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, 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. The year after that, Buick’s reborn 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc) V6 replaced the 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) Chevrolet six. 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
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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. 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