The Pontiac 301 V8 – 1977-1981

Birth 0f The 301:

Introduced in 1977, the Pontiac 301 V8 has always been looked down on by car enthusiasts. Many see it as a weak motor that was built to meet EPA requirements. It was a hard motor to accept from a company who’s slogan was “We build excitement!”. And up until that time, that slogan had been well earned.

Pontiac new it’s W72 400 V8 was on borrowed time. And by 1978, GM dropped its gavel and the Pontiac 400 was cancelled. Pontiac was smart enough to set aside a little over 8,000 1978 W72 400 V8s for use in the 1979 Trans Am and Firebird Formula. But that left Pontiac’s lowly 301 as its performance motor for 1980 and beyond.

Pontiac engineers new they were up against a wall. With the advent of Corporate Average Fuel Economy, they new they were going to need a new engine. Pontiac modified its basic package, and built a short-deck version of its classic V-8, reducing it to 301 cubic inches. The new 301 was 200 lbs lighter than a fully dressed 400 V8.

Boost Performance & The Turbo Trans Am:

Even though the new 301 was intended as a fuel efficient low-displacement V8, Pontiac wasted no time working behind the scenes to improve its performance. And it was a good thing since the 301 in turbo form was able to step in as the hot performance motor for the 1980 and 1981 Trans Am providing 210 and 200 horsepower respectively. The (LU8) turbo 301 may have not have been as powerful as the W72 400, but it did fill the performance gap for the Trans Am and Firebird Formula fairly well after the W72’s departure. Pontiac had intended to offer the new 301 turbo engine with a manual transmission, but could not get the combo within acceptable parameters, emissions-wise. That’s why the 1980-’81 Turbo Trans-Am was automatic-only.

There are many who think that the 301 is a weak engine block. The fact is that there’s actually (2) different 301 blocks, the 301, and 301T. The 1977 to 1979 is the non turbo block, and is weaker than the 301T block. All 1980 and 1981 blocks were 301T blocks, even if they did not get the turbo installed. The 301T blocks were beefed up so it could handle the power increase. In addition, the crank has a rolled filet design to make it stronger as well.

1980-1981 Pontiac 301T Engine Block

The 301 & The 1978 Grand Am CA Muscle Car:

Pontiac had big plans for the 301, and they had every intentions on making it their new performance motor. They also saw the 301 as an avenue for the performance revival of Pontiac’s A-body. The 1964-1973 GTO had been Pontiac’s performance A-body model and it’s credited with being the first muscle car. In 1977 Pontiac released a 1977 Can Am which was built on GM’s A-body platform, it was the second coming of the GTO which was canceled at the end of the 1974 model year. In 1978 GM downsized the A-body and the Can Am never returned. However Pontiac had just the replacement. It built a special prototype that showed that its new A-body could be easily turned into a performance car. Pontiac could see the rear-wheel drive mid-sized V8 powered muscle car performance revival that would occur in the 1980s. The prototype was the 2-door 1978 Pontiac Grand Am CA (Click HERE for more).

The Grand Am CA was equipped with a 301 and 4bbl carb, but produced 190 horsepower. That’s 40 more horsepower than the typical 1978 301. The car was equipped with a 4-speed manual, and could run the 1/4 mile in 16.26 seconds. That’s pretty good when you consider the Chevy Monte Carlo SS of the 1980’s was rated at 180 horsepower.

1978 Pontiac Grand Am CA

The 1982 301 Turbo Trans Am Would Have More Power Then The Corvette:

Pontiac’s next big move with the 301 turbo was going to be to put it in the newly redesigned 1982 Trans-Am. It’s 210 horsepower was 45 horsepower more than what you could get in Chevy’s Z-28 Camaro. Heck it was even 10 more horsepower then the 200 horsepower 350 V8 available in the 1982 Corvette! This would have really rattled the cages of GM. The Corvette is GM’s baby. But the 301 never found it’s way into the 1982 Trans Am. Ever wonder why the 1982 Trans-Am had that off-center hood scoop, just like the 1980-81 Turbo Trans-Am? It was because the 1982 was supposed to have had the same engine under that scoop. Specifically, it was supposed to have had the off-center Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor that fed the turbo 301 under that hood scoop.

Where’s the 301 Turbo?

GM Pulls The Rug Out From Under Pontiac:

The 301 Pontiac V-8 was a new design and needed development work to flesh out its shortcomings – to comply with government emissions requirements – and GM didn’t have the time or resources available. Or was unwilling to commit them.

1981 would be the last year for the Pontiac V8. It would be the last year for the Buick V8 as well. Oldsmobile would stop producing the 260 V8 in 1982, but GM would let Olds continue with the 307 production until 1990.

What Could Have Been:

It’s interesting – and sad – to ponder what might have been. If the 301 program had been allowed to continue, it’s certain the Quadrajet four barrel would have been replaced with fuel injection; advances in electronic controls would have allowed more turbo boost. For some sense of what might have been, consider GM’s other turbocharged engine from the same era, the 3.8 liter Buick V-6. By the late 1980s, it was making over 300 hp in the Grand National and – oddly enough – was used to power the 20th Anniversary Trans-Am in 1989. The 1989 20th Anniversary Trans-Am was the quickest (and fastest) Trans-Am built up to that time; its performance would not be bested for more than another decade.  And that was a V-6 turbo 1.2 liters downsized from the 301, displacement-wise. And of course, it wasn’t a Pontiac engine.

An injected, intercooled, electronically controlled 301 turbo would probably have made on the order of 350 hp – and made the late ’80s Trans-Am an American supercar to be reckoned with.

Here’s one last thought; the Pontiac 301 had the same bore and stroke as the Ford 302. The factory Ford 302 made 215 horsepower up until the end of it’s production in 1993. And these motors have been know to build much more than that.

The next time you get ready to send a 301 to the scrap yard and replace it with a larger engine, just remember what it could have been, and the chance it never received.