The Pontiac Firebird was one of the most iconic muscle cars of the late 1960s through the early 2000s, rivaling other famous models like the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro. The Firebird went through quite an evolution in its nearly 40-year history, with its engine’s capabilities changing and its body continuously getting reworked and improved. The vehicle didn’t just make an impact on muscle and pony car enthusiasts — it also entered the mainstream pop-culture world, appearing in multiple TV shows and movies.
In this guide, we’ll dive deep into Firebird history so you can learn more about the iconic muscle car’s development and get some of the most interesting facts about the pony car’s many years in production.
The Pontiac Firebird vs. Trans Am
The Pontiac Firebird and Pontiac Trans Am made a significant mark on the auto industry. Both vehicles were iconic, with a few Trans Ams even making it into movies and TV shows. To understand the mark both the Firebird and Trans Am had on the industry, you should know how they’re different.
What’s the Difference Between the Pontiac Firebird and the Trans Am?
Are the Firebird and Trans Am the same? The truthful answer is yes and no. While all Trans Ams are Pontiac Firebirds, not all Firebirds are Trans Ams. This is due to Trans Ams being a type of Pontiac Firebird started as a specialty package in 1969.
The Trans Am essentially took the Firebird’s performance to the next level. Compared to their Firebird counterparts, Trans Ams offered upgraded horsepower, handling and suspension. Through all four generations, you could purchase a Trans Am instead of the base Firebird if you wanted to take your performance to another level.
History of the Pontiac Firebird
The Pontiac Firebird lasted for four generations, with models in production from 1967 through 2002. General Motors designed the vehicle to be a pony car that could take on the Mercury Cougar and the Ford Mustang. The name came from previous concept cars and the General Motors Firebird prototype cars from the 1950s. These Pontiac Firebirds would go on to be some of the most iconic muscle cars to ever hit the market.
First Generation of Firebirds
The first generation of Firebirds was relatively short-lived, lasting from 1967 to 1969, but this generation made a mark, setting up many more generations.
The first Pontiac Firebird models came in either two-door coupe or two-door convertible options. Though firebirds were built on the Chevrolet Camaro’s platform, they were constructed using entirely different parts, helping to separate the new Firebirds from the Camaro. Unlike the Camaros, the Firebirds featured body-integrated front bumpers and different engines.
These first Firebirds came with a 3.8 L6 engine that offered 220 horsepower. Buyers who wanted to get more performances out of their new car could purchase a Firebird with an upgraded 6.6-liter V8 engine that packed 340 horsepower.
Buyers who chose the L6 engine could also expect to hit a top speed of 114 mph and go 0-60 in just over 10 seconds. Additionally, the engine featured 240 lb.-ft. of torque. Selecting the L6 version of the Firebird also meant you also got 4-speed manual gearbox with Safe-T-Track – Pontiac’s version of posi-traction – as optional equipment.
With the V8 version, buyers received a 3-speed automatic instead of a manual transmission with the same optional equipment offering. Alongside its impressive horsepower, it also featured 430 lb.-ft. of torque. This generation of the Firebird also saw the arrival of the Firebird Trans Am in 1969.
The inaugural Firebird Trans Am released in 1969 got off to a slow start. It was offered as a Trans Am Performance and Appearance Package and cost $725. It had very little media hype around it and no advertising. The name for the car was inspired by the Trans American racing series to allude to the car’s performance.
The base engine that came with the Trans Am was a 400-cid V-8 engine that had a brake horsepower of 335. Other performance advantages Trans Ams gave buyers included a one-inch front stabilizer bar, a heavy-duty suspension system, variable-ratio power steering and seven-inch-wide rims featuring Polyglas F70xl4s.
The 1969 Trans Ams came with a unique look as well. They all were painted Polar White and had blue racing stripes across the top of the vehicle’s hood and trunk. The cars also had a 60-inch airfoil across the rear deck. The rear-facing hood scoops were made out of fiberglass and were constructed to help vent the car’s engine bay. Finally, the car had functional air inlets included that were controllable by the driver, who could open or close them.
Though the initial Trans Am didn’t come out to much fanfare, it became one of the most popular options for drivers looking for a high-performing Firebird.
Second Generation of Firebirds
Following this first round of Firebirds, the second generation of the vehicle hit the scene in 1970 and ran until 1978. The new generation of Pontiac Firebirds brought with them a new look for the vehicle.
One major appearance change was the front of the Firebird getting two stylish air intakes added to it. Additionally, the Firebird switched from four circular headlights to two large headlights, which changed the look of the car’s front significantly. Convertible lovers were in for a harsh reality during this generation, as a convertible model didn’t carry over from the fourth generation.
This generation gave Firebird buyers even more options that enhanced performance. The 1970 model saw four different engines and three transmissions. Notably, you could get a four or five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic, making the car suitable for different types of drivers.
The second generation gave users only an average amount of power, but Pontiac quickly put out a stronger 6.6-liter Ram Air IV motor. In 1971, buyers had access to a 7.5-liter engine. Though it looked like the sky was the limit for the Firebird’s power, the car got hit with new regulations and high fuel prices, diminishing its power potential.
By 1974, the Pontiac’s weight had increased significantly due to new five mph bumper requirements and other safety features. The change to unleaded fuel at the time caused a reduction in compression ratios which dramatically decreased the car’s power output. Regulations relating to limiting carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon also made it so ignition timing took longer, and cams weren’t as aggressive.
By the end of the generation, the Pontiac Firebird’s top power had gone down significantly. The most powerful V8 engine you could get only put out 200 horsepower, a far cry from the early Ram Air engines. One notable featured that came later in the generation was a Firebird decal that gave the car an extra flair.
The Trans Ams of this period saw a decrease in power as well. They started with a 6.6L V8 engine and progressed to a 7.5 L V8 engine, but by the end of their run were down to their top engine being a 4.9 L Pontiac turbo V8. Compared to the standard Firebirds of the period, the Trans Am boasted a much-improved suspension system.
Third Generation of Firebirds
The third generation of Firebirds would be a strong one, with new model years releasing from 1982 to 1992. While the past generation had been hampered by changing regulations and a need to add new features, the third generation of Firebird was better prepared to handle the new regulations on their industry.
Instead of staying with the heavy design of the Firebird from the past generation, Pontiac constructed the car in a new form that featured a more aerodynamic design. This design was built for efficiency, with a much lighter weight and much easier handling. The company dropped hundreds of pounds off of the previous generation and made the car much smaller. With the loss of weight, they crafted a wedge-like appearance for the car’s body.
The vehicle was a 3-door hatchback coupe that offered four different engine choices at the beginning, making it more customizable to the desires of the buyer. These engine options ranged in their ability, with 90 to 238 horsepower options available, depending on the engine. The final 1982 model arrived with a four or five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.
Pontiac employees also developed a new chassis that made the vehicle more aerodynamic, working on the car’s development in a wind tunnel to ensure they could achieve the aerodynamic design they wanted. This creation process resulted in windshields that sloped at 62 degrees.
The car also saw a change to the headlights, as they now were hidden underneath panels. Near the end of the generation, the 1991 Firebird came with a convertible option, bringing back a favorite feature of some.
The Trans Am of this period came with a new appearance meant to give it a more high-tech look. To make their high-tech appearance really work, designers used a matte gray finish on its unique features, like the dual mirrors, turbo wheel covers, grilles, door handles, functional air exhaust and a wing. Like past Trans Ams, this version of the Firebird also offered a boost to power and handling.
Fourth Generation of Firebirds
The fourth generation of Firebirds ran from 1993 to 2002 and was the last generation to hit the market. Advances in motor technology gave Pontiac the ability to put some high-powered options back into the Firebird, calling back to the first and second generation of the car. Though the power called back to earlier generations, the 1993 Firebird was made out of a majority of new parts.
One of the most notable engines from this generation was the LS1 V8, which got up to 325 horsepower. Even besides the more specialized performance-oriented LS1 V8 engine, standard models received a 3.8 L V6 engine from 1996 onwards. This strong engine gave the base Firebird 200 horsepower. Alongside the power options, the Firebird also received anti-lock brakes and airbags to improve the safety of the vehicle.
In 2002, the car went out with a bang, as they released a Firebird Trans Am that featured a WS6 option. With this option added, the 5.7 liter V8 made it so the car could go a quarter of a mile in just over 13 seconds. The 325 horsepower of this final Trans Am made for a powerful car. This Trans Am was also a 35th-anniversary version of the Firebird, featuring yellow paint, custom graphics and black wheels.
The End of an Era
Even though the final generation of Firebirds got back to their high-powered and high-speed roots, they suffered from a decline in the sports coupe market and a loss in sales. Though the car was still popular with a small audience, GM set aside little funding for the development of new Pontiacs for years and finally ceased production in 2002.
Though the cars are no longer in production, restoration enthusiasts still love to keep the cars on the road, keeping the classic vehicles alive long after they’ve stopped being manufactured. There are tons of aftermarket parts available to assist Firebird owners with restoring their older cars. You can also find plenty of parts and systems that can help you customize the Firebird to your vision.
Fun Facts About the Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am
If you enjoy learning about the history of the Firebird, then you’ll love knowing some of the main facts about the car. Next time you go to a trivia night, you’ll be ready to handle any question about the Firebird by checking out some of the little known facts about the Firebird below:
1. The Trans Am Starred in “Smokey and the Bandit”
A modified Trans Am co-starred with Burt Reynolds in the 1977 movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” making it a cultural touchstone. The Trans Am used in the film was primarily a 1976 model, but it also had its front end replaced by a 1977 model. The movie generated a lot of attention for the car, with Pontiac seeing a significant increase in sales.
2. The Trans Am Also Starred in Other Movies and TV Shows
After starring in Smokey and the Bandit, casting agents recognized the Trans Am’s acting chops. It went on to be featured in the 1979 film “Rocky II,” the 1984 film “Alphabet City,” and continued its roll in the “Smokey and the Bandit” cinematic universe, appearing in “Smokey and the Bandit II” and “Smokey and the Bandit III.” More recently, viewers of the hit TV show, “The Office,” could see the fictional character Dwight Schrute driving around in his 1987 Trans Am in multiple episodes.
3. It Served as the Pace Car for the 1980 Indianapolis 500
The pace car for the 1980 Indianapolis 500 was a 1980 Turbo Trans Am. It was driven by Johnnie Parsons, a retired racer. It’s one of only four Pontiacs to serve as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500.
4. The Pontiac Firebird Was Created by John DeLorean
Most famous for the car he made with his name, John DeLorean originally worked as a Pontiac engineer. At the time, GM management wanted a car to compete with the Mustang and Camaro, leading them to task DeLorean with the responsibility of coming up with the design.
5. The Car Never Reached 400 Horsepower
Even though the vehicle was built to compete with the Chevrolet Camaro, it never reached the power of the rival car. While multiple Camaros have gone over 400 horsepower, the Firebird only ever topped out at 335 horsepower. This lack of high horsepower was likely due to the Firebird’s focus on handling.
6. The Screaming Chicken Decal Arrived in 1973
One of the most famous parts of the Firebird’s design was its decal that got nicknamed the “Screaming Chicken.” Though the decal’s design was created in 1970, it stayed in the shadows until 1973 when a Pontiac designer saw the logo and demanded it be placed on the car. After 1973, it became a very popular feature on the car.
7. It’s Known for Its Exceptional Handling
The Camaro had the edge over the Trans Am in terms of speed, but the Firebird made up ground by providing greater handling. The car’s big tires, large sway bars and low suspension assisted with the car’s handling and made it seriously fun to drive.
8. Most Popular Model Was the 1978 Firebird
The 1978 Firebird was so popular the year it released, that it sold more than any other Firebird ever. It’s no doubt the release of the “Smokey and the Bandit” movie in 1997 helped increase the car’s appeal. This model maintained its staying power, with many buyers interested in it years after its release.
9. The Most Popular Year for the Trans Ams Was 1979
The end of the 1970s was the best for the Firebirds and Trans Am sales. The popular 1978 model was out, and the Trans Am feature in movies and films caused buyers to take an increased interest in the car. This led to 1979 having the highest sales for all Firebirds and specifically for Trans Ams. That year, Trans Am Sales reached 117,109, and total Firebird sales reached 211,454.
10. Least Popular Year for Firebirds Was 1993
While 1978 and 1979 were high points, the car’s sales began to decline, reaching the lowest point in 1993. In that year, only 14,112 Pontiac Firebirds, Formulas and Trans Ams were sold.
11. The First Airbag Came in 1990
It wasn’t until 1990 that a Firebird got an airbag. During an interior design change to the 1990 Trans Am, Pontiac decided to replace the radio control previously featured on the steering wheel with an airbag.
12. The 1969 Firebird Had the Highest Horsepower
One of the earliest Firebirds was also the most powerful. The 1969 Firebird had a WS4 performance package that buyers could add to their car to get a Ram Air IV V8 engine. With this engine installed, it delivered 345 horsepower, higher than any other Firebird that came after it.
13. The Weakest Firebird Was the 1985 4-Cylinder Model
There were a few Firebirds that simply didn’t deliver serious power, with the 1985 4-cylinder model standing out the most. It’s LQ9 2.5L engine only gave drivers 88 horsepower to work with.
14. The First Trans Am Featured a Blue and White Paint Job
If you’re trying to restore an original Trans Am, you can increase its authenticity by outfitting it with its original paint job. The first Trans Am’s body was covered in white paint, and it featured some blue stripes across it.
15. They Didn’t Always Have Pontiac Engines
The Pontiac Firebird didn’t just use Pontiac engines. A few years after the car’s production began, the Firebird started to branch out with the type of engines they used to increase their speed and power. The company began by using Chevy engines but switched over to Oldsmobile and Buick engines in 1976.
Shop Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am Restoration Parts
If you own a Pontiac Firebird or Trans Am, you can find parts for your car at Raybuck Auto Body Parts. We’re car people just like you, and we’re proud to provide all of our customers with high-quality parts at low prices. If you’re trying to restore your classic car, we have your back, as we offer Firebird and Trans Am parts fitting 1967 through 1989 models.