Holding Back the Years

The evolution of the Firebird.

Image: Fireszone.com/ Mecum.com

Time eventually catches up with everyone and everything; the best one can hope for is to age gracefully and this applies to people as much as it does to man-made designs, which with precious few exceptions reflect by their very nature the era in which they were created. As time moves on, there is only so much that can be done to keep up; Pontiac’s second generation Firebird was born under very different circumstances from those at the time when it was finally retired. We track the twelve-year long career of one of the best known sporty coupés that has come out of America.

To look at the Pontiac Firebird – and its sister car, the Chevrolet Camaro – as simply belated reactions to Ford’s wildly successful Mustang is to oversimplify the reality. In 1962, under then Chevrolet design director Irvin Rybicki, GM had already started work on a sporty and relatively compact coupé in the vein of the soon to be introduced Buick Riviera, based on the Chevy II.

Another important fact is that Chevrolet had in late 1960 already introduced a car that would prove to be an significant factor in making Ford bring out the Mustang: the Corvair Monza. The first generation Pontiac Firebird lasted for three seasons (1967-69) which was par for the course for most American cars in those days; its successor however (today’s subject) would remain on duty for much longer.

Image: GM/ Topcarrating

The American public would have to endure quite a long wait for the 1970 Firebird to arrive: tooling and engineering problems caused delays and meant the cars introduction was postponed until February 26, 1970 at the Chicago Auto Show – normally new model year introductions taking place in the autumn of the preceding year.

In 1970 the muscle car era was still ongoing although there were already signs, in the form of new government regulations and insurance companies’ reluctance to provide cover for the more potent examples, that change was coming. But for now, Pontiac was still very much performance orientated.

Image: The author

The totally new Firebird was a more svelte, some even described it as Italianate, design when compared to its predecessor. Styled under the direction of Bill Mitchell and Bill Porter (with John Schettler responsible for the interior) the Firebird was a commendably clean and uncluttered design and virtually free from unnecessary tinsel – although that would change over time.

The front end was quite distinctive in not having a traditional bumper and grille but rather a nosecone that combined the two, made of a composite plastic named Endura in Pontiac-speak. Early cars displayed some problems in terms of colour matching but this type of front end arrangement would spread to several other makes in the years to come.

A big departure was the disappearance of a convertible version- the Ford Mustang still gave the buyer three choices (notchback, fastback or convertible) and the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda could be had in an al fresco version but for the new Firebird (and Camaro) there was only one bodystyle.

As in the Mustang, the engine choices varied from mild to wild and the equipment levels from basic to as opulent as the buyer wanted. With its 400 cubic inch (6,5 litre) V8 the Trans Am was the ultimate Firebird in terms of power; its looks also set it apart due to the front air dam, air extractors in the front wings, wheel well spoilers and loud graphics.

Alas for Pontiac, whose Firebird always remained in the shadow of its sister car Camaro in terms of sales, the new car’s sales performance was disappointing: even when taking into account the unusually short model year, 48,739 cars sold compared to 87,708 in 1969 was a disheartening fact.

Image: The author

The following three years were not much better; on the contrary, 1972 was an annus horribilus for Pontiac’s sporty coupe although a lengthy (174 days no less) United Auto Workers strike at the Norwood, Ohio plant were the Firebird and Camaro were built was largely to blame for the fact that less than 30,000 Firebirds left the showrooms that year.

Pontiac seriously considered eliminating the Firebird from the model range during this period, but ultimately it was decided to carry on which would prove to be a wise decision in hindsight. Outward changes were minimal during these years, all 1971 Firebirds except the Trans Am were fitted with vents low on the front wings for that model year only; other changes were limited to minor trim alterations.

For the 1973 model year the combined grille/bumper was extended two inches in order to comply with the new federal 5-Mph mandates; even though the performance age was now definitely on the wane Pontiac still provided bona fide muscle for those who craved it in the form of the huge 310 hp Super Duty 455 cubic inch (7.5 litre) V8 which was a new option that year.

The Trans Am received new and bolder graphics by means of a new large Firebird decal on the bonnet, styled by Pontiac designer John Schinella. Nicknamed the screaming chicken by some, no less than 39 different decal design and colour combinations would be made over the course of the life of the second generation Firebird.

Image: Musclecarfacts/ Cargurus
Image: The author

1974 was the year that the Firebird received its first noticeable facelift: the endura nose was no longer vertical but of a more aerodynamic design and larger taillights gave the rear aspect a more modern appearance. For 1975 the rear window was enlarged but that was the only real alteration of note apart from a lowered compression ratio and the fitting of catalytic converters.

Even with rising fuel prices as a result of the oil crisis these and subsequent years would be good to the Firebird and Camaro, because all the cars competing in their market segment were either discontinued without replacements (AMC Javelin, Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Barracuda), moved downmarket (Ford Mustang II) or changed into distinctly non-sporting personal luxury cars (Dodge Charger, Mercury Cougar).

GM effectively now had the ponycar field all to itself, which was reflected in a healthy rise in sales: 73,729 and 84,063 Firebirds in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Interestingly, the Trans Am that sold only in small numbers at first was now accounting for about one in three Firebirds sold.

1976 (top row) and 1977 (two bottom rows). Image: The author

The increasing weight of federal regulation and restrictions almost literally strangled the American car to death, but Pontiac was one of the very few manufacturers that still made an attempt at continuing to offer at least a semblance of performance; however, even the 455 V8 that still pumped out a respectable 290 hp in 1974 had just 200 horses left in 1975.

T-tops became optionally available for 1976, as was the Black and Gold Limited Edition Trans Am in honour of Pontiacs 50th anniversary; the precursor of the black Trans Ams associated with the popular Smokey and the Bandit films starring Burt Reynolds. The sales output of Firebirds continued to rise: 110,775 were ordered, its best year so far including the first generation, of which over 46,000 were Trans Ams.

Image: Fireszone.com/ Newsday.com

Another trip to the plastic surgeon was in order for the 1977 model year; four rectangular headlights created a totally new visage, and the flatter bonnet was also new. These relatively simple changes were quite successful in rejuvenating a by now eight year old design.

The author.

An invisible but nevertheless big change was that as new emissions and safety regulations were enacted it had become too expensive -even for GM – to certify multiple engines from multiple divisions, so Buick, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile powerplants could be found under the bonnet of Pontiacs, and the Firebird was no exception. Be that as it may, the public did not seem to mind too much as sales rose once more to 155,735 Firebirds produced; the virtually identical 1978 models did even better with 187,287 cars sold.

As originally planned, a new third generation Firebird would have been introduced for the 1980 model year but when it became clear that was unfeasible, the long running design was updated one more time. The four headlights now each had their own recessed pod and the nose was slightly more pointy than before; the taillights were now spread across the entire rear panel.

Image: Mad4wheels.com/ Pontiactransamforum.com

All these changes, although in step with period tastes, did the purity of the original design no favours as the Firebird looked a bit overblown when compared to the initial version. A Tenth Anniversary Trans Am, featuring the largest screaming chicken of the 1970-1981 generation, was new in the lineup. It was not cheap: a regular Trans Am was yours for US $6883 that year, but the Anniversary model sported a hefty US $10,620 price tag.

Nevertheless, 7500 of them were sold and 1979 would go down in history as the all time best year for the Firebird as 211453 of them found an owner. For the last two seasons of its run the Firebird remained almost unchanged; 1980 brought an interesting new engine variant however: a turbocharged 301 cubic inch (4.9 litre) V8 that delivered 210 Hp.

Image: The author

When ordering the turbo, the Firebird was fitted with a unique bonnet with an asymmetric power bulge. Unusually for what was by that time an old design, the turbocharged Trans Am was chosen as that year’s pace car for the Indianapolis 500 race. Since the car buying public was now aware that a new Firebird was to be expected soon, sales tapered off to 107,340 in 1980 and 70,899 in its twelfth and final year, 1981.

The author
The author

The Firebird may have had a sluggish start in terms of sales, but the falling away of the competition helped it soar to unprecedented heights. That however was not the only reason for the longevity and sales success of this particular model; some deft reading of and reacting to changing public tastes by GM’s product planners and a clever bit of product placement doubtless helped as well and ensured the Firebird’s popularity with its owners who were listening to The Doors on the radio at the beginning of its career and to the Human League on the stereo cassette player at the end of it.

Footnote: The author wishes to thank the excellent website http://www.tran-zam.com which was an important source of information for this article.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

11 thoughts on “Holding Back the Years”

  1. Good morning Bruno and thanks for taking us through the long evolution of the Firebird. As is often the case, the original was the purest and best, but I like them all, apart from the final iteration.

    I hadn’t even been aware of the first generation Firebird before reading your piece, but it was rather nice, if not iconic like its successor:

    The second generation car is best when unadorned with scoops and decals:

    1. Good morning, Bruno. I always mistake the first generation Firebird for a Camaro.

  2. Great article which I really enjoyed. Not a car I knew much about until now, and it stands out for so much success so late in its life. The story reminds me of something someone once said to me once about ‘sometimes, if you stand around long enough, the ball will inevitably fall at your feet’ – so seems the case with the Firebird what with the competition exiting the market.

  3. I really enjoyed this article as well, Bruno. It’s one of those that’s well known, because of its appearance in TV shows and movies, but one that was hardly ever seen on Dutch roads. Like mr. Robinson, I knew very little about it. I don’t even see them that much on the American car gathering in The Hague every first Saturday of the month.

  4. Great article, but I now have the theme from the Rockford Files as an ear worm.

    As others have said, I wasn’t aware of the first version. The second one, as discussed here, is really quite different – I always viewed it as being in a class of its own.

    Some of the prototypes have an almost Citroën SM air about them.

    1. James Garner, the actor who played Rockford in the Rockford files was involved in motorsports as a team owner. He also did many of his own stunts in the show, including most of the car chase scenes.

      In the show his Firebird was always the previous year’s model, until the final season when he chose to keep the 1978 car because he did not like the final facelift.

    2. Very cool – thanks, gooddog. I think the nearside view prototype is quite Jaguar-like.

  5. I saw a 1970 Trans Am in white with blue stripes as pictured in a few of the images above at a show a few years ago and it had a description of all the work they did to develop the body kit for actual aero effect, quite impressive.

    I’d also be happy to own a Bandit-type 77 TA with the screaming chicken, but in a colour other than black just for fun. The increasing proportion of Trans Ams over the years reflect it moving down the model hierarchy as often happens with trim level names.

  6. These are fun cars. They look good and go well. The best of them was the SD455 (SD stands for “super duty”). Later on came the WS6 (which was in essence a suspension option available with the 400 cid Pontiac engine- not as swift as the 455 unfortunately). The SD455 and the WS6 option owed their existence to the activities of Herb Adams, a leading engineer at Pontiac and also a racer. After leaving Pontiac he founded his own company specialising in improvements and modification of the Firebird (and the Camaro as well). Later he branched out into race car preparation, writing and publishing, manufacturing kit cars (although what he offered was way more sophisticated than the lable “kit car” suggests) and eventually designing/manufacturing his own cars from scratch.

    One of the engines Pontiac Firebirds could be obtained with was the Oldsmobile 403. This engine was deployed to pass California’s emissions regulations which the Pontiac 400 was not able to do quite so easily. The 403 was the most over-square of all the US domestic automobile engines at 4.351″ bore and 3.385″ stroke. On initial examination this would imply that there was a lot of rpm potential in this engine. Offering nowhere near the performance of the SD455 or 400 the 403 turns out to be easy enough to wake up with a few judicious alterations and amendments. 450bhp is not unreasonable, 600bhp if you spend well. The 403 has one particular infamous limitation on its potential for high performance. It has windowed main bulkheads.

    The 403 cylinder block is a cast iron affair. Conventional practice in the US at the time was to cast cylinder blocks with sold main webs. This has the advantage of providing a lot of support for the main bearings and it keeps the block nice and rigid. Unfortunately, by the mid to late ’70s the US car industry was assaulted on all flanks by anti-car regulation. Apart from the EPA and the CARB regulations, there were myriads of others such as the CAFE regulations. These mandated reduced fuel consumption, regardless of what was good for the product or what the customer’s preferences happened to be. In response GM HQ made policy that none of their model range would be hit with the new fuel consumption taxes. The edict came into effect within one model cycle. It was very difficult to meet this and the new emissions regulations simultaneously. It meant that engines were depowered throughout the GM portfolio with all sorts of desperate and unsound practices being undertaken. Apart from performance, drivability suffered.

    Weight was seen as a contributor to fuel consumption and so wherever weight could be reduced without incurring undue cost, it was. The engine is one of the heaviest assemblies in the vehicle and the cylinder block contributes the most weight to that. Hence the 403 cylinder block was a target for weight saving. Windowing the main webs was a means to that end. While the windows in the main webs assisted with weight reduction (and also reduced resistance due to windage in the crankcase), they were much large than ideal. The cylinder block was weaker than it ought to have been as a result and this imposed a limit on performance, in particular at high rpm and for hard launches from standstill (clutch dumps). A lot of effort has been undertaken by many people to overcome this and exploit the potential of the short stroke 403. Here are three approaches.

    1. Find a solid web 403 cylinder block.
    For years there have been rumours that Oldsmobile cast a run of solid main web 403 cylinder blocks. Records from GM are unclear about this and many plant records have been discarded, disposed of or lost. Many people searched all over to find information, check leads, follow hunches etc. in the quest to uncover examples of solid main web blocks. By now the wrecking years have been well and truly picked dry I’d expect. It appears that anyone who happens to have an Oldsmobile 403 sold main web block either doesn’t realise or aint saying. A reward of US$1-million has been offered by a well known enthusiast to anyone who can provide him with a solid main web 403 block. I’d not mind getting hold of one myself!

    2. Use a girdle or bed plate.
    A cure for the windowed main web is to fit a girdle across all the main caps AND anchor it into the pan rails. Several tool rooms have provided various versions of the girdle. Some are hopeless, cosmetic only, while others are very effective indeed- completely overcoming the problems of the 403 block. An excellent alternative is to replace all the main caps with a single piece bedplate instead and anchor this into the pan rails. Now the engine will stand 800bhp clutch dumps without problem- overkill for the street, but certainly providing piece of mind reliability for, say, a 600bhp NA engine.

    3. Purchase an aftermarket cylinder block
    The US aftermarket has come to the rescue and supplies what Oldsmobile ought to have. A solid web Oldsmobile cylinder block suitable for erecting a 403 is available. It is a clever piece of design. Since the bore spacing is quite tight, the deck height low and the bore large, providing solid webs while allowing enough room for the piston skirts to clear everything at BDC is tricky. You can have one of these in aluminium or in cast iron (CGI even!). Impressed, am I.

    Did you know that the Firebird nearly did not come about at all? It is a twin of the Chevrolet Camaro. Both are referred to as F-body cars. Prior to joining the F-body programme Pontiac was experimenting with what was to be a two seat sports car powered by an in-line sohc six cylinder engine (Pontiac Banshee). It was a little like a 4/5 size Corvette. John Z De Lorean was keen to go with it, but GM Head Office said no. John Z continued to lobby for a sports car. Eventually Head Office said Pontiac could share the upcoming F-body chassis with Chevrolet. This was to lead to the Camaro and Firebird. It explains why they look so similar. Nevertheless there were many differences between the two. Mechanically, they definitely were not the same under the skin. This provided them with different identities (which are fun to compare back to back).

    There are some cars which are really fun to drive. the 2nd gen F-body cars are in that category. Recommended.

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