By the mid-1970s, the glory days of the original musclecar era were a thing of the past – skyrocketing gas prices, inflated insurance premiums, and government regulations had pulled a triple-whammy on enthusiasts. The result was a wildly different automotive landscape than that of just a few years prior, as evidenced by the fact that a four-speed Hemi Challenger could be had for a song in 1977.
While Ford was hawking its Pinto-based Mustang II and Chrysler had long since abandoned performance for Corinthian leather, Pontiac was among the few automakers that refused to go quietly into that good night, with the Trans Am SD455 still carrying the torch for Poncho performance as late as 1974.
Yet as the decade rolled on, nobody could deny that the walls had already closed in – even Pontiac. By 1975 the GTO model had been axed altogether, and with the SD455 variant no longer in the mix, the Trans Am had suddenly became Pontiac’s only performance focused model. Even though the non-Super Duty 455ci V8 lived on and sales remained strong (not surprising with the lack of competition, really), the Firebird was a shadow of its former self, offering a lot more show than it did go.
At first glance it would be easy to dismiss the Can Am is a sticker and wheel job- after all, by the mid 1970s most “performance” packages were, as government regulations and fuel economy standards had made it nearly impossible for automakers to deliver the kind of capability they’d offered just a few years prior. The Can Am was an earnest effort though, and in many ways served as the final A-Body GTO, offering a high-output motor, beefed up suspension, and a more aggressive look.
But being General Motors’ performance division and tasked with bringing exciting models into the fold, Pontiac soldiered on through the 1970s and continued to seek new ways to bring attention to the brand. So in 1977, Pontiac released a special, limited edition version of the Le Mans Sport Coupe that served as something of a spiritual successor to the GTO called the Can Am. Though it lacked the outright grunt of The Goat in its heyday, the Can Am’s extroverted style and big block power provided a port in the storm for muscle car enthusiasts during the pinnacle of the Malaise Era.
A GTO By Any Other Name
Introduced that the North American International Auto Show in January of 1977, the Can Am took the squared-off looks and luxury appointments of the Grand Prix, the performance-tuned chassis of the LeMans Sport Coupe and the style of the Trans Am and merged them together into one A-Body package.
By the late 70s the A-Body platform was a massive thing, and the Le Mans Sport Coupe weighed in at around two tons. Still, with 325 pound-feet of torque on tap, Pontiac's W72 400ci V8 could generate some haste for this hefty coupe. If it lacked anything in terms of performance, Pontiac sought to address those shortcomings with style, applying a tri-color accent striping package, a three-piece rear ducktail spoiler, a T/A hood scoop, side louvers, and other visual enhancements. Images: Mecum
Available exclusively in Cameo White with yellow, orange and red accent stripes running along the hood, doors, and rear deck, the Can Am’s visual performance credentials were further enhanced by louvered rear side windows, a three-piece ducktail rear spoiler, color-matched Rally II wheels, and a shaker hood scoop, the latter of which the Can Am team had borrowed from the Trans Am’s parts bin.
Most Can Am buyers scored Pontiac’s “W72” 400ci V8, a mill reasonably similar to the one that motivated the ’67 GTO. However, folks in California and other select markets where the W72 couldn’t meet emissions standards instead got Oldsmobile’s 403-cube V8, which made 185hp. Image: Mecum
But unlike so many of its contemporaries of the day, the Can Am wasn’t simply a sticker and wheel package. Though burdened with emissions equipment, underneath the hood lurked a “W72” 400 cubic-inch D-Port V8 that was not unlike the mills that Pontiac had installed between the frame rails of the GTO back in 1967, albeit with significantly lower compression here that relegated its output to 200 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque.
None the less it was Pontiac’s most potent hardware available in 1977, and was only shared with the top-spec Trans Am at the time. The three-speed Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission was the sole gearbox available with the Can Am.
To supplement the newfound power, Pontiac also added a number of other performance tweaks to balance out the package, including the company’s Radial Tuned Suspension package, which swapped in more aggressive springs and dampers along with stiffer sway bars. More grip was added by way of GR70-15 steel-belted radials while 11-inch disc brakes at the front of the car were standard equipment.
Although built from a Le Mans Sport Coupe, the Can Am's interior borrowed heavily from the Grand Prix, utilizing the same dashboard and console for a more upscale look. Images: Hemmings
Though the interior of the Can Am was largely based on the Le Mans Sport Coupe, Pontiac gussied it up some by installing the dash and center console layout from the Grand Prix into the Can Am models, and offered buyers a choice between black, red, white and tan upholstery color options.
In April of 1977, Pontiac proceeded with Can Am production with the intention of building 5,000 examples of the model. Since some of the modifications required special tooling, Le Mans Sport Coupes that were destined to become Can Am models were shipped to Motortown Corporation for the installation of the rear ducktail spoiler, hood scoop and stripe packages. Once complete, the cars were sent back to Pontiac and then shipped out to dealers.
Pontiac had a plan to produce 5,000 Can Ams in 1977, and they appeared to be on track to hit that target until a major snafu at Motortown brought production to a grinding halt after a mold for the rear spoiler was damaged beyond repair and the builder, for whatever reason, didn’t have a backup. This issue would lead to a small batch of Cameo White Le Mans Sport Coupes that were sent out to dealers mechanically outfitted as Can Ams but wore none of the visual upgrades.
At the height of the program Motortown was said to be churning out 30 to 40 Can Cam conversions on a daily basis. But after completing the 1,133rd build the company hit a serious snag when the tooling used to make the rear spoiler was damaged beyond repair. No backup piece existed to replace it, and production ground to a halt when Motortown learned it would take 90 days to replace the unit.
While the company weighed their options, Pontiac was still churning out white Le Mans Sport Coupes that had been tapped for Can Am conversion, which had begun to pile up in the company’s parking lot while frustration from customers, dealers, and company brass added tension to the situation. Not content to wait three months for a new spoiler mold and unwilling to agree to Motortown’s proposal that the spoilers be shipped to dealers at a later date for installation, Pontiac unceremoniously canceled the Cam Am program in mid-June of 1977 and told dealers to expect an influx of white LeMans Sport Coupes equipped with T/A engines and Grand Prix interior upgrades.
Though short lived, Pontiac’s attempt to breathe new life into an otherwise abysmal musclecar landscape of 1977 with the Can Am was an honorable endeavor.
Had the Motortown tooling snafu not taken place and production of the Can Am had proceeded as planned, it’s quite possible that the Can Am package and its W72 motor would have made the jump to the 1978 model year, which saw the Le Mans platform downsized considerably. This platform alteration shaved some 600-800 pounds off the curb weight of the Le Mans in the process, which would have potentially offered an even more potent Can Am package to performance buyers.
You have to wonder what might have become of the Can Am had the Motortown debacle never occurred and the model had continued on for the 1978 model year, when the A-Body platform was downsized substantially and lost nearly half a ton of weight. At 3200 pounds with 200hp and 325lb-ft, the Can Am could have potentially been one of the most potent performance offerings of the day. The idea was close enough to becoming a reality that Pontiac had actually given Motortown a 1978 Le Mans prototype to convert into a Can Am as a proof of concept, seen here. Images: Pontiacs Online
Interestingly, while the Can Am’s rarity has made these cars increasingly collectible over the years since, few records exist that indicate the whereabouts of the Cameo White Lemans Sport Coupes that were mechanically outfitted for Can Am conversion but never made it to Motortown. These cars were instead sent to dealers to be sold as Le Mans Sport Coupes outfitted with the T/A 400 motor – an engine which could not be optioned to a Le Mans Sport Coupe through official channels in 1977. That would make those examples far rarer than the Can Ams themselves, and likely even more sought-after for their place in Pontiac history.