Pontiac Firebird History
(John Delorean with a 1967 Pontiac Firebird)
It’s too flippant to dismiss the Pontiac Firebird as an afterthought repackaging of Chevy’s Camaro. But it’s inaccurate to describe it as a vehicle that would exist if the Camaro didn’t. Born with genuine Pontiac powerplants in its engine bay, the Firebird developed its own exuberant tradition that made it the glamour car of the 1970s and snuck in a few surprises during the ’80s and ’90s that are recognized today as classics of recent vintage.
With the Firebird gone from its lineup for 2003, Pontiac’s “We Build Excitement” boast seems more hollow than ever.
First Generation (1967-1969)
(1967 Pontiac Firebird – click to enlarge)
To get the Firebird into production, Pontiac shared not just the basic structure of the Camaro, but most of the sheetmetal, as well. The front fenders and door skins of the 1967 Firebird were Camaro pieces, and the rear quarters were Camaro parts with simulated vents stamped in. But with its split front grille, beaked hood and slitted GTO-like taillights, the Firebird managed to evoke its own personality when it went on sale as both a coupe and convertible on February 23, 1967.
What gave the first Firebird its personality was beneath the hood. Pontiac built its own engines then (as did Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Chevrolet), and only Pontiac engines went into the Firebird — not a one was shared with the Camaro.
Of the five engines offered in the first Firebirds, the one that stood out the most was Pontiac’s overhead cam inline six. Introduced along with the ’66 Tempest, the lowliest 230-cubic inch (3.8-liter) OHC six poked out 165 horsepower (gross rating) while inhaling through a one-barrel carburetor. Stepping up to the “Sprint” version included a four-barrel carb and higher compression ratio to swell output up to 215 horsepower. The six was backed by either a three- or four-speed manual or a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The OHC six made the base Firebird a substantially more sophisticated machine than the base Camaro and the Firebird Sprint truly special.
Most ’67 Firebird buyers, however, opted for V8 power. Pontiac’s V8s were of conventional overhead valve design and notorious for their low-end torque production and relative reluctance to rev compared to Chevy’s similarly engineered V8s. The ’67 Firebird started with a 250-horsepower low-compression two-barrel 326-cubic-inch V8 and moved up to a higher-compression four-barrel “H.O.” version making 285 horsepower. There was also a 400-cubic-inch beast making 325 horsepower. Beyond that, Pontiac’s Ram Air cold-air induction system (which made the hood scoops on the Firebird 400 functional) was available with the 400, yet it only moved the peak horsepower figure higher in the rev band. That, and the Ram Air system’s $600 option price, meant few ordered it. The V8s were available with similar transmission choices as the six’s, with the addition of the three-speed Turbohydramatic autobox.
Whatever engine was ordered determined the general model designation and trim of the ’67 Firebird line (base, Sprint, 326, 326 H.O., 400 and 400 Ram Air). And beyond that was an almost endless option list which ensured that no two Firebirds had to be alike.
For 1968, the Firebird’s appearance barely changed. As with the Camaro, the side vent windows disappeared as “Astro Ventilation” was adopted, but otherwise the most obvious change was the adoption of wraparound turn signals beneath the front bumper.
But, in the engine bay, things evolved as the 326 V8 grew to a full 350 cubic inches. Still a purely Pontiac engine, the 350 was available in two-barrel form making 265 horsepower and 320 horsepower when equipped with a four-barrel and higher compression. Furthermore, the 400 now came in four varieties — a 330-horsepower regular version, a 335-horse H.O. version, the H.O. with Ram Air (and unchanged horsepower rating) and a 340 horsepower “Ram Air II” version. Back in the six-cylinder world, the base OHC engine was now rated at 175 horsepower, while the Sprint remained at 215.
The only other significant change to the ’68 Firebird was the adoption of staggered shocks in the rear (one in front of and one behind the rear axle) and the use of new multi-leaf rear springs.
While retaining most of its structural hard points, 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:
(1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – click to enlarge)
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 antisway 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)
(1970 Pontiac Firebird – click to enlarge)
Late arrivals were already something of a Firebird tradition by the time the second-generation car went on sale in February of 1970 as a “1970½” model.
The general shape and engineering of the second-generation Firebird was shared with the second-generation Camaro, but with its own fenders and wheelwell shapes (the Camaro’s were slightly squared off, the Firebird’s almost perfectly round). The most distinct Firebird design element was the plastic “Endura” nose that completely surrounded the split grille and single headlamps and produced a bumperless appearance. The second Firebird was gorgeous; a muscle car with styling that looked as if it had been designed in Italy.
Under the skin, the structure and chassis elements were also shared with the Camaro and were only an evolutionary development of the first generation. The front-subframe-bolted-to-unibody design carried over along with the leaf springs on the solid rear axle and front A-arm suspension (now with the steering gear moved from behind the axle line to in front of the axle line).
For ’70½, the Firebird lineup was divided into base, luxury-oriented Esprit, muscle-minded Formula 400 and intimidating Trans Am. At the base level, the slick Pontiac OHC six made way for Chevy’s 250-cubic-inch straight six making a mediocre 155 horsepower. With such a lackluster base powerplant, buyers had every incentive to step up to the V8s, and most did.
Ponying up for an Esprit brought a two-barrel version of Pontiac’s 350 V8 rated at 255 horsepower and backed by a standard three-speed manual transmission, though most opted for the three-speed automatic. The Formula 400 put a 330 horsepower four-barrel version of the 400 V8 under its unique twin scooped hood and most buyers opted for either a four-speed manual or the automatic rather than the standard three-cog gearbox.
(1970 Pontiac Trans Am – click to enlarge)
Starring in ’70½ 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.
High-back bucket seats appeared for 1971, and some of the power disappeared as emissions control regulations came on-line, but the four-model Firebird line continued. The big change came in the engine bay of the Formula and Trans Am models where Pontiac offered the largest version of their V8, a 455-cubic-incher rated at 335 horsepower (standard in the Trans Am) and offered the 350 in the Formula for the first time.
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. So, with GM unwilling to throw good money after bad, changes for 1972 were scant. Engine outputs dropped again, and the memorable “honeycomb” wheels made their first appearance, but the Firebird itself was familiar stuff. The Trans Am’s “Code X” 455 was rated at just 300 horsepower, while the “Code M” 350 in the Esprit dropped to a measly 160 horsepower. A strike at the plant kept Trans Am production to just 1,286 that year.
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. About the only other change on other ’73 Firebirds was a new “egg crate” grille texture and even less power. The Formula 350’s V8 was now rated at only 150 horsepower, and the most powerful Formula 400 could only muster 250 horses. The Super Duty was a rare ray of light in an increasingly dim performance universe.
Bumper regulations necessitated a new front end for the 1974 Firebirds with a slight wedge shape and a revised rear end with a body-color bumper and longer slotted tail lamps. And the model lineup remained intact, but engine ratings changed. The 350 V8, for instance, was now rated at 155 horsepower, while the awesome Super Duty 455 was re-rated at 290 — even though there was no apparent drop in performance. There were 953 ’74 Trans Ams built with the Super Duty and 57 Formula 455s so equipped in 1974 — and that was it for the Super Duties.
The 1975 Firebirds were easy to distinguish from the ’74s by their wraparound rear window, but were otherwise quite similar. Banished from all Firebirds was the 455 and the Esprit’s standard engine was now the Chevy inline six. All engines were strangled by the first catalytic converters, with output of the Trans Am and Formula 400’s 400-cubic-inch V8 measuring an absolutely pathetic 185 horsepower. Somewhat good news came mid-year when the 455 was reintroduced for the Trans Am, but in spite of its large displacement, it made a truly gimpy 200 horsepower.
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). As ho-hum as much as the ’76 Firebird line was, it was the first model year in which the car sold more than 100,000 units.
A new “Batmobile” front end with quad square headlamps was the great innovation for the 1977 Firebird, and the engine choices became increasingly complex. The Chevy inline six was dumped in favor of Buick’s 105-horsepower 231-cubic inch (3.8-liter) V6 as the base powerplant; a new 135 horsepower 301-cubic inch (4.9-liter) version of the Pontiac V8 was available in Esprits and Formulas (along with the Pontiac 350); and the Trans Am’s redesigned shaker hood covered either a 185-horsepower Oldsmobile-built 403-cubic-inch (6.6-liter) V8 or the Pontiac 400 (T/A 6.6) now making 200 horsepower. Meanwhile, some Firebirds (mostly in California) came with the Chevy 305- and 350-cubic-inch (5.0- and 5.7-liter) V8s aboard.
(1977 Trans Am)
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.
With no reason to mess with success, the 1978 Firebird and Trans Am basically carried over from the ’77 except that there were a lot more “special editions” like a gold Trans Am with brown accents and blue “Sky Bird” and red “Red Bird” Firebirds. America snatched up 93,341 Trans Ams and 93,944 other Firebirds for an astounding total of 187,285 — the best sales year ever.
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. It was also the last year for the beloved 400-cubic-inch V8, and a special silver 10th-Anniversary edition Trans Am was sold.
With fuel economy a primary concern, Pontiac turned to turbocharging for Trans Am and formula power during the 1980 model year. The result was a single Garrett turbo lashed to the 4.9-liter V8 (301 cubic inches) to produce the notorious “Turbo 4.9.” It was rated at 210 horsepower, but the Turbo 4.9 was ultimately the most pathetic lump of iron to ever be allowed near a Firebird. “There’s no boost indicator,” explained Motor Trend in its comparison of the Turbo T/A with other turbo terrors of the era, “only the momentary (sometimes a lot of moments) heavy pinging, when the car is accelerated hard or pushed into passing gear, to let you know the turbo is at work.” That pinging was often heard just before the engine detonated into shrapnel. It was an unpleasant engine to drive and a miserable one to keep running. Motor Trend’s Turbo T/A ran a sluggish 17.02 at 82.1 mph quarter-mile. However, a special white Turbo T/A did pace the 1980 Indy 500. Trans Am and Firebird sales crashed in 1980 and deservedly so.
(1980 Turbo Trans Am)
The 1981 Firebird line was a rerun of ’80. We shudder even thinking about it. Pontiac sold only 70,899 Firebirds and Trans Ams combined during the 1981 model year. That’s just 38 percent of 1978 sales.
Third Generation (1982-1992)
The second-generation Firebird was truly an exhausted platform by 1981, and the third-generation car that replaced it truly was new in fundamental ways. Gone was the subframe construction in favor of a full unibody hatchback with a modified MacPherson strut suspension in the front and a solid axle on coil springs located by a large torque arm in the back.
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.
For 1982, the now-hidden-headlight Firebird came in three trim levels: base, luxury-oriented S/E and Trans Am. Base cars started with the obnoxiously loud, rough and limp “Iron Duke” 2.5-liter OHV inline four as standard. Making 90 horsepower, the Iron Duke was the first Firebird engine to carry a two-digit output rating.
Most buyers therefore opted either for the S/E’s standard 2.8-liter OHV V6 breathing through a two-barrel carburetor to make a still-lousy 105 horsepower or one of the V8s. 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. It was almost impossible to distinguish a 1983 Firebird from an ’82, but power-wise, things were getting better. The S/E’s V6 saw its output increase to 125 horsepower, and a five-speed manual was made available. On the V8 side, a 190 horsepower “L69” version of the four-barrel 5.0-liter engine appeared late in the model year, and a five-speed manual was available with it. In addition, an automatic gearbox with four forward gears came along. The 90-horse four was still offered in the base car, but most buyers ignored it.
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.
(1985 Trans Am)
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.
For 1986, the federally mandated Center High Mounted Stop Light (CHMSL) was inelegantly installed in a blister atop the rear hatch’s glass. Other than that, not much changed.
Big news came for 1987 in the form of a big engine; the TPI version of GM’s 5.7-liter (350-cubic-inch) V8 was now offered in the Trans Am and resurrected Formula 350. Rated at 210 horsepower (15 less than in the Camaro because of a more restrictive intake), the 5.7 TPI 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 or Formula. The TPI 5.0-liter engine was now available with a five-speed manual transmission.
Gone from the ’87 Firebird lineup were the S/E, that CHMSL bump (most models put the light in a spoiler) and the inexcusable four-cylinder engine. In their place were the revived budget-muscle Formula (in 5.0-liter “Formula 305” form in addition to the Formula 350) and a new range-topping, high-content Trans Am known as the GTA. The line hadn’t been this robust since 1970.
While there were tweaks for the 1988 Firebirds (a new steering wheel, new wheels for the Formulas, fresh radios and a notchback-style hatch for the Trans Am GTA that gave the car the look of a coupe), it wasn’t a big year for changes in general specifications. The carbureted 5.0-liter V8 finally gave way to a throttle body system that bumped output to 170 horsepower.
(1989 Trans Am Turbo 3.8)
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.
All the turbo V6s were used up by the 1990 model year, so the Firebird returned to usual status quo that year. The base V6 now displaced 3.1 liters and was rated at 135 horsepower, but otherwise everything was familiar.
(1991 Trans Am)
A new beak that polarized buyers appeared on the Firebird for 1991; some thought it aggressive, others just droopy and ugly. But except for the addition of convertible models (base and Trans Am — the first since 1969), the Firebird was mostly carryover.
By 1992, it was obvious that the third-generation Firebird’s days were numbered. GM added some adhesive to the joints and panels of the car’s structure to quiet squeaks and rattles, and the Performance Equipment Group boosted the TPI 5-liter V8 to a full 230 horsepower, but distinguishing the ’92 from the ’91 was otherwise all but impossible.
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 floorpan 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.
While the ’93 Firebird line was pared down to three models (base, Formula and Trans Am), 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 both the Formula and 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 Firebirds and Camaros regularly running 13s.
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 upshift from first gear to fourth for better fuel economy. This instantly created a market for aftermarket skip shift eliminator kits.
Traction control was added to the 1995 Firebirds, but otherwise it was impossible to distinguish them from the ’94s without looking at the VIN number. The Trans Am GT was dropped and, at mid-year GM’s 3.8-liter OHV 3800 V6 was offered as an alternative to the 3.4 V6 in base Firebirds. Making 200 horsepower, the 3800 was more powerful than any V8-powered ’84 Firebird.
With the 3800 available, no one really wanted the 3.4-liter V6 anymore, and it was dropped from the 1996 Firebird line. Making the base Firebird even more enticing was the optional 3800 Performance Package that added four-wheel disc brakes, dual exhaust, limited-slip differential and alloy wheels.
(1996 Ram Air Trans Am)
On the Formula and 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.
Ragtop fans had reason to rejoice for 1997 as the rip-snorting WS6 Ram Air package was now an option for Formula and Trans Am convertibles. Other changes this year included the option of an aptly-named, 500-watt Monsoon audio system.
Yet the WS6 LT1 was not the ultimate in Firebird performance. For 1998, the Firebirds got new noses and behind those noses in the Formula and 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 and the ’89 Turbo V6. Other changes included the adoption of second generation (less forceful) airbags and a Sport Appearance Package for base Firebirds to give them the look of their meaner brothers.
So good was the ’98 that the 1999 Firebird got only minor revisions, such as a Torsen limited-slip differential for V8 models (and V6 cars with the Performance Package) and a few new options that included a Hurst shifter for the six-cog manual and a power steering cooler (V8 models). 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.
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), and the Ram Air option was no longer available on the Formula.
(2002 Trans Am)
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 America’s motorheads.