How DKM harnessed the power to build a Macho Trans Am

1978 Pontiac Macho Trans Am front 3/4

The muscle car era was all but a memory by the mid-1970s. EPA regulations on exhaust emissions, along with the OPEC fuel embargoes and soaring insurance rates, brought these former heroes of the streets to their knees as quickly as Hercules when Delia sheared his locks.

The Ford Mustang rode on a Pinto chassis and the Mopars were now underpowered, lumbering cars with nothing more than gaudy graphics that hinted of the once-golden years of American Muscle. Chevrolet still had the Corvette and Camaro, but even the Z/28 was dropped after 1974, and these cars—once kings of the horsepower wars—were just anemic versions of their former selves.

One car trudged on, trying to fly the flag of the glory days of muscular presence on the showroom floor. The Pontiac Trans Am was the lone survivor of the muscle car era. While the venerable T/A was also weakened from the blows of factory emission controls, unleaded gasoline, and 5-mph bumpers, the torquey Pontiac 400 and 455 V-8s were still alive. Sure, the days of a Pontiac V-8 with 375 horsepower and 500-lb.-ft. of torque were but a memory, but Pontiac V-8s were still rated at 200 hp with 330-lb.-ft. of torque in 1976—enough oomph to still feel the power in the seat of your pants. If you lived in the days when the Big Three fought it out on Woodward Avenue, however, that was not enough. Brothers Dennis and Kyle Mecham definitely felt this, and they acted on their urge for something more in their beloved Trans Am.

The Mecham brothers were selling new cars out of their father’s Pontiac Dealership in Glendale, Arizona, until 1977, when they began pumping steroids into the Trans Am. The result was the DKM Macho Trans Am (named for Dennis and Kyle Mecham). The Mechams began with a factory-fresh Trans Am that was equipped with the W72/L78 package. In stock condition, W72-equipped Trans Ams were capable of quarter-mile times in the mid-15s, at a little over 90 mph, in showroom condition.

black 1978 Pontiac Macho Trans Am low front 3/4
1978 Pontiac Macho Trans Am engine
1978 Pontiac Macho Trans Am interior
1978 Pontiac Macho Trans Am profile

Pontiac had revived the beefier 481988 cast block with a redesigned camshaft that was primed for tuning and squeezing out extra horsepower. The Mecham brothers followed the old super-tune formula under the hood. The internals were left alone, but the distributor was recurved and the carburetor “blueprinted” with rejetting. To let the engine breathe deeply and release the latent horsepower, Hooker headers were added, as well a true dual exhaust. One would have expected the emissions controls to go into the trash at that point, but as a Pontiac dealer, the Mechams’ understood their environmental responsibilities. They not only kept the original catalytic converter in place, they added one to balance the Macho T/A’s dual exhaust. (GM had evaluated this approach in the 1970s but rejected it because of cost, finding that with twice the convertor area, the light-off of the catalyst after a cold start was too slow to pass emissions.) The final touch was to modify the hood scoop to make it functional, allowing the engine to breath in the cold, dense, high-pressure air at the base of the windshield.

The suspension was pumped up as well. If the car was not originally equipped with the WS6 performance package (eight-inch-wide wheels, high-rate suspension, and quick ratio steering gear), these components were added before the true Macho work began. The next step was installing Koni shocks all around, new front springs to lower the nose (without altering the spring rate), and a realignment of suspension settings to DKM specifications. The end result gave the car a nosed-down stance like a defensive lineman ready to launch into an unsuspecting backfield. To enhance the now-intimidating stance of the modified Trans Am, a special visual appearance package was applied announcing to all onlookers that this was no ordinary Trans Am. Macho T/A owners also got a special driver’s jacket with the purchase to let folks the driver was also no ordinary Trans Am owner.

The cost of these upgrades was an additional $3188 (that’s about $13,500 today). Because the cars had been modified, the Federal Government required that DKM sell them as “used,” even though they had very few miles. Mecham Performance would simply title the cars circumventing any pressure from the EPA. Each Macho T/A also received a production number on the side fender, along with a console name plate verifying its credentials.

Macho T/A advertisement
Pontiac / DKM

For an additional $2999 in disco-era dollars ($12,700 today), one could go full Macho T/A and add turbo modifications. The turbo setup was developed and produced by H.O. Specialties of Hawthorne, California, which to this day is the guru of Pontiac performance. DKM also added water injection and a boost gauge to finish off the conversion. Not only did buyers receive the added torque of a turbocharger under the hood, they got a trunk-mounted battery (to make room for the turbocharger under the hood and the bonus of added rear-wheel traction), along with Hurst Competition Shifter and Goodyear GT radial tires on all four corners.

Production of these cars continued through 1979, when both the Pontiac 400 cars and Oldsmobile 403 motors were similarly modified. DKM also added optional Recaro or Scheel seats, Fosgate stereos, upgraded aftermarket wheel and tire packages, and a custom fiberglass hood option.

With the 1980s redesign of the third-generation F-body, DKM also revised the look and name of its version to MR MSE Tran Am, which stood for Mecham Racing Motor Sports Edition. These cars were produced from 1982 through 1986 with similar super tuned motors and suspensions. After a short retirement, Mecham produced a limited run of Trans Ams and Formulas on the fourth-generation F-body, from 1997–2002.

1978 Pontiac Macho Trans Am rear
1979 Pontiac Macho Trans Am rear 3/4

DKM Design lives on as Mecham Design, Performance, and it manufacturers performance parts and appearance packages for the Chevrolet Tahoe, Silverado, C5 Corvette, and Camaro—and, of course, Firebirds. Dennis Mecham appeared at the Russo and Steele’s Scottsdale Auction to promote a 1978 Macho T/A on offer from the Jim Glauser Private Collection. It sold for $35,800, proving there’s still plenty of love for the muscle car that flew the muscle-car flag longer than the others.