The evolution of the Firebird.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.