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1970s Pontiac Trans Am - Gold Chains To Glory

They Might Be Disco, But We Still Dig 'Em. The Hero Trans Ams Of '76-'81 Take Us From

Photography by Primedia Archives,

'If you were alive in the late '70s, you knew what a Trans Am was, and you knew you wanted one. Or at least, you wanted to know someone who did. Pontiac's premiere ponycar offering for the time was long on flash and at times, short on substance, but the car's stellar image maintained its popularity straight until the dawning of the Knight Rider-era third gen. Late second-gen Trans Ams were definitely not the fastest Pontiac had ever offered, but they looked cool and had an inexplicable lure over the opposite sex, whichever that happened to be, attributes that could make anyone the envy of all their friends.

Today, the inevitable nostalgia that trails any icon by a couple decades is upon us, and the late second-gen TAs are now becoming collector cars demanding the kind of cash that used to buy big-block Chevelles and Road Runners. By now, most enthusiasts can recite the specs and options for musclecars of the glory days from memory, but knowledge of later Firebirds isn't nearly as commonly held. If you do know anything about these cars, you know they all could use a shot of adrenaline. We've taken a few pages to give a brief rundown of some '76-'81 TA facts and figures; we've also outlined some areas that could use improvement, along with sources for hardware. Don't worry about the cheese factor-it's now retro chic.

1976Odd as it was, as the '70s wore on and musclecar offerings dwindled and horsepower waned, the Trans Am was gaining popularity. The '76 Firebird maintained round headlights as most GM vehicles made the switch to rectangular, though it did receive slick new flexible bumper covers to replace the more rigid plastic covers on the '74-'75. Perhaps the most significant exterior feature was the first-time use of a black-with-gold paint scheme. Available only on the Pontiac 50th Anniversary Edition Trans Am, the black Bird included gold-toned Honeycomb wheels, a gold-toned engine-turned dash panel, and gold-spoke Formula steering wheel in addition to the gold pinstriping and gothic-style Trans Am graphics. This scheme was reportedly inspired by the John Player Special race cars of the '70s and would become a Trans Am signature for years to come.

Wheel choices remained between the classic stamped-steel Rally II and the poly-cast Honeycomb, both measuring 15x7. The 455 had been dropped for the '75 model but was resurrected midyear, allegedly in response to consumer outcry. It carried over to the '76, and a four-speed manual trans was mandatory with the big engine. Despite its size, the 455 made a disappointing 200 hp, and did so by only 3,500 rpm. The other option was a 180hp 400, available with either the four-speed or a TH350. The 8.5-inch 10-bolt rear found in nearly all second-gen F-cars was offered with gearsets from 2.41:1 to 3.23:1, all with Saf-T-Track limited-slip differential.

BrakesAll second-gen F-cars use 11-inch front disc brakes with single-piston calipers, while only '79-'81 WS-6 models have rear discs. Note that these use a specific master cylinder, proportioning valve, and parking-brake cable if you're picking the junkyards. Master Power Brakes offers a rear disc conversion kit similar to the factory WS-6 setup. Stainless Steel Brakes offers upgraded front and rear brakes in several stages. Baer can outfit a second-gen TA with aluminum PBR brakes similar to those found on C4 Corvettes and Cobra Mustangs with 12- or 13-inch rotors in front and 10- or 11-inchers in the rear. Remember that big-inch brakes require big-inch wheels, so the biggest offerings may not fit behind stock 15-inch rims.

More info:Baer Brake SystemsPhoenix, AZ602/233-1411baer.com

Master Power BrakesMooresville, NC888/351-8785mpbrakes.com

Stainless Steel Brakes Corp.Clarence, NY716/759-8666stainlesssteelbrakes.com

1977This was the year the Trans Am became a star. The 50th Anniversary black-and-gold theme from the previous year became the SE package and was not a limited-production offering. Thanks to Hollywood's use of the SE TA in Smokey and the Bandit, suddenly there wasn't a cooler car to be had. The Honeycomb wheels were gone, replaced by aluminum 15x7 "snowflake" rims; they were standard with the SE with gold accent paint and optional on other Trans Ams. The 455 was now gone for good, but an optional 200hp 400 was available and just as (in)capable. The standard 400 remained at 180 hp. This was also the first year that engine callouts were displayed in terms of liters rather than cubic inches; the 6.6-Litre (dig the European spelling-that's class) was the base 400 while the TA 6.6 was the high-output version. California Trans Ams got an Olds 403 in place of the 400 Pontiac. The '77 also saw the introduction of rectangular headlamps as part of the "cat's eye" front end, and the header panel was now integrated into the bumper cover.

CamshaftsMeager cam timing on late-'70s TA engines also helped make what should have been brutish big-inch V-8s lame. The '76 455 is one of the more extreme examples. It's factory-rated 3,500-rpm redline is a dead giveaway. In fact, when we tested a '76 455 in the June '03 issue, we found that the engine wouldn't respond to exhaust and intake enhancements until the the cam was changed. There are too many cam grinds available to get very specific here, but as a general rule, resist the temptation to order the biggest cam you can find for your stock-bottom-end Pontiac. Stock Pontiac V-8s, particularly with some years and miles, aren't suited to high rpm. Try it and you're likely to spin some rod bearings or worse. Instead, work with the Pontiac's strength and make power on the low side of 5,000. Most Pontiac factory cams used very wide lobe separation angles (LSA), like 116 or so, so changing to even a mild modern performance grind with a 110-112 LSA and duration of 230-240 will go a long way to wake things up. Our 455 with a 230/236 cam on a 110-degree LSA and 0.500-inch lift peaked at only 4,800 rpm-we could have gone bigger and still had a relatively tame street engine. A recent development for Pontiacs is the availability of hydraulic-roller cams from Comp Cams, allowing more aggressive lift profiles without requiring excessively long duration-that means more power while maintaining idle quality.

More info:Comp CamsMemphis, TN800/999-0853compcams.com

Crane CamsDaytona Beach, FL386/252-1151cranecams.com

1978At a glance, the '78 appears as a total carry-over from the previous year, but there are subtle changes. The graphics are redesigned though the hood Bird remained the same, the grille pattern changed from honeycomb to a diamond grid, and the panel around the taillights was painted black regardless of car color. One of the more significant changes in equipment was the availability of the WS-6 handling package, which included a larger rear sway bar, special springs and shocks, and huge-for-the-time 15x8 snowflake wheels. The TA 6.6 now offered 220 hp, while the 6.6-Litre version stayed at 180.

IntakesThe stock intake manifolds on 400-inch Trans Ams are fair, but some of the later castings and those used on 455s of this period need to go, as they have secondary bores that are partially restricted. Plus, as a general rule, EGR-equipped Pontiac intakes are slightly compromised. The trouble with fitting aftermarket intakes to Trans Ams is the Shaker-it doesn't fit the hood with some manifolds. The Edelbrock Performer design is not too removed from early Pontiac castings, which are known to perform well. The old Torker was a favorite since it reportedly fit under the Shaker, but this design is dated today and no longer manufactured; the Torker II will not fit, according to Edelbrock. The Edelbrock Performer RPM is an excellent manifold, and though clearance will be an issue, there is always the option of modifying the Shaker or mounting the scoop to the hood, though purists will balk at the notion.

More info:Edelbrock; Torrance, CA310/781-2222edelbrock.com

1979Another re-skin debuted with the '79 featuring a radically redesigned nose and a simulated full-width taillight that moved the rear license plate to the bumper. The new look only served to further enamor buyers, and the Trans Am enjoyed its largest-ever sales year with nearly 120,000 produced. The 403ci Olds engine was now the standard TA powerplant for 49-state cars but was only available with an automatic. A 400 Pontiac was still offered, and it maintained its 220hp rating, but it had to be ordered with a four-speed. A 4.9L (301ci) Pontiac low-deck V-8 was a new Trans Am engine option. Bigger news was the inclusion of rear disc brakes in the WS-6 package. A 10th Anniversary Edition of the Trans Am was also offered, which mandated a 6.6L engine (either Olds or Pontiac) and included a special paint scheme-a silver base with an even bigger hood bird over metallic grey paint, stretching its wingspan over the fenders. Unique graphics, silver upholstery, and turbo-styled 15x8 wheels were also part of the deal.

ExhaustAll Pontiac V-8-equipped Trans Ams from this period used log-type exhaust manifolds, which are designed for fitment rather than flow. Adding insult to injury, '75-and-later TAs have the dreaded GM pellet-type catalytic converter, requiring all the exhaust to go through a single, very restrictive cat. From there, some TAs use a single pipe to a transverse muffler behind the axle and then two tailpipes simulating dual exhaust. The '77-and-on high-output TAs used two resonators and tailpipes aft of the cat.

Any discussions of exhaust improvement inevitably involve removing, or at least replacing, the catalytic converter. Complete removal is, of course, illegal for road-going cars, and while replacement is OK, check your state's regulations on such things before proceeding. High-flow replacement cats are available from Car Sound, Hedman, and Random Technologies. That said, the simplest improvement, and one that was very common when these cars were new, is to have a muffler shop make true dual exhaust from the manifolds back. This alone was reportedly good for about 25 hp; adding full-length tube headers helps even more. Headers are available from the traditional sources like Hooker, Hedman, and others, but note that entry-level designs for Pontiac V-8 often use a single center tube for the siamesed exhaust ports. Hedman now offers a set of shortie headers for Pontiac, which use four tubes per side with stepped diameters for increased scavenging. An alternative to tube headers is reproduction Ram Air cast-iron exhaust manifolds, replicating the factory pieces found on earlier high-output Pontiacs. The repros are even available with larger outlets to further enhance flow. Try Ram Air Restoration.

Mandrel-bent, large-diameter exhaust tubing will outflow crush-bent muffler shop pipes, and the aftermarket offers multiple kits for second-gen F-cars from sources like Torque Tech and Flowmaster, which actually offers several types of kits, including one that uses a transverse muffler behind the axle for extra ground clearance.

More info:Car Sound/Magnaflow Exhaust SystemsRancho Santa Margarita, CA800/824-8664car-sound.com

FlowmasterSanta Rosa, CA800/544-4761flowmastermufflers.com

Hedman HeddersWhittier, CA562/921-0404hedman.com

Hooker (A Division of Holley)Bowling Green, KY270/781-9741holley.com

Random TechnologyLoganville, GA30052; 770/554-4242randomtechnology.com

Ram Air RestorationDallas, TX800/421-8455ramairrestoration.com

Torque Tech Performance Exhaust;Valdosta, GA888/465-7260torquetechexh.com

1980The '79 restyle carried over to the '80, save for minor changes to graphics, most notably, smaller Trans Am callouts on the rear spoiler and the front fenders. The major change saddened hard-core motorheads: The 6.6 was dead. Not even the low-compression Olds motor could be had, and Pontiac's substitute for inches was a turbocharged 4.9L. Turbocharging was exotic stuff back in 1980, and Pontiac's advertising hyped the new powerplant big time, attempting to convince consumers that this modern approach to power was far superior to the antiquated big-inch V-8. Subsequent magazine testing indicated otherwise. No '80 Trans Am could be ordered with a four-speed trans, and California non-turbo cars got 305 Chevys. The turbo-styled wheels first seen on the '79 Anniversary model were obviously designed with the turbo car in mind, but the 15x8 snowflakes were still available on non-turbo WS-6 cars. Standard Trans Ams could be had with 15x7 snowflakes or the old stand-by Rally II steel wheels.

Cylinder HeadsThe period of Trans Ams we're covering all suffered from low compression, but the good news is you can correct the situation without having to completely rebuild your engine. With the exception of the late-'70s low-deck 265/301 engines, all '65-'79 Pontiac V-8s are based on the same block-there is no big- or small-block. Also, Pontiac used the combustion chambers in the cylinder heads to set compression ratio, so nearly all of the low-compression versions retained flat-top pistons. That means swapping heads to castings with smaller chambers will get the compression up. For example, a '76 TA with the optional 455 left the factory with 7.6:1 compression thanks to huge 124cc combustion chambers. Swapping the original No. 6H heads for a set of early '70s 400 heads with 96cc chambers-specifically, No. 96 from a '71 and No. 7K3 from a '72-will bring compression into the desirable mid-9.0:1 range. The heads themselves are fairly similar in port volume and arrangement, and only the exhaust valve size is different (1.77 inch for the earlier head, 1.66 for the late). This increase in compression will have a significant impact on performance yet will remain nearly undetectable to all but hard-core Pontiac aficionados. A good valve job and some port work are worth the effort as well.

Of course, today there are also aftermarket heads, and Edelbrock's aluminum Performer RPM assemblies are modeled after the vaunted Pontiac Ram Air IV castings, but with contemporary improvements, and they're even smog-legal through the '79 model year. Kauffman Racing also offers aluminum Pontiac heads, configured with the traditional D-port exhaust arrangement. With aluminum heads, compression should be raised a little further to compensate for the faster rate of heat dissipation-10.0:1 is a good goal.

More info:Edelbrock; Torrance, CA310/781-2222edelbrock.com

Kauffman Racing EquipmentGlenmont, OH740/599-5000krepower.com

SuspensionLate second-gen TAs made up for their lack of power with superior handling capabilities. For their day, these cars were among the best corner carvers on the market. Pontiac stepped up the already impressive ability with the WS-6 option package for '78, which included the same 111/44-inch front sway bar paired with a larger 0.750-inch rear bar in place of the standard TA 0.625-inch unit. Spring and shocks were specific to WS-6, and the steering box was a constant 14.0:1 ratio with high-effort valving instead of the variable-ratio box on standard Trans Ams. The most obvious part of the WS-6 package was the 15x8 aluminum snowflake wheels. For the '79, Pontiac even added rear disc brakes to the WS-6. All these parts can be retrofitted to '70-'81 Firebirds that didn't get them at the factory, but make sure to grab all the associated bits if you're junkyard scrounging.

If finding this stuff in the yard is out of the question in your area, or if you just prefer to step up to new stuff, the aftermarket has the second-gen F-car covered. Sway-bar kits are available from Hotchkis Performance, along with tubular control arms, spring sets, and matching shocks. Global West offers its own sway bars and tubular arms along with springs. Global also offers Del-A-Lum bushings for the leaf springs and body bushings. H-O Enterprises has also reissued its Strong Arm sway-bar and spring kits. Performance shocks for the F-car are available from just about any source you could think of. For steering, Lee Manufacturing or AGR offer GM Saginaw steering boxes with 12.7:1 ratios that are even quicker than WS-6 boxes.

More info:AGR PerformanceFort Worth, TX817/626-9006agrperformance.com

Global West Suspension SystemsSan Bernardino, CA877/470-2975globalwest.net

H-O EnterprisesRancho Cucamonga, CA909/980-1451hoenterprises.com

Hotchkis PerformanceSanta Fe Springs, CA877/466-7655hotchkis.net

Lee ManufacturingSun Valley, CA818/768-0371leepowersteering.com

1981More of the same for the '81: The only real Pontiac engine was a 4.9L, either with or without turbo. As in the previous few years, a Chevy 305 was offered as well, and for some reason, it could now be ordered with a four-speed. Graphics changed slightly for the final year of the second-gen, this time focusing on a slightly different Firebird hood decal and B-pillars. The only major mechanical change was the introduction of onboard computers controlling the spark timing, fuel mixture, and the lock-up torque converter on automatic models. Sales were down substantially over record-setting 1979 levels. Incidentally, the third gen was also supposed to be powered by the turbo 4.9L Pontiac (note the turbo-style hood on '82-'84 Trans Ams), but in the end, received a "corporate" 305 (read: Chevy).

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