It may not be as appreciated as the GTO or the Camaro, but the Firebird is no less interesting than the aforementioned vehicles. The Firebird started as one of two GM weapons to take on Ford’s popular Mustang, but it went on to become a long-lasting sport coupe for thirty-five years.
Pontiac in the 1960s was an exciting company to be in. It was General Motors’ performance division and had launched the muscle car boom with the GTO, a Tempest equipped with a tough motor, a strong Hurst shifter, and stripped of unnecessary weight. A rather sleazy PR effort by Pontiac’s chief, John DeLorean, that involved a fake comparison test with a Ferrari in the pages of Car and Driver only helped GTOs storm out showroom doors and into people’s garages. (The Pontiac was secretly equipped with a bigger engine and the Ferrari never showed up. Decades later, Car and Driver did have a real shootout with the Ferrari easily prevailing.)
DeLorean was an ambitious man and looked to develop an exotic two-seat sports car. This effort was canned when Pontiac’s parent company wanted a four-passenger coupe priced and equipped to take on the Mustang. The platform was to be shared between Chevrolet and Pontiac. The first result would be the 1967 Camaro, which debuted in September 1966. Pontiac’s product, called the Firebird, would debut five months later.
The Camaro earned a good reception, though sales figures failed to compare with the 1967 Mustang’s. Ford had already had plenty of time to fine-tune its steel stallion in advance of the Camaro introduction. The Firebird came late to the show with a mid-year debut.
To help distinguish the Firebird from its Chevy sibling, Pontiac offered six engine options in three different sizes: 3.8 L, 5.3 L, and a 6.6 L. The 3.8 L I-6 “Sprint” motor came with a single- or four-barrel carburetor. The 5.3 L V-8 had a two- or four-barrel option. The 6.6 L V-8 was borrowed from the GTO. A $600 “Ram Air” option with a hotter cam, better valve springs, and special hood scoops was offered, but with no higher output rating (officially).
The Firebird was made available with a regular coupe or an optional ragtop body style. The Firebird’s advantages over the Camaro included stronger shock absorption, superior rear springs, and better engine placement. Reviews, however, were not favorable. The driving characteristics were different from the more traditional Camaro, and the Pontiac was seen as little more than a re-styled clone with inferior road manners.
Pontiac upped the ante, making more drastic power train changes for 1968. The 3.8 and 5.3 L engines were dropped in favor of the larger 4.1 and 5.7 L motors. The top-of-the-line 6.6 L V-8 was uprated in power, and included low- and high-output versions, in addition to the Ram Air package. (The later Ram Air II package came in as a mid-year replacement.)
1969 saw major cosmetic changes. A new interior was made and the Firebird saw a restyled Lexan front-end. A steering gear-shift interlock, variable-ratio power-steering, and single-piston-caliper disc brakes were brought in as options. The biggest option was the Ram Air IV engine option, which was offered with the Firebird’s latest trim level.
Pontiac had built a reputation of using race-related names and terms for its vehicles, from the Bonneville to the Grand Prix. The Trans-Am name was licensed for the highest Firebird trim. The Trans-Am came with the high-output 6.6 L V-8, a three-speed manual tranny, and performance-tuned steering. It came in white, with blue race stripes and a rear spoiler. (In addition to the Ram Air IV package, a four-speed manual and Turbo Hydramatic transmissions were offered.) Just six hundred and ninety-seven Trans-Ams were built in 1969. (Of those, only eight were convertibles.)
The Firebird’s introduction was unimpressive. Sales were a fraction of the Mustang’s. Over eighty-two thousand were built in 1967. That number jumped to one hundred and seven thousand the next year. 1969 saw sales drop to just eighty-seven thousand, despite an extended production year. The Firebird’s weaknesses had to do with a late premiere and a higher price tag than the Camaro. The Firebird’s layout, while almost identical, was tweaked to focus on European-style motoring with American power. The result was an odd dichotomy that did not mix well.
The Firebird’s highlights would come in the 1970s. Its restyle for 1970 was well-received. New, bigger engines were offered and power reached its peak. The Trans-Am would be the last of the classic muscle cars. While the era ended in 1972, Pontiac maintained a de-tuned (but still buff) 7.5 L “Super Duty” V-8 into 1974. The Trans-Am continued to be popular with slick looks and great publicity in the movie Smokey and the Bandit. In the end, the Firebird became an icon of the dead-end Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½70s, a time when Chevelles, GTOs, Chargers, and Barracudas were dying, and the muscle car became an unwanted dinosaur.