Before you buy a 1996–2002 Pontiac Trans Am WS6, here’s what to look for
Although it charged out of the gate with great looks and some potent engine options, like the 325-horsepower 400-cu-inch Ram Air V-8, the Pontiac Firebird always seemed to play second fiddle to its more GM pony car stablemate, the Chevrolet Camaro. The flamboyant 1969 Trans Am began to change things at the end of the first-generation’s production, although even as the second-generation upped the power and cubes, no amount of hood scoops, shaker or otherwise, could draw buyers in like the Bow Tie brand.
In 1978, hot on the heels of Smokey and the Bandit’s big box office, Trans Am sales exploded and Pontiac introduced the WS6 Special Performance Package. The $324 option added one-inch-wider 15×8-inch Snowflake wheels, larger tires, and a thicker rear sway bar. In 1979 Trans Am sales peaked with around 117,000 sold, and the WS6 Package—now also offered on the Formula—got four-wheel disc brakes, which drove its price up to $434.
The handling package remained an option throughout the Firebird’s second generation and continued in various forms throughout the third generation, becoming standard on the 1987 Formula and the new top Trans Am GTA model. However, when the fourth generation of the Firebird was introduced in 1992, the WS6 option was gone.
Four years later, as Pontiac was fighting off Ford’s new more powerful SVT Mustang, the option code re-appeared and featured a ram air hood with two nostrils. The option would remain on the books until the last Firebird rolled off the assembly line in 2002. These fourth-gen WS6 cars were the quickest and fastest Firebirds ever produced and they represent the final gasp of Pontiac’s screaming chicken. Many are now more than 20 years old and collectors have begun to understand their significance. Values are on the rise.
This is what buyers should know, what to avoid, and what to pay:
Trans Am WS6: LT1 or LS1 engine
In its run of final Firebirds, Pontiac used two versions of the small-block V-8, both displacing 5.7 liters. From 1992–97, all Trans Ams and Formulas were powered by the Gen II LT1 small-block. By 1996, the engine was rated for 285 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 2400 rpm. But the ram air induction of the WS6 package bumped those numbers up to 305 hp at 5400 rpm and 335 lb-ft at 3200 rpm.
The arrival of the C5 Corvette in 1997 brought with it the LS V-8, or the Gen III small-block. It was all-aluminum, made more power, and ditched the LT1’s funky Optispark ignition system. The LS was so good it has become a favorite of hot rodders over the last two decades, being swapped into everything from classic muscle cars to pickups and Panteras. By 1998 the LS1 was under the hood of every Trans Am and Formula, rated 305 hp at 5200 rpm and 335 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. The WS6 package cranked that up to 320 hp and 345 lb-ft, and in 2001 both versions got a 5-hp and torque bump thanks to a new camshaft and the LS6 intake from the Z06 Corvette. A six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission was available with either engine.
Weighing just under 3500 pounds, these WS6 birds were fast for their day, but they’ll get smoked by any modern muscle car, including a base Mustang GT or Camaro SS. Even the new front-wheel-drive Honda Civic Type R will dust them to 60 mph.
In 1996, Car and Driver pitted a new six-speed WS6 Formula against the similar Camaro SS and the rival the Mustang SVT Cobra. The Formula was the slowest of the three on that day, running to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and through the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 102 mph. The Mustang was just a tenth quicker in both tests, but the Camaro was inexplicably much quicker than both, running 4.9 seconds to 60 mph and a 13.6 second quarter, despite weighing 70 pounds more than the Firebird and running the same 3.42 rear gear.
Four years later Motor Trend tested an LS-powered Trans Am WS6 with a six-speed and it was significantly quicker. At the dragstrip it hit 60 mph in five seconds flat a finished the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 107.4 mph.
Year-to-year Trans Am WS6 changes
From 1997–2002, RPO WS6 was available on the Trans Am and Formula coupes and convertibles. In 1996, however, it became available mid-year and was only offered on the coupes. It added the Ram Air intake and hood; firmer springs, shocks, and bushings; a larger 32mm front sway bar and 19mm rear sway bar; a firmer transmission mount; silver 17×8-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels; and 275/40ZR17 Goodyears. In 1997, the wheels were polished along with the exhaust tips.
In 1998, along with the engine swap, the Trans Ams and Formulas got a retuned suspension for a slightly smoother ride and larger brake rotors. All Firebirds got a facelift with new noses and rear bumpers. The Trans Am’s new front bumper featured four headlamps and two small grille openings, which sat just below the now larger twin hood scoops on the WS6 cars. The result is an alien-esque mug that drew sneers at the time. Also questionable in 1998 was WS6’s single exhaust pipe, a gaff that was fixed a year later.
To celebrate the Trans Ams 30th anniversary, Pontiac offered special white and blue editions in 1999. The 2000 model year was the last for the WS6 package on the slow-selling Formula, and in 2001 there was a new five-spoke wheel design. In 2002, knowing the Firebird’s end was near, Pontiac offered the Collectors Edition Trans Am, which was yellow.
Buyers should also realize that the WS6 is different than the ILE road racing homologation package that first became available on the Formula in 1997. Although the two did share some components, and ILE cars required adding the WS6 package, the ILE package included additional hardware. Firehawks were also a similar, but different bird.
Low Trans Am WS6 production numbers
Pontiac wasn’t selling many Firebirds of any kind during this period, so WS6 cars are relatively rare, especially the early cars and Formulas. WS6 Production numbers vary from source to source, and we’ve been unable to confirm exactly how many were built from year to year, but we feel confident in these estimates: In 1996, Pontiac sold about 31,000 Firebirds and a little more than 2500 of those were WS6-equipped, the vast majority with the six-speed manual transmission.
Total Firebird production was flat the following year, but WS6 sales were up to just under 3900. Most were Trans Am coupes, while Pontiac sold about 475 Formula coupes and around 40 Formula convertibles. Despite the new LS V-8 Firebird, sales were flat again, and WS6 sales were down to about 3000 cars, with the vast majority being Trans Am coupes with the mix of manuals to automatics being about even. Fewer than 300 WS6 Formulas were sold.
This numbers story continued essentially unchanged until 2000. Word was out that the Firebird was about to get shot down and there was a run on WS6 Trans Ams, with more than 8000 sold. In addition, the last WS6 Formulas were sold—fewer than 250 of them. The next year Pontiac moved about 7000 WS6 Trans Ams, and in the final year of production sales exploded to almost 15,000, or nearly half of all Firebird sales.
We should also mention the production numbers of the 1999 30th Anniversary Edition Trans Am, which all received the WS6 package. Pontiac built a little more than 1000 coupes, about 60 percent of which got the six-speed. There were also about 500 convertibles, mostly automatics. In 2002, production of the Collectors Edition added up to about 2400 units, with a fairly even split between coupes and convertibles. Again, about 60 percent got the six-speed.
What to look out for in a Pontiac Trans Am WS6
Watch out for clones or replicas. WS6 wheels and hoods have been available from the aftermarket for a long time, so it’s easy to make a standard Formula or Trans Am look like a WS6. The vehicle’s VIN will not help you here. Check the option codes on the Service Parts Identification (SPID) sticker on the driver’s door jamb. One of the codes listed should be WS6. If it isn’t, it’s not a real Formula WS6 or Trans Am WS6. If the sticker is missing, the car has probably been painted or has had the door replaced due to damage.
Look for rust in the usual places, like behind the rear tires at the bottom of the quarter panels. And be sure to check the floor plan and in the trunk, especially on T-Top cars. The front fenders are plastic, so they won’t rot, but check their alignment. Often these panels pull loose from the bottom and flap in the wind. These cars had popup headlights and they are prone to fail, staying either up or down. Also the power window mechanisms are known to fail over time and the taillights can take on water and turn dark.
The sun is murder on the hard interior plastics and upholstery—neither ages well. Cracked dashes are common. There are also reports it’s common for the odometers to conk out. If the car’s condition doesn’t seem to match its mileage, be suspicious.
The powertrains are tough and will last forever if cared for. The engines and transmissions are good for well over 100,000 miles. The LT1’s Optispark ignition can have problems with moisture, so make sure you check the water pump for leaks as well as other seals close to the system, which is located on the front of the engine. Also EGRs are known to eat themselves, along with the fuel pump and sending units.
Replacement parts are easy to find, but so are aftermarket upgrades, and many of these cars have been modified—some radically with superchargers, nitrous, and turbos—but most have been enhanced with just a few bolt-ons, like aftermarket wheels and gauges. Although slight mods are nothing to worry about, they do drive down the value of the car. There’s just too many to go around and well-preserved stock examples are still demanding the most money.
What they’re selling for
The current value of 1996 and ’97 WS6 Pontiacs is about $12,000. More people want the 1998 and later cars with the more desirable LS engine. However, the average price of a ’98 Trans Am Coupe only jumps to $13,000. The surprise is the average price of the 1998 convertibles, which is $20,100.
WS6 Trans Am convertibles from 1999–2002 cost about $1000 more, with the average price of #1-condition (Concours) cars nearly reaching $35,000. Cars with the six-speed cost about 10-percent more, and coupes are 10-percent more valuable without T-tops. Formulas cost about the same despite their much lower production numbers. It’s also surprising that Trans Ams and Formulas without the WS6 option don’t cost radically less, with the difference often being about $3000–$5000.
The 1999 30th Anniversary Edition models are very popular, averaging $19,200 for coupes and more than $23,000 for convertibles, with the best examples touching $40,000. That’s about $10,000 more than they cost three years ago. The 2002 Collector’s Editions are also worth something, averaging $17,500 for the coupes and more than $19,000 for the convertibles, but those prices are flat lately.
Overall prices of #1-condition examples have risen about 50 percent in the last three years, while #2 (Excellent) and #3 (Good) cars are up about 20 percent. Buyers on tighter budgets will be glad to know that you can still find #4-condition (Fair) cars out there for less than $10,000, but it’s not as easy as it once was.