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Pontiac Trans Am buying guide, history and review

Words: Matthew Hayward

If you never tire of hearing the phrase ‘Eastbound and down, 10-4 good buddy’, then you should buy a black-and-gold Pontiac Trans Am. Even today it will make every Smokey & the Bandit fan point and giggle. But if that Burt Reynolds link bothers you, there are plenty of other Firebirds out there. Maybe go subtle, with a Jim Rockford-spec gold ‘Esprit’…

When the first Firebird was launched in late 1967, it shared a platform with the Camaro and went toe-to- toe with the ‘pony car’ Mustang. It was a huge success but a relatively short-lived one, the second-generation model arriving in 1970. Pontiac wanted a sports car but GM, worried about cannibalising Corvette sales, forced a compromise based on GM’s F-Body platform. But it was still lower and sleeker than its predecessor, with clear European influences. Pontiac tweaked the chassis to give it a handling edge over the competition, too. Engines ranged from the base model’s 150bhp straight-six to the 340bhp Trans Am at the top, with a highly tuned Ram Air engine available to special order. The Esprit offered a little luxury, and the Formula 400 was a ‘Trans Am-lite’.

That now-iconic Firebird bonnet decal didn’t appear until 1973, as an option known colloquially as the ‘screaming chicken’. That year also brought in more colours, a minor restyle and an improved chassis set-up, designed to make the most of the new radial tyres. It also represented the beginning of the uphill struggle against strict Federal regulations. This not only saw the introduction of 5mph impact bumpers and other strengthening required for crash testing in 1974, adding weight and ugliness, but also power- sapping emissions-reducing equipment.

For its 50th birthday in 1976, Pontiac launched the black-and-gold Trans Am Anniversary – now with optional T-top. Four rectangular headlights replaced round ones a year later. Interest in the Firebird, already high, skyrocketed in 1978 and ’79 thanks to that movie, even though the 6.6-litre V8 was producing just 220bhp by then. A 4.9-litre, 210bhp turbocharged unit replaced it in 1980.

Pontiac Firefird Tans-Am

You could write a book on the different engines, special editions and option codes – and several have done just that – so it’s worth doing plenty of research before you start looking at cars. Some of the rarest early special editions carry big price tags in the US and can change hands for upwards of $100,000. This end of the market is governed by small production runs and enthusiastic collectors, but if you set your sights on the regular models you could get an absolutely stunning example for $25,000-35,000. There are some sweet spots in the range but there’s a world of choice, whether you go for the purity of an early car or lean towards a Reynolds-spec Trans Am.

If you can stomach the fuel bills, a ’70s Firebird has to be good value. The many TV and film appearances ensured instant fame, but they don’t have to define your Firebird experience if you don’t want them to. They look cool, they drive surprisingly well and you’ll never tire of that V8 rumble. Best of all, they’re exotic machines in a UK context yet parts and specialist support are in good supply.

What to pay?

There are Firebirds in the UK already but far more choice in the US. You’ll struggle to find a six-cylinder base model, but these and other non-Trans Ams can be quite cheap. Expect any sub-$15,000 Firebird to need work, but good usable cars start around $20k. Decent Trans Ams start nearer $30,000, $45,000 buying a brilliant example.

The Special Edition (as used in the film), earlier Limited Edition Anniversary and later WS6 models carry a hefty premium, but early cars with Ram Air engines are the most desirable. With the right options they can top $100k.

Pontiac Trans Am Common problems

• Rust is an issue, especially in a UK-domiciled car. Pay close attention to the rear chassis rails, spring mounts, floorpan and the windscreen base. T-top cars with leaky panels are usually worse.

• Interiors don’t wear well and the plastic suffers from UV damage.

• Matching numbers matter for more valuable cars. And always ensure that a Special Edition isn’t just a regular Firebird with gold detailing.

Pontiac Firebird Tans-Am 'Bandit' edition

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