emaciated” early 80s small block V8s in large luxurious automobiles (think Caprice Classic, Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, Buick Estate) and as long as they were geared correctly and had properly shifting transmissions the torque was adequate for the mass and available not far off idle. These cars also cruised at 60-65 mph with the engine turning about 2000RPM, almost at the peak of the torque curve, much like today’s CVTs.

      I’ll always chose low down torque over hp when given the choice.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      “Output was 185 hp (138 kW) and 320 lb·ft (430 N·m).”

      So, 320 is OK but nothing special from 6.6L.

      A 2.0L 4-cyl BMW diesel makes 204bhp and 400 N.m.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      BMW, yeah at what RPM? I’ve seen modern V8s that the peak torque is about 5000 RPM (yeah I know with a redline of 8000+.) Most of the time that peak torque that far up the band is f@#*ing useless. (Especially with an automatic) My girlfriend doesn’t understand why I shift her manual trans Vibe at such high RPMs when in a “really need to accelerate” situation. Cause that’s where the power is in this VVT 4-cyl, Baby!

      (BTW high to her is anything past about 3000RPM on an engine that doesn’t redline till almost 9000. Now I don’t make a habit out of it, most of our driving is very leisurely around town when I’m driving her car. I’m not trying to kill the thing, just get up to speed before that F350 with a V10 decides to eat me.)

    • 0 avatar

      Respectfully, you had to be there to fully appreciate what a dark age the 70′s (especially 1973-on) were for Detroit. There were a few pinpricks of hope…GM’s downsized – and lighter – A and B bodies, the Fox Mustang come to mind.

      I just kinda figured if I was ever gonna have fun with cars it would be with something built before 1971. Although I had a ’75 Monza with the 262 (de-stroked 350) and a 4-speed. Not a muscle car but fun.

      Even back in the “golden age” (pre-1971), traction problems hampered many muscle cars (or as they were called back then, supercars) from doing the kind of 0-60 and 1/4 mile times of which many of today’s vehicles are capable. By the late 70′s, everyone was riding on radials but smog regs had strangled engines to the point that a 215 net HP T/A was normal. Chevy 350s were good for 145-160 HP tops back then – even w/a Q-jet. (remember HP ratings went from gross to net in 1971) So the cars were slower yet.

      One reason for these cars’ popularity back-in-the-day was the prevailing notion that the next generation of F-Bodies wouldn’t even have a V8 option.

      This is indeed the golden age of ICE. What Detroit engineers have learned about everything from piston skirting to cam timing is jaw-dropping. 30 years ago, if you’d have floated the idea of a 500-HP ‘Vette that could knock back 20+ MPG, no one with any automotive knowledge would ever take you seriously again. Today 600+ HP in a fully streetable package is a reality if you can afford it.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      “BMW, yeah at what RPM? ”

      Dan, it’s a diesel. Max 400 N.m at 1750 rpm.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Sorry shouldn’t have missed the diesel thing. Of course if the EPA wasn’t so heck bent against diesels in the US, the point might be well taken. Once you take away “The Germans” and diesel pickup trucks, there’s no real competition for diesel in the USA.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Here’s the comparison:

      1977/1978 Pontiac Trans Am 400CI Power Curve

      2010 Buick Lacrosse 2.4L DI

    • 0 avatar
      Monty

      LOL @ Educator Dan!

      I am not allowed to exceed 3000 RPM in Mrs. Monty’s Focus ZX5 (which I’m sure could lay waste to just about any un-modified TA)

      I keep telling her there’s a reason the redline is 7500 RPM, and even if I go crazy in the car that it’s got a rev limiter, but nooooo, I can’t hoon it even a little bit.

      I hate Firebirds, especially TA’s. At the time the reviewed car was new, my mother had just purchased a FIAT 124 Spider, and it made any American muscle car look brutal in comparison. The Spider was way cooler, faster, and so Italian…

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      I would imagine with all the scrambling to meet the more stringent emissions regulations there wasn’t any money left over for combustion chamber and induction system development. Just look at the power you can wring from these smog-era engines when you add the latest aftermarket cylinder heads and intake manifolds; a lot of the normally bulletproof downstream drive line components start shredding in a few hundred miles from the often tripled horsepower and doubled torque. These days, on a free breathing street driven SBC build, it’s commonly thought you did something wrong if you don’t end up with at least 400hp. It’s definitely put a crimp in the incomes of certain swap meet individuals as the vintage high performance cylinder head and camshaft kits are only sought after by restorers now since even bare bones factory Vortec heads outflow them out of the box and cost a quarter what the old part commands.

      Several years ago a friend, wanting to hop up his 455 equipped Olds Vista Cruiser, lamented to me: “I thought those cylinder head kits would be the most expensive part of the build up. They were the cheapest.” I think he only paid $1,500 for the heads and somewhere around $6K for everything else to finally put the power to the ground without breaking something.

  • avatar
    mountainman

    As a young boy, I lusted after these cars and still do. Once I have a garage, I am going to restore a 1970 Firebird with a Ram Air IV.

    I drove the 1980 (or ’81?) Turbo Pace Car. It was dog slow, with the Turbo indicators as lights on the hood. I had an ’84 and that car burned through alternators like Oprah through cheese fries.

    Thanks for the article… brings back good memories.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    “And the Super Duty 455 still managed a respectable 290 (net) hp despite them. A genuine terror through 1974, by 1975 the TA 455 had its wings clipped, but was still the only thing of its kind on the market.”

    “But who cared if the Trans Am was powered by a 185 hp Olds 403 shared with Vista Cruisers?”

    Does anybody know the factory torque output of these big blocks? I still love a torquey V8, even when the HP has been a bit “neutered.” I’ve had trouble finding the stats online, everybody just wants to talk HP.

    I was born in 1977 and I still want one of these TAs. The scary thing is I’ve got the clothes in my closet to make me look like Bandit. I know they’re (the cars) cheesy but dang it, that is an apologetically American car, just like a Fleetwood Caddy with a 500 cubic inch engine.

    • 0 avatar
      Stingray

      I was born in 1978 and want one of those too. A C3 from the same era too.

      The “anemic” powertrain problem can be solved with LS or more heretic swaps

      But oh no, I don’t have smokey-like clothing

    • 0 avatar
      WaftableTorque

      I vaguely remember the small block 350 2bbl V8 in my 1976 Grand Prix having ratings of 165hp and 290lb/ft. These engines had a red line around 4100rpm, so they had to rely on torque. I could do a 0-60 around 15 seconds, though I did manage to get down to the 12s range because the car was capable of 60mph in first gear.

      I averaged 20 L/100km during winter and 16 L/100km hypermiling it during summer.

      Torque was great on these cars, because you could drive around town without having the engine work hard. Gutless, yes. Effortless, yes too.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      “…the car was capable of 60mph in first gear”

      WaftableTorque, the biggest problem with these cars was the fuel saving ring&pinion gear ratio. I Had a ’79 Mustang with a 302 and auto. Swapped out the factory 2.42 ring&pinion in favor of 410s. Before the swap, I was getting beat by CRXs (this was in ’85). ‘After, it became the fastest car around (small town). Despite lack of compression, these cars can hall ass if geared right.

    • 0 avatar
      nrd515

      The SD-455′s were only a few “adjustments” away from being truly quick. The 290 HP figure was about outright lie, even off the showroom floor, it was well over 300. The local Pontiac wizard took a neighbor’s 74 SD and made it truly impressive for about a hundred and fifty bucks. It ran 13.20′s on street tires, never really hooking up at the launch all that well.
      I tried to buy a mint condition 73 SD-455 in 1981, but couldn’t get a loan for a car that old that cost so much, so I ended up with a 79 with a 403, as every single 400 I looked at had the usual “Pontiac lifter tick” because GM was too cheap to put a decent windage tray on the 400′s to prevent lifter collapse.
      I knew an Olds guru anyway, and after headers, intake, a cam and lifters, head porting, and a gear change from an insane 2.41 to 3.42, I had a car that got about 18MPG around town, and ran mid 13 1/4 mile times, and had the most amazing throttle response of any car I’ve ever driven. It hit like it was hit in the rear when you barely touched the throttle. I loved it. There were tire tracks in front of my house for years after I got pissed and smoked my way out of the driveway and all the way down the street one afternoon. The neighbors talked about it for years. Other than an alternator, and the heater core, the only thing that broke on it was the shifter, and I replaced it with a Hurst Dual Gate.
      Sadly, I got the hots for an Iroc-Z in 1986, and I sold the T/A to a guy who trashed it in only a few years. A couple have turned up for sale locally, but I have no money. A friend just bought a 71 Roadrunner, and I would probably take it over a T/A at this point if I could afford it.

    • 0 avatar
      CRConrad

      You mean UNapologetically, I trust.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Hard to believe GM actually pulled this off – clearly one of their best accomplishments of the 70′s. I wonder what the muscle car era would have looked like had it continued into the 70′s…

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked these – especially the late 70s f-bodies. I did own a mint 1978 Z28 with a 4spd as my second. Loved it but probably would have liked a TA like this even more. I did see a quite uncommon now Yellow Bird the other day. Not a high performance edition to be sure but I’ll bet they are more rare than a TA these days.

    http://oldcarjunkie.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/pontiac-yellowbird/

  • avatar
    Jeffer

    I despised these cars when I was a teen in the early eighties. They were everywhere, real belly-button cars (everyone had one) I found the one pictured, particularly offensive, calling it the Darth Vader edition. My buds and I were all into Datsun 510′s, 240z’s and 520/620 pick-ups. In hindsight these cars aren’t so bad, although I still don’t care for the Darth Vader version, preferring the earlier front end.

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      They ruined the styling with this model year. The 77-78 was perfect. I read that James Garner kept the ’78 Firebird for the final season of “The Rockford Files” because he hated the ’79′s front-end styling.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    The 79 TA is about as American as a gawdy sports car can be. I have a strange respect and awe of it.

    You could also classify the story as “GM Deadly Sin #28″.

  • avatar

    I’ve always wanted one of these. I remember watching S&TB as a child and just DYING to get one of the last real muscle cars.

    This is my favourite CC ever.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    I was wrong in the cue thread.

    I like better the front end with the headlamps together. I think it’s 77.

    In any case, those cars look awesome. Good CC

    On Sunday I read Oregon is producing some fine wines (near Eugene). I have tried Californian ones, and liked them. I hope to try some of that region in the future.

  • avatar
    skor

    I guy from high school had one of these, it was the big block version and probably 5-6 years old at the time, although in near new condition. I finally managed to talk him into giving me a ride. Compared to what was on the road at the time — early 1980′s the T/A had an impressive amount of grunt. The built quality, however, was disappointing — large gaps, lots of squeaks and rattles, especially from the T-tops, it came off as cheap.

  • avatar

    It’s worthless if it doesn’t come with one of these: http://www.ecrater.com/p/5850374/villian-70s-style-black-human

  • avatar
    Zackman

    When the 1970 restyle came out, I was horrified that they were now three-window coupes, but I saw a 1970 Camaro which was a basic model, but the color combo of metallic medium brown exterior with the saddle-brown interior and no console – just the auto shifter mounted on the floor was stunning in its simple beauty. I got to experience being a back-seat passenger in a white 1976 Trans-Am that a buddy owned and it was like being in a cave! Cool car, though, just the same.

  • avatar

    I was 11 in 77 when Smokey came out (featuring a 76 TA). Everyone wanted this car. It’s sad that they were neutered with the 403 and then the detuned small blocks. Of course, the Corvette suffered the same fate.

    It’s sad that this gawdy ’79 TA would probably be bested by a V-6 Accord or Camry. Is it any wonder that the volume for the current Camaro is so low?

    By the way, Googling shows torque on the 6.6 Pontiac and 403 Olds at an solid 320 @ around 2300 RPM. They did light up tires impressively.

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      I was also 11, living in Atlanta, GA, when this movie hit the theaters. My dad and I went to a theater in late summer ’77 to see S&TB, only to find that all shows that night had been sold out. We bought tickets to see it for another night and finally did so. We had a blast. Before seeing it, I snuck into my dad’s liquor cabinet and had a straight shot of some kind of his whiskey. Initially, my throat was on fire, and I was waiting for a buzz or drunk feeling of some sort (which I had never felt before), but I never felt anything – I was a little disappointed. I don’t know if my dad ever suspected it, but he never let on if he did. I never drank again until college – and then I made up for lost time my freshman year.

      Anyway, my cousin, who lived in Lithonia, GA, went out an bought a ’75 T/A, black, with the screamin’ chicken after he saw the movie about 50 times. He was a total redneck and fancied himself as Burt Reynolds, so it didn’t surprise anyone in my family. I’m not sure what the power rating was, but that car could move!

      There were plenty of open country roads in the late 70s before Atlanta urban sprawl ruined it all. The Covington, Conyers, Lithonia area was where some of that movie was filmed. The scene where Buford T Justice and Junior are stuck in a traffic jam during a funeral procession was filmed in front of Lithonia High School, where my cousins attended.

      Also, the first 5 episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard were filmed in and around Covington, and Conyers, GA. Starting with episode 6, it was filmed in Burbank, CA (I almost ran a regional jet off the runway in Burbank when the wind shifted from a headwind to a tailwind as I crosssed the numbers in a heavy rain storm, but that’s another story – thank God for anti-lock brakes. That could have been another Southwest type accident).

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      Didn’t the 455 go through 1976…and was then done away with when the full-sized GMs downsized?

      No, it didn’t and I stand corrected.

  • avatar
    Hank

    At about the age most boys don’t want to be seen being dropped off at the front of the school by their moms, my mother bought a used ’76 Formula with a 455. No one liked being dropped off at the front door more than me (not that I minded it in the MGC she had before the ‘bird, either).

  • avatar
    BMWfan

    Nostalgia clouds the mind. These cars were the biggest POS out there. T Tops leaked like a sieve, and they could not get out of their own way. To be fair, emissions cut the stones off of everything in the 70′s.

    • 0 avatar

      But just about everything that came from the “Big Four” back then was the “biggest POS out there”. For GM fans like me, those late-70′s F’s end up not lookin’ so bad today because the 1982-92 generation was even worse! At least the 1987-92 350 TPI models were great donor and parts cars.

    • 0 avatar
      MidLifeCelica

      Nostalgia indeed. I owned an ’81 Z28, and had to fabricate my own T-top hold-down brackets, which ended the leak issue. When I traded it in for an ’85 Mustang 5.0, it leaked every fluid that it could possibly spurt…not just oil, but gasoline, brake fluid, Freon, antifreeze, windshield washer fluid, you name it, you’d find it on the ground. Yet it still holds a special place in my heart, out of all the cars I’ve owned. Pretty impressive for a POS, especially a GM POS!

      But as far as performance goes – can you say “after-market”? At that time, in any speed shop in town, if you closed your eyes and grabbed a box off the shelf, whatever it was would almost certainly attach to a Trans Am or Camaro, improve it’s performance, and be relatively cheap too. After ripping out anything that remotely looked like pollution control apparatus and slapping in Crane Cams, an Edelbrock manifold, Holly carb, hi-flow air filter, high-energy ignition system, a Rancho suspension, a low-restriction exhaust system…my car was transformed into a loud, mean, head-turning machine. Still nothing like a modern sports car, but miles ahead of the stock stuff on the street.

      BTW, where I grew up the TransAm fans and the Camaro lovers mutually loathed each other. The screaming chicken, the fake holographic foil dash, the shaker hood scoop, yuck!! Lord knows what they hated about the Z28, it’s a perfect vehicle :-).

    • 0 avatar
      80_formula

      You have no Idea how wrong you are. “Biggest POS out there”, really? The T-Tops did leak, but most f-bodies didn’t have them. The emissions stuff is real easy to get rid of, and does nothing but help the car in every way possible. If you look up the old magazine articles from the day, you’ll find that these were the best handling American cars on the road, and handled better than a lot of European and Japanese imports of the time. Plus, Car and Driver had them clocked (with all the emissions junk in place) at a 15.2 sec 1/4 mile. See if you can find anything from the day that was as fast for the same price or less. You can’t.

  • avatar
    obbop

    “In a last desperate attempt to keep performance in the TA, a turbo version of the 301 was developed.

    Although it was rated at 210 hp, more than the Olds 403, its performance never lived up to its hype, thanks to the limitations of its crude electronics to control pre-detonation. GM’s turbo skills with Buick’s hot V6 were still a few years away. As impressive as the Turbo Trans Am sounded (in name), it was a flop; good luck finding one today.”

    Had one of these in the Concord, CA wrecking yard.

    White with blue trim if I recollect properly.

    Totaled via the insurance company due to a roll-over that didn’t really do all that much damage.

    A LOT of usable parts.

    Except a few sheet metal panels we sold every piece and part of that critter.

    Got top dollar, too.

    When it first arrived at the yard we took turns sitting in the driver’s seat saying “vrooom vroom” as we manipulated the controls.

    Heck, I still do that.

    Based upon subjective opinion and in turn using an ancient memory the 1974 T/A with the SuperDuty version of the 455….. entering I-5 back when that Interstate was little traveled with very little traffic (so unlike the last few years…. well, more than a few, actually…. take my word that ONCE I-5 was basically deserted its entire length from north of LA all the way to Tracy) rocketing uphill upon the lengthy on-ramp I was astounded at the smoothness of the power output.

    So quick to attain the speed limit. Then surpass it. Up to 100 plus. I can not recall what our top speed was. We were still accelerating and the engine was pulling strong when the owner/driver backed down to a saner speed. Why tempt fate even thought the road was deserted with nary a CHP is site and radar was not used by the CHP in those days.

    So different than the raw brutal power of a 440 w/4-speed in a Plymouth GTX.

    Unsure which one would win the drag race. Many variables; state of tune, how sticky the tires are, driver reaction and ability, etc.

    Both WERE fast, though and that T/A was a smoooooth power.

    Never could get Fred to hot rod his 1970 Plymouth GTX 440- 6-pack

    100 percent original. Never modified. Auto tranny. It was his commuting car for many years. Wonder if he still has it?

    If so and he still drives it daily, stop in Patterson on Hwy 33 and look for the gas station on the west side of the hiway for the Plum Crazy GTX.

    Tell Fred the guy who sent the postcard from Hong Kong said howdy.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    One of my best friends drove a 1979 Berlinetta Camaro to High-School. It may have been an icon, but it was a dog of a car. My 2.5l HSC Taurus L spanked it in everything. Except reliability.

  • avatar

    Ah, but you missed the one essential point of this review. It is to properly describe the thing on the hood as the “puking chicken”.

    Back in the day (I was a high schooler with a ragged 1969 Bird Ragtop, a POS junker, not a classic like today :) the hot setup was to get the Formula, which had all the go fast parts without hood scoop or barfing bird. A real musclecar would laugh at these things, and the tape and spats were to cover a real performance lack.

    The only car GM made that was more a self caricature was the Royal Knight El Camino.

    • 0 avatar
      c5karl

      In the self-caricature department, it’s hard to top a Dodge Lil’ Red Express. The Screaming Chicken T/As at least had the Smokey & The Bandit association working for them. But the goofy Dodge truck was more Hee-Haw than Hollywood. Even as a T/A-lusting pre-teen, I found the Dodge preposterous.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      If only the Little Red Express had won a part in the 1978 movie “Convoy.” Perhaps the truck would be more iconic. (rolls eyes)

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Let’s talk about why these cars were successful. The big pony car market was abandoned. While it was no longer growing, it was still capable of selling 500,000 cars annually. This is a fraction of what this market was doing ten years earlier, but still profitable for any marketer capable of tapping it. So, GM lucked out with an old car that had a good reputation, and the only player in the Market. These cars were dated inside and out by 1974. They didn’t have good reliability.

    But they were the only game in town.

    So the Mustang II sold rehabbed Pinto parts by the hundreds of thousands and pure profit, since the Pinto by this time had paid for itself. Ford had a winner with this nasty thing for three years.

    GM tarted up the Vega and sold four varieties of it, one for each division, doing the same thing – making lots of profit!

    Chrysler threw it all away and had no money to play in this league. Their 1974 big car redesign killed them until they got bailed out.

    AMC fell in love with selling it’s Hornets and Gremlins and stopped competing.

    By 1977, with the auto market slowing, and this big pony market remaining healthy and stable, GM’s competition returned with V8 versions of their mini-pony cars trying to straddle the market they abandoned in 1974 with the mini-pony market which cooled for the US makes in favor of the Japanese makes.

    Finally, please recall your CC on the 1974 Celica. We are seing once again how a product cycle can favor a strong brand. Like the Fox Mustangs and the Celica, the TransAm/Camaro vs. the mini-ponies demonstrate how a strong brand at the end of a product cycle can produce pure profit for a company if it’s competition abandons the market sufficiently enough for the brand to grow, solidifying the brand’s legacy.

    GM’s TA/Camaros were old hat in the pony wars by the time Jack Telnack’s Fox platform arrived offering a superior car from which to build a revived Mustang to compete with the old GM cars. The new Mustangs sparked market growth simply by being new Mustangs, then prolonged their popularity when Ford did the same thing within the RWD pony car market that GM did when the big pony car market was abandoned a decade earlier.

    The seventies showed that the mini-pony market split seven ways doesn’t help as much as the big-pony market going to one competitor. The eighties showed that the FWD sport car market split seven ways doesn’t help as much as the RWD sport car market going to one competitor, (this time Ford). It is good to see Ford keep both the Fox Mustang and putting out the Probe, just as it was good to see GM keep both the TA/Camaro and putting out their Vega clones.

    Sometimes the old dogs do teach new tricks, if left alone playing solo in an abandoned market niche.

  • avatar
    john.fritz

    We go out driving in my 6.6, yeah…

    Thank you Mr. Hagar.

  • avatar
    troyohchatter

    Understand that the “potential” power was still there. Back in 1979, companies like JC Whitney sold what was called a “test pipe” for your catalytic converter. What it actually did is replace it. We did this to our 350 equipped pickup truck and doubled our MPG. Alternately, you slipped the local exhaust place a bit of money under the table and they’d install a full on dual exhaust with no cats at all.

    Next, you pulled off ALL of the emission equipment, replaced the carb, perhaps pull the heads and shave em down a bit to increase compression, and just like that, the car had it’s balls back, and not for a lot of money.

    Nowadays, the auto companies realize that opening up the breathing equals MPG, and thus there aren’t cheap increases to be had. Hell, my 2002 Ford Ranger I4 Duratec has a 16v head and a header to boot.

  • avatar
    67dodgeman

    The way I remember it (early ’80′s), you wanted one of the camaro/firebird cars with either the 350, 454, or 455 engines. Even smogged choked. Cause by that point the car was used, second or third owner, and you could pull off all the smog junk and put on all the go fast parts from the late ’60′s. It was fairly common to scrounge up good heads, high flow intakes, big carbs, etc. from junked engines and put them on the 1970′s smog cars. Even better, rebuild with high compression pistons. Then headers, glasspacks, and a lumpity lump camshaft.

    Course, they were still meat for those of us with real cars from the ’60′s, with even more go fast parts and not a lot of common sense.

    Course I wouldn’t even dream of lining up against a modern turbo car today. My wife’s camry 4-cyl is darn near fast enough to embarass many legions of hopped up Novas and Malibus from that time period. Better to live in my memories than to get embarassed on the street.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    This car was The Shit during my formative years.

    I bought a turbo; spent so much time at the dealer I traded in for a Mustang; THAT car spent so much time at the dealer I went Japanese.

  • avatar
    cackalacka

    We got a long way to go.
    And a short time to get there.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    Kevin drools…and would be orgasmic also if it were a 1976 T/A 6.6 in white and blue. Could have latched on to one of those back in 1980, but for some reason I passed. It had 46000 miles and was immaculate, sitting on a Pontiac dealer used car lot (remember “OK Used Cars”, anyone?) Thanks for the memory, Paul!

    And the 1982 T/A I did buy was a large, steaming pile of shit. What a disappointment. That T/A is why I drove a Toyota (Corolla GT-S, yes, the AE86, Paul, at that) next and own and drive the piss out of a 2006 Civic now. Pontiac: We built excrement in the 80′s!

  • avatar
    ajla

    I’m going to shock everyone on TTAC and say that this car is awesome.

    The ones to get were either something with the W72-power and WS6-handling packages (which would out perform the L82 Corvette of that time), or a 301 manual (which would out perform the 403 automatic Trans Am that everybody bought for some reason).

    • 0 avatar
      Stingray

      Of course it’s awesome.

      There’s nothing on the road that looks like it. Firebird or T/A.

      And a modern powetrain swap and suspension upgrade must do marvels to them.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Hey I really like the looks. Can’t BELIEVE I just said that publicly. I grew hating the people that drove them. They were the people that made school miserable and they shouldn’t have even been there. Just shuffle them off to whatever they wanted to do with their lives and let people like me work on getting an education and going to college (via the Navy for six).

      That said the drivetrain was really pitiful without some garage time.

      And I MUCH prefer the old Camaro/Firebird to a modern Camaro this gen or the previous. Chassis and drive-line in the newer cars is good but I hate the looks.

  • avatar
    jmo

    “(which would out perform the L82 Corvette of that time),”

    So would a ’07 v-6 Camry… I don’t see what the allure is…

    • 0 avatar

      I have zero interest in a Camry of any vintage. I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a Camry and an Accord.

      These suckers, though, they had character. Perhaps an overabundance of character, but I’d rather have too-hot-chili than too-boring-vanilla six days a week and twice on Sunday.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      So would a ‘07 v-6 Camry…

      The modern Camry V6 would outperform a 450SL or Mark I Supra as well. However, there was no such thing as a 2007 Camry V6 in 1979.

      I don’t see what the allure is…

      It was the last of its kind. A period piece that was an unintentional-retro-throwback even when it was new. It also had a decent impact on the popular culture of the time.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s why it’s fair to explain the lower volumes of current Camaros by pointing to V6 Camry’s. But in ’79, the TA was top of an admittedly weak heap.

  • avatar
    postjosh

    trans-ams and z28′s were considered very “uncool” in my snobbish new jersey high school. they were for “greasers.” even then, it was obvious to us that detroit was doomed. if you could afford it, buy german. otherwise, japanese was the way to go. we were much more impressed with burt reynolds driving in “the longest yard” then we were with “smokey & the bandit”.

    • 0 avatar
      Stingray

      If you want to point to an european car chase, use Ronin. Although, I’m not fooled into believing that a E34 M5 CAN’T walk a XU7 powered Peugeot 406. It would smoke the hell out of it. But hey, it’s a movie, and was a fun chase too.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      That’s the problem with being a snob – you end up liking cars that, in retrospect, turn out to be junk (Citroen) as opposed to cars that, whatever their faults, had one basic advantage – they actually worked.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Oh I don’t know – the Citroens are cool in their own way and anybody that has owned one knows exactly what needs to be done to keep them going just like any other brand or model like the Pontiacs. I’ve driven a bunch of those “junk” European cars and they aren’t so bad for play cars (not daily drivers). Modern gasket materials have helped alot too.. GRIN!

  • avatar
    ajla

    These cars also did not perform THAT bad.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they performed well, but some commenters are making it sound like they would get shut down by an Insight or the UPS truck.

    A W72/WS6 Trans AM had about a 15.3 1/4 mile time, 124MPH top speed, a 144ft 60-0, and .83g skidpad. Which is comparable to a Ford Fusion 3.0L SEL of today (with 1/2 the fuel economy and modern CUV-level braking)

    The 301 4-spd, non-W72 400, and 403 can run around a 16.3 1/4 mile time. That’s about what a Buick Regal or Kizashi manages.

    Worst case, with an automatic and a weak gear ratio, you’ll be stuck with a Versa-grade 17.0 time.

  • avatar
    whisperquiet

    I ordered and owned a 1979 WS6/W72 Trans Am and as noted above it was quicker and faster than a 1979 Corvette with 220 HP and over 300 Ft Lbs of torque………ran about a 6.5 second 0-60 and low 15 second 1/4 mile…it was gearing limited to a 124mph top end at redline. It was a decent (if under steering) handling car with the WS6 package that included for the first time the four wheel disc brake option. I owned mine for about two years and sold it for exactly for what I paid for it due to the high inflationary last few years of the Carter administration. I still remember the VIN…… 2W87Z9N119434 and it was built in Norwood, Ohio in November 1978.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    What phrase that appeared in the recent Toyota Celica Curbside Classic write up is conspicuous by its absence in this write up?

    “For its time”

    The disdain is palpable.

    I love these cars. Not so much the t-tops, but the gold striping, the bird on the shaker hood and everything else? Love it. And judging by the sales numbers there were plenty of people who did. Of course as a late 70′s car, with its primitive emissions equipment, was a dog, but then again just about every car of this era was. Compared to what was out there at the time, the Trans Am did pretty good for itself.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    This remember this being the first American car whose engine displacement was described in liters. The 79 Mustang 5.0 might be in a tie with that change in nomenclature. Imports were already doing this.

    Anyone else remember this detail of history, or am I way off?

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    You’re way off, gslippy. Paul N. wrote just two weeks ago about the ’66 Ford Galaxie 500 7-litre, which led to a similar discussion: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/curbside-classic-1966-ford-galaxie-500-7-litre/

  • avatar

    I drove a 1985 TPI Trans Am in 1985. My best friend had an Olds 403 powered ’79 Trans Am. We raced a few times and it was really close with no clear winner between the two. As far as the driving experience, the ’85 felt like a Porsche compared to the ’79. Loose steering similar to American luxoboats of the time, heavier than the Titanic and brakes that were mediocre at best.

    For those knocking this car, comparing it to a V6 Camry and other such nonsense, please remember that times have changed. In the late 70s and early 80s, this was a very fast car. Yeah, today it may not seem like much but keep things in perspective. I remember R&T comparing the Boxer vs the Countach with the Countach having a whopping 153mph top speed. A 2011 Mustang GT would destroy a Countach but that’s neither here or there, is it?

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I am another who admits to wanting one of these cars for over 30 years. I fell in love with these cars through the movies, but not Smokey and the Bandit, the first one I can recall is the 1971(ish) era Clint Eastwood movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

    They used a 1971 Trans Am with 455, but not quite as outlandishly as the T/A S/E in S&TB. The Smokey movie was quite the rage in the late ’70′s, but in my neck of the woods, the black and gold T/A S/E’s rapidly became declassé, other colors really took off.

    My personal wish is for a silver Indy pacer or a 79 with 301 and four speed, in a similar silver livery.

    The person who owns the featured car should get smart and get it off of the road. It looks like it might be a survivor, I can imagine that someone in the future would be mighty happy to have that car in that condition.

    I never got one of the Henry Haga designed F body coupes, I ended up with a 1983 Trans Am (with the misfire cross injection, my wording), a beautiful car in it’s own right, but a quality and assembly money pit. Maybe if I had been smart, I would have searched out a 79 thru 81 coupe and saved the (outrageous compared to today’s) interest rates and repairs that I put into the ’83. Lesson learned.

  • avatar
    ronin

    No, baby, the worst thing about these cars of the 70s was not the ring and pinion or primitive electronics or complex carburetion of smog legislation.

    The worst thing about these cars of the 70s- and that includes this one with the giant jive turkey on the hood- was that they were rust magnets. Detroit’s corrosion resistance acted like nothing other than corrosion accelerators, as though there were little caustic pellets released with every hint of precipitation, eating the metal down to nothing.

    This is no joke if you lived in the pre-rust steel belt, with well-salted roads being the desiderata of winters with bias ply sunny weather tires.

    Rear quarter panels would dissolve in the twinkling of an eye or within 18 months; pray that the A pillar would still be there in the spring to hold up the windshield. Delight to the jokes of Flinstone-mobiles as tiny portholes developed under your feet.

    This was no joke. Worse, it was no accident. The crap that Detroit deliberately ran out was the prime enabler of the Toyota and Datsun phenomena. The result of cynical disregard by Detroit for their most loyal customers.

    • 0 avatar

      Which directly addresses one major point. EVERY manufacturer knows about how long their cars will last. The federal 100k emissions requirement forced manufacturers to make cars that would usually last at least 100k and pass emissions. Bye bye 30,000 mile exhaust systems, etc. Still, the money had to come out of something else, so it got cheap in the body, a place no one would notice till years later.

      Come on TTAC, get some information as to “expected service life” from the car makers.

  • avatar
    mikey

    @ronin… Oh!..I see the Datsuns and Toyotas from that era didn’t rust? Got same bad news. I grew up in southern Ontario. Your right, everything rusted. Fords were terrible, GMs wern’t much better.

    However the Japanese garbage gave rust a new meaning. Remember the early civics? The shock towers on a Toyota? Maybe you got 7 years before the vehicle came of the road for safety concerns.

    Lets go high end. Ever have a look at a 75 Mercedes? Or a Rover from the 60s?

    Let step up a decade or so. I see the rockers going on the 10 year old GM “W” cars. It ain’t pretty thats for sure. I could live with a rusty rocker. Try driving a Toyota pick up with a rotten frame.

    I work part time at a junk yard. We have to handle the Nissan pick ups very carefully. The frames will bend and crinkle the sheet metal.

    To this day Mazda’s have big rust issues. Want to see more rust? Keep you eye on the crap coming from Korea. Five year old Hyundais already starting to rust.

    • 0 avatar
      ronin

      To be sure, Mikey, the Corollas and B210s rusted, but at a much slower pace than their Yankee counterparts. This made them standouts indeed by comparison.

      I bought a 76 Camaro new. It came, as did all GMs of the time, with a 90-day bumper to bumper warranty. That’s all you got, baby.

      The Vega had so many double-secret service bulletins because hydrochloric acid ran through its veins (not really, just apparently). What’s a rocker panel- oh, you mean that metal that used to be under my door? Exactly what am I supposed to apply my Bondo and fiberglass netting to?- because whatever it is, that’ll be gone by next spring as well.

      The Jp imports were more reliable mechanically, more durable, and priced cheaper. When the only counter to them was the Pinto and the Vega, the game was over… we just didn’t know it yet.

      Note that I’m talking about little cars, because that’s all the Japanese fielded in those days. There was no Japanese counter to the Cutlass, which ruled the fort, or the Torino, or the LeMans, or the Dart, or the other cars that ruled the day. Detroit through their vast richesse of market share completely away.

      I wouldn’t touch a 70s-era Jive Turkey with a 10-foot pole. Too thirsty, too weak, too slow, too spartan, too this, too that.

      It was a horrorshow day.

  • avatar
    marlin66

    Reasonably nice survivor, I guess… but those graphics don’t look correct for a ’79…

    IIRC, that “Gothic” lettering was only found on the ’77 black and gold ones. Certainly, by ’79, the lettering was of a much squarer block design.

    Also, I believe in ’79 the “T/A-6.6″ graphic was found only on the (rare) Pontiac 400-cid/4-speed versions (the Poncho mill was with manual transmission only). Any ’79 Trans Am with an automatic was likely to be the Olds 403-cid version (auto only) and would have been labelled as “6.6.LITRE”

    For what it’s worth….

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      I think Marlin66 is right about the hood graphics and the car having the 403 Olds engine.
      The history I’ve read is that the T/A 6.6 400 c.i. V-8 engines were actually all made by the end of the 1978 model year. They were saved for a final batch of ’79 Trans Ams and possibly Formulas. Marlin66 is right that most ’79 Trans Ams had either the 301 or 403. Few T/A 6.6 got into regular buyers at retail without special connections. Those commanded a premium both new and used. I think most ’79 T/A 6.6 V-8s went into the 10th Anniversary special edition model, which of course commanded a premium. I’m pretty sure many of those had automatics. Any Poncho historian is welcome to clarify or correct all this.
      1979, a year I was in high school, made us think the late Sixties muscle was back,  It all seems so lame now, but the mid-Seventies were horrible and then suddenly cool cars were back. There were the Hurst/Olds W-30 Cutlass, LM1 Z28s, L82 Corvettes, 5.0 Mustangs, Formulas and T/As, the Buick V-6 Turbos, Pontiac Grand AM 301, Plymouth Volare RoadRunners with a 360, and the pickup trucks like the Dodge Power Wagon Little Red Express and Chevy 454.
      Once the Iran revolution cut off the spigot again and gas hit $1.10/gallon, most of these were gone or seriously castrated for the 1980 model year. Things really didn’t heat up again for another three or four years.
       

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    It’s really funny reading a lot of these comments. An intake and carb swap, along with a nice cam and headers would easily add upwards of 100HP and around 50lbs. of torque to those old V8′s even with the factory low compression pistons.

  • avatar
    pauldun170

    Had a few friends with these cars. They were always ordering from a catalog and while we now look at these cars as slow shitboxes, back then these were the cars that you picked up if you wanted to something to go fast.
    Japanese cars were considered gutless little fourbangers.
     

  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    If you watch Smokey and the Bandit again, notice the speedometer during the chase scenes. All they did was cover the MPH numbers on the speedo so only the k/mh numbers were visible. Sure loses in translation when he was going 100 on the speedo. (62 mph).

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    I am old enough to know the Torque God. Sure, these things didn’t have much top end but they had torque to burn, the kind of torque that only big cubic inches gives. I remember a quote from Ferry Porsche, years ago, who said:

    “People buy horsepower but they drive torque.”

    The torque of a big V-8 means no downshifts. It means you go up hills without changing gears. It means you serenely chug along in city traffic. It means no lock up torque converters or anything electronic. Electronics? We DON’T NEED NO STINKING ELECTRONICS!! I means an a/c compressor the size of a Honda L block.

    I grew up with 70′s GM iron. They were designed to cruise at 65 mph. More than that the front ends started lifting off the road. But at 65, you never heard the tranny downshift, period.
    Recently, I drove my buddy’s daily driver (in Saskatchewan!), a 1978 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, with 425 CID V-8. A giant sled with only like 180 hp but with 330 lbs/ft of torque. I barely noticed the thing run. It waffed along and made my wonder how far we had really come. I seriously thought about finding one for my driver, or at least on the weekends as a novelty.

    That is until I realised I had burned 50 litres of fuel in two afternoons and really hadn’t gone anywhere.
     

  • avatar
    zbnutcase

    Anybody remember this car from Steve McQueen’s last movie “The Hunter”

  • avatar
    bomberpete

     
    Yes. The real-life character he played, bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson, was a complete contrast to McQueen behind the wheel – tentative, uncertain and speed-averse. That’s why he was unhappy when the rental car agency gave him a Trans-Am.
    Check out the sheriff – it’s Uncle Leo from Seinfeld

  • avatar
    KIM1963

    Pontiac Firebreather

  • avatar
    FJ20ET

    Tacky as it may be, it’s still 1000 times better than the awful 3rd Gen.

  • avatar
    phantomwolf

    Ah the torque from my 93 Deville, I still infuriate the ricers off the line around here….untill the mere 200 horses catch up with me.  I need a CTS-V.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I currently own a 1981 TA Nasar Edition with but 28K miles on the clock. Have had it for 10 years and still to this day love sliding in, removing the t-tops and cruising the car shows or long stretches of highway. The 49 in my screen name indicates the 301 turbos size in liters (4.9) and I have considerable experience with this and the NA mill of this time era. With a few simple tweaks and 93 octane or higher it is a pretty good performer and much better than it is given credit for. It was the performance option for 80-81 that replaced the 400 and 403 engines with 20 plus highway MPG capability and much better performance than what was available at the time. An axample I like to use is the 80-81 Mustang which used a 4.2 liter 115-120 HP V8 as it’s top option in place of the 133 HP turbo 2.3 liter Pinto engine which made no torque and made no off the line power. Chrysler had nothing even close and Chevys own Corvette made due with a 305 in Calif 1980 cars and the 81 350 was down to but 190 HP! AMC was out of the game scraping there 304 after 1979 and the Camaro was using 175-190 HP 350 V8′s and many 305′s even. So with a properly tuned 301 turbo you could hit mid to high 15 second 1/4 mile time which was quite fast at the time. The tricks with this engine are making sure it is in proper tune, detonation, heat and fuel quality. A 13-14 second 1/4 mile 301 turbo is easily obtainable by removing some heat sources, pumping up the boost to 9-10 PSI compared to the factories often conservative 5-7 LBS, using premium gas which wasn’t always available at the time this car debuted and a little carb tweaking. A fairly recent article in Hi Po Pontiac magazine had a 81 TA running mid 12′s in the 1/4 without even opening up the engine! There is a lot of uncorked power in these engines but knowing how they work in critical.

  • avatar
    CRConrad

    Two notes:

    1) My Dad had a Trans Am of, AFAICS, pretty much exactly this model some fifteen years later. Yes, a pterodactyl would have been more fitting, because it was a dinosaur about the day after it was released.

    2)Nothing wrong with having a pterodactly on the hood, logically: As I understand the latest scientific discoveries, birds aren’t just descendants of dinosaurs, they pretty much ARE (the last kinds of) dinosaurs.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • J & J Sutherland, Canada
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India