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.