Pontiac Trans Am – the Meanest bird in the Flock

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Formula Esprit advertisement in Motor Trend (January, 1973)
Photo: SenseiAlan, Flickr

The most ferocious offering of Pontiac Firebird range has cemented itself in pop culture as an icon of masculinity. It was too powerful to compete in the race series it was named after. The car, sporting a burning, screaming bird hood ornament, has been driven by generations of macho men on and off the big screen.

Trans Am name was used to brand the fastest version of Pontiac Firebirds. The name first appeared in 1969, when General Motors upgraded their Firebird to compete in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Trans American cup. Unfortunately, the car’s engine displacement was too big to compete in any class of Trans Am, all of the Trans Am’s V8s were over SCCA’s 5.0-liter limit. While the car never competed, the name remained – GM settled on a deal to pay $5 for each Trans Am sold to SCCA.

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Sales of the first generation Trans Am did not really take off. With just around 700 cars sold, the name only became widely recognized when the second generation cars were launched in 1970. Not only had the car come with an updated 7.5-liter V8 (while the old 6.6 and 4.9-liter motors were offered), but it was also the first car to have the iconic bird hood ornament. Second generation Trans Am produced up to 370 bhp and had an upgraded suspension, brakes and exterior compared to the standard Firebird.

Pontiac designer Bill Porter first got an idea of transforming the signature firebird to cover majority of the hood, encompassing the odd looking scoop in 1970. But when he eventually proposed it, the GM’s VP of design, Bill Mitchell dismissed it, he thought it looked like the car “has an Indian blanket on the hood”. John Schinella, who replaced Porter, was convinced the bird has to be a success. He tweaked the design, put it on a hood of a Firebird and drove to town. After getting positive feedback from the public, he improved the design, using Lotus racecar black and gold theme and pitched the idea to his bosses once more. This time round, the design was approved and made it into production.

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