1981 was the last year for the second-generation Firebird and thus also the last year for the second-generation Trans Am. With the third-generation cars on the way, Pontiac’s eleven-year-old F-car got only minor changes. The “screaming chicken” decal on the hood was now two colors, compared to the four color decal from 1979 and 1980. Not much could be done about the general lack of space efficiency (the EPA rated the Firebird as a subcompact car), the relatively high weight (about 3,300 pounds when the Mustang weighed about 2,800), and the fairly primitive technology.
The standard Trans Am powertrain was the L37 150 bhp 4.9 liter/301 cubic inch V8 with 4-barrel carburetor matched with an automatic. The only choice for Trans Am purchasers who wanted a manual transmission was the Chevrolet-built LG4 145 bhp 5.0 liter/305 cubic inch V8 with 4-barrel carburetor, but you did get a $147 credit.
The top engine was the $437 LU8 200 bhp 4.9 liter/301 cubic inch V8 with 4-barrel carburetor and turbocharger, which included a new hood-mounted boost gauge. A Turbo Trans Am would accelerate from 0-60 in a little over eight seconds. Fuel mileage was predictably bad—14 mpg by the standards of the day for the combination of the turbo engine and the automatic. With a 21-gallon fuel tank, Trans Am owners could expect to travel about 260 miles before refueling.
Standard exterior and mechanical equipment included in the $8,322 base price of the Trans Am (about $24,300 in today’s dollars) included black accent grille and headlamp bezels, dual rectangular headlamps, wheel opening air deflectors, side-split tailpipe extensions, shaker hood, power brakes, and P225/70R15 blackwall tires on Rally II wheels. Inside, power steering, air conditioning, console, bright engine-turned dash plate, and rally gauges with tachometer were standard.
The Trans Am Special Edition package cost $735 additional—$1,430 bundled with t-tops. There was also a special edition of the Special Edition—the NASCAR Daytona 500 Pace Car, resplendent in oyster white with a black and red interior. It included the LU8 turbocharged engine, the WS6 special performance package, four wheel power disc brakes, and limited slip differential. Inside, the most notable upgrade from other Trans Ams was Recaro seats—among the best available from any manufacturer in 1981. All this extra content was a good thing, because the NASCAR Daytona 500 Pace Car listed for $12,257; about $35,700 in 2017 dollars.
Options available for included WS6 special performance package, limited slip differential, tungsten quartz halogen headlamps, white-lettered tires, cast aluminum wheels, four wheel power disc brakes, power antenna, electric rear window defroster, and custom bucket seats.
Long neglected by the collector market and with most now used up, late second-generation Trans Ams in good or great shape are starting to get interesting numbers at auctions. A black and gold 1981 Trans Am went for $19,000 at Mecum’s May 2017 auction in Indianapolis. According to Hagerty’s valuation tools, all the money for a 1981 Trans Am in #1 condition is $38,200. A more normal #3 condition version is valued at $13,600.
Make mine the black and gold Special Edition, of course. The NASCAR Daytona 500 Pace Car is tempting, if only for those Recaro seats.