Ask anyone to shout out the first thing that enters their mind about the late-1970s Pontiac Trans Am, and they will likely answer “Smokey and the Bandit.” While the Pontiac ponycar’s use in the wildly successful Burt Reynolds/Hal Needham movie franchise cemented its iconic status in the public imagination, the Trans Am was my dream car long before the popular movie’s 1977 release.
What’s not to love? The Firebird and its various models, including the Esprit, Formula, and Trans Am, held the line as high-style, high-content cars with a strong performance identity during the turbulent 1970s. I loved how most of the auto industry struggled to meet fuel economy, emissions, and safety legislation, yet Pontiac’s engineering wizards somehow managed to make the second-generation F-Body Firebird not only keep pace but stand proudly as the fastest American car alongside Chevrolet’s Corvette. While the Firebird was indeed available with a thrifty six-cylinder engine, the performance-oriented Formula and top-echelon Trans Am were available with several versions of Pontiac’s 400- and 455-cid V-8 engines, with the 400 and Oldsmobile 403 V-8 making their final appearances in 1979. The WS-6 performance option, available from 1978 through 1981, added performance-tuned underpinnings and 4-wheel disc brakes for outstanding handling and stopping power – ideal for these true driver’s cars.
As a kid, I was captivated by the Pontiac’s magical combination of performance and image – just like millions more throughout North America. Sales were brisk, thanks to high-profile movie and TV placements, including the gold mid-’70s Firebird piloted by James Garner every week on “The Rockford Files.” Friends and I could only wonder as to what engine was under the hood of that car, which was the perfect match for Mr. Garner’s stylish and highly likable TV character.
During my grade school and high school years, I dreamed of owning a Firebird of my own. My opportunity came in May 1984, when I had accumulated enough money to buy a 1979 Trans Am. Not just any Trans Am, mind you – a 10th Anniversary Special Edition Trans Am. It had been used pretty hard by the owner’s son until the keys were quickly revoked and the car was parked. It had a few door dings, but I saw the potential. Or drank the Kool-Aid, as some close to me thought at the time. Anyway, I had to have it. Years of pent-up desire and saving left me no choice. I was hooked.
Thoughts of grateful friends and swooning young ladies swirled in my head as I handed the money to the seller and dutifully made my way to the local license office to get my new plates for the car. All after leaving class and before 5:00 pm! The car had an Olds 403 and automatic transmission, and I planned some choice tweaks to unlock a bit more power. However, the engine’s strong torque output and Safe-T-Track limited-slip rear end were surprisingly adept at breaking the nearly-bald original-style Goodyear Polyglas radial tires loose with a little prodding. Attention naysayers: 185 Net horsepower + limited slip + youthful silliness was a perfect algorithm for squealing tires and plenty of high-speed fun. That power rating sounds punky now, but during the emissions- and economy-crazy mid-1980s, I was at the wheel of a pretty fast and quick road machine.
I loved that car. From its relative rarity (about 8,000 10th Anniversary cars built) to its special silver-and-charcoal paint finish, multi-color pinstripes, huge hood decal, and silver leather interior with matching deep-pile carpeting, it was my dream machine. Every power option available was standard on this ‘bird. Just the GM/Delco 40-channel CB radio was optional. I was intent on keeping my car factory-stock in homage to GM and Pontiac. I even left the factory AM/FM 8-Track stereo system alone. Friends and relatives sympathized with my madness, giving me several cases of 8-Track tapes for the car, featuring plenty of the finest works from Boston, Journey, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Supertramp, and even a few surprisingly good K-Tel compilations of late 1970s and early 1980s hits. Carole King’s Platinum-selling Tapestry and Boney M’s Nightflight to Venus – complete with the infectious disco hit Rasputin – were unlikely and very guilty pleasures.
Many good things come to an end, however. For me, it was university and a brand new and wickedly quick Ford Mustang LX 5.0 hatchback. Something had to give, and I sold my beloved Trans Am to a young couple who were also afflicted with Trans Am fever and had an insurance settlement in hand to replace their wrecked 1978 black-and-gold Special Edition car. I never forgot my Trans Am and while I was considered not very cool during my ownership of it, I had many happy times in that car and fond memories of it remain today. Happily, during the 2017 Festival celebrations in downtown Auburn, I spied this very nice 1979 10th Anniversary Trans Am on a side street near the epicenter of the celebrations. I dragged my ever-patient and supportive wife and three teenage kids over to the car, which was far nicer than mine ever was, clearly benefiting from some 15 years of single-owner care and enjoyment.
What was your first “special” car? Comment here and tell us about it!