The king of Pontiac didn’t want a Firebird. Not at first, anyway.
No, John DeLorean, who had recently given the world the GTO, thought Pontiac should follow up with a right and proper sports car, a two-seater called the Banshee. The brass at GM said no, repeatedly, no doubt because they wanted to protect the Corvette.
Turns out the suits upstairs were right. GM needed something to compete against the incredibly popular Ford Mustang and wanted Pontiac to offer a version of the Chevrolet Camaro for a synchronized launch as new models in 1967. DeLorean eventually gave in, but took so long to come around that he asked for an extra six months to create a real Pontiac on the F-car platform.
“It worked,” Jim Wangers wrote in his 1998 memoir Glory Days. “When the Firebird launched in early 1967, almost six months after the Camaro, the car was an immediate hit.”
The Pontiac Firebird remained in production for 35 years and four generations. It would go on to become an extremely successful American performance car as well as a pop cultural reference point from Rockford to the Bandit and beyond.
Here are 25 Firebird facts every enthusiast should know.
Pontiac introduced the WS6 Special Performance Package with the 1978 Trans Am. It cost $324 and swapped the 15x7-inch wheels for 15x8-inch snowflake wheels with wider tires and a beefier rear sway bar. The optional handling package remained available in various years throughout the Firebird’s second and third generations and became standard on the 1987 Formula and Trans Am GTA. Although discontinued when Pontiac introduced the fourth-gen ’bird in 1992, it returned in 1996 with a ram air hood and remained until the last Firebird flew out of Detroit in 2002.
First Firebird With Four-Wheel Disc Brakes
The WS6 Package got power four-wheel disc brakes in 1979, an option that bumped the package to $434. For $150, buyers could get power four-wheel disc brakes, option code J-65, on Trans Ams and Formulas with the L-37 301-cubic-inch V8 and positraction rear end.
First Firebird With Aluminum Wheels
Pontiac’s first aluminum wheel was an unusual 8-lug design with a steel rim and an integrated brake drum. Pontiac offered it from 1960-69. The Firebird didn’t get aluminum wheels until 1977, when Pontiac offered the 15x7-inch snowflake wheel standard on the Trans Am. It replaced the standard Rally II wheel and the honeycomb wheel.
First Giant Screaming Chicken
Although Pontiac designers Bill Porter and Norm Inouye created the iconic firebird decal in 1970, Pontiac didn’t start slapping it on the hood until 1973 at the urging of designer John Schinella. The option (code WW7) cost $55 and was quickly nicknamed The Screaming Chicken. It became the car’s signature feature through 1981 before returning as an option on the third-generation Trans Am from 1985-87.
First Firebird With an Airbag
The Pontiac Firebird got its first airbag in 1990. The technology was pretty bulky back then, and Pontiac had to design a new steering column and a steering wheel with the horn buttons off to the side. Interesting aside: GM owned Lotus at the time, and the Firebird’s new airbag-equipped wheel also appeared in the Esprit.
First Firebird With Over 400 Horsepower
The first Firebird to make something north of 400 horsepower was… OK, this one’s a trick. Pontiac never made one, even though several different Camaros have put down that kind of power over the years.
Most Powerful Firebird Ever
When it comes to factory horsepower and torque ratings, the most powerful Firebird of all time were 1969 and ‘70 Trans Ams with the Ram Air IV engine option. The 400-cubic-inch V-8 made 345 hp at 5,400 Rpm and 430 lb-ft of torque at 3,700 Rpm. However, in 1991, option code B4U turned a Formula into an SLP Firehawk with a modified L98 350-cubic-inch V-8. Tuned by aftermarket company Street Legal Performance, the original Firehawk was rated 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. Just 25 were built.
Weakest Firebird Ever
Pontiac has built some slooooow Firebirds over the years. The worst of them were the four-cylinder models built in 1985. The LQ9 2.5-liter four produced a paltry 88 hp.
First Firebird With an LS V-8
Although the all-aluminum LS1 V8 debuted in the fifth-generation Corvette in 1997, GM didn’t install the engine in the Firebird Trans Am until the following year. It replaced the LT1 Gen II small-block in the Trans Am and Formula. The engine was good for 305 horsepower, and you could get it with a six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
First Buick Engine
Any Firebird fanatic knows the 1989 20th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 Pace Car Trans Am used a Buick engine. Not just any Buick engine, mind you, but the turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6 used in the Grand National and GNX. It was good for 245 horsepower (some people say 250) and 340 lb-ft. That made the Pace Car the quickest Firebird ever sold at that point. Pontiac built just 1,500, every one of them white with a tan interior.
Far fewer people remember Pontiac first offered a naturally aspirated 3.8-liter Buick V-6 as the base engine from 1977-81. The engine made just 105 horsepower.
First Olds Engine
Most people think the first Oldsmobile engine installed under the hood of a Firebird was the 403-cubic-incher that appeared in the Trans Am in 1979. Nope. Pontiac offered that 185-hp engine along with an Olds 350 good for 170 hp in 1977 on California cars and those sold in high-altitude markets.
First Chevy Engine
Pontiac started offering the Chevrolet 250-cubic-inch inline-six as the base engine in the Firebird in 1970. The engine’s lineage dated to the stovebolt six of the 1920s, and it made 155 hp in 1970, 145 hp in 1971, and just 100 hp from 1973 through 1976. It gave way to the Buick V-6 in 1977.
Most Valuable Non Trans Am Model
In 1973 and 1974 Pontiac offered the Super Duty 455 engine in the Formula as well as the Trans Am. The special high-performance SD 455 engine produced 310 hp in 1973 and 290 hp in 1974. Many people believe it marked the end of the original muscle car era. Only 43 were built in 1973 and 58 in 1974. They used the Trans Am’s shaker hood scoop and rear spoiler, but none of its other body mods or wild graphics. The value of a #1 condition 1973 SD Formula is $150,000.
Although GM made T-tops standard equipment on the Corvette Coupe starting in 1968, open-top roofs didn’t appear on the Firebird until 1976. Every Black and Gold Limited Edition model commemorating Pontiac’s 50th Anniversary was supposed to leave the factory with two removable Hurst panels, but production problems limited them to just 643 of the 2,590 cars built.
First Trans Am
Pontiac introduced the first Trans Am alongside the 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge on December 8, 1967 at Riverside Raceway. It combined elements of the Firebird 400 and the high-performance six-cylinder Pontiac Firebird Sprint Turismo prototype, and rolled into showrooms as a 1969 model year with a 400-cubic-inch V-8. Every one of them wore white paint and blue racing stripes. The Trans Am also had a dual-scooped hood, fender vents, and a rear spoiler designed by custom car legend Gene Winfield and designer Harry Bradley. The Trans Am option cost $724.60. GM built 697, including 55 with the optional Ram Air IV engine.
Rarest and Most Valuable Trans Am
Although prices for the second-generation Trans Am have gone nuts, the 1969 convertible Trans Am remains the rarest and most valuable. Pontiac made just eight, all powered by the standard 335 hp 400 HO engine. Four of them got four-speed transmissions. These cars are worth $1.2M in concours #1 condition.
First Black and Gold
Pontiac created the iconic black and gold color scheme to commemorate its 50th anniversary and revealed it at the Chicago Auto Show in February, 1976. The color combo was available as option code Y82 in 1976. Designer John Schinella created it, drawing inspiration from the John Player Special livery of the Lotus Formula 1 cars. The paint scheme, with its elaborate pinstriping, would remain available on Trans Ams until 1981.
Best Selling Model Year
Firebird sales peaked in 1979 at 211,454 sold. That year also marked the pinnacle of Trans Am sales at 117,109.
Worst Selling Model Year
According to our research, 1993 marked the Firebird’s sales nadir. The fourth-generation Firebird got off to a slow start, with Pontiac selling just 14,112. Of those, 5,005 were Firebirds, 3,986 were Formulas, and 5,121 were Trans Ams. Sales jumped to nearly 46,000 cars the following year, almost twice the number sold in 1992.
How Many Indy Pace Car Editions
The first Firebird to pace the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was the turbocharged 1980 Trans Am. Painted white with gray accents, Pontiac sold 5,700 replicas, all with T-tops and the WS6 Package. A Trans Am would go on to pace the Indy 500 only once more, in 1989.
First 15-Inch Wheels
Although the Camaro Z/28 got 15-inch wheels in 1967, the Firebird didn’t move up from 14-inch diameter wheels until 1970. That year, 15-inch Rally II wheels became standard on the Trans Am.
First 16-Inch Wheels
It took another 14 years for Pontiac to introduce 16-inch diameter wheels, which were standard on the 1,500 limited edition 15th Anniversary Trans Ams built in 1984. The tires were Goodyear Gatorbacks sized 245/50R16. This size wheel and tire combination would continue on in following years as part of the WS6 Package and became standard on the Formula and GTA starting in 1987.
First 17-Inch Wheels
In 1996 Pontiac reintroduced the WS6 Performance Package for $2,995. It added a firmer suspension with larger sway bars and silver 17x8-inch cast aluminum five-spoke wheels wrapped in 275/40ZR17 tires. Also included was a functional Ram Air system that boosted the 5.7-liter LT1 from 285 hp to 305 hp.
The First Year For Radial Tires
In 1973 Trans Ams, and Formulas with the optional handling package, could be equipped with Firestone steel-belted radial tires for an additional $59 without the space saver spare and $79 with it. The tires were sized GR70-15 and were wrapped around 7-inch wheels. The following year, the tires became part of the Trans Am’s standard Radial Tuned Suspension and in 1975 all Firebirds rode on radials.
First 1LE Firebird
Although the 1LE option code is most associated with Chevy’s Camaro, Pontiac also sold Firebirds with the 1LE package, and it was available for the first time on the 1988 Formula and Trans Am. Just as on the IROC-Z Camaro, 1LE set up the Firebird for SCCA Showroom Stock racing and included larger brakes, stiffer suspension, a lighter aluminum driveshaft, fuel tank baffling to prevent fuel starvation during hard cornering, and other modifications. It was available with the 350/auto or 305/manual powertrains and air conditioning was (supposedly) not offered because these cars were supposedly headed for the racetrack. The 1LE Firebird is extremely rare and many didn’t survive the perils of competition. Far more 1LE Camaros were built, although the option code remained available well into the Firebird’s fourth generation.