Fire­bird em­bod­ied all that was cool and quick in early 1970s

The Daily Courier - - FRONT PAGE - By MAL­COLM GUNN

It quite lit­er­ally had the for­mula. In the early 1970s, the ab­so­lute peak of all-out au­to­mo­tive mus­cle and at­ti­tude, the Pon­tiac Fire­bird rep­re­sented not only what was fast, but was also cool and hip.

The car was a foamy broth of per­for­mance and pas­sion, a heady mix­ture that kept it clearly in the sights of the bulging, baby-boom­ing youth mar­ket, plus any­one else who doted on driv­ing a car that was sev­eral cuts above hum-drum.

In an un­for­tu­nate twist, though, one of the hottest-look­ing ma­chines on the planet nearly fiz­zled on the launch pad.

Buy­ers wait­ing to catch a glimpse of the all-new Fire­bird for 1970 were forced to wait well past the tra­di­tional au­tumn in­tro­duc­tion win­dow. In fact, it wasn’t un­til sev­eral months later, an eter­nity in the car busi­ness, when the cur­tains fi­nally parted, the GM pub­lic­ity mill got up a head of steam and prospec­tive buy­ers could fi­nally drink their fill.

Why the de­lay? These days, midyear new-car in­tro­duc­tions are com­mon­place, but 40 years ago, it was prac­ti­cally un­heard of for a do­mes­tic man­u­fac­turer to miss a fall un­veil­ing.

GM was em­broiled in a lengthy strike with its union­ized work­ers and was forced to push back the re­lease of its star pony­car at­trac­tions, the Pon­tiac Fire­bird and closec­ousin Chevro­let Ca­maro.

When the Fire­bird fi­nally did ar­rive, the sounds of jaw­bones smack­ing the as­phalt could be heard through­out the land. What Pon­tiac had wrought was noth­ing less than sen­sa­tional. The car shared no re­sem­blance to the pre­vi­ous 1967-69 ’birds, but had that clean and mean look of a real racer. Even the base mod­els, priced be­low the $3,000 thresh­old, looked every bit as glam­orous de­spite hid­ing a 250-cu­bic-inch six-cylin­der en­gine that could do no bet­ter than 155 horse­power.

For any­one who didn’t want to play pre­tender, the new Fire­bird had three V8 op­tions: a 255-HP 350-cube V8 for the mid-grade Es­prit; a 400cube en­gine for the more sport­ing For­mula (iden­ti­fied by two large scoops jut­ting from its hood); and the King-Kong-sized 455-cu­bic-inch V8, com­plete with shaker hood scoop, fit­ted to the Trans Am model. The lat­ter was as close to an all-out per­for­mance ma­chine as you could find in any Pon­tiac, with up to 370 horse­power on tap and a slick-shift­ing Hurst han­dle to help get you where you wanted to go. Trans Ams were also fit­ted with front and rear spoil­ers while the side rain gut­ters, stan- dard on nearly every car back then, were shaved from the bod­ies, more in the in­ter­ests of style than prac­ti­cal­ity.

De­spite the late start to the model year, Pon­tiac man­aged to find homes for nearly 50,000 new Fire­birds, in­clud­ing about 3,200 Trans Ams, the buy­ers of which were able to come up with the $4,500 en­try fee.

Un­like its com­peti­tors, the Fire­bird (as well as the Ca­maro) were only avail­able in a one-coupe-fits-all ver­sion. The de­ci­sion not to drop the top prob­a­bly cost GM some sales, but the de­sign re­ally didn’t lend it­self to a fold­ing top and the cor­po­ra­tion wisely left well enough alone.

Brute strength con­tin­ued to be the or­der of the day, but stricter emis­sions reg­u­la­tions and the move to lead-free ga­so­line meant de­tun­ing the Trans Am pow­er­plant to a more se­date 335 horse­power in 1971. To com­pen­sate, Pon­tiac of­fered a giant Fire­bird de­cal across the hood. It wasn’t for ev­ery­one, but plenty of buy­ers who wanted to an­nounce to the world their spe­cific brand of au­to­mo­bile in a none-too-sub­tle way sprung for the low-cost op­tion.

By mid-decade, the Fire­bird’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hip and quick trans­porta­tion de­vice was re­in­forced through prod­uct place­ments on TV and in the movies. On The Rock­ford Files, James Gar­ner’s pri­vate eye char­ac­ter tooled around in a tan-coloured Es­prit while Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields costarred in a cou­ple of Smokey and the Ban­dit films, shar­ing top billing with a black T-roofed Trans Am.

Noth­ing could stop Burt and Sally in that car. But the Fire­bird’s wings were be­ing clipped with each pass­ing year. The 455 mon­ster mo­tor breathed its last af­ter 1976, but the much tamed 400cu­bic-inch en­gine re­mained on the or­der books, as did the hood scoop with the en­gine dis­place­ment (strangely, in met­ric liters typed across the side).

To­ward the end of its run, there was by then lit­tle left of the per­for­mance at­ti­tude that once struck fear into the hearts of stop­light chal­lengers ev­ery­where. Still, these sporty coupes at least looked the part, a fact that kept sales pointed on an up­ward path.

GM re­placed the Fire­bird and Ca­maro with all-new ver­sions in 1982, bring­ing an end to what had been the glory days for both makes. The third­gen­er­a­tion Fire­bird be­came more of a Ca­maro clone than ever, and, with­out a high-horse­power big-block op­tion, would never be the same.


The Fire­bird Trans Am TA 6.6 touted its en­gine size (400 cu­bic inches) in litres, per­haps to dis­tract buy­ers from the fact the that 455-cube en­gine was no longer avail­able.

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