By the end of the 1970’s, new car dealerships had little to offer in the way of performance cars. The Corvette had dropped the 454 cid motor for the 350 cid, and by 1977, GM forced Pontiac to stop producing the 455 cid.
Pontiac bounced right back in 1977 with a new high-performance package for its 400 CID (6.6 liter) V8 called the W72. The 1977 W72 was available in the Trans Am, Firebird Formula and standard in the newly released 1977 Can Am. It was rated at 200 horsepower, but the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was forced to rate the stock 1977-1979 W72 at 260 horsepower, which was a more accurate figure.
The 1977 Can Am was built on GM’s A-body platform, and was going to be the second coming of the GTO. The GTO had been canceled at the end of the 1974 model year. Unfortunately, GM downsized the A-body in 1978, and the Can Am never returned.
Pontiac saw skyrocketing sales of its Trans Am throughout the 1970s (with 1979 Trans Am sales even hitting an incredible 116,535 units), and realized there was a market out there for a performance A-body – something with the power and handling of a Trans Am. Pontiac understood that there were plenty of Trans Am and other performance car buyers who actually had the need for a true-performance car that could fit five people comfortably, and had a family usable sized trunk.
This is where the 1978 Grand Am CA came into the picture, it was a fully functioning prototype that simply needed Pontiac management’s blessings to enter into production.
The exterior was as racy as the Trans Am with an aggressive lower front air dam and Trans Am style fender flares. A wild Trans Am style rear trunk spoiler was also present. However the real surprise was an attractive hood scoop which had a hump about the size of the Trans Am’s shaker hood scoop. This scoop was fixed to the hood and unlike the Trans Am wasn’t connected in any way to the engine but on the rear of the scoop it had a LED readout of engine rpm along with a timer (to clock your performance times). Dave Wallace in his July 1978 Hot Rod magazine article had this to say about the readout – “difficult to decipher in the sunlight, the large red digits flat steal the show after dark.”
Just like the late-1970s special edition Trans Ams, pin-stripping littered the exterior of the car. The Grand Am CA also used the two-tone paint scheme with the secondary color acting as a lower body accent like the production Grand Am and the Firebird Formula from this era. The primary color was metallic silver. Also finishing off the exterior visual styling were a set of chrome splitter exhaust tips taken right out of the Trans Am’s parts bin.
Chuck Nerpel in his May 1978 Motor Trend article covering the CA described it the following way – “it is obvious this package was put together by real enthusiasts.” He then went on to say, “a look inside and the enthusiasm becomes even more apparent with the first whiff of the odor of real leather, the sight of an engine-turned instrument panel and the feel of a floor-mounted Hurst shifter for the 4-speed gearbox. The instrument array behind the small, hand-stitched-leather-covered wheel is just as impressive with all the necessary gauges befitting a real sports car”. Wallace was also equally impressed with the interior, “our top-of-the-line Grand Am cabin also offered power windows and door locks, bucket seats and console, Delco FM-stereo and other selections from the 1978 LeMans/Grand Am option sheet. Air Conditioning was not included.”
Pontiac Grand Am CA with Grand Prix style dash and manual shifter
Pontiac intended for the CA to handle the curves as well as if not better than the Trans Am which was one of the best handling cars available in America back in the late-1970s. Nerpel described the CA’s suspension, “the modifications to this Grand Am are more extensive than mere cosmetics. The suspension system has been upgraded with firmer springs, revalved shocks for better rebound control, heavier anti-sway bars front and rear, extra lower control arm braces and less resilient rubber bushings on all control arm pivots. The handling is solid but not jarring, and some of the road feel through the power steering system is preserved so the driver does not have that floating-on-air feeling between the steering and road wheels.” This suspension used the same 15×8 inch snowflake wheels which were first introduced on the 1978 Trans Am equipped with the WS6 handling package. Nerpel was impressed with the addition of these wheels to the CA’s suspension, “credit for much of the car’s good handling must go to the 8-inch rims that widen the track a bit and the P235/60Rx15-inch Pirelli tires. These tires really grip and hang on, through side loading, full-throttle acceleration and maximum-effort braking.”
Braking was the crown jewel of the CA – it was equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, something the 1978 Trans Am didn’t have, but would be part of the Trans Am’s WS6 handling package for 1979. You can’t help but think that the CA might have been the thrust behind this move, or the CA was intended all along to be a test mule for four-wheel disc brakes that would later be available on the Trans Am. Nerpel then remarks, “designed to stop as well as go, the test car was equipped with power-assisted caliper discs all around. Combined with the suspension modifications, anti-dive geometry and the super tires, these brakes can bring the car to a non-screeching halt, wet or dry, in about 120 feet from 60 mph.” As a comparison a 2011 Nissan NISMO 370Z takes 123 feet to do the same 60-0 mph stop. So you can see the CA which was tested 33 years ago was way ahead of its time. Wallace commented about the CA’s handling – “the average commuter will run out of nerve before this Pontiac runs out of either handling or brakes. GM’s unbeatable variable-ratio steering box, stiffened up here for increased effort and road feel, gives all the right directions to eight-inch T/A snowflake wheels and short, fat, sticky Pirelli radials.”
The CA used a 4-bbl 301 V8 which looked like the same 150 horsepower 4-bbl 301 that was the 1978 Grand Am’s top performance engine. However looks were certainly deceiving – the only tipoff this 301 may have more grunt under the hood were the Trans Am’s W72 style chrome valve covers. The CA’s 301 packed an extra 40 horsepower – giving the CA’s 301 a rating of 190 horsepower. Torque was also up to 255 lb-ft versus the 240 lb-ft of the standard 4-bbl 301. Wallace described the CA’s engine, “the motor modifications, which all team up to boost this particular Pontiac’s power rating to 190 (net) ponies, are fairly straightforward. They won’t reveal all the details yet, but Pontiac Engineering sources trace most of the extra muscle to the feedback ignition, a modified Trans Am exhaust, a replacement (hydraulic) camshaft and 1.65:1 rocker arms. In conjunction with a neck-snapping, close ratio four-speed (2.85, 2.02, 1.35 and 1.00:1) and Saf-T-Track rear (3.23:1), the little 301 took us down a drag strip in just 16.26 seconds.” This figure was very impressive compared to other performance cars of this era and especially when you consider the CA weighed in at a hefty 3,785 lbs according to Wallace’s Hot Rod article. This by-the-way was a few tenths of a second faster than the average 1/4 mile time of the LU8 turbo 301 equipped 1980-1981 Trans Am. Nerpel in his article mentioned the CA was good for 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds.
Pontiac claimed the CA’s 8.4:1 compression ratio 301 ran best on (high octane) 91 octane gas, however Wallace commented “the same tank of gas (El Cheapo unleaded) returned 17.2 average miles per gallon! Two days later we checked again and improved to 19.1 mpg.” So even under heavy magazine test driving with low octane gas the CA’s 301 proved to be a very fuel efficient motor that performed well. And worth noting the CA was emissions compliant according to Wallace “the standard 49-state Grand Am emissions package, including catalytic converter, remained operational throughout the test weekend.” Wallace summed it up well when he stated “we find it reassuring that the mid-sized sedan of the future has the potential to deliver both high economy and low elapsed times.”
Wallace’s predictions (based on information from Pontiac sources at the time) concerning a future CA and the application of its performance related components to the Trans Am and Grand Am lineup were only partially true. He stated, “our friends at the factory predict the appearance of certain CA components next year, but not the actual automobile. The four-wheel Delco discs could be stopping 1979 Trans Ams, and much of the CA suspension is likely to come standard with next year’s Grand Am line-up. The rest of the car could see production by 1980, we’re told, and turbocharging (probably on a beefed 301 V8) is already under consideration.” He was right about the four-wheel disc brakes being optional on the 1979 Trans Am and a future turbo 301 however these and most of the other CA performance components never made it to the Grand Am. The Grand Am just lingered around virtually unchanged for the 1979 and 1980 model years (except the four-door model was dropped for 1978), and then it was canceled at the end of that year. The Grand Am later returned in 1985 as a front-wheel drive compact car on GM’s new N-body platform.
Pontiac with the CA was way ahead of the curve, the 180 horsepower Monte Carlo SS and 170-180 horsepower Hurst Olds/Oldsmobile 442 of the mid-1980s both provided V8s with muscle car punch, performance tuned exhaust systems, muscle car inspired styling, specially tuned handling packages, plenty of room for 5 adults, and big trunks. However as good as these cars were, they didn’t have four-wheel disc brakes like the CA. Unfortunately Pontiac had no worthy performance competitor for these Chevrolet and Oldsmobile mid-1980s muscle cars. The closest it came was the 1986 Pontiac 2+2 which had the styling but was only equipped with a 157 horsepower 4-bbl 305 CID (5.0 liter) V8. Most certainly it would have been a different story had the Grand Am CA made it into production intact for 1979 or 1980. Pontiac would have cornered the two-door mid-sized muscle car market and more than likely held on to its supremacy during the 1980s – especially if Pontiac had been able to keep and perfect its turbo 301 like Buick did with its turbo 3.8 liter V6. For 1979, mid-sized muscle car fans instead only had the 1979 Hurst Olds which returned from a few year hiatus to quench their performance thirst – a small-block Oldsmobile 350 making 170 horsepower was its power source. And though the styling was there, the 1979 Hurst Olds didn’t have the handling, braking, or grunt under the hood that the Grand Am CA possessed.
The CA prototype never being produced is like watching a NFL Super Bowl game with one team annihilating its competitor and on its way to an easy victory, then suddenly deciding with a few seconds left in the fourth quarter to forfeit the game. Pontiac in not producing the Grand Am CA, walked away from what might have been one of the best performance cars of the 1980s – it may have even eclipsed the Trans Am. Unfortunately we’ll never know.
Photos (Craigslist Find):
This Grand Am CA was listed for sale on Craigslist some time back, and is a former Hot Rod Magazine project vehicle. apparently, Pontiac gave the car to Hot Rod to gauge public interest. This CA did not have the hood scoop, or manual transmission, but we included the photos in this article to give you a general idea of the exterior appearance.
Although this is interior is from a Pontiac Grand Prix, it gives toy an idea of what the dash (likely silver instead of wood tone) and manual shifter would have looked like in the Grand Am CA
Tags: 1978 Pontiac Grand Am CA