Arrested Development and the ZR-1 of one.
Long Read Rewind: Winter 2017
“You need to check out picnic shelter five. Make sure it’s No. 5, you understand?” The man in the skintight Trans Am shirt and knee-length jean shorts smacks the table in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media room to add emphasis, to make sure that No. 5 message comes across loud and clear. “That’s where Burt kissed Sally in the movie. I know that for sure. Park Ranger told me. This was back in the ’90s. When he told me.”
“Back in the ’90s, you say?” His partner in this conversation, who is also wearing a Trans Am shirt but who appears to have had more luck in selecting a flattering size, seems a bit doubtful on the matter.
“Back in the ’90s. I told you. The ranger, he seen that I was driving a black Trans Am, and he pulled me to the side, real quiet, and he told me. Picnic shelter No. 5. That’s how I know.” The last sentence is accompanied by another enthusiastic bang on the table. Through the broad stretch of windows, I can see the first drops of rain. Dozens of people are walking, then running, to the neat rows of parked Pontiacs. The sun disappears in a matter of moments.
“Well, I ain’t about to call you a liar, regarding how you heard about the picnic shelter and all,” the other fellow responds, “but you see, I just saw the very same thing, about the picnic shelter, and about Burt and Sally, on the Internet, just last week.” The silence that follows is both uncomfortable and absolute. Then it is broken by the sound of a 40-year-old Pontiac 400 waking up and bellowing a deep-chested but slightly asthmatic roar through period-correct dual pipes. Now the rain is thick and fast down the windows. It looks like the Bandit Run is over for today. Time to go.
The management at Pontiac must have felt like lottery winners when they totaled up the final sales figures for 1977. After seven long years of declining performance and increasing consumer disinterest, the second-generation F-body with the “screaming chicken” on the hood was suddenly the hottest property on the road. The reason? A surprise spring smash of a movie concerning a bootlegger’s dash from Texarkana to Atlanta, with a cowboy-hatted Burt Reynolds behind the wheel and Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in hot pursuit. Sally Field was Frog, a bride on the run. In addition to playing the easygoing trucker Snowman, Jerry Reed performed the film’s signature tune, “East Bound and Down.”
More than 40 years after the black-and-gold Trans Am Special Edition took its star turn in Smokey and the Bandit, interest in both the car and the film remains strong, prompting the chicken-and-egg question: Did this cinematic one-finger salute to the inflationary, OPEC-haunted malaise of the 1970s make the car a success, or did the car make the movie unforgettable? To find out, I set off on my own bootlegger’s run to Atlanta behind the wheel of a thoroughly restored example, complete with optional “Hurst Hatch” T-tops, owned by Scott Payne of Lawrenceville, Georgia.
“I was 15 years old and on a vacation to Panama City Beach with my parents,” Payne recalls. “But it was raining, so I went to go see a movie. I decided that Burt Reynolds was cool, and that the Trans Am was even cooler.”
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. When stuntman and film director Hal Needham saw an advertisement for the upcoming 1977 Trans Am, complete with the scowling quad-lamp front end, he contacted Pontiac and asked for six Trans Ams to star in his latest film. Pontiac agreed to supply four, along with two LeMans sedans. The movie cars were 1976 models with 1977 front “clips,” the general agreement among students of the film being that they were all delivered with automatic transmissions and without the W72 performance package that dropped quarter-mile times back into the high 14s and helped restore some street cred to regular-production ’77 Trans Ams.
Nearly a quarter of the movie’s $4.3 million budget went to pay its leading man, Burt Reynolds, then 40 years old and nearly as venerable as the second-generation Firebird. So it was completed on a shoestring, with much of the dialogue ad-libbed on set and pretty much all thoughts of effective continuity scattered to the four winds. What’s more, in those pre-computer graphics days, the stunts, burnouts, blow-ups, and bent metal were real. All of which helped Smokey and the Bandit finish a distant but still impressive second to Star Wars in 1977’s box-office receipts.
There was an odd symmetry between the nation’s two favorite films that year. For every 12-year-old boy who went to sleep dreaming of piloting an X-Wing down the Death Star trench, there was surely a 40-year-old father who spent his afternoons at work imagining himself as the Bandit on a banzai run through Georgia with a fresh-faced Sally Field beside him. And while the Rebel Starfighter couldn’t be had at any cost, the 1977 Trans Am was at Pontiac dealers with a base price of $5456 (plus $1143 for the full Bandit-style Special Edition package) and ready for delivery. Sales of the Trans Am soared to 68,744 in a furious end-of-model-year rush. Approximately 16,000 of those were black-and-gold Special Editions, with the rest being supplied in one of the five alternate shades of Cameo White, Sterling Silver, Goldenrod Yellow, Brentwood Brown, and Buccaneer Red.
Five years after seeing Smokey and the Bandit for the first of several times, Payne found a ’77 Special Edition for sale in the paper. “None of my friends had anything like it, which pretty much made up my mind,” he recalls. For more than a decade, it was his daily driver, stored in a garage and maintained as the occasion required to keep it on the road.
Eventually he bought a truck and retired the Trans Am to his garage for safekeeping. It wasn’t until a few years ago that he decided to make a conscious effort to restore it to as-new condition. “I moved as fast as my finances allowed,” he says. “First I handled the dashboard, the heater core, that kind of thing. The interior was in decent shape but there was a lot of wear.” Restoring the front and rear subframes took some time; the creaky interfaces where the weight of the welded shell exercises its considerable leverage on the mount points is the bane of any F-body owner’s existence. The biggest decision was whether or not to keep the original paint. Payne interviewed several shops before making the decision to respray the entire car.
At the end of the process, he had a 1977 Trans Am that looked as good as new in most respects and better than new in some, particularly with regard to panel fits that had been finessed to tolerances beyond what the original workers ever cared to achieve at the F-body’s two plants in Norwood, Ohio, and Van Nuys, California. Meanwhile, a rising wave of 1970s nostalgia had elevated prices of matching-numbers Trans Ams, causing him to wonder: Should he start driving the car on a daily basis, the way he did 30 years ago, or should he carefully preserve it for posterity?
“My daughter has already told me that she expects to get this car in good condition,” he says. “I’m worried somebody’s going to hit me on the way to work and destroy it. I’m not driving it very much at all nowadays.” Despite his concerns, Payne gamely hands over the keys, gives the car a final once-over with a bit of detailing spray and a towel, then settles down into the passenger seat with a slightly worried expression creasing his brow.
My first impressions of the car are all good. Better than good, really. It truly looks showroom-fresh, with a deep shine to the Starlight Black finish and a warm vintage smell from the hot vinyl upholstery. From the moment I open the door, I’m reminded of the 403-powered 1977 Cutlass Supreme my mother drove when Smokey and the Bandit was in theaters. All of the 1970s General Motors touchpoints are here, from the door handle to the seatbelt buckles. The door with its frameless windows, too, has that long and ponderous feel familiar from the A-body coupes. It’s easy to see why the Euro-snob Benz-and-Bimmer crowd disparaged this car and others like it. There’s a lot of weight and mass here that doesn’t really have any common interest with the Trans Am’s ostensible sporting purpose.
Yet as I tumble into the bucket seat and face the deep-socketed gauges with their gold-toned, engine-turned appliqué, I realize the driver position is far more Corvette than Cutlass. Visibility is acceptable but not spectacular; I can only imagine how bad it was in the early years of the platform, before the arrival of the wraparound rear window. The engine fires up immediately with that low-compression (8.0:1), mild-cammed quiet growl that provided the restrained background music for a thousand suburbs three decades ago. I throw the straight-gate automatic into reverse, and after I manage to avoid hitting the man’s own mailbox, Scott Payne and I are off and rolling through the hills of rural Georgia.
He’s left the 200-horsepower engine in mostly stock trim, preserving the original boulevardier character that made the 400-engined models such a disappointment to Pontiac fans for whom the 290-horsepower SD-455 was still a recent memory. The torque peak of this engine arrives at just 2400 rpm, and it’s breathless by the time the tach swings past top dead center to the 4,000 mark. The only sensible way to drive it is to use a soft throttle foot, letting the effortless low-rev twist just sail you down the road. The speedometer tops out at 100, not much short of its actual top speed, placed by contemporary road tests at a mild 110 mph or so. This is not a performance car by today’s reckoning. Not even close.
When the road turns curvy, however, the Trans Am reveals a secret enthusiasm for corner velocity. The “Radial Tuned Suspension” badge on the dash is no idle boast. The chassis settles easily into a mild lean that is both predictable and confidence-inspiring. The steering is hilariously over-boosted by modern standards, but it has very little slack for a recirculating-ball system, and it is no trouble to place the car accurately.
Another surprise: The interior is remarkably compatible with today’s aesthetic preferences. It’s a close-to-monochrome affair of black vinyl, chrome trim pieces, and that gold-tone dash, far closer to the interior of a 1970s BMW than most of that brand’s fans would like to admit. Having recently driven some upscale variants of the current Camaro, I’m tickled to note that the slick vinyl and stylish dashboard shape of this old Firebird look more upmarket than the dark-gray elephant-skin plastics and matte-finish bezels you get in a modern F-body.
Model-year 1977 was actually the second year for the Special Edition Trans Am. Inspired by a one-off shown at the 1974 Chicago Auto Show, the SE was the first car to offer the Hurst Hatch T-tops as standard equipment. It was available in just one color: Starlight Black, with gold stripes. Demand for the Hurst Hatch in 1976 far outstripped the available supply, so Pontiac rejiggered the order book to include a lower-cost Special Edition with no T-tops. For 1977, the production issues were resolved and T-top-equipped SE cars outsold their plain-roofed cousins 13,706 to 1,861.
As an authentic Y82 RPO Special Edition, Payne’s car has the T-tops with their visible Hurst Hatch logos in the windshield corner. On this slightly overcast Georgia day, they cast a warm and far-from-troublesome light on the proceedings. Without them, this would be a rather dark interior thanks to the short side windows, although compared with the tank-slit fifth- and sixth-generation Camaros, it would still feel airy and spacious.
To drive a Bandit Trans Am is to become inextricably enmeshed, perhaps unwillingly, in the web of public roadside communication. Every 10 minutes or so, a jacked-up Dodge Ram or F-150 will pull up next to you, stand on its nose from the combination of violent braking and long-travel suspension, and you will see the passenger window drop. Questions will be screamed at you. Yes, it’s a 1977. Yes, it’s mostly original. Yes, it’s awesome. Yes, I did see the movie. Yes, I’m glad you liked it. Have a nice day. From the side of the road, people walking out of check-cashing stores and fast-food chicken joints will wave their hands and yell, “Hey there, Bandit!”
It’s doubly ironic because the destination of our drive is, in fact, the Atlanta Motor Speedway, which is a stop on this year’s Bandit Run. In 2007, on the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, the owners of a website called “Restore A Muscle Car” led an ad hoc group of about 30 Trans Ams through an approximate reenactment of Smokey and the Bandit’s original Texarkana-to-Atlanta route. In the years since, the event has grown by leaps and bounds.
Payne—a devout Christian who keeps a King James Bible in the glovebox but remains cheerfully nonjudgmental about the film’s 96 minutes of nonstop lawbreaking, cursing, and social disorder—is eager to see how his restored Trans Am stacks up to the cars that have come from as far away as California and Ontario. This Bandit Run is the biggest yet and, according to the promotion materials, will be the first to feature “a very special star from the original movie.” Sure enough, we arrive just in time to see Burt Reynolds posing with a resto-modded ’77 Special Edition and a tractor-trailer painted to match the one from the movie.
At the age of 81, the Bandit moves slowly and deliberately, assisted by two massive bodyguards and surrounded by a phalanx of police in flak jackets. About a hundred people assemble in a half-circle around the car-and-truck tableau. There is a brief and frightening moment when it looks like Reynolds will not be able to stand on his own next to the Trans Am, but the dilemma is solved to everyone’s satisfaction by opening the driver door and having him use it for support. He smiles gamely and the crowd, as they say, goes wild. Then Bandit One retires to the back of a black Escalade and is whisked off the premises. For five minutes the crowd remains mostly still and silent, until they slowly realize there will be no encore and wander off by dribs and drabs to check out the rows of parked cars behind them.
After a quick walk through the hundred-or-so Firebirds in attendance, I think Payne’s car has got to be in the top five percent. To my immense surprise, most of the cars here aren’t 1977 Special Editions. There’s a smattering of round-headlamp cars, plenty of ’77 and ’78 models in the other five colors offered that year, and at least half a dozen Turbo Trans Ams from 1980 and ’81. A number of modern cars, including the predictable Challenger and the less-predictable Chrysler 300C sedan, have been done up as “Bandit Birds” complete with screaming-chicken hood stickers. Amazingly, nobody has bothered to dress like the Bandit—not even Mr. Reynolds, who wore a black leather jacket but left his cowboy hat at home.
On a whim, I settle down next to a couple with a gold ’81 Turbo Trans Am. Lloyd and Donna bought the car in 2002. Over the past decade they’ve rebuilt it to the point where they could drive it all the way from New Mexico with only a flat front tire to trouble them. “We stopped to help a lot of broken-down Trans Ams along the way,” Lloyd chuckles.
What came first for them, the car or the movie? “Oh, the movie,” Lloyd says. “I’m a Ford guy. But I wanted a real-deal Bandit car. This is an ’81 Turbo 301, so it ain’t fast. But it’s a real-deal Bandit car. All of these are. The year, the color—that don’t matter. These old cars are the real deal.”
When the announcement is made for parade laps, some of the Trans Ams start up with a whoop and a hot-cam roar, while others crank reluctantly to stumbling life. A family with three young children in a worn-out white ’75 Firebird pulls into line behind a furiously vibrating wide-body pro-touring ’78 and, of all things, a Subaru SVX. A few cars hang back deliberately so they can thunder down Atlanta’s front straight. Others wheeze and wobble on the high banking as their drivers anxiously scan the track ahead. The whole process takes at least an hour. Shortly afterward, as I sit in the media center and watch one Bandit Run participant attempt to school another one about picnic shelters and whatnot, the rain starts to fall, first in hesitant sprinkles, then with main force. The parking lot empties almost immediately. This is not a foul-weather crowd.
Several of the Run’s attendees expressed concern to me that the event, such as it was, would surely wind down in the years to come. The Snowman, Jerry Reed, died nine years ago; the Bandit cannot live forever. Most of the participants are well into late middle age. The Pontiac brand itself has faded into history, with the newest car to legitimately wear a Trans Am badge now more than 15 years old. It’s easy to argue that we are currently at the very peak of nostalgia for both the film and the car, and that the next generation of drivers won’t truly understand what made either one so special.
It’s with all of the above in mind that I give Payne my suggestion regarding his Special Edition: He should use it every day from now until he’s ready to let it go. The car deserves it, and so does he. There’s no need to preserve it for the future, no more important time to drive it than right now, in the moment, just the way the Bandit used it.
The more I think about it, I realize it doesn’t matter whether the movie made the car or the car made the movie. Perhaps they just both appeared at exactly the right time, a perfect storm of devil-may-care exuberance in the midst of America’s post-Vietnam hangover. A celebration of power and style and macho outlaw manhood at a time when many people thought those qualities were disappearing from the culture forever. It might have been an old car teaming up with an aging star on a low budget with even lower expectations, but it was enough to do the job. The 1977 Trans Am was just what we needed, and it was a very special edition, indeed.