One Fast Bird: Looking Back At Pontiac’s ’89 Turbo Trans Am AE

If you need any to know of a major milestone in Pontiac’s history, look no further than the ’89 Turbo Trans Am 20th Anniversary Edition (AE). From the outside, it looked no different than any other white GTA of similar vintage, but that was part of the 20th AE’s appeal. As much as a sleeper a bright white, body-cladded Trans Am can be, the “TTA” (as it’s referred to in automotive circles) was just that!

For Pontiac’s third attempt in creating an anniversary package, they felt they could kill two birds with one stone by building the ultimate Trans Am. Whereas the two previous anniversary editions (1979 and 1984, respectively) relied on the same power as the rest of the Trans Am lineup for their production years, the 20th Anniversary was something very special indeed.

What the 20th AE lacked in visual appeal compared to its standard counterpart, it more than made up for it in the power and performance department- with a factory underrated 250hp and 345 ft. lbs.

This was enough to propel the TTA to a 0-60 sprint of 4.6 seconds, and  the ¼-mile time clocked in 13.4 at 101mph, and had a reported top speed of 162mph, fast by even today’s standards! The little V6 Trans Am managed to match the performance of the coveted Super Duty 455 Firebirds of ’73-’74, and they could even run door handle-to door handle with the LS1 ‘Birds of their final generation! But this performance wasn’t cheap- a fully-optioned TTA rang in at just over $30k in 1989 money, almost $10k more than a similarly-equipped GTA.

Coincidentally enough, it was Buick that actually offered the engine (LC2) along with its 4-speed automatic transmission (2004R) to Pontiac at the end of Grand National production in 1987, in the event of Pontiac ever wanting to put the Turbo Trans Am back in production.

The TTA relied on the same engine that was found in the Turbo Buicks just a few years earlier. Image: Jim Chaudrue.

This was actually the Arrowhead Division’s second attempt at turbocharging the Firebird, as they tried this before with the production of their turbocharged, but underpowered 301 V8 in ’80 and ‘81.

After GM pulled the plug on Pontiac engine production, Firebirds were relegated to rely on the same engines as its sibling, the Camaro. So as much as some of us are bitter that Pontiac died and Buick got to stay, we sort of owe it to Buick for helping Pontiac build the amazing machine the TTA was in the first place!

But that’s not to say that Pontiac was lazy; dropping an LC2/2004R combo into 1,555 white GTAs and called it a day. Nope. What they had did was hire Performance Automotive Services (PAS) to pick white GTAs off of the Pontiac assembly line at random, and install the GN drivetrain- along with a bigger and more efficient intercooler, a new turbo, a stronger bottom end, and since the original LC2 heads wouldn’t clear the cowl of the F-body, Pontiac borrowed a set from its 3800 Series I, which powered the Bonneville at the time.

The original boost level of 12psi from the GN was cranked up to 16.5 as well. The result of these changes actually produced 303hp, but since it was still a no-no to have a car in the GM line-up that produced more horsepower than the Corvette, we were stuck with the conservative advertised numbers instead- which matched those of the Corvette.

As the old saying goes “the third time’s a charm,” and that definitely rang true for the third installment of what would become five chapters of Anniversary Edition Trans Ams. Pontiac had a very rare and very fast car on its hands. It was so well engineered for its time in fact; that when it was called upon to pace the 73rd Annual Indy 500 the only modifications that were needed to perform its duties were a set of strobe lights and safety equipment  -apart from its door decals, obviously. Never before had a production car done this without engine and/or other modifications.

The ’89 Turbo T/A would become the fastest American production car – and also one of the fastest production cars in the world in 1989. As a result, it would ultimately become one of the highest coveted American performance cars of the 1980s, and their rare numbers help ensure their collectivity.

Speaking of collectability, while all TTAs shared the same color scheme of a white exterior over Camel interior, the body styles themselves varied – along with the material used for the upholstery. The package was available in hardtop coupe, t-top coupe, and even two convertibles were made for public purchase, and while the vast majority of these cars had leather and t-tops, a handful made it out of the PAS factory doors with cloth interior as well.

Finding an ’89 TTA in mint condition today isn’t extremely difficult, as many of the people who have owned them over the years have taken exceptionally well care of them, although we have seen some in the past that were heavily raced, ragged out or totaled. Actually, it is also said that the car that comedian Sam Kinison was driving at the time of his death in 1992 was in fact an ’89 TTA. If you’re a collector and you own a TTA, look after it, because it will be quite a few bucks in the years to come.

About the author

Rick Seitz

Being into cars at a very early age, Rick has always preferred GM performance cars, and today's LS series engines just sealed the deal. When he's not busy running errands around town in his CTS-V, you can find him in the garage wrenching on his WS6 Trans Am, or at the local cruise spots in his Grand National.
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