Pontiac’s Firebird: Talking Cars, Screaming Chickens, and Bandits

Enthusiasts and journalists describe plenty of cars as being iconic. Machines described in such elevated terms are typically well known, instantly recognizable, and beloved by, at the very least, a core group of fans. American car companies produced plenty of genuinely iconic muscle and pony cars in the 1960s and ‘70s—the Mustang, Camaro, GTO, Road Runner, and ’Cuda, for example. And sitting among the big names in this list is the Pontiac Firebird.

Bird Watcher’s Beware

Introduced in 1967, the Firebird was Pontiac’s response to Ford’s fast-selling Mustang of 1964. It featured Pontiac’s signature “Coke bottle” styling (i.e., lower fenders in front that led to higher, prominent fender in back) of that era and “slit” rear tail lights like those found on the Pontiac GTO. Offered in coupe or convertible form, the Firebird could be ordered with engines ranging from an economical 165-hp 230 cubic-inch (3.8-liter) inline six to a roaring 345-hp 400 cubic-inch (6.6-liter) V8. The latter was essentially a bored-out version of the 389 V8 from the 1964 GTO that launched the muscle car movement. In 1969, the Firebird became available with a Trans-Am performance package (named after the SCCA racing series). Pontiac sold less than 1,000 first-gen Firebird Trans-Ams. However, the trim line would rise to far greater recognition later.

Pontiac’s pony muscle car played second fiddle in the eyes of some enthusiasts to Chevrolet’s Camaro, which used the same F-Body General Motors platform. While it had a following of buyers who liked its sporty styling and more upscale appointments, the Mustang and Camaro handily outperformed the first-generation Firebird of 1967-1969. Pontiac sold 277,388 first-gen Firebirds, while Chevy sold 842,731 first-gen Camaros, and Ford sold 1,089,349 Mustangs in that same time frame. The Firebird’s fortune, however, would change with its second generation.

Dwindling Popularity

Launched in 1970, the second-gen Firebird had Ferrari 250 GTO-inspired styling. The swooping-bodied Firebird could be had with engines ranging from the same 231 cubic-inch V6 found in the first-generation cars, to a 335-hp 455 cubic-inch V8 starting with the Firebird Trans Am in 1971. It got the large Firebird hood decal (lovingly known by enthusiasts as the “Screaming Chicken”) in 1973. But as emissions regulations became progressively strict as the 1970s progressed, the Firebird’s performance suffered.

By 1974, the highest-output 455 V8 was only producing 290 horsepower. There was likely much speculation in the car community that the muscle and pony car heyday of the 1960s and 1970s was coming to an end due to the decrease in vehicle performance. Chrysler and Plymouth stopped making its 426 Hemi engine after 1971, the Pontiac GTO went away after 1974, and virtually all other muscle and pony car makers were either canceling their sport coupe lines or giving those cars less powerful engines. The excitement about muscle cars seemed destined for the metaphorical scrap heap. That was until 1977.

Nothing a Little Hollywood Can’t Fix

The film Smokey and the Bandit—the story of Bo “Bandit” Darville, starred by Burt Reynolds and his pal Cledus “Snowman” Snow, played by country music star Jerry Reed, in a quest to bootleg beer from west of the Mississippi back to Georgia while evading the police—was the second highest grossing film of 1977. Only the original Star Wars sold more tickets. A 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am—which was prominent enough to be considered a co-star—was Reynolds’s hero car in the movie.

Due to the popularity of that film, Pontiac saw a massive increase in Trans Am sales. In 1976, Pontiac sold 46,701 Trans Ams. But in 1977, 1978, and 1979—after the film was released—the company sold 68,745, 93,341 and 117,109 models respectively. This success was enough to increase Firebird sales greatly, compared to the Camaro. By the end of the second generation in 1981, Pontiac had sold over 1.1 million Firebirds. And from 1970-1981, Chevrolet sold over 1.9 million Camaros. These strong sales figures showed that clearly there was still a demand for American sport coupes.

New Gen, New Look

The third-generation Firebird debuted in 1982 and had a significantly different look from the previous cars. It featured a trimmer body that was a mix of curves and squared-off edges. Gone were the big-block 455 V8s of the past. Engines available ranged from a gas-sipping, but woefully under-powered, 90-hp 151 cubic-inch (2.5-liter) inline four-cylinder to a 165-hp 305 cubic-inch (5.0-liter) Small Block Chevy V8. Later, in 1986 a 225-hp 350 cubic-inch (5.7-liter) Small Block Chevy was added to this lineup. There was also a limited-run 1989 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo that featured the 250-hp 231 cubic-inch (2.8-liter) turbocharged V6 from Buick’s respected Grand National.

Despite relatively low power numbers, the Firebird was still quick thanks to dropping some 500lbs of curb weight. Also of note, an all-black 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that was known as KITT (for Knight Industries Two Thousand) was prominently featured in the 1982-1986 TV series Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff. That tricked-out car featured all sorts of gadgets and exposed the Firebird to a wider audience, much as Smokey and the Bandit had in the 1970s.

The End of an Era

In 1993, the fourth and final generation of Firebird debuted, looking like a more aerodynamic version of the third-gen cars. Engine choices were limited to a 160-hp 207 cubic-inch (3.8-liter) V6 and a 275 to 305-hp 350 cubic-inch V8 from 1993-1997. As well as a 200-hp 232 (3.8-liter) V6 and 305 to 325-hp 346 cubic-inch (5.7-liter) V8 from 1998-2002.

In 1997, a super short production run (only 29 were built) of Pontiac Firebird SLP/LT4 Firehawks were produced. These special machines featured 330-hp V8s from the Chevrolet Corvette. Other Firebird Firehawks were produced in larger numbers during the final generations of Pontiac’s muscle pony machines. From 1996 to 2006, the International Race of Champions series used Firebird Trans Am bodies from this generation of cars. Those race cars, however, actually outlasted Firebird production by four years. At the end of 2002, the Firebird ceased production due to low numbers and parent company General Motors cutting costs.

15 Minutes of Fame

Today, many could claim that the current Chevy Camaro is the Firebird’s spiritual successor. And that is valid when you consider that the Camaro and Firebird shared the same underlying architecture for as long as both models were produced. Yes, the Camaro remained in production and outsold the Firebird for practically every year both machines were manufactured. But it’s unfair to call Chevrolet’s modern muscle pony car the Firebird’s replacement. Instead, the Firebird has its own special place in time and history. It was a dream you could buy from Smokey and the Bandit. It was a machine you longed to have roll up and, in KITT’s voice, ask if you want to drive.

The Camaro may be the bigger success. But the Firebird bridged the gap between the fantasy and excitement, allowing drivers to experience some of the same thrills they saw on screen. Well, except for the crime-fighting talking car. For now, that is.

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