Gear Head Tuesday – ’86 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am

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Readers' car series

“Rick A.’s” 1986 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am

86 Firebird - front

The late great Pontiac Division of General Motors introduced the Firebird, a “Pony Car” to compete with Ford’s runaway success, the Mustang, alongside Chevrolet’s Camaro on 23 February 1967. The Firebird and Camaro were built on the same body shell, but (originally) were powered by their respective division’s power plants and differed in trim, the Pontiac being a bit more upscale from the Camaro. Ford, anticipating the release of the GM Pony Cars introduced the Mercury Cougar, which was built on the Mustang platform, in 1967. American Motors weighed in with their Javelin in 1968.

1967 Firebird

1967 Pontiac Firebird. The Pontiacs were fitted with quad headlamps while their Chevrolet Camaro cousins had dual headlamps.


1969 was the first year for the Firebird Trans-Am.

Pontiac added the Trans-Am model as the top-of-the line Firebird for the 1969 model year.

The first generation Firebird and Camaro featured the “Coke bottle” styling that was common across General Motors at the time.

1970 1:2 Firebird Trans-Am

1970 1/2 Firebird Trans-Am. The aerodynamic add-ons actually detract from the otherwise clean “envelope” body that was one of GM’s best styling efforts of the period.

The second generation of the GM Pony Cars was introduced mid-year in the 1970 model year. The first generation cars continued to be built until tooling and engineering problems with the new envelope body GM Pony Cars could be sorted out. Thus the new body cars were designated “1970 1/2” models. Once sorted out, this body served both the Firebird and Camaro through the end of the 1981 model year.

1979 marked the 10th Anniversary of the Trans-Am, and a special anniversary package was made available: silver paint with a silver leather interior. The 10th Anniversary cars also featured a special Firebird hood decal, which extended off of the hood and onto the front fenders. In 1979 Pontiac sold 116,535 Trans-Ams, the most they ever sold in any model year. In 1980, due to ever-increasing emissions restrictions, Pontiac dropped all of its large displacement engines. 1980 therefore saw the biggest engine changes for the Trans Am. The 301, offered in 1979 as a credit option, was now the standard engine. Options included a turbocharged 301 or the Chevrolet 305 small block.

Rick’s 1986 Firebird Trans-Am is a third generation car, the third generation having been introduced for the 1982 model year.

Federal government mandates had shut down the muscle car era and the third generation GM Pony Cars, known internally at GM as the “F”-body,  shared more parts than they had in either of the previous two generation cars. Some 60% of the Firebird’s parts were interchangeable with the Camaro, a result that was most pleasing to the bean counters who were running GM in those days. The heavy hand of the Federal government having restricted performance, the third generation Firebird and Camaro emphasized handling over speed.

The “F”-body Firebird had pop-up headlights. The windshield was sloped more on the “F”-bodies than ever attempted before at GM, a 3% sharper angle than on the second generation cars. At the rear was a large glass hatchback.

Rick’s Trans-Am is powered by the Chevrolet-designed 305 cubic inch V-8. That Pontiac was now using another GM division’s engine was at this time common across GM. While the initial impetus for this was ever-tightening Federal fuel economy standards, it also played into the penny-pinching mentality of the bean counters in the Financial Department of GM who were hell-bent on using as many common parts across GM divisions as possible. While this made – on the surface – financial sense, it robbed GM divisions of their distinctiveness and became one of the factors that nearly destroyed the company.

86 Firebird - rs

Rick’s Trans-Am has been well cared for, It has had one high quality repaint. Its original engine was replaced by a factory-correct 5 liter V-8. Rick has fitted mufflers that give his “Emberchicken” (as we called the Firebirds when I was 18 years old in Lubbock, Texas) an exhaust rumble that is certainly appropriate for a Trans-Am. Of the 110,465 1986 Firebirds built by Pontiac, 48,870 were Trans-Ams.

Production of the Firebird ended at the close of the 2002 model year and we lost Pontiac altogether with the Obama regime’s dictatorial and very heavy-handed bail-out of GM in 2009. It’s sad that we lost Pontiac. From the mid-’50s through much of the ’70s, Pontiac was GM’s performance division. Belatedly General Motors realized that it had allowed its financial staff to ruin the company – the divisions had lost their individuality, build quality was atrocious, sales and market share had plunged. Just before the bailout, GM had brought Bob Lutz in to fix the product. Lutz was making headway with Pontiac and had some exciting cars in the pipeline when Obama’s tyrants forced GM to jettison Pontiac.

86 Firebird - LF

86 Firebird - rear


More On Studebaker’s Marshal

Two weeks ago, we saw “Michael C.’s” 1964 Studebaker Marshal – the Police package Studebaker offered. Last week Curbside Classic posted a story about Police packages from several manufacturers and included more about Studebaker’s Marshal offerings over the years. Here are two:


Above: For 1958, Studebaker’s Marshal was a Scotsman fitted with a V-8. Below: Studebaker downsized their cars for 1959 to the compact class – but V-8 powered Marshals were available in the new Lark line. Shown is a 1960 Marshal. Note the police action behind the car – two suspects getting a pat down while a second officer stands watch.


Studebaker S logo

The old gas station photos series as posted at Curbside Classic continues: today we have another Humble (now known as Exxon) station. The car is a ’59 Oldsmobile. Note the “Put A Tiger In Your Tank” ad in the front window of the station:

Humble station

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