Ask any gearhead and they’ll tell you: the 1980s was the worst decade for the American musclecar. That was amid the EPA’s smog regulations (the same EPA that is now trying to stop us from modifying our cars) that further enforced the notion that we needed fewer vehicle emissions out of the tailpipes. So they started putting tighter restrictions on the manufacturers, and we saw musclecars that had 300-400+ horsepower just a few years earlier dwindle down to 150-200 horsepower.
If you think that number is pretty lame for a musclecar, you’re right. When we saw a car that should have been a brute churn out 185 horsepower – to the rear wheels, mind you – we were dying for places like the old Super Shops Performance Stores to provide us with some go fast goodies to make these cars respectable again.
But the engineers at Pontiac had an idea to help revive the beloved Trans Am, because it, too, was suffering from increased emissions standards and the resultant wimpy horsepower. That’s about the time that beautiful bird that graced the hood of the Trans Am became known as the “thunder chicken” because it looked like it could make a lot of noise – but all it did was run away scared.
The brainstorming at Pontiac created the Turbo Trans Am for 1980-1981. It was a 4.9L turbocharged Firebird Trans Am with the iconic shaker hood now formed into the steel hood, and set off-center to the driver’s side. The “fire bird” was now breathing fire right up the raised part of the hood and when it hit showrooms it was a thing of beauty.
But there was just one problem. Turbochargers were relatively new to production vehicles, and it was introduced as the only turbocharged v8 available in a production car. It was not the best design, it was a flow through turbo that sat on top of the intake manifold. It was a bit premature for the industry, and although the Buick Grand National a few years later was a true powerhouse (for a V6 even), the Turbo Trans Am was not even close, with a wimpy 210 horsepower coming from the 301 cubic inch mill.
But, that was what we had to deal with and like it or not, we still drove our cars. Of course, the blaring graphics on the Trans Am were a true standout, and you have to admit that the car did look pretty damn good. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Smokey and the Bandit series gave the Trans Am a little booster, with the turbo version starring with Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit II. Follow along with Mike Musto and the 1981 Turbo Trans Am in the video above, a.k.a., the Thunder Chicken, and enjoy the introduction in the video below.