Rare Rides: The 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Convertible

Rare (adjective)

  1. Not occurring very often.
  2. Unusually good or remarkable
  3. A thing not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value

Oxford Dictionary

You’ve met them before in car fanatic circles. The guy who is eager to tell you that his late model Camaro is rare because his particular option selections makes the car one of one. Or the guy with the LC-body Challenger who insists on the scarcity of his car because it’s painted in a limited-edition Heritage Color. And the Bullitt Mustang owner who knows exactly how few Highland Green ponies were produced in his year’s production run.

I am usually attentive and polite to those kind of folks, because I realize that their readiness to share this information usually comes from a good place: the enthusiasm they have for their particular vehicle.

‘But here at Rare Rides, we don’t play those kind of reindeer games.

We are concerned solely with truly unique cars that were manufactured in such small numbers that they now fetch hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in the collector market. Cars like the 1971 Plymouth Hemi GTX, of which only 30 were built. Or the 37 copies of the ’68 Mercury Cougar 428 Cobra Jet GT-E that left the factory. Or the three 1969 Hurst/Olds convertibles that ever rolled on pavement.

For this month, I thought we’d have a look at the scarcest GM F-Body car ever produced, one which you may not even know existed. It’s a car that certainly fits right in with the previously mentioned unicorns in terms of its low production volume and holy grail status today.

So without further ado, I’m pleased to present you this month’s rare ride: the 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am convertible.

The 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Convertible. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

The Ford Mustang, released in 1964 as a 1964 ½ model, had not only astonished the automotive world by attracting over 600,000 new owners in its first full year and a half of sales, but had also created an entirely new segment of the car market in the process – the pony car.

The car that started it all – the 1964 ½ Ford Mustang. (Photo courtesy of duPont Registry.)

Defined by a front engine/rear wheel drive configuration, a long hood and short deck, and a wide array of available drivetrains, options, and colors, the pony car enabled an entirely new generation of upwardly mobile, young people to have a stylish and sporty car that was within their means. With such a recipe, it’s almost inconceivable that Ford initially considered the Mustang a risky project.

GM had hoped that their existing Corvair would be a viable challenger to the Mustang. However, the Corvair’s rear engine placement, infamous swing axle rear suspension, and aging styling were no match for the new Ford.

As such, General Motors launched a program to develop a bespoke pony car. A brand-new body was developed, partially based on the compact GM X platform.

A clay design model of the Chevrolet “Panther.” (Photo courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center.)

Given the moniker F-body, by 1965 rumors began flying in the automotive press of the project’s existence, and its internal codename, “Panther.”

As General Motors’ leading performance brand, Chevrolet was initially given the task of developing Panther. By 1966, Chevy held a press conference in Detroit in which the launch date was revealed: the Chevrolet “Camaro” would begin prowling the streets of America in the fall of 1966.

Aware that Ford was producing an upscale version of the Mustang to be called the Cougar through their Mercury line, and of Chrysler’s plan to release twin pony cars in the form of the E-body Barracuda and Challenger, General Motors execs gave Pontiac the task of developing their own version of the Camaro based on the F-body.

Time was of the essence, as they wanted the car to be released within six months of the Camaro, which had already been in development for over a year.

Legendary Pontiac executive, and spiritual father of the Firebird, John DeLorean. (Photo courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center.)

Overseen by legendary Pontiac executive John DeLorean, the firm relied largely on the talents of chief designers, Jack Humbert and William L. Porter, to create their car in double time.

Pontiac and Chevrolet were constrained to share an upper design from the beltline up to contain costs, so attention was focused on the below-the-belt features that would delineate the cars from one another.

Porter went with a curvaceous, rounded look, that contrasted with the more angular design that Chevy design chief Henry ‘Hank” Haga was pursuing with the Camaro.

One of many design studies for the Firebird. (Photo courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center.)

The car, dubbed the Firebird, a name recycled from a series of General Motors turbine-powered prototypes from the 1950s, was revealed to the public on February 23, 1967, some five months after the Camaro.

And a thing of beauty it was.

A thing of beauty – the 1967 Pontiac Firebird. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Available in two-door hardtop and convertible versions, the car featured Coke bottle styling, but unlike the Camaro, had a more streamlined and future-forward look. The front bumper was integrated into the car’s face, and mild sculpting in the rear quarter panels complete with faux vents distinguished it from the Camaro’s more straightforward shape.

The Firebird’s taillights evoked those of the contemporary GTO. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Quad headlights were inset into a chrome-surrounded grille, offering a distinct “bird of prey” feel to the car’s face. In back, twin slit taillights on each side were similar to those on the contemporary GTO. All in all, an exceptionally integrated exterior design, perhaps even marginally better than the simpler Camaro.

Unlike the Chevy, whose trim levels were essentially option packages added to a base car, Firebird trims, known as the “magnificent five” in Firebird brochures and literature, were separate models keyed to their engines.

A vintage advertisement heralding the arrival of the “magnificent five.” (Image courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center.)

There was the base model with a 230 cubic-inch SOHC one-barrel inline-six rated at 165 horsepower, and the Sprint model, which added a four-barrel to the I6, resulting in 215 horsepower.

The “326” model unsurprisingly came with a 326 cubic-inch two-barrel producing 250 ponies, and the four-barrel, High Output (HO) version produced 285 hp.

The 400 cubic-inch V8 in the 1967 Firebird 400. (Photo courtesy of Ideal Classic Cars.)

Topping the range was the Firebird 400, whose 400 cubic-inch lump with a Rochester Quadra-Jet carburetor pushed 325 horses. A “Ram Air” option did not increase horsepower, but saw it peak at 5200 rpm. Performance with the hot setup was excellent, propelling the Firebird 400 to sixty in 5.8 seconds, and tripping the quarter in 14.4 at 100 mph.

Transmission options included Powerglide and Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 slushboxes, Warner and Saginaw three-speeds, and 4-Speed Muncie or Saginaws for those who wanted to row their own gears. A wide variety of rear axle ratios were available and depended on engine and transmission choices.

The front suspension consisted of coil springs, hydraulic shocks and an anti-roll bar, while out back, semi-elliptic mono leaf springs, hydraulic shocks and two radius rods completed the proceedings.

As was customary at the time, non-power, hydraulic drum brakes were standard on all four corners, and measured 9.5-inches. Buyers could opt for power-assist drum or 11-inch, four-piston front disc brakes.

The 400s were equipped with 14 x 6-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, or Rally I or Rally II wheels, shod with Firestone E70-14 Wide-Oval redline tires.

Inside, the Firebird’s interior was slightly plusher than that of the Camaro, with standard front buckets and woodgrain inserts on the dash.

The Firebird’s interior was a step up from the Camaro’s. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)All Firebirds were available with a wide spectrum of options including such niceties as power steering, limited-slip rear differential, custom interior, air conditioning, hood-mounted tach, cruise control, center console, expanded instrumentation and an 8-track tape stereo. For an upcharge, a Firebird could be painted in any color via special-order.

Sales of the ’67 Firebird were good at over 82,500, although they lagged behind the Camaro’s 220,906, and were demolished by the refreshened ’67 Mustang’s 472,121.

1968 was largely a carryover year for the Firebird, with exterior aesthetic changes limited to the elimination of the front side vent widows (as was the case for the Camaro too), a black grille surround in lieu of chrome, wraparound turn signals, the addition of federally-mandated side marker lights, and minor logo changes.

Changes to the ’68 were subtle. (Photo courtesy of Vanguard Motor Sales.)

Engine changes consisted of the 230 being bumped up to 250 cubic inches of displacement, and the 326 being replaced by the Pontiac 350, which produced 265 horsepower with a two-barrel, and 320 in the High Output version. A new Ram Air package, dubbed Ram Air II, was offered for the 400. A Muncie M21 was added to the transmission roster, and differentials and suspension received small upgrades.

The following model year saw a significantly transformed ‘bird, though.

The ’69 Firebird. (Photo courtesy of Art & Speed.)

In order to keep up with a constantly evolving Mustang, the 1969 Firebird received a total reskin which made the car longer, wider, and heavier. Beginning up front, the grille was extensively redone, with a center dual-kidney design. The headlights were still four in number, but were now moved outboard of the grille surround. Front-mounted, rectangular turn signals replaced the previous wraparound design, and the hood was completely re-sculpted.

The flanks received new details too, with a crisp, horizontal body line extending from the car’s front end and extending to the rear of the car. The ’67 and ‘68s twin, non-functional rear fender vents were relocated to the front fenders behind the wheel arches.

At the rear, the center-mounted gas cover was relocated and replaced with Pontiac logos. The taillights remained twin strips on each side, but now the top one was narrower than the bottom.

Inside, the steering wheel and instrument panel were revised, and the ignition switch was relocated from the dashboard to the steering column.

The new top dog for ’69 – the Trans Am. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

The big news for ’69 though was the addition of a new, top trim level that would become an icon of the automotive universe: the Trans Am.

Released in March of ’69 at the Chicago Auto Show, the WS4 Trans Am Performance and Appearance Package, as it was officially known, added a host of equipment to the Firebird 400 at a cost of around $1000.

The T/A’s rear. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Available only in Cameo Ivory paint with Tyrol Blue dual stripes on the hood and rear deck, the Trans Am’s exterior equipment included a hood featuring dual, low-profile scoops, a 60-inch-wide rear spoiler atop the trunk, functional engine air extractors behind the front wheel arches, a front spoiler and blacked out grille openings. Blue Trans Am decals adorned the front fenders and rear spoiler.

A well optioned Trans Am interior. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

The interior was standard Firebird, with the exception of bucket seats wrapped in Morrokide upholstery and a unique steering wheel. A Custom Interior option added woodgrain inlays, knit vinyl seat covers, a passenger grip, and armrests.

Under the hood, the standard engine was the L74 400 cubic-inch Ram Air III version of the regular 400 V8. With a 10.75:1 compression ratio, a Quadrajet-style four-barrel carb, a hot camshaft, and cast iron manifolds, it produced a vastly underrated 335 horsepower.

The standard Ram Air III motor. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

For those who wanted more go, the Ram Air IV package that included an aluminum intake manifold, an even hotter cam, a cast-iron heat crossover, and beefed up internals was available and added 10 ponies to the mix.

Transmitting power was a standard three-speed manual, with a Muncie four-speed and a three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic optional.

The Y96 Ride and Handling Package offered high-density control arm bushings, a 1-inch diameter anti-sway bar up front, rear semi-elliptic multi-leaf springs and staggered hydraulic shocks.

A 10-bolt, Safe-T-Track limited-slip differential containing a 3.55:1 ratio, single-piston power front disc brakes and 14 x 7-inch wheels shod with F70-14 tires completed the package. Rally II wheels and wire wheel covers were available.

One of eight. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Owing to its late model year availability and high price, only 689 Trans Am hardtops were sold in 1969.

While that would normally be considered an extremely small total, it pales in comparison to the number of 1969 Trans Am convertibles that were produced.

Rare air. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Only eight, yes EIGHT, Trans Am ragtops left the factory that year.

Available with a power or manual top in either white or blue vinyl, the convertibles were all built at the Norwood, Ohio assembly plant near Cincinnati. Of the eight cars, four left the factory with automatics, and four with the do-it-yourself option.

Tail of the bird. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

The convertible top was not a cheap option and pushed the price of a well-equipped Trans Am to the $4000 mark, which was quite a bit of money in 1969. This would account for the lack of interest from the public at the time, and why 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams now fetch in excess of $1,000,000 at auction.

In fact, at the 2016 Mecum Auction in Kissimmee, a ’69 T/A convertible failed to sell at a high bid of $1.9 million.

Serious money for a serious Rare Ride.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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