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A short history of the Pontiac Firebird

The Pontiac Firebird was a classic American 'pony' car, an affordable compact car but with a highly-stylised sporty look. It was a direct rival to the Ford Mustang and went for the same powerful, long-hood look, a performance-orientated image calculated to appeal to a youthful market but also with some lucrative options including bigger engines, better trim levels and special editions.

The Firebird was the base model, but there were also GTO, Trans Am and Ram Air models.

It was built from 1967 to 2002, through four very different generations and, like so many American cars of this era, it was hit hard by the oil crisis and tightening emissions regulations of the 1970s.

Like the Mustang, Corvette and other American classics, the Firebird's raw early power units were soon tamed, so that as the cars and their styling became more refined, their performance, alas, became more muted.

Only later, as more advanced engine technologies were able to replace some of the power lost from the early V8s, did the Firebird and its Formula and Trans Am variants recover some of their early muscle.

The first-generation Firebird ran for just two years, from 1967 to 1969. It had classic 'coke bottle' styling, where the pronounced front and rear wheelarches enclosed a narrow-waisted middle section. It was available in two-door hardtop and convertible versions and came with a choice of engines, from a 3.8 liter straight six with 165hp up to a 6.6 liter GTO model with 325hp.

In between were a Sprint model and two 5.3 liter V8s. This is when Pontiac introduced its Ram Air model, with air scoops built into the hood and a modified head and camshaft. The Trans Am variant arrived too, an optional performance and styling pack that got its name from the American racing series.

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A short history of the Pontiac Firebird

The long-running second-generation model arrived in 1970 and continued right through to 1981. This is the model shown in our cutaway image. It's also the one that bore the brunt of the 1973 oil crisis and new emission controls. 

It started so well. The entry level Firebirds were always modestly powered at 100-105hp, but in 1970 Pontiac also made a 6.6 liter Ram Air GTO with 345hp, and 1971 brought a huge 7.5 liter 335hp Ram Air Trans Am.

But then the Firebird hit the perfect storm that was the mid-seventies. New 5mph bumper legislation arrived in 1974 alongside other weight-increasing safety enhancements, low-lead fuel meant reduced compression ratios, and just a couple of years later in 1976 the large-capacity engines were gone, casualties of the new world order.

By 1980 only a base-level 5.0 liter V8 was left, and in 1981 even the Turbo V8 was only putting out 220hp – just two-thirds the power of the early Ram Airs. 

Anyone remember Smokey and the Bandit? Then you might remember the lead automotive role Burt Reynolds' Pontiac Trans Am. It helped keep the car cool-looking at a time when its power output and performance were taking their worst hit.

The third generation Firebird, which ran from 1982 to 1992, embraced the new realities of environmentally conscious America, swapping giant gas-guzzling V8s for improved aerodynamics, weight savings and chassis developments.

The Firebird was completely redesigned, delivering the best aerodynamics of any General Motors car to date and a weight saving of 500lb over the previous model. The body shape was developed in a wind tunnel, the windshield was sloped to 62 degrees and the headlights were now concealed under pop-up panels.

It looked great, but the third generation Firebird was more about efficiency than performance. For a while Pontiac offered a feeble 2.5 liter inline six with just 90hp, but this was dropped in 1996. Otherwise, Firebirds were equipped with a 2.8 liter V6 (102-135hp) or a 5.0 liter V8 (145-240hp).

If the third generation Firebird marked an era of svelte sensibility, the fourth and final generation (1993-2002) did begin a return to the old days, with some more modern, more powerful and more efficient motors, together with safety features like standard dual airbags and four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

The 2002 WS6 Trans Am produced 325hp from its 5.7 liter V8 engine and in testing covered the quarter mile in 13.16sec. Honour was restored, but sadly this was to be the last year of production for Pontiac's pocket rocket.