The T/A at 50

Gary Smith reviews a book:

“I don’t think You’re man enough to take on a car like this.” Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) has just walked into Pete’s Dependable Used Cars somewhere in Idaho. He eyes up a Cameo White ’73 Trans Am with a red “shaker.” “It’s a repo. Three thousand and change,” says Pete. Seconds later, the Trans Am is flying through the western countryside, stolen. Movies made the Trans Am an American legend.

Tom Glatch tells the inside story of the Trans Am’s impact on the culture (and sales) through it’s starring role in several motion pictures and TV shows. Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot drove a Cameo white ’73; John Wayne’s Brewster Green ’73 in McQ; and David Carradine’s red ’73 in Cannonball. 1977 introduced Burt Reynolds drove a black TA “Bullet” in Smokey and the Bandit, along with Hooper. “Ain’t nobody can fly a car like Hooper.” Steve McQueen drove a ’80 TA in Hunter. Steve died four months after the film was released. In the early ’80s David Hasselhoff starred in the TV series Knight Rider that featured KITT, the talking Trans Am. Tom reveals many inside details about the making of the films, how the cars were procured, and what became of them.

The book quotes many designers and engineers who had something to do with the Trans Am. Norm Inouye drew the famous flaming bird graphic based on a sketch by Pontiac Studio Chief Bill Porter. After a flaming initial rejection by Bill Michell, it finally became an option beginning in 1973. Porter recently commented, “I think it may have saved the car. In the mid-seventies, everything was going against the Firebird, and I’ll put he case forward that the Trans Am bird saved it.”

Mitchell’s Pegasus

Enzo Ferrari gave Bill Mitchell a 347 horsepower V-12 from a Ferrari Daytona 365 GT/B4 for his customized Firebird, Pegasus. The motor was a tight fit, and the author states that the firewall was moved back nine inches to accommodate the longer engine. However, you can clearly see that there were no modifications made to the interior or the wheelbase of the Pegasus. The V-12 was shoehorned in by taking up the space occupied by the stock fan and fan shroud.

1989 Turbo Trans Am

As an added bonus the author devotes several pages to the development of the 1989 Turbo Trans Am, the fastest four-seat American car of the 1980s. Pontiac built two Trans Ams in 1986 with the Buick Turbo 3.8-liter engine. But for the engine package to fit, the passenger-side fame rail was modified to make room for the exhaust downpipe. Production was not feasible, because the car would have to be re-certified at great expense to meet government crash standards. Using the standard Trans Am transmissions was also a certification issue.

The PAS team was brought in to see if production would be possible by other means. Bill Owen of Buick, the primary engineer behind the Turbo V-6 engine, came up with the idea of using the cylinder heads from the front-wheel-drive 3300 V-6 to narrow the width of the engine and make room for the transmission bracket so that the entire Grand National engine/transmission package would fit, along with the different heads. With this, the first production-ready Turbo Trans Am was born. Lloyd Reuss, executive vice president for GM’s passenger car group at the time, drove the gray-on-gray prototype and decided he wanted it to be the 30th Anniversary Trans Am.

Pretty interesting stuff. There are a lot of similar insights in the book.

By the way, in the gallery there is a shot of five ’77 TAs and a GMC motorhome that was part of the Trans Am Territory promotion. It is included in Michael Lamm’s great book, The Fabulous Firebird. One day at GM Design they picked out several TAs in the parking lot for the shot. The yellow TA was my car.

The Trans Am was named for a racing series of the same name, which included such pony cars as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and AMC Javelin, each of which was limited to a 5-liter V-8 engine.

We owned very mild versions of two of these. Our first new second car was a brown 1973 Javelin with the 304 V-8 and automatic. It was the first car I, uh, legally drove. It had bucket seats and console, which was cool. It did not have power brakes, which one could get used to; it also didn’t have a parking brake indicator light, which led to a few interesting moments when one tried to drive without releasing the parking brake. It was fun to sit in the front seats of that car, but not so much in the back.

Note: Not our actual car.

Twelve years later, my mother got a red 1985 Camaro, because her oldest son kept using the 1975 Caprice, about which I have previously written. The Camaro had the 2.8 liter V-6 and automatic. It was an unusually reliable car for a GM product of the day; the only problem I recall with it was that the shifter knob kept coming apart until a recall. The problem that fit in the category of Feature, Not Bug was that that Camaro was so low that I had to put my hand on the ground first to get out.

Note: Not actual car, I think.

Between Javelin and Camaro ownership, the motorheads at my middle school (none of whom of course could legally drive) there was an ongoing argument about the Trans Am and the Corvette. The late ’70s C3 had the L-48 350 V-8 engine standard, with the L-82 350 V-8, with 40 more horsepower, optional. The standard Trans Am had a 400 V-8 with the same horsepower as the L-48, with the “T/A 6.6” V-8 adding 20 more horsepower.

Both cars are an example of 1970s taste, such as it was:


You could logically guess that I pined for the Corvette. I was a subscriber to Motor Trend magazine (motto: Every Car’s Great!), and when it reviewed the ’77 I pored over every word, including the red bubble on top of the antenna for the AM/FM/CB radio. (Don’t ask me how I remember that, good buddy.)

The reason the Trans Am became so popular in the late ’70s wasn’t just “Smokey and the Bandit” (starring ’70s icon Burt Reynolds), but because there were few other choices for a hot car. (“Hot” as in high performance, such as it was in the day, not “hot” for stolen.) Besides the Corvette (which was more expensive and lacked any back seat, as opposed to pony cars’ Back Seat in Name Only) … well, AMC killed the Javelin, and Chrysler killed the Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger. Chevy killed the Camaro Z-28 in 1975, only to bring it back in late 1977 after noticing Trans Am sales. Ford’s Mustang II was based on the Pinto, and without a V-8 until 1975, one year before Ford introduced the Cobra II package powered by a 140-horsepower V-8.

The ultimate Trans Am is the Special Edition T/A, available in black with gold bird thing on the hood or gold with black thing on the hood. According to this site, the correct combination — the T/A 6.6, 4-speed manual and T-tops — was chosen by 2,699 buyers.



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