1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

Soul Survivor

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.

Firebird pages of the 1981 Pontiac brochure, linked for the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochures pages.

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.

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1989 Pontiac 20th Anniversary Turbo Firebird Trans Am

For the fourth of July, here’s some eighties American iron.

“The Only Modification It Needed To Pace The Indy 500 Was A Decal.”

For 1989, there was big news in the Pontiac camp with the release of the 20th Anniversary Turbo Firebird Trans Am, which was essentially a Trans AM GTA coupe with a special engine option and some specific trim elements.

Rated at 250 bhp but actually making about 300 bhp, the LC2 3.8 liter sequential fuel injected turbocharged and intercooled V6 was teamed with the 200-4R four speed automatic transmission. Mileage was 16 city/24 highway by the standards of the day (15/22 by today’s standards) and nobody cared. What they did care about was the acceleration—Car & Driver managed to achieve a 4.6 second 0-60 time (Pontiac had claimed 5.5 seconds) and a top speed of 153 mph. At least in power, the third generation Trans Am had come a long way from 1982

For $31,198 (about $59,900 in 2014 dollars) 20th Anniversary Turbo Firebird Trans Am buyers got all the Trans Am GTA exterior and mechanical equipment which included four wheel disc brakes, fog lamps, special performance suspension, a rear limited slip axle, and 245/50-VR16 tires mounted on gold 16 x 8 diamond-spoke aluminum wheels. Turbo Trans Am-specific additions included larger brake rotors and softer front springs. The only color available was white with Turbo Trans Am emblems on the fenders and 20th emblems on the nose and rear pillars.

1989 Pontiac Firebird brochure cover, courtesy of Flickr user Alden Jewell.
1989 Pontiac Firebird brochure cover, courtesy of Flickr user Alden Jewell.

Inside, standard GTA equipment included power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, power antenna, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, rear window defroster, and remote deck release. Turbo Trans Am owners also got a turbo-boost gauge inside the tachometer face.

Pontiac built a total of 1,550 Turbo Trans Ams for sale (there were another 5 test cars), with 85% of them being t-tops with a leather interior (buyers could order a cloth interior and/or the hardtop, but few did).

Unlike many other eighties cars, Turbo Trans Ams hold their value just fine. According to Hagerty’s valuation tools, all the money for a 1989 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Am in #1 condition is an astounding $47,700. A more “normal” #3 condition example is valued at $20,700. Turbo Trans Ams often come up for sale in the Hemmings Motor News classifieds. As I write this in July 2014, there’s one with 835 miles advertised for $31,500.

1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

I recently revisited this very early post, modifying it enough to classify it as brand new.

“From sabre-like nose to rakish tale the Trans Am is a brilliant orchestration of aerodynamic function.”

It is hard now to remember how new and wildly aerodynamic the 1982 Firebird Trans Am looked when it debuted. It suddenly made every other American car (and more than a few European ones) look like they were standing still.

The Trans Am didn’t just look aerodynamic, either: the drag coefficient of .323 is still respectable even in 2013. Pontiac’s choice of pop-up headlights (over the Camaro’s open headlights) and careful airflow tuning yielded an impressive result.

Unfortunately, the mechanicals did not come close to backing up the looks. The top of the line engine for the Trans Am was the LU9 “Crossfire” throttle-body injected 5.0 liter/305 cubic inch V8, with 165 bhp—and that was only available with a three-speed automatic transmission, yielding about a nine second zero to sixty time (Motor Trend managed to do it in 8.89 seconds). If you wanted the four-speed manual transmission, the best engine choice available on the Trans Am was the base LG4 V8 with 145 bhp—and approximately ten seconds from 0 to 60 mph.

These performance issues did not, however, prevent Pontiac from implying the world in their commercials.

Standard exterior and mechanical equipment on the $9,658 Trans Am (about $25,500 in today’s dollars) included power brakes (front disc/rear drum), hidden electronically-controlled halogen headlamps, dual sport mirrors, an all-glass rear hatch, a rear decklid spoiler, and 205/70R14 steel-belted radial tires (still an easily available size) on turbo cast aluminum wheels. Inside, reclining front bucket seats and side window defoggers were included.

Options included special performance package ($387 bought you the special handling package, four-wheel disc brakes, and 215/65R15 blackwall tires on 15 x 7 aluminum wheels), power windows ($165), power door locks ($106), tilt steering wheel ($95), and air conditioning ($675).

Third-generation Firebirds have a strong following, and 1982 Trans Ams make regular appearances in the Hemming’s Motor News classifieds. As I write this in November 2013, there’s an LU9-equipped car with 28,000 miles for sale for $15,000. According to Hagerty’s valuation tools, all the money for a 1982 Trans Am in #1 condition is $12,600.

Please make mine Black, but I think I’d hold out for the 1983 and its 5-speed manual transmission/190 bhp L69 HO engine combination.