Trans Am History


First Generation (1969)

Well, for starters 1967 was a great year. It saw the birth of a car model that would go down in history as one of the most popular muscle cars of all time, the Firebird.

While retaining most of its structural hard points from it's creation in 1967, the 1969 Firebird got a restyling similar to the same year Camaro's: It was broader in the fenders with a new front end that separated the headlights from the grille. Except for the revised body work and freshened interior, the basic elements of the '68 Firebird carried over to '69. The 350 H.O. gained five horsepower for a total of 325, and atop the mountain of 400s offered sat the new Ram Air IV making 345 horsepower. Those changes, though, were merely a prelude to the big news of 1969...

Trans Am.

It wasn't more power that made the Trans Am special, but its looks and handling. Conceived to campaign in the SCCA's road racing series (with a special de-stroked 303-cubic-inch V8 never installed on the production car), Pontiac paid $5 to the racing organization for each Trans Am sold as a license fee for the name. With a special dual intake scooped hood, deck spoiler, fender vents and white with blue stripe paint scheme, the Trans Am was easily the flashiest Firebird yet. With its lowered suspension, big anti-sway bars, larger tires and Ram Air III (making 335 horsepower) or Ram Air IV 400 V8, it was also the best handling and most sophisticated. Going on sale in March of '69, only 697 Trans Ams were sold during this first model year (including eight convertibles). A slow start for what would become an automotive icon.

Second Generation (1970-1981)

Starting in '70 was the Trans Am with its rear-breathing shaker hood scoop, deep front spoiler, front fender vents and full-width rear spoiler. It was available either in Polar White with blue tape stripes or Lucerne Blue with white tape stripes -- both with a relatively modest bird stencil at the tip of the nose and the words Trans Am across the rear spoiler. Under that shaker scoop was either the Ram Air III 400 V8 making 335 horsepower or the optional 345 horsepower Ram Air IV. The standard transmission was a four-speed manual, and the suspension (tuned by famed road racer Herb Adams who was then a GM engineer) was instantly hailed as providing the best handling of any American car -- including the Corvette. Only 3,196 Trans Ams were sold during that first abbreviated model year, but the car would go on to define the decade.

Sales of the '71 Firebird were miserable (a mere 2,116 Trans Ams were sold), and General Motors threatened to cancel the car for 1972.

Going into 1973, things looked grim for the Firebird, but two modifications to the Trans Am would change that. First was the appearance of the large "screaming chicken" hood graphic, which nearly covered the entire hood. And second was the offering of the 455 Super Duty engine, which was shockingly close to a race engine and appeared at a time when virtually all other cars were retreating from performance. The SD-455 (it said so right on the shaker scoop) had a reinforced block, special cam shaft, aluminum pistons, oversize valves and header-like exhaust manifolds but carried only a 310-horsepower rating. That was an understatement, as many experts estimated the output at 370 horsepower, if not more. Only 252 Trans Ams got the Super Duty in '73, and just 43 Formula 455 models were also blessed with this powerplant.

Revised, more angular bumpers made the 1976 Firebirds a bit more handsome, but changes were otherwise minimal. This would be the last year for the 455 in the Trans Am and the first year for the black-and-gold Special Edition Trans Am (which was also the first Firebird with a T-top and would soon become the best-known Firebird of them all).

A new "Batmobile" front end with quad square headlamps was the great innovation for the 1977. This was also the year the Trans Am became firmly established as the car of the 1970s when Burt Reynolds drove a black-and-gold Special Edition through the unexpected hit Smokey and The Bandit. The Bandit's Trans Am may have looked great, but it wasn't particularly quick -- Hot Rod magazine tested a similar car and could only muster a 16.02-second run down the quarter-mile at 89.64 mph. It sure was popular, though, as Pontiac sold 68,745 Trans Ams along with 86,991 other assorted Firebirds during 1977. Sales were no doubt helped by the movie appearance, coupled with the fact a gold Firebird and later a gold Trans Am was used extensively in the 1974 through 1980 TV crime show The Rockford Files, helping to put the Trans Am in front of a lot of viewers in the late 70's.

With no reason to mess with success, the 1978 Trans Am basically carried over from the '77 except that there were a lot more "special editions" like a gold version with brown accents. Burt Reynolds continued his love affair with the Trans Am by using a red one in his 1978 'the life of a Hollywood stunt man' movie, Hooper. Pontiac put yet another new nose on the Firebird for 1979 with the four rectangular headlamps all in their own bezels, and the split grille was now down below them. The tail was also redesigned with blackout panels disguising the taillights on the Formula and Trans Am. Otherwise, except for some revised graphics, the '79 was nearly identical to the '78. A special silver 10th-Anniversary edition Trans Am was sold in '79, but an unfortunate item that year was the fact that it spelled the end for the beloved 400-cubic-inch L78 Pontiac V8.

A TV show called "Modern Marvels" recently did a great segment on the Trans Am's of the 70's, which easily explains why they were so popular...

The 1980's started with fuel economy the primary concern, so Pontiac turned to turbocharging for Trans Am and Formula power. The result was a single Garrett turbo lashed to the 4.9-liter V8 (301 cubic inches) to produce the notorious "Turbo 4.9" (and not notorious in a good way). The savior for the final year of the second generation body was the 1981 release of Smokey and The Bandit II, once again featuring Burt and his trusty black & gold Trans Am (called 'Trigger' in the first movie, and 'Son of Trigger' in the second). Three major movies featuring the most popular actor of the day, along with lots of TV coverage cemented the 2nd generation Trans Am as one of the most popular and recognizable cars of all time. One wonders though whether Burt made the Trans Am, or the Trans Am made Burt.

Third Generation (1982-1992)

While the third-generation Firebird appeared in many ways more different from the Camaro than ever before, in fact it was more like the Camaro than ever before. Gone forever were Pontiac's own engines. From 1982 onward, all Firebird V8s would be GM "corporate" motors which, in actuality, meant Chevrolet's classic small-block. And, with one notable and glorious exception, all fours and V6s would also be shared with the Camaro.

The standard V8 in the Trans Am (optional in the base and S/E) was a 145-horsepower 5.0-liter (305-cubic-inch) four-barrel unit that could be backed by either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic. Trans Am buyers could also opt for the misbegotten "Cross-Fire Injection" version of the 5.0-liter, which used throttle body injection to manage 165 horsepower, but it had to be wed to the automatic. As unappealing as the drivetrain choices were, the new third-generation Firebirds were praised for their solid handling, good looks and ability to out-act David Hasselhoff as Knight Rider's talking car, Kitt. That the '82 Trans Am never earned an Emmy nomination in five seasons on NBC remains one of show business' great injustices.

The 1984 Firebird was changed only minimally, but availability of the L69 expanded, the Cross-Fire V8 was junked and a special white with blue trim 15th Anniversary Trans Am was offered that featured Recaro front seats. For 1985, Pontiac restyled the Firebird with a revised nose, new taillights and full rocker and quarter-panel extensions to the Trans Am to produce a more aggressive-looking car. This was also the year Tuned Port Injection (TPI) appeared atop the 5.0-liter V8 with a 205-horsepower rating and backed by a mandatory four-speed automatic. Furthermore, 16-inch wheels with big P245/50VR16 Goodyear "Gatorback" tires were now available on the Trans Am as part of a WS6 suspension package.

Big news came for 1987 in the form of a big engine; the TPI version of GM's 'L98' 5.7-liter (350-cubic-inch) V8 was now offered in the Trans Am. Rated at 210 horsepower (15 less than in the Camaro because of a more restrictive intake), the L98 had to be mated to a four-speed automatic, but its big torque production and flexibility made it easily the best motor yet installed in a third-generation Trans Am. It also saw the introduction of a new range-topping, high-content Trans Am known as the GTA (or, the 'Corvette with a back seat' as some magazines called it).

Pontiac raided Buick's parts bins in 1989 to produce a 20th Anniversary Trans Am that was truly spectacular. What Pontiac took from Buick was the turbocharged 3.8-liter OHV V6 that had gained fame powering Buick's Grand National. With modifications to the cylinder heads and turbo plumbing, engineers squeezed it into the Trans Am's engine bay. Conservatively rated at 250 horsepower, this beautifully tuned intercooled engine was both easy to live with every day and truly quick. Hot Rod's test of the Turbo Trans Am had it blitzing the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 97.8 mph, which made it one of the quickest factory Firebirds ever, despite the mandatory automatic transmission. New this year was the option of a notchback-style hatch for the Trans Am GTA that gave the car the look of a coupe.

Fourth Generation (1993-2002)

The 1993 Firebird was very close to, but not quite, all-new. The body was daringly aerodynamic and incorporated plastic front fenders, but much of the floor pan and rear suspension carried over. The new short/long-arm front suspension was a distinct improvement and incorporated rack-and-pinion steering for the first time, but the real leap forward was in the engine bay. There were only two engines offered -- a new 160 horsepower 3.4-liter version of the same V6 used in the third-generation car and the amazing 275 horsepower LT1 version of the classic 5.7-liter small-block V8. Not only was the LT1 thrillingly powerful, it could be had with a six-speed manual transmission, and it was the standard engine in the Trans Am. The LT1's performance was scintillating, with Car Craft magazine recording a conservatively achieved 14.1-second at 98.45 mph quarter-mile performance for a Trans Am and a thrilling 5.6-second 0-to-60-mph time. With practice, other magazines had LT1-powered Trans Ams regularly running 13's.

Realizing it had a good thing going, Pontiac didn't change much on the 1994 Firebird, but did reintroduce the convertible and offer a special white and blue 25th Anniversary Trans Am. Also new for '94 was a GT version of the Trans Am (that featured additional luxury features such as leather seats) and a "skip shift" feature on the six-speed manual, which, depending on throttle position, would force an up-shift from first gear to fourth for better fuel economy. This instantly created a market for aftermarket skip shift eliminator kits.

For 1996 on the Trans Am side, the 5.7-liter V8 got 10 more horsepower for a total of 285. The 300-horsepower barrier fell during this year, as the Ram Air name returned for a cold-air induction system on the Formula and Trans Am coupes with the WS6 package. Ordering the WS6 engorged the LT1 with enough air (via two "nostrils" in the hood) to take output up to 305 horsepower, and Pontiac threw in 17-inch wheels to boot. The Ram Air hood created a look like no other car of the time.

Ragtop fans had reason to rejoice for 1997 as the rip-snorting WS6 & LT1 Ram Air package was now an option on the Trans Am convertible. Yet the WS6 LT1 was not the ultimate in Trans Am performance. For 1998, the Firebirds got new noses and behind those noses in the Trans Am - the spectacular all-aluminum 305-horsepower (320 with WS6) LS-1 V8. This all-new engine, introduced on the '97 Corvette, is easily the best engine ever to have been installed in a Firebird -- including all the 455s from the 1970s. It simply swallowed up all the competition in the late 90's.

So good was the '98 that the 1999 Trans Am got only minor revisions, such as a Torsen limited-slip differential and a few new options that included a Hurst shifter for the six-cog manual and a power steering cooler. Of course, the Trans Am's 30th anniversary would not go unnoticed as a special version was created to mark the celebration. Similar to the 1994 Anniversary T.A., the 30th featured a white with blue trim color scheme along with blue-tinted alloy wheels and a white leather interior.

Unfortunately, 1999 was the end for innovation in the Trans Am. The 2000 wasn't much different from the '99. And the 2001 didn't change much from the 2000, though the unchanged LS1 was re-rated at 310 horsepower (325 with WS6).

The last Firebirds came along for 2002 with, yet again, minimal changes -- the only notable exception to that being the 35th Anniversary version for the Firebird, celebrated with a Trans Am, which featured yellow paint, black wheels and special graphics. Not much of a send-off for a car that has such an indelible place in the hearts of North America's motor-heads.

The End of Pontiac

While many diehard Pontiac followers feel it's moniker 'We Build Excitement' hasn't actually been true since 2002, with the rebirth of the new Camaro for 2010 there had been some hope & prayers that maybe, just maybe there would be a new Trans Am to follow. However, as a result of the global financial meltdown in 2009, GM announced the death of the Pontiac nameplate - and the death of any new Trans Am.


With the actual production of the new Fifth Generation Camaro in 2010, several designers and after-market companies such as Lingenfelter and Kevin Morgan have come up new versions of a Trans Am. By replacing the front and back ends of the Camaro, as well as adding traditional 'Trans Am-esque' items like shaker hood scoops, fender air extractors and even the 'Screaming Chicken' hoodbird, they've produced some very interesting and well-done cars.

It's still sad though that only those with deep pockets will be able to enjoy the rebirth of one hell of a car.

For the rest of us, the old ones will always have that ultimate coolness factor like no other car (especially when driven by a very young Channing Tatum)...

Additional information on the Trans Am can be found on Wikipedia or at another great site Trans Am World.

Another very interesting article comparing all four generations can be found at Hemmings.

Lately, the second generation Trans Am has become very sought after as the early '70s muscle car classics like GTOs, Challengers, Mustangs and Chevelles have all become 6-figure collectables. With the death of Pontiac, this phenomenon is very evident at auctions like Barrett-Jackson, as was reported in this article at Autoblog.

Most historical information taken from Edmunds.