First hatched in 1967, the Firebird soared through a legendary evolution of four generations, over 35-years in production. And despite concentric origins and a shared model year debut with its F-body Chevy Camaro cousin, the Firebird became a very special and unique machine.
Adopting the mantra of the upscale Pony car, Firebirds featured more aggressive styling, a lower stance, and driver-oriented cockpits. With top birds brandishing a 400 cid Ram Air-induced V8 to start, the power was definitely there, but Pontiac’s pony was soon renown for it’s stiffer suspension pieces and superior handling.
For 1969, Pontiac paid the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) for its road race name “Trans Am” designating the apex predator of the Firebird line. Only 697 first year T/As were made – eight of which were convertibles – sparking the beginning of a long and fabled reign.
For 1970-1981, the 2nd Gen Firebird appeared, depicting a more streamlined European sports car look. Firebirds, especially in V8 guise, now became the premiere pony cars and were definitely the measure on the street.
Even with the golden age of the muscle/pony car at an end, the 2nd Gen Firebird’s unquestionable style and appeal continued to carry the torch for Pontiac. The Trans Am’s iconic role in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit” forever made it the automotive symbol of 1970’s America. There was even turbo Trans am in 1980 and 1981, with a 4.9 liter V8 putting out a paltry 210 horsepower from 301 cubic inches.
For the ‘80s, the 3rd-Gen Firebird presented a new aero-wedge shape and a more user-friendly rear hatch compartment. The Trans Am’s popular image continued, this time on the small screen in the TV series “Knight Rider” and although power was non-existent, handling prowess was improved.
By the mid ‘80s, with the advent of electronic fuel-injection (EFI), the Firebird slowly enjoyed a resurgence of horsepower, and by 1987 the GTA T/A could be had with the Corvette’s 5.7L 350 cid engine.
For 1989, Pontiac upped the performance ante by ditching two cylinders and built 1,550 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Ams. Utilizing the Buick Grand National’s 3.8L forced-induction V6 paired with WS6/1LE suspension and brakes, Turbo T/As became legends in their day.
As if saving the best for last, the 4th and final generation Firebird, was the total package of it’s own iconic history. Comprising two tantalizing versions, from 1993-’97 and 1998-’02, the final birds lacked for nothing in the way of performance and depicted a slippery shape that left jaws agape.
Vette power was standard fare in V8 birds with the C4’s 5.7L/350 cid LT1 equipping ’93-’97 Formula/T/As and the C5’s Gen III all aluminum 5.7L/346 cid LS1 under the revised hoods of ’98-’02 cars. Horsepower and torque ratings ranged from 275hp/335lb-ft in ‘93 to 325hp/350lb-ft by ’02.
Pontiac used the last of the breed birds to revive legendary performance options like WS6 suspension and Ram Air induction – combining them into one omnipotent package and unleashed three special editions: the 1994 25th Anniversary, 1999 30th Anniversary and the 2002 Collector Edition T/A (CETA).
Final year performance stats, had an automatic-equipped WS6 CETA sprinting to 60mph in a feather over 5-seconds and flying through the trap in 13.4-seconds at 105mph … bone stock.
Firebirds also went racing in SCCA Showroom Stock class, with late 3rd-Gen and 4th-Gen birds utilizing 1LE race-ready components to great success; heavily-modified versions of the WS6 Ram Air T/A served an eleven-year tenure for the International Race Of Champions (IROC) from 1996 until its end in 2006.
Few cars have garnered as much attention during their production run as the Firebird has since it’s untimely demise. That being said, fifty years after the first flight of Pontiac’s famed phoenix, it’s legend lives on, not because of fake Camaro-based tribute cars, but because they truly were cars built for “excitement as fuel for the soul”.
Happy 50th Birthday Firebird, you are surely missed.