This car’s engine has been much maligned and its muscular styling still conjures up bad memories of gold chains and exposed chest hair, a last gasp of disco-era glory. It was Pontiac’s first turbocharged production car, but it also brought down the curtain on a storied era of unique Pontiac engines. This is the story of the little-loved, often-forgotten Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Turbo.
Even before the advent of emissions standards, the cost of designing a completely new engine was daunting. Design, development, testing, tooling, setting up supply chains — it’s a complicated process and the price tag for the whole enterprise rises quickly. It’s no surprise that most manufacturers share engines across as many models as possible (even across different brands) to spread those costs around.
We may take it as a sign of General Motors’ once vast wealth and market share, then, that until the late 1970s, GM’s individual automotive divisions designed and manufactured most of their own engines. There were occasional instances of one division using another’s engines, usually for low-volume applications — Pontiac bought a few Buick aluminum V8s for the 1961—1962 Tempest, and Oldsmobile purchased Buick’s Fireball V6 for some F-85s and Eighty-Eights — but those were the exception rather than the rule, and divisional leaders usually preferred to avoid such sharing.
That individuality combined with corporate policies limiting maximum displacement for different body styles to produce a multitude of different engines of very similar capacities and outputs. By 1969, for instance, Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac each offered a 350 cu. in. (5.7 L) engine of distinctly different design. Since each division’s output topped that of some rivals’ entire corporations, we assume it seemed an acceptable indulgence.
While Chevrolet and Buick each had distinct small-block and big-block V8 engine lines, Pontiac really had only one. Pontiac’s “Strato-Streak” V8 had bowed for 1955, replacing the division’s hoary flathead engines, which dated back to the 1930s. It had certain features in common with the contemporary small-block Chevy, such as rocker arms pivoting on studded ball joints rather than rocker shafts (a feature that had actually been developed by Pontiac engineers and shared with Chevrolet), but it had some significant internal differences. It was also somewhat bigger and heavier than the Chevrolet engine, with greater growth potential.
Grow the Strato-Streak did — from 287 cubic inches (4,706 cc) in 1955 to 455 cu. in. (7,481 cc) in 1970. Over the years, it was offered in a bewildering number of states of tune. Fuel-injected, it had powered the first Bonneville, Bunkie Knudsen’s declaration of intent that Pontiac was no longer grandma’s car. In highly tuned 421 cu. in. (6,902 cc) Super Duty form, it had been a formidable competitor on both drag strip and NASCAR oval. In 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) form, it had made the reputation of the class-defining GTO, progenitor of the sixties muscle car.
The Pontiac V8 was a sturdy engine with considerable power potential, but it was on the porky side, particularly in its small-displacement versions. The 350 was a good 70 pounds (32 kg) heavier than a Chevrolet 350 and more than 100 pounds (46 kg) heavier than the Ford 302 cu. in. (4,942 cc) V8, which had adverse effects on weight distribution and fuel economy, particularly for smaller cars.
PONTIAC 303 AND 301
Smaller cars and smaller engines figured high on GM’s list of priorities in the mid-seventies. The Clean Air Act of 1970 had mandated a set of federal emissions standards that were slated to become progressively more stringent over the course of the decade. California had instituted the first pollution control rules back in 1963, followed by the initial federal standards of 1968, but those rules had regulated smog-producing emissions (unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide) as a percentage of the exhaust volume, in parts per million. The new rules were based on total emissions released (measured, curiously, in grams per mile), which tended to favor smaller displacement engines.
In addition, the OPEC oil embargo of late 1973 led in 1975 to the passage of the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which took effect for the 1978 model year. CAFE required an automaker’s entire fleet to exceed a minimum average gas mileage (initially set at 18 mpg, equivalent to about 13.1 L/100 km) in a standardized testing regimen; failure to meet the CAFE target would result in substantial fines. Under CAFE rules, Detroit could still sell big cars with big engines, but automakers were obliged to also sell more fuel-efficient vehicles, which meant smaller engines.
At Pontiac, engineers began a crash program to develop some less thirsty powerplants. Pontiac had had an innovative overhead-cam six in the late sixties, but it was canceled after 1969, leaving a big 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc), Chevrolet-designed straight six and Pontiac’s aging V8 in 350 cu. in. (actually 354 cu. in., 5,798 cc), 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc), and 455 cu. in. (actually 457 cu. in., 7,488 cc) versions. The six made only 100 net horsepower (75 kW), which was hardly adequate for Pontiac’s increasingly heavy cars, while the 350 was too big and thirsty to remain the division’s bread-and-butter engine.
As a stopgap, Pontiac adopted Oldsmobile’s new 260 cu. in. (4,269 cc) V8, as its base V8 starting in 1975. For 1977, Buick’s reborn 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc) V6, already available on the compact Pontiac Sunbird, replaced the 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) Chevrolet six as the base engine on larger models. However, Pontiac leadership still very much wanted a small V8 of their own. A completely new, clean-sheet engine would have been ideal, but with the division simultaneously struggling with new federal safety rules, resources were stretched thin. Pontiac’s engineering staff took a hard look at the existing 350 to see what could be done with it.
Back in the late sixties, Pontiac had done a great deal of work on a downsized version of the 350 for racing use: the elusive 303 cu. in. (4,971 cc) version of Pontiac’s rare Ram Air V engine. There were also 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) and 366 cu. in. (5,991 cc) versions, but the 303 was aimed at the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans Am series, which then mandated a displacement limit of 305 cubic inches (5,000 cc). The Ram Air 303 was a painstaking revamp of the Pontiac 350, featuring a shorter deck height, a very short stroke, and many internal changes to improve breathing and reduce reciprocating mass. The 303 produced impressive performance, at least at high speeds, but development delays and concerns about regulatory compliance meant that it was produced only in tiny numbers, none intended for street use. Still, the 303 project gave engineers some grounding in what could be done with the old Pontiac V8.
The new version was just as thoroughly re-engineered as the 303, but with a very different set of design priorities. Where the Ram Air V had a reinforced block, massive ports, and a hefty forged crankshaft with four-bolt main bearings, the new engine had thinner cylinder walls and internal webs, conjoined intake ports (i.e., with each port serving multiple cylinders), a lighter crank, and only two crankshaft counterweights. Since the engine was intended for low emissions and better fuel economy rather than performance, the changes compromised breathing and ultimate power potential, but whittled an impressive 136 pounds (62 kg) off the engine’s total mass.
Unlike the 303, which combined the 400’s 4.12-inch (104.6mm) bore with a short 2.87-inch (72.9mm) stroke for better rev potential, the new engine had a longer 3.0-inch (76.2mm) stroke for better low-end torque and a narrower 4.0-inch (101.6mm) bore. With the same bore and stroke dimensions as Ford’s 302, the Pontiac engine had identical displacement — 302 cu. in. 4,942 cc) — but to avoid giving the impression that Pontiac was buying Ford engines, Pontiac opted to advertise the new V8 as 301 cu. in.
In 1977, the 301 replaced the Oldsmobile 260 as the standard V8 for most Pontiac models and a few Buicks. With a two-throat carburetor, it made a modest 135 net horsepower (101 kW) — raised to 140 hp (104 kW) in 1978 — and returned reasonable fuel economy, if not great acceleration. The following year, Pontiac added a four-barrel version with 150 hp (112 kW) and 240 lb-ft (324 N-m) of torque. For 1980, CAFE pressure prompted the addition of a smaller 265 cu. in. (4,344 cc) version, created by reducing the 301’s bore to 3.75 inches (76.2 mm); the small-bore engine had only 120 hp (90 kW) and 210 lb-ft (284 N-m) of torque. The 301 remained available concurrently, although California cars got the Chevrolet 305 cu. in. (5,005 cc) V8 instead — an ominous sign of things to come.
Among the models to receive the 301 and later the 265 was the Pontiac Firebird. The original Pontiac Firebird, introduced in 1967, was Pontiac’s version of the Chevrolet Camaro, sharing the same corporate F-body. Like the Camaro, the Firebird had been completely redesigned midway through the 1970 model year.
Mechanically, the second-gen Firebird was much the same as before, but it had a sleek new body, the work of designers Jack Humbert and Bill Porter and modeler Jerry Snyder, which many contemporary reviewers thought would befit a Ferrari or Maserati. The new car was available in modest base trim with your choice of 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) Chevrolet six or 350 cu. in. (5,798 cc) Pontiac V-8, but you could order as much tinsel and as much performance as your wallet and insurance agent could stand. Top of the line was the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, a model introduced on a very limited basis in 1969, which debuted with a name licensed from the SCCA (of which “Trans Am” remains a registered trademark); a standard 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) engine with 345 gross horsepower (257 kW); and a conspicuous array of scoops, extractor vents, and spoilers.
Despite the racy looks, the new Firebird arrived just as pony car sales were crashing. GM came very close to canceling it after 1972, but the Firebird and its Chevrolet Camaro cousin earned a last-minute reprieve. By mid-decade, sales had recovered nicely, thanks in no small part to the Trans Am’s starring role in the 1977 Burt Reynolds action-comedy Smokey and the Bandit. Total Firebird sales reached 187,285 for 1978, about half of those Trans Ams.
The Firebird’s 1970½ body would survive through 1981 with only modest stylistic changes, including a set of well-integrated 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers (mandated by federal law) that made it one of the few cars of its era NOT to look like it was wearing battering rams. More noticeable was the flashy Firebird hood decal (introduced in 1973), which was quickly dubbed — not always affectionately — the “screaming chicken.”
Under the hood, the screaming had become a good deal more muted. The Firebird and Firebird Trans Am had been some of the last bastions of genuine muscle car power — the very rare 1973-1974 Super Duty 455 was no less formidable than the meanest of its pre-smog rivals — but by 1976, the combination of emissions requirements, prohibitive insurance rates, and reduced compression had blunted the Firebird’s talons.
The 455 cu. in. (7,488 cc) engine was available through 1976, but by then, it was down to 200 net horsepower (149 kW), respectable for the time, but almost shameful for such an enormous engine. When the 455 was gone, the top option was the 400, which now had only 180 net horsepower (134 kW) and 325 lb-ft (439 N-m) of torque). That was up to 200 hp (149 W) for 1978 — 220 hp (164 kW) for the optional W72 engine available on 49-state cars — but cars bound for California, which had stricter emissions standards, were limited to the Oldsmobile 403 cu. in. (6,598 cc) V8, offering 185 hp (138 kW) and 320 lb-ft (432 N-m) of torque.
Although a well-equipped Trans Am now weighed more than 3,600 pounds (1,635 kg), performance remained fairly strong. A non-California four-speed car could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds and run the quarter mile (402 meters) in the low 15s, excellent for the late seventies, and with the right axle ratio was among the fastest cars of its time. Compared to the hottest Supercars of 1970, the latter-day Firebird was strictly lukewarm, but robust sales suggested that disco-era buyers valued the image as much as the actual performance. There was also some consolation in the fact that a properly equipped Trans Am was among the best-handling production cars of the seventies.
PONTIAC 301 TURBO
Over at Buick, there had recently been a revival of an item GM had pioneered for passenger car use a decade earlier (on the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder and Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire) and then abandoned: the exhaust-driven supercharger, or turbocharger. Buick’s pace car for the 1976 Indianapolis 500 sported a turbocharged version of the Buick V6 and a production version had followed for 1978. The turbo V6 made up to 165 hp (123 kW), as much as many GM V8s of that era, but returned much better fuel economy, at least for EPA and CAFE purposes. With even stricter emissions and fuel economy standards set to arrive in the eighties, that approach seemed like the way of the future.
Around the time the Buick turbo V6 debuted, Pontiac was experimenting with a turbocharged version of the new 151 cu. in. (2,471 cc) “Iron Duke” four (which was related to the 301), capable of around 125 net horsepower (93 kW). There were also persistent rumors in the automotive press that Pontiac might get the new turbocharged Buick engine. Neither came to fruition (at least not immediately — Pontiac did briefly get the Buick turbo in 1989), but around the end of 1978, Pontiac announced that they were preparing a new turbocharged version of the 301.
The turbocharged engine actually began as a student project, conceived and executed by automotive engineering students at the General Motors Institute (GMI) in Flint (now Kettering University) for an interscholastic contest. Their professor, Jim Lyons, later presented the students’ entry — a low-emissions turbocharged conversion of a Firebird 350 — to Pontiac chief engine engineer Leo Hilke as a production possibility.
Since Pontiac’s 350 cu. in. (5,798 cc) V8 had been discontinued by then, Pontiac instead developed a turbo installation for the 301, using a single Garrett AiResearch TBO-305 draw-through turbocharger with a nominal maximum boost of 9 psi (0.6 bar). Since the light-duty 301 hadn’t been designed with this sort of duty in mind, Pontiac engineers added a higher-capacity oil pump and restored some of the beef that had been trimmed from the normally aspirated 301, making the 301T somewhat stronger and heavier than the standard 301. To limit detonation and allow the use of regular unleaded gasoline, compression ratio was reduced to 7.6:1, the Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor was modified to provide automatic under-boost enrichment, and a Delco Electronic Spark unit (shared with the Buick turbo V6 and normally aspirated 1980–1981 301 four-barrel engines) was added to retard engine timing under load. A taller bulged hood was required to make room for the turbocharger housing.
The turbocharged 301 went into production for the 1980 model year, replacing both the Pontiac 400 and Oldsmobile 403. In its initial production form, the 301T was at least nominally more powerful than either, claiming 210 net horsepower (157 kW) and 345 lb-ft (467 N-m) of torque, a healthy increase over the 155 hp (116 kW) and 240 lb-ft (324 N-m) of the normally aspirated four-barrel 301. The turbo package (listed on the order form as RPO LU8) was offered only with automatic transmission and a 3.08 axle and cost a reasonable $350 on Trans Ams and $530 on Formulas. The turbocharged engine met federal emissions standards, but wasn’t available in California, although some were assembled there.
PONTIAC FIREBIRD TRANS AM TURBO
The words “Firebird Trans Am Turbo” would seem to connote furious performance, but the Turbo T/A was not as speedy as one might expect. Early tests by Car and Driver and Motor Trend (October and November 1979 respectively) recorded 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of around 8 seconds, quarter-mile (402-meter) ETs in the mid-16s, and a top speed of 116 mph (187 km/h), which was by no means bad for 1980, but significantly slower than the outgoing 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) Firebird. More worrisome were highly inconsistent independent test results with ETs varying by as much as a full second from car to car, combined with reports of preignition (knock) in acceleration runs despite all of Pontiac’s precautions. The automatic-only Trans Am Turbo could also be outrun by a manually shifted Camaro Z28 despite the Pontiac’s nominal 20 hp (15 kW) advantage. (Firebird Formula Turbos, which weighed slightly less, were a bit quicker than the Trans Am, but probably not by much.)
Still, the Trans Am Turbo provided fine performance for a modest price — a well-equipped example could be had for less than $10,000, thousands less than a Corvette, Datsun 280ZX Turbo, or Triumph TR8. The Firebird was if anything more agile than ever, aided by less weight on the nose, and the optional four-wheel disc brakes provided excellent stopping power.
The ultimate Trans Am Turbo was the 1980 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car replica. There were originally supposed to be 6,300 of these (eventually cut to 5,700). A Pace Car replica was essentially a Trans Am with the turbo engine and every available Firebird option, including a T-top roof, air conditioning, limited-slip differential, white-painted alloy wheels, a full load of convenience features, and the WS6 Performance Handling Package (which included four-wheel disc brakes and stiffer suspension components). Pace Car replicas were available only in Cameo White with gray accents and a unique hood decal even more dramatic than the normal Firebird’s.
The Pace Car carried a daunting $11,194 sticker price, compared to the $7,529 base price of a normal Trans Am with the turbo engine. The Pace Car replica wasn’t available in California, again because the turbo engine failed to meet California emissions standards. (Our photo car must have originally been registered in another state.)
The Pace Car was the gaudiest example of a car that was fast becoming a dinosaur. The Firebird still looked good, but for all its considerable bulk, it remained cramped inside, hard to see out of, and thoroughly impractical. When the 1979 Iranian revolution soured the U.S. economy and reignited worries about fuel shortages, Firebird sales dropped precipitously, falling from more than 210,000 in 1979 to 107,340 for 1980; 23,421 of those had the turbo engine.
The 1970½ body style returned one last time for 1981. The 301T was again optional for non-California cars, now with electronic engine management (in this case amounting mostly to electronic mixture controls for the carburetor) and a net output of 200 horsepower (149 kW) and 340 lb-ft (459 N-m) of torque. There was a Daytona 500 Pace Car replica package much like the previous year’s Indy edition. Total sales (for all Firebird models) fell to 61,460, a decline of more than 40%.
THE LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS
A crisp, futuristic new Pontiac Firebird bowed the following year, a body style that shortly would be immortalized as KITT of the TV series Knight Rider, but the turbo engine did not return, nor did the 301. Turbocharging had earned the Pontiac V8 a temporary reprieve, but GM management finally made the difficult decision to standardize engines across most of the company (save for Cadillac). Pontiac would continue to build the 151 cu. in. (2,471 cc) Iron Duke (expanded need for which was actually the main reason for canceling the 301, which shared some of the same tooling), but future Pontiacs would now have small-block Chevrolet V8s.
From an economic or logical standpoint it’s difficult to argue with GM’s adoption of “corporate” engines, but it was yet another blow to the identity of the individual divisions. By then, there was little to choose between Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick other than styling and standard equipment. The loss of distinction was openly mocked in the advertising of some rival automakers and, combined with a litany of embarrassing quality problems and recalls, did lasting damage to GM’s formerly unassailable market position.
The 301 and the Turbo T/A have gotten a bad rap over the years. Some hot-rodders consider it a hopeless case, and it still has a reputation for unreliability, although well-kept examples have lived long and relatively healthy lives even with more-than-standard power. For many enthusiasts, the Turbo T/A is at best a curiosity, never enjoying the cult status of the later Buick Grand National and GNX turbo cars.
Nonetheless, the 301 has its partisans. Fans will tell you that the 301T is unfairly derided — if it was not without its problems, the same was also true of most contemporary turbo engines — and much can be done with it given an appropriate degree of mechanical sympathy. More important, the Trans Am Turbo was the last scion of a proud lineage stretching back to the days of Bunkie Knudsen, Pete Estes, and John DeLorean — the last real Pontiac V8, and, by some standards, the last of the real Pontiacs.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included C. Edson Armi, The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Philip Bauman, “The Ram Air V,” Muscle Cars August 1987, pp. 30–35, 82–84; Ray Bohacz, “Mechanical Marvels: Living in the Shadow: the 1955 Pontiac 287-cubic-inch V-8,” Special Interest Autos #181 (January-February 2001), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 136-138; Mark Cranwick, Pontiac Firebird: The Auto-Biography (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing: 2003); Eric Dahlquist, “The Great Breakaway Conspiracy,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 6 (June 1969), pp. 72-74; David E. Davis, “Paris by Trans Am,” Car and Driver January 1979, pp. 39-41; Thomas DeMauro, “1981 Pontiac Trans Am – From Barn Find to First Place,” Hot Rod March 2012 (www.hotrod. com, accessed 20 August 2015); James Dietzler, “Star-Crossed Supercar,” Special Interest Autos #186 (November-December 2001), pp. 44-51; Edmunds.com’s Firebird history (www.edmunds. com, accessed 20 March 2008); Jim Dunne, “Detroit Report,” Popular Science Vol. 209, No. 6 (December 1976), p. 30; “Detroit Report,” Popular Science Vol. 214, No. 3 (March 1979), p. 54; and “GM for 1980,” Popular Science Vol. 215, No. 4 (October 1979), pp. 90–93; Jim Dunne and Ed Jacobs, “High-performance sporty cars — fading but not disappearing,” Popular Science Vol. 217, No. 1 (July 180), p. 41–46; John Ethridge, “Pontiac Grand Prix SJ,” Motor Trend Vol. 31, No. 1 (January 1979), pp. 39-41; “Firebird for 1970 Unveiled,” Road Test March 1970, reprinted in Firebird and Trans-Am Muscle Portfolio 1967-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); “Firebird Trans Am SD-455,” Car and Driver May 1973, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961–1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1985); Peter Frey, “The Macho T/A,” Motor Trend Vol. 30, No. 6 (June 1978), pp. 85–87; Rich George, “Before Black” (www.beforeblack. net/ transam.htm, accessed 20 March 2008); General Motors, “GMI professor Jim Lyons drives home his ideas” [advertisement], Hot Rod January 1972, p. 23; Larry Griffin, “Road Test: Pontiac Trans Am: It will not pass this way again,” Car and Driver January 1978, pp. 25-30; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002), and Standard Catalog of Firebird 1967-2002 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Hitman, “Trans Am Information Site” (www.78ta. com/ index.php, accessed 20 March 2008); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Greg Jarem, “1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am – The Lineman,” Hot Rod September 2007 (www.hotrod. com; accessed 20 March 2008); Steve Kelly, “Just in Time,” Hot Rod February 1970, reprinted in Firebird and Trans-Am Muscle Portfolio 1967-1972; Michael Lamm, “The Fabulous Firebird: Developing the Second Generation” (which is actually an excerpt from Lamm’s book, The Fabulous Firebird), Special Interest Autos #57 (June 1980), pp. 42-49, and “Under the Hood of the Buick Turbo,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 148, No. 4 (October 1977), p. 170; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1973 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1973), and World Cars 1979 (Pelham, New York: Herald Books, 1979); Gary Lisk, “Second Generation Trans Am Source Page” (n.d., www.2gta. com/ transam.html, accessed 20 March 2008); Robert Lund, “Driving Buick’s turbocharged V6,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 148, No. 3 (September 1977), pp. 40–44; Mike Mueller, Motor City Muscle: The High-Powered History of the American Muscle Car (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); Eric Peters, “In the rearview mirror: 1980-’81 Turbo Trans Am” (13 August 2010, Eric Peters Autos, ericpetersautos. com/2010/ 08/13/ in-the-rearview-mirror -1980-81-turbo-trans-am/, accessed 20 August 2015; Christopher R. Phillip, “1980 Pontiac Firebird Turbo – Wow, Is That Thing a Turbo?” Hot Rod July 2007 (www.hotrod. com, accessed 20 March 2008), and “The Pioneers of the Pontiac V-8” Hot Rod September 2012 (www.hotrod. com, accessed 20 August 2015); “Pontiac Firebird & Chevrolet Camaro: The First Generation of Grand Touring Cars,” Car and Driver March 1970, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961–1975; Jim Puehrl, “Pontiac 301 – The Last Mohican,” (2002–2003, mirrored at www.301garage. com/Jim_P/ index.html, accessed 20 March 2008); Stan Rarden and Paul Zazarine, “The Engine That Never Was,” Pontiac Enthusiast March-April 2004, pp. 44-45; Lee and Adam Rehorn, “301 Turbo Shrine” (n.d., mirrored at 301garage. com/ Rehorn/301shrine.html, accessed 20 March 2008); Joe Richter, 301 Garage (2007, 301garage. com/, accessed 20 March 2008), and “The 301 Garage and TAC” (August 2014, transamcountry. com/community/index.php?topic=66603.0, accessed 20 August 2015); Ross Sasamura and Michael Smith, “Road Racing Renegade: Pontiac’s Trans Am Mystery Engine,” High Performance Pontiac December 1983, pp. 37–40; Pete Sessler, Ultimate American V-8 Engine Data Book 1949-1974 (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1999); Don Sherman, “Camaro, Know Thine Enemy,” Car and Driver March 1978, p. 44; “The Last Roundup,” Motor Trend October 1971, reprinted in Firebird and Trans-Am Muscle Portfolio 1967-1972; “The Real 1970 Firebirds,” Car and Driver June 1970, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961–1975; “Trans Am 303,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 10 (October 1969), reprinted in Firebird and Trans-Am Muscle Portfolio 1967-1972; “Turbochargers give little engines a lift,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Vol. 34, No. 3 (March 1980), p. 24; Paul Van Valkenburgh, “Transcendental Revelation,” Sports Car Graphic March 1970, reprinted in Firebird and Trans-Am Muscle Portfolio 1967-1972; Ron Wakefield, “1970 Camaro & Firebird: Chevrolet & Pontiac versions of a new American GT, plus a facelifted Corvette for 1970,” Road & Track March 1970, reprinted in Firebird and Trans-Am Muscle Portfolio 1967-1972; Gary Witzenburg, “Detroit Listening Post: GM V8s deep-sixed,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 155, No. 6 (June 1981), p. 42; “Detroit Listening Post: Turbo Trans-Am pace car,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 153, No. 2 (February 1980), p. 62, and “Driving the 1980 General Motors cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 152, No. 4 (October 1979), pp. 98–99, 236–241.
62 CommentsAdd a Comment
My aunt bought a brand new 1981 Bandit edition Turbo Trans Am. She had the red Bandit jacket just like Burt wore in Smokey and The Bandit 2. She even had a tag on the front that said Bandit. She thought this car was the end all be all until one fateful day when she and my Dad accidentally met on a 4 lane road. My Dad was driving our 1974 red,4 door,250 cubic inch in line 6 cylinder Ford Maverick. My Aunt was in the T/A wearing the Bandit jacket with the T-tops out and the 8 track with cb blasting. They took off from a red light side by side, me,being 12 years old at the time was expecting to be shamed forever by the Trans Am dusting us off like we were in a Pinto. But as the two cars climbed in speed I noticed a strange thing beginning to happen. The Maverick was beginning to pull away. As we got faster the old family Ford was really making that bad ass Bandit car look stupid. My Aunt finally gave up at 100mph. She says she became afraid…Ha! She was afraid someone would see the old Maverick whoopin that black and gold eagle like a old dust rag!
Great story. The Maverick must have had a manual, or the T/A was malfunctioning or not floored. I had a 1974 Maverick 4-door with the 250 and automatic, and it is the slowest car I’ve ever owned. Almost frighteningly so. It was not an unpleasant car, a bit quieter and more refined than a friend’s 1975 Nova hatchback, but god was it slow.
I have a 1980 Turbo Indy Trans Am.
These engines produce impressive numbers at the track (14.1 quarter mile) and on the dyno (311.6 hp, 417 lb/ft. torque) with higher octane fuel such as 104 rm/2 without modifications. They also run at a lower temperature as well.
Also many people did not run strait SAE 30 weight motor oil (as the large sticker in the engine bay clearly states) which led to engine damage due to low oil pressure and ultimately engine failure.
All of these factors contributed to an engine that was hard to live with in the real world unless you filled up with a quality octane booster on top of your premium gas and changed your own oil with only 30 weight.
The 301 T was slated to be in the third gen. Trans Am as well until the Corporate engine family was adopted. In the test mules in the preliminary third gen. cars, An updated 301T was in testing and had 300bhp and 384 lb ft torque.
hi johnathon, if you, indeed, have one of these cars, and look into the rareity of it, not too many of them left around, maybe then you stop messing with the engine, Turbocharging was basically in it’s infancy in those days, Indded, it IS A VERY RARE CAR, SO, TAKE CARE OF THat ENGINE!!
thanks, peace, Joel i just don’t want you to hear the engine suddenly go “WHAM” and you see a big lump coming right tru the hood, i myself , have an 1981 Turbo Trans am, and |I NEVER rev it over 2, 000 RPM ..
i JUST WON;T …….
Doggy, doggy, doggy! Sorry to burst your bubble, but these things were HORRIBLE performers from day one! Low 14’s in the 1/8, now we’re talkin’! Don’t get me wrong I think they’re cool and collectible but don’t try to sell us on performance.
Slow off the line for sure due to the long turbo lag, heavy weight and relatively tall gearing. I always wondered how they would have performed with a strengthened Turbo 200 4R tranny with a higher stall torque converter coupled to 3.70 final drive instead of the Turbo 350 with a 3.08 rear. The 700R4 with its wide ratios would have been a poor fit.
rare67: Thoroughly enjoyed your story. We had a ’73 powder blue maverick 2 door with 3 on the tree and an 8 track of course. :0)
Another great article, thank you !
You’ve told us a bit about the different engines at GM… It would be nice to know more about the pros and cons of each one, mainly in the emblematic sizes (ex : compare each GM 350, 400, 450/455…).
It is difficult to find informations about that on google, and I’ve found no guide book either.
Moreover, perhaps another article comparing Big Three’s V8 (Ford vs Chevy…) should be interesting too…
I have an 81 Turbo WS6 SE that was delivered new in Modesto CA.
Apparently one met California emissions….
Interesting. I wonder what the story was…maybe Pontiac worked things out with CARB toward the end.
Can anyone tell me if the 301 amNd the 301 turbo use the same head gasket??
I owned an ’81 Turbo Trans Am that had virtually every option including the fabulous WS-6 package. While the 301 turbo wasn’t a real powerhouse it did provide good power. The car’s handling, steering and braking were incredibly good. The power steering boost was near perfect and literally felt like a rack and pinion system with just two and a half turns lock to lock. Most of today’s electric assist units feel horribly benign compared to my TA’s steering. I bought my TA brand new in March of 1981. It was orange metallic (Navajo Orange) with a medium camel tan interior with dark camel brown accents. It also had T-tops. It even had a factory Delco CB radio. I purchased the car off the dealer’s showroom for $13,360.00. That’s a lot of money back then. I loved my TA but I got married in 1986 and my then wife said we needed a practical car. I very reluctantly sold my TA with a little over 40K on the odometer and bought a (enter groan and laugh and a puke here) a brand new 1988 Dodge Caravan. What a piece of &$@/ that van was. Our darling Caravan had a stingy appetite for fuel but a humongous appetite for automatic transmissions! I hated that Caravan beyond belief! Chrysler ended up buying it back from us under the lemon law, since the problems with it were persistent. We then settled on a 1993 Toyota Camry which was banal as hell but lasted over 200,000 miles. It just ran and ran and ran. I got divorced in 2001 (HURRAY!) and would live to find another Turbo TA. But they’re very expensive now for unmolested pristine examples that haven’t been put the wringer . FYI the turbo boost lamps on the hood bulge aren’t LED’s. They’re regular, miniature incandescent lamps like the ones used in the side marker units.
Thanks for the correction on the lights — I’ve amended the text.
The WS6 was always highly praised for its handling, at least on relatively smooth roads. I recall that Car and Driver considered it one of the best-handling cars of its era.
I bought my 1980 Indy Pace Car Special Edition new back in 1980 in Bellevue WA. I paid several thousand over MSRP to get it as many dealers were gouging us due to the limited production run. Selected Pontiac dealers were allocated just two pace cars each. My friends shook their heads, but I have the car and they don’t! In 1980 I was 2 years into my first real job after college and needed a new car. The market did not have new big block T/As any more, and the 1980 Corvette, well look at pictures of an 1980 corvette, it wasn’t their finest styling in my opinion, and it only held two people with no effective trunk. I considered the 1980 Japanese cars, but as the years have passed I can truly say that I am really glad I didn’t buy them. Their styling has not held up in my opinion. The German cars were just too expensive new. When I went to the Pontiac dealership they had a variety of 1980 T/A’s in different colors, and I was so/so impressed. But then on the back lot I saw the 1980 Turbo T/A Pace Car Special Edition sitting there and immediately feel in love with it. The special edition striping and white/gray color scheme specifically designed to have the car stand out on the black Indy race track, the silvered T-tops, the extra big hood bird and the full option list with the embroidered birds on the door panel and rear seat were all great. I took it for a test drive and I was sold. The handling was phenomenal (my current car then was a 65 Lincoln convertible) and the way the car took the curves on the freeway and accelerated out with the three boost indicator lights lit up was great! I was sold! I still have the car and have had many great years in the various T/A car clubs I belonged to. I am on my third turbo charger, as the bearing oiling and cooling of same was first generation, and they have learned a lot since then. Shutting down the car with a very hot engine has a tendency to cook the oil on the turbo bearing with bad results over the long haul. For a few misc pointer I will note that the car did not have an 8-track, it came with a am/fm cassette deck. Also I found out that the water pump is specific to the turbo model. It has more vanes on it than the stock 301 water pump. Relative to the detonation issues, the car was set up to run up to and into detonation and then back off. I always ran supreme, but it did not make any difference. The car was designed to run into and experience detonation prior to being retarded. For those brave enough to hold the petal to the metal for a long time, you can experience the on/off again nature of the detonation control system, as the car gets to detonation, backs off, and then repeats the process. But by then you are flying down the road way too fast and the subject becomes moot!
Another tip, the engine quit one day on the highway! It was very scary, but I was able to coast over to a turnout and get it restarted after a time. Gas fumes were pouring out of the air cleaner when I took the cover off, but after it started back up all was fine. It kept doing this off an on over the next few days. Putting the car into the GM dealership they could find no problem. Finally it did it again and the mechanic came out to the car and looked at it. The culprit, a weak spark! Replaced the HEI coil and all has been fine!
I will note that at one multi state T/A club meeting in Sacramento in the mid 1980’s, Pontiac was hosting the event, and there were 100+ T/As in the Sacramento Holiday Inn parking lot. Out of all these cars, many tricked out to the max, only I got the call at 2am in the morning to come to the lobby. I found out that my passenger side window had been smashed, and the silvered T-tops stolen! I guess I should feel honored to have been selected from all those cars, but it was a grade a pain to me that ruined the trip. Subsequently I installed after market T-Top locks on the replacement silver T-tops I got from GM. It did however give me an opportunity to replace the T-Top/door sealing rubber at the same time! Just a word to the wise!
On other matters the 1980 Turbo was a 49 state car. Any registered in CA are due to people like me that had lived for years with the car out of CA and then were given the opportunity to bring the car in when we moved into CA. It is a provision in the DMV laws to not punish new residents for having bought a 49 state car. Also Pontiac redid the computer control system for 1981, getting a few more hp I believe, but also making the car a 50 state car. I am not up on the details so I do not know if 1981 control systems parts will work on a 1980 engine. In closing I note that it is a bit ironic the car was not sold in CA since the Pace Car SE were built in the Van Ness CA F-body plant, water based paint and all! Thousands built in a state they could not be registered in!
My first car was a 1981 Turbo Trans Am, i purchased it used in 1985 for the price of $6000.
I loved that car, even with it’s faults, it was simple an awesome car, fully loaded with T Tops.
I swear i washed that thing everyday!
That motor was already hammered when i bought it, i dont think it made it 6 months before giving up the ghost and blowing its heads after briefly overheating on the way to the beach one hot day in july of 1986.
An ex of mine bought newly the same car, except hers was an 80 with the 6.6l, she smoked me real good one nite while out cruising, it was embarrassing as my friends laughed as her tail lights faded in front of us.
The turbo did make my TA smoke, but not at the tires, it smoked at the tailpipes :)
She always wreaked of burnt oil, and i constantly was staring at the heat gauge, even after replacing the heads.
A few accidents later my Turbo Trans Am was laid to rest in 1987 and was replaced with a brandy new 88 formula 350, and lemme tell you, that car moved, and restored my love of the Bird
Long live the Turbo Trans Am, it had a short life but it was a pontiac
with a pontiac engine, Period!
I’ve got an ’80 Turbo: I’m no gear-head at all: What’s the biggest/strongest engine that the 1980 can accommodate?
I have owned my 1981 turbo for 27 years.Being 6 foot 3 the T-tops give me a little more headroom and 20 years ago I installed a pair of Recarro’s,giving me plenty of room,more secure feel and dropping about 40 pounds in weight.I also installed a second oil filter inline of the turbo for protection of the unit as well as installing a QTP cutout with electronic switch for added performance and a nice rumble(the turbo itself acts as a mild noise baffle).I still enjoy the drive and with the tops popped it continues to draw attention at the cruiseins.
i have had my 1980 pace car for about a year, still needs lots of work. cant wait to get it in the wind.
I also owned 80 Indy pace cars for almost 25 years, around 83 until I sold the last one around 2008. I was never going to sell, but now a quadriplegic with MS, I finally have to go. What killed the Turbo Trans Am was crappy gas in the 1980s caused horrendous drivability with the knock sensor pulling timing and the post carburetor, pre-Turbo fuel separation caused by massive vacuum. Fuel literally turns from vapor into fuel droplets and puddles at the bottom of the pendulum playing games with the mixture/detonation. But boy did I love how the Trans Am looked and drove until the computer canceled the party and turned the lights out. I bought what I called “miracle juice” by the case, one bottle octane boost for a tank full extended the party for a little while before the computer got involved. Despite not being able to build engines anymore, I’m constantly trying to backyard engineer solutions to the students understandable ignorance of the day. I would love to be able to put them into practice one day and feel the wind from the t–tops again, oh the memories
I recently came across information that the Pennsylvania State Police had 7-1980 turbo Trans Ams that they utilized as project 55 cars. If anyone would like additional information about these cars I would be happy to share it with you. Usually after a PSP vehicle service life is over the vehicle is auctioned to the public.
I am contemplating purchasing a 1980 turbo trans am now. I have owned three non turbo trans ams throughout the years but I found a great deal on a turbo one that is to good to pass up. Seems to run ok, if I buy it what should be the first thing I do with the motor to kind of bring it up to today’s technology
This isn’t a good forum to discuss engine modifications — I’m definitely not qualified to advise anyone about modifying their car.
I presently own a 1980 Turbo Trans Am. Though it is not a Pace car, it one one of the last 100 ‘Firebirds’ made that year and it came with the Rare option of the Turbo Light displays. I would love to know how many non-Pace cars got this option since the Pace cars got the option first and then if there were any left, then it went to a regular Turbo Trans Am.
It looks almost as good as it did in 1980 and I will never let it go.
I bought an ’81 Turbo T/A in the mid 90’s as a lark, because I wanted a T-Top car. Not in the best shape but mostly there. I’d previously owned a ’70 Formula 400 and a ’78 TA 6.6 so I’d had the stronger Firebirds. The ’81 was not the fastest but it was a comfortable and good driving car. Seemed like better handling than the others, maybe because of less weight up front. Interesting sound when opened up with the combo of the turbo whine and the four barrel induction roar. If I were to buy a 2nd gen Firebird to keep, I’d look for a Turbo for the novelty.
I have a 1981 turbo Trans Am black and gold. On my Trans Am I have that turbo gauges on hood of the car. How rare is it and do you have any idea how many were made. Thank you for any information about my Trans Am that you can give me, thanks again.
Where can I find the diagram for the cooling system for a 1981 Pontiac trans am 4.9L turbo trans am?
Probably in a shop manual or other repair manual. Depending on where you live, your public library may have a whole array of older repair manuals. (I once found that the public library here even had a period shop manual for the late-fifties four-speed Hydra-Matic!) Failing that, you could presumably buy one online, but the library would be my first stop.
I am restoring a 1981 trans am 4.9L turbo. Apparently they were not that fast of a car back then. I hope I did not invest in a bad engine, any ideas out there?
Well, in all honesty, very few cars from 1981 were fast by modern standards. The Turbo T/A was quick compared to most contemporary American cars, but not compared to some early or later examples.
I own 2 1981 Pontaic Trans Ams with the 301 engines, 4.9 liter turbo charger cars. I’m wanting to know what was the original color of this car? Was it gold? One of my cars is fully refurbished with the original parts. The other one I’m wanting to sell but I don’t know what it’s worth? I had the upholstery taken out because it was moldy smelling and had some rips and tears in it Otherwise it’s in original condition. Any suggestions please get back to me in this regards I’d appreciate your time. Sincerely, Maribeth
The Trans Am was offered in a variety of colors, so that’s not enough information to determine whether or not either car is the original color. You’d need to check the codes on the body plate to figure that out. It was *available* in gold, although I have no way of knowing just from this whether that was the original paint.
As for values, I’m afraid I’m not able to help with valuation — honestly, anyone with a recent price guide could tell you more than I could on that score.
Regarding the car with the interior issues, my question, were I a potential buyer, would be *why* the upholstery ended up smelling moldy, which might indicate some other problem like leaking door or window seals or worse. Of course, even if the interior is gutted and the windows or doors are leaking, if the car is in good mechanical condition, I suppose somebody might still want it as a parts car.
does any one know if there was a differance in the 403 engine whenit was a non turbo or did they just add a turbo to the same engine
As the article explains, the turbocharged engine used in the Firebird was the Pontiac 301, not the 403. The 403 was supplied by Oldsmobile and had almost nothing in common with the 301 besides having the same number of cylinders. I don’t know of any factory turbocharged versions of the 403.
These Trans Ams aren’t the height of acceleration, but I think they still look pretty good. It’s a pity that this turbo, the Buick turbo, and Ford’s Mustang turbo never went to fuel injection from the get-go. Then they all could have kicked a few earlier pony cars’ tails. It’s too bad that the big 3 were putting boat anchors into it’s cars in the early ’80s. Thin-walled, delicate, thirsty engines that had to be lugged along for the best fuel economy. 307s, 301s, 265s, 255s, 403s, 400s, heck even the 200/225/250 inline 6 engines got restrictive intakes and a massive downgrade in power through the 70s to the 80s. Just rip them out and replace them with something newer or older. I like a powerful 6 or 8, but none of these seem worth the trouble. Malaise era it was for power trains.
These cars were offered at a time when the US had some really bad gas. With the availability of good 93 octane, and good boost these cars run fine. The vrank and block upgrades are good for 5000rpm all day.
Just remember, if you want a race car go buy a trashed T/A and install a 455SD. If you want a really cool driver, these Turbo T/A’s have a lot of room for improvement without damaging the originality.
Many article have been written about the octane issues and the performance gains attributed to good gas. Other things like the 3.08:1 gear should be addressed. The 1980 Z28 used the exact same rear end but the auto cars came with a 3.42:1 while the 4 speeds came with the 3.73’s. Either will swap right in to the T/A. The Cat Conv must go. Much has also been written about the operating temp, and easy ways to reduce same. One very simple upgrade is a lower temp thermostat…and get rid of that ridiculous EGR. These are all simple things which can be done by just about anybody. I think Crane sells an upgrade cam for this specific engine which helps these things breath as well.
Many people decry these early 80’s and late 70’s cars as the dark era of performance. For those of us who spent many nights wrenching in garages during that period, a little time and a little R&D were all it took. Today, everything is done for us with the advent of FI, traction control, anti lock brakes.
The turbo T/A will most likely never outrun a Hellcat….but it will look very cool trying.
I must note that removing the emissions equipment doesn’t exactly qualify as a slight modification, and may also be a violation of federal law. The reason cars of this period are often considered losers in terms of outright performance is that automakers were still feeling their way with regard to effective emissions controls that didn’t impair performance and drivability.
Maybe you are being too kind. GM and I suppose the others would not spend the money to go to fuel injection on all motors. I managed a tuneup shop in the early 80’s and we did carb rebuilds when we could not get the engines to run decent on the lean mixtures. We had chassis dynos, scopes, and exhaust gas monitors and I can assure you it was a pain to get the Detroit iron to idle properly and not stumble.
I have a 1980 smokey n bandit , it had tbe 301 turbo however I replaced it with a 1972 455 H.O. bored and stroked with a roller cam 12.5 to 1 pistons 7f6 heads and a 4 speed , it sounds like a b29 bomber and it pulls like a beast , gotta love real pontiac torque monsters !
I had an 81 Formula Turbo WS-6 in metallic maroon which was pretty rare. Sharp looking car with a CB and wrap around louvers on the back window. Also had a factory audio amplifier with a switch on the dash. Stripped the clear-coat off the turbine wheels and spent hours on them with mothers polish and they looked awesome. Biggest problem with the engine was the huge amount of turbo lag. Once she spun up she would pull like a strong 350 but from a dead stop that didn’t happen until at least 25 mph. Installed a B&M trans-pack and learned how to preload the turbo by holding the brake and flooring it helped but most performance cars would shoot out in front and you couldn’t catch up. Handling was awesome with the WS6. Wish I still had it for sure.
I bought a 1981 Black Turbo Trans Am back in 2002 it had sat under a pine tree since 1987. I pressure washed it on the way home as I bought it for parts for my 79 firebird.. Realized it was a virgin car with the turbo wheels and 301CID engine…Every thing worked had the turbo redone and tune up and added Dura Lube for extra measure (fatal mistake) lol dura lube loosed every bolt on the engine oil started to leak on the exhaust manifold so I started running it with minimal oil till I could afford gaskets n well I seized the engine…its been in an auto cacoon since in my driveway…Cant get the drivers door open or the hood, lol its sat sooo long…I’m going for a full restore now and wanna find out if its a special edition? Never seen turbo wheels on these cars before its a kewl look all the numbers are original the only thing replace with after market was the starter I kept frying the cilinoid tried heat blankets everything…I used your vin information but there is no Y code? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOFd6Hlmpz8
I bought an 81 turbo ta in 87 when I was 19. went through two motors and a tranny in less than two years but boy was that car a cool cruiser down the sunset strip in Hollywood. Its been sitting in the garage since then and even though members of the family told me to get rid of it years ago I look forward to putting it back together someday (soon I keep telling myself) but there is more important places to put extra money. The block may be damadged due to the loss of oil pressure and overheating but the rods are still on the inside.
I had one in the early 80s and i swear i could walk faster than it would go!Sad sad Auto…
My BIL had a turbo TA,my wife had a 78 Ford Fairmont 302,that could blow the TA’sboors off.
I bought my black WS6 1981 Turbo Trans Am at Harmon Pontiac in San Bernardino CA in 1984.
Bought my 1981 NASCAR edition Trans Am and drove it out of the dealer lobby with my wife ans two children. Even at the grocery store people would take a look at the interior. Recaro seats, black and red interior, best looking by far even today. Handled great, if as stated under powered. (A friend owned a 73 455 Trans Am, and it smoked). Dream about that car every so often, sigh.
I had a 1980 Turbo TA Indy car and with a 455 HO. No engine problems and was a blast to drive. Did not have many problems being outrun. It still handled great with the heavier engine. The only problem was the gas tank was not large enough.
I used to love the way these cars looked. Unfortunately, they were slow off the line and slow to kick in. I had a 79 Z28 with a 4 speed slapstick automatic with a 3:73 rear and I used to be close to 75 before one of these would even be revving close to 55. They still looked nice, however. I always thought the 3:08 standard rear was a big mistake and made the car lumbar off the line, but that was the Trans Am in general after 76. I would imagine a good mechanic could have done a few things with the 4.9 litre but to me the small block 350 I had in my Z28 was the best engine to build on during that time period for the small blocks since the old 302 that they put in the old Z28s in 69 with the dual 4 barrels. And back then in the early 80s we had all that emissions and pollution stuff it was a wonder any car went sub 7 seconds.
I owned a 1980 Turbo TA. Loved the car. The handling was one of the best I ever drove. I called it “point it and punch it”. After you got used to the turbo lag, It was a fun car to drive. I would also from time to time put half av gas and half premium in the tank and the car would fly. Owned it for 9 years and was one of the most trouble free cars I owned. I did replace 4 turbos over the life of the car. Dealer wanted $1000 to do it. I bought a replacement turbo from air research for $160 and the gasket kit for $20 and replace it myself in 30 minutes. You only had to remove 7 bolts to get it off. It got totaled after 9 years sitting in front of a friends house I was visiting. A drunk idiot rear-ended it while it was parked. Sad ending to such a great car.
Do you have a URL for Air Research, I believe the Turbo in my 1980 is bad.
The company’s name was “Garrett AiResearch” (not Air Research, although it was obviously a play on that), and it’s now owned by Honeywell. The website for that is garrett.honeywell.com.
My 1980 Turbo Trans Am original engine finally gave up the ghost on 11/11/17. Now I am having a Much Improved LS1 4L60E Trans 2 1/2” Exhaust with 40 Series Flowmaster installed in it. Thanks to the experienced mechanic, I will get my car back…….and still be able to drive her around until the day I die. Yes, we are going to keep the original 301 engine to give to whomever buys or gets her after I am gone. I don’t regret NOT having the engine rebuilt. I wanted something I could rely on to drive cross country if I choose. My car. My decision.
I too had a black and red T top version of the screaming chicken, loved the thing added an extra spring to the waste gate built 14PSI with water and alcohol injection, didn’t have the “idiot light boost” indication but added a sweet S-W boost gauge, would run the speedo all the way back to near the 0 mph, handling was pretty decent for the time. ran 10w-40 oil and 3000 mile changes repaired the turbo once turbo shop said idling as I always allowed for cool down was likely the cause of bearing wear. replace cartridge and drove until the divorce lol… great memories driving with the t tops out. :)
I have a 1980 4.9l turbo t-a. I was wondering if anybody has a diagram and torques specs for the turbo unit.
I don’t have that kind of detailed technical information, but I would recommend seeing if you can find a 1980 shop manual or Pontiac service manual supplement.
How difficult is it to remove the Turbo off my 1980 TTA? I believe it needs to be fixed but do not know the difficulty in removing it so I can get it looked at. Do you know of any videos or diagrams on how to do this?
I’m not a mechanic, so I’m not at all qualified to tell you how to remove or rebuild a turbocharger. However, I would strongly recommend that if you’re not familiar with the procedures either, you seek out a mechanic to handle the removal rather than attempting to do it yourself. The turbocharger spins at very high speeds and has exhaust gas flowing through it, so the potential consequences of bunging something up in its installation are pretty high.
My Dad bought me a brand new 1981 Firebird w T-tops for my 15th bday (had gotten a hardship license) Such an awesome car for a 10th grader! But I put so many miles on it having fun… we traded it for a 1984 Z28 HO, and that car would REALLY go!! but after about a year it began overheating in Dallas traffic and was a pain to always pull over for it to cool off. They couldn’t seem to fix it. So then I got a 1986 Monte Carlo SS (traditional black -w red detailing) The SS ran VERY well no issues ever. I also had my T-tops stolen TWICE on my Z28! (once at the dealership and once at my apartment) I bought special locks that required a key to open them. The locks were very heavy steel and a pain to deal with, but no more thefts happened after that. I think I paid about $200 for them, insane for 1984 prices!
Near the beginning of the article, you state “While Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick each had distinct small-block and big-block V8 engine lines, Pontiac really had only one.” I find that a little misleading in the case of Oldsmobile, since its small and large displacement engines (of the new design, introduced in 1964) were basically the same, except for deck height and some internal details such as bearing, crank and rod dimensions. This is exactly the same case as the Mopar B vs RB engines, the Ford 351 vs 400 Clevelands, and the Ford 302 vs 351 Windsors. (And of course the same applies for what you relate later in the article concerning the Pontiac 303/301/265 vs the standard deck height Pontiac engines.)
Conversely, the Chevrolet small block and big block, like the Buick small block and big block, have completely different dimensions in every respect and no significant parts interchangeability.
I’m sure you know all this already, but I make this contribution as a humble suggestion, to further enhance the already excellent content you are providing in this and all your other articles.
That’s a good point. I revised that paragraph to read “While Chevrolet and Buick each …” which is a more accurate summation. Thanks!
Thank you for writing this. Yes, Olds and Pontiac used the same blocks for all their V8s. Olds had nothing like the Chevy Mark series aka Turbo Thrust, Turbo Jet (W-Series, I: 348, 409, Z11 427; IV: 396, 402, 427, 454) with increased bore spacing versus the Turbo Fire Chevy small block. The large displacement Olds early 400, 425, late 400 and 455 had taller deck heights to accommodate the longer stroke, yet retained the same bore spacing.
The Fireball V6 wasn’t available in the Olds 88 until 1977. By then, it had been sold and bought back.
The V6 was available on the H-body in 1976, but you’re right that it wasn’t added to B-body cars until 1977, with the downsizing. I corrected the text to read, “For 1977, Buick’s reborn 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc) V6, already available on the compact Pontiac Sunbird, replaced the 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) Chevrolet six as the base engine on larger models.”