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Getting the Firebird off the Ground

Many regard the GTO as the spark that restored life to the Pontiac brand in the ‘60s, and from simply looking at the curves, you can see why. The Firebird, though, made up for what the Pontiac still lacked, even with the GTO: an affordable, compact pony car.

When John DeLorean first revealed a compact coupe prototype named the XP-833 Banshee to GM executives, he truly believed he had a real competitor for the Ford Mustang. General Motors disagreed under the fear that, if anything, it would compete with Chevy's Corvette. The Banshee was pulled hours before its debut at the 1964 New York Auto Show, and to this day it has remained what it's always been - a prototype. It seemed as though Pontiac would never get that sports coupe, as plans were already in the works at the Chevy division to create a real Mustang eater, the Panther (later known as the Camaro). But when the higher-ups caught wind that Ford planned to release a second pony known as the Mercury Cougar, they wanted to do the same.

Pontiac got the call to design the second pony, and it was probably due to DeLorean's skill and eagerness, and the fact the Pontiac's new image was all about performance. There were a few catches, though. It had to share the same F-body platform as the Camaro, only the front and rear could be altered, and they had six months to do it. This created quite the dilemma within the division and none were too thrilled to be stuck working on a rebadged sports car, especially when the engineers already displayed their ability to design a high caliber and bestselling sports car of their own. Not to mention that designing a rebadged sports car seemed like a risky move for a brand trying to redefine itself as an innovator.

To start, the facelift lead to quad headlights, slotted tail lamp lens, and slotted chrome hash marks near the rear. These simple designs didn't really change the Firebird's overall Coke bottle styling, but it did make the Firebird look more like a Pontiac and less like a Camaro. And while looks are all fine and dandy, the contents under the hood were the real difference. GM executives initially limited the Camaro to nothing more than a 350 cubic inch small-block V8 (which meant its cousin at Pontiac would be under the same restrictions), but once again word was out that Ford planned on offering a 390 ci big-block in their Mustang, and, since Chevy was now planning to use a big-block 390 ci V8, Pontiac was also able to include their 400 ci initially introduced in the GTO.

Sadly, the engine output shrank thanks to a new GM policy that prevented all passenger cars (other than the Corvette) from having more than one horsepower per 10 pounds of curb weight. Horsepower dropped from 360 in the 400ci to 325 by placing a tab on the throttle linkage that many enthusiasts knew about and probably removed. Of course, that was the top engine option only available on the 400 trim, and other options included a one-barrel carbureted 326 ci V8 with 250 horsepower, a four-barrel 326 ci V8 with 285 horsepower on the H.O. (high option) trim, a four-barrel 230 ci engine with 215 horsepower on the Sprint trim, and a standard one-barrel 230 ci engine with 165 horsepower that gave the base engine 45 hp more than the Mustang's. The suspension was also slightly altered, adding adjustable traction bars for the high output engine options. Like the Camaro, it also came as a fastback or convertible. Pontiac changed the name from the Banshee to the Firebird in honor of a few Harley Earl prototypes from the 1950s. Toss in a performance "Ram Air" option on the 400 with a dual-scooped hood, and the pony that looked like a potential disaster turned out to be a genuine, classic sports car.

Second Generation

For the 1968 model year, the Firebird dropped the 326 ci for a 350 ci V8 with 265 horsepower on the new 350 trim. Side marker lights were also added and the quarter glass windows were dropped. The suspension was also slightly upgraded. While performance increased, in the following year, Pontiac went ahead with a minor facelift that separated the headlights from the grille and improved the bumper, and added a new performance package known as the Trans Am.

It never participated in the Trans American racing series but the name was inspired by that competition. Painted Polar White with two blue stripes, the Trans Am was beautiful and powerful. Pontiac pushed the dual-scooped intake nearer to the nose, and included a rear spoiler and fender vents. It had a 400ci V8 engine rated at 335 horsepower with a Ram Air intake design. It came as a coupe or convertible, and was lauded for its performance and, most notably, its handling. Its large anti-sway bar and low suspension was a huge factor when it came to control. Being able to rip through corners at high speeds, and sporting a 160-mph speedometer, the Trans Am was a fast muscle car that would eventually become the most desired Firebird. These models pushed a bit into 1970, as the second generation's debut had been pushed back a bit, into February of that year.

Fondly referred to as the 1970½ model, the new Firebird abandoned the Coke bottle styling while the Trans-Am added a rear-facing shaker scoop, front spoiler and fender vents, and an elongated rear spoiler.  There was a single blue strip lined down the middle of the hood which carried into the next model in '71, where the most noticeable improvement was the 455ci 335 hp V8 as a standard engine.  As for the other Firebirds, buyers now had Pontiac's 350 ci V8 rated at 255 horsepower as an option on the Formula trim, as well as bucket seats for all models. After a year-over-year steady climb in sales, '71 proved to be abysmal in comparison, and '72 didn't prove to be much better, especially after GM threatened to cancel the car, horsepower began to drop from emission regulations, and a strike at the plant lowered production.  

As you can imagine, the Firebird didn't look to be trending anywhere but down, and it desperately needed some sort of change to keep its relevancy. Cue the legendary Screaming Chicken. Exclusively available on the Trans Am, planted beneath the sprawled chicken lay a 455 Super Duty. Pontiac engineers stated that it only output 290 hp, but in truth the SD-455 produced over 370 hp, and slight modifications could easily bring it over 500+ horsepower. The other models' engines continued to shrink in power, and only got worse once catalytic convertors entered the equation. Pontiac eventually waved goodbye to the SD-455 (last to be featured in ‘76 models) and said hello to a 400ci V8 with a meager 185 hp as the top engine option by the 1977 model year. 1976 also introduced the black-and-gold Special Edition Trans Am that was also the first to feature a T-top.

A major redesign took place in 1977. Dual headlights with an inset grille, a curved front spoiler, and T-top style (now across the board) were all new. The new Firebird came with a 231 ci V6 with 105 horsepower in the base, a 135 horsepower 301ci in the Espirits and Formulas (as well as a few 305 or 350 ci V8s), or a 403ci 185 hp V8 or a 400ci V8 with 200 hp in the Trans Am. Surprisingly, Pontiac had its bestselling year of Firebirds ever in 1978. At this point, many variations of the uproarious Firebird were offered, including the new Skybird (painted an almost Robin's Egg Blue color), Redbird, and Yellowbird. Two years later, after following very minor body changes, the Firebird offered a special 10th Anniversary silver Trans Am.

1980 brought a turbocharged 4.9L V8 engine. Horsepower and performance were once again on the rise, and it could once again put down 210 hp. Still, with such a lackluster outcome in performance, especially compared to earlier models, Pontiac decided to go right to the core and finally introduce a new generation on a new platform for the 1982 model year.  

Fade and Fizzle Out

With the new model, buyers could choose from three trims: the base, S/E, and the Trans Am. The base came with Pontiac's 2.5L inline-four "Iron Duke" engine, capable of 90 horsepower, the S/E came with a 2.8L V6 with 105 horsepower, and both could opt for the standard Trans Am 5.0L V8 with 145 horsepower. Buyers could also opt for a "Cross-Fire Injection" 5.0L engine with 165 horsepower, but it was only available with the automatic transmission. Praised much more for their good looks and handling, power obviously lacked - a problem that marred many sports cars throughout the ‘80s. Throughout the decade, the Firebird continued to see minor changes to its exterior. By '89, a 3.8L V6 that could sport 250 horsepower became the standard on the Trans Am. It needed only slight modification to become an Indy pace car, having an advertised top speed of 150 mph.

Once again, ten years later the final and fourth generation debuted for the 1993 model year. Along with the Formula trim (and the drop of the L/S), the V8 was brought back in the Trans Am, adding 25 horsepower to make 275 with the six-speed manual. Like most cars, the styling transformed into a more aerodynamic design. There weren't many changes for '94, but the convertible was brought back, as well as a special GT version on the Trans Am that was dropped the following year. A 3.8L V6 replaced the carried-over 3.4 V6 from the last generation, bumping horsepower up to 200. This tended to be the formula for the remainder of the generation, with Pontiac slowly modernizing the models with updated and safer technology while updating Trans Am packages and older, extinct versions of the Firebird, like a WS6 Ram Air version in 1996.  The Trans Am continued to peak into the late ‘90s, reaching up to a 305hp V8 in '98.

By 2002, with Pontiac struggling to stay afloat, GM killed the F-Body platform, which ultimately killed the Firebird. With a lackluster image and not much direct competition, GM decided to focus its efforts on a new Camaro and cut the cord on the Firebird. For some, this might be the final proof needed that the Camaro was and will always be superior to the Firebird, but for others, this truly unique ‘Bird will burn on in their hearts forever. One of the Classic American muscle cars, the Pontiac Firebird was introduced in 1967, the same year as its sibling the Chevrolet Camaro. Their purpose was to combat the original muscle car, the Ford Mustang. Featuring an attractive "coke bottle" styling, offered as a coupe or convertible, and making use of a V8 engine used in the GTO, muscle car drivers rapidly gravitated toward the Pontiac Firebird. 1969 marked the introduction of the Trans Am performance package creating a legacy of high performance muscle cars that would remain for years to come. As with most muscle cars during the seventies, performance declined in the face of strict emissions regulations. However, the popularity of the Pontiac Firebird did not diminish, thanks in part to Hollywood.

The 1977 release of Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds and a 1977 Firebird Trans Am SE catapulted the fame of the Pontiac Firebird. Since then the Firebird has traversed countless forms of media. It has been in several blockbuster movies such as "American Beauty," "Old School," "Office Space," and "Gone in 60 Seconds." A 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was the car modified as KITT in "Knight Rider" starring David Hasselhoff. Apu from the cartoon "The Simpsons" is seen in several episodes driving a red 70's style Trans Am. The Firebird has also been featured in several videogames such as Project Gotham Racing 2 and Need for Speed: High Stakes. Popular with muscle car enthusiasts and permanently ingrained in American culture, the Pontiac Firebird is a legendary vehicle known for its high performance and classic styling.

Need Pontiac Firebird Parts?

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Your Pontiac Firebird needs high quality aftermarket replacement parts in order to keep it looking and running great. Known for being an exciting, hard driving muscle car, it only makes sense to install the best aftermarket parts available. 1A Auto parts scored 95% for Pontiac Firebird aftermarket parts in the BizRate customer survey; scoring 10% higher in Availability, On-time Delivery, Tracking, Product Quality & Customer Support, than our nearest competitor. Having seeped into American culture and crossed into movies, television, and videogames, the legendary Pontiac Firebird is truly a classic muscle car. Continue to enjoy the Pontiac Firebird legacy, buy new aftermarket Firebird parts from 1A Auto Parts today.

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