Biography of America’s most audacious car

Biography of America’s most audacious car

Pontiac Trans Am approaches its 50th anniversary

Book cover

My internal skeptic’s alarm sounded as I read the Introduction to Pontiac Trans Am: 50 Years, in which author Tom Glatch contends “no American automobile has ever consistently delivered style, performance, and image the way the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am did.”

Only, I thought, if Glatch’s definition of style, performance and image is to be consistently audacious. 

And it appears that it does, because in 176 pages Glatch supports his contention with details about the model that celebrates its 50th anniversary early in 2019. It was at the Chicago auto show in the late winter of 1969 that Pontiac unveiled a high-performance, four-seat sports coupe with flaring twin hood scoops and wide blue racing stripes above a body-colored Endura front bumper, an additional pair of scoops on both front quarter panels, and an elevated spoiler across the car’s rear flank.

Such audacity would continue — consider the “screaming chicken” hood ornamentation that was yet to come, or the car’s image-enhancing roles in movies such as Smokey and the Bandit and television shows such as Knight Rider.

Glatch notes that Smokey became such an immediate American cultural phenomenon that Pontiac started offering CB radios as a $195 option.

Glatch introduces us to John Z. DeLorean’s two-seat, six-cylinder Banshee concept car that GM vetoed in fear that it might cut into Corvette sales, notes that Formula One racer Jack Brabham helped set up the handling of the original Trans Am, and how a labor strike nearly scuttled sales, which were buoyed by the car’s popularity with movie and television producers.

Pegasus was a based on the Trans Am, but carried a Ferrari V12 under its hood | GM Archives courtesy Motorbooks

He also shows us and tells the story of the Pegasus, a Trans Am-based, Ferrari V12-powered design proposal done for General Motors’ design director Bill Mitchell, who liked audacious automobiles, and the gold-trimmed black 1974 Trans Am show car with a 455 V8 under its hood. He also shares that while performance was in decline in Detroit during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the muscular Trans Am continued to account for nearly half of all Firebird sales. 

“It’s hard to believe,” he writes, “but 1979 was the 10th anniversary of the Pontiac Trans Am.  In just a short time, it had gone from being a little-known option to an ingrained part of the American culture.”

But the Trans Am could not escape destiny; in 1970 it was equipped with a V8 rated at a mere 135 horsepower. Aerodynamics helped overcome a lack of power as the third-generation of GM’s F-body launched, and movies and television kept the Trans Am in the public’s eye. By 1989, the Trans Am again was pacing the Indianapolis 500, albeit with a turbocharged V6 engine under its hood.

Banshee-inspired styling was back for the fourth-generation styling revision, and so was a V8 engine. There was a 30th anniversary model for 1999, but the 2002 model year would be the last, and when GM put Chevrolet’s Camaro back into production a few years later, there was no longer a Pontiac division to seek a new Trans Am version for its dealers.

Nonetheless, Glatch writes, “The road goes ever on” with a couple of aftermarket companies offering Camaro-styling kits that would make you believe the Trans Am is back in all of its audacious glory.

Reviewed

Pontiac Trans Am: 50 Years

By Tom Glatch

Motorbooks, 2018

ISBN 9780760357668

Hard cover, 176 pages

$40

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  • Peter Chronis
    July 18, 2018, 6:14 PM

    !970 the Trans AM had only 135hp? What kind of nonsense is that? It would have been a total joke with a V8 having such a low output V8, infact the lowest hp Trans Am was in 1982 when they were forced by GM to use the garbage Chevrolet 305 V8 with only 145hp. The 1970 Trans AM more so put our 335hp!!

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