Although John Z DeLorean had a hard time getting the 1964 Pontiac Banshee concept (codenamed XP-833) greenlit for production, a joint effort on the “F-body” platform for both the Chevrolet and Pontiac divisions made it abundantly clear to GM that they would need a pony car lineup to compete in production and sales against the Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar. Thus, 1967 marked the beginning of GM’s endeavour into producing four generations of both the Camaro and Firebird over the next 35 years.
The first generation Firebird entered production in February of 1967. The wheelbase sat at 108.1 inches (2746 mm) and exterior length at 189 inches. This made the Firebird dimensionally similar to the Camaro, down to the same 108-inch wheelbase. Power for the standard model came from a 230 CI (3.8L) inline-6. This engine was similar to Chevrolet’s inline-6, but featured a unique cast iron block and aluminum valve cover. With a single barrel carburetor, this engine developed 165 horsepower. A four-barrel “Sprint” model developed 215 horsepower. Detroit’s performance specials for the Firebird were four V8 engine options: the 326 (5.3L) Pontiac V8, a 326 “high output” (HO), a 400 (6.6L) Pontiac V8, and the 400 Ram Air V8. The 326 was capable of 250 horsepower and its “high output” counterpart developed 285 horses. Although both versions of the 400 V8 developed 325 horsepower, the Ram Air gave the Firebird functional hood scoops, low-end torque and high redline. In 1968, the 230 engine was replaced by a 250 CI (4.1L) engine for both the standard and Sprint models. A new 350 CI (5.7L) V8 replaced the 326 and power ratings for the 400 went up. The base 400 jumped up to 330 horsepower, and the Ram Air and High Output developed 335 horsepower. Soon though, Pontiac decided to axe the Ram Air engine option, only to return it to the lineup and give it more power. The revised “Ram Air II” now made 340 horsepower. In 1969, an appearance and handling package called Trans Am was introduced. The Trans Am’s power was delivered via a 400 CI Ram Air V8; good for 335 to 345 horsepower. That year, a total of 689 Trans Am coupes and 8 Trans Am convertibles were produced.
The second generation Firebird was met with design and production delays, meaning there would be no 1970 model per se. Thus, the “1970 1/2” debuted in February 1970. Production started off well, with 48,739 units in 1970, and 53,125 for 1971. New was the 455 (7.5L) V8, which packed 325 horsepower. A high-output Ram Air IV packed 335 horses. A labour strike in 1972 resulted in vastly reduced production of the Firebird. 1972 production remained mainly unchanged from 1971, with the exception of a slight restyle. The 455 engine was upgraded in 1973, and was called “Super Duty 455”. This SD-455 featured a strengthened cylinder block, forged crankshaft, forged rods, and forged aluminum pistons. The Firebird was facelifted in 1974 to feature a “shovel-nose” front-end and crash safety components. The addition of mandated safety features also added curb weight. A wrap-around rear windshield was implemented into the 1975 model. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pontiac brand, the Firebird for 1976 gained some “Limited Edition” anniversary models. This was the first time a Trans Am would feature black with gold accents as a livery option.
1977 saw a restyle to the Firebird; mainly, a restyled front end which now featured rectangular headlights. Although the front fascia was similar for both the 1977 and 1978 models, they featured slightly different grille designs. The 1977 had a honeycomb design and the 1978 had a crosshatch. The most popular Firebird trim for both these years was the Trans Am, which got power from a 400 CI (6.6L) V8. Power output for 1977 was 200 horsepower, but increased to 220 in 1978.
The Firebird was redesigned again in 1979. This was the last year a Trans Am featured a 6.6-liter as its engine. For 1980, the 400 was replaced by a 301 CI (4.9L) unit. Although the T/A did feature either a naturally aspirated 4.9-liter or a turbocharged variant, some models were supplied with a 305 CI (5.0L) Chevy V8. The naturally aspirated T/A drew 155 horsepower and turbocharged models could develop 210 to 220 horsepower. Models with the Chevy engine developed 150 horsepower. The 1979 redesign was kept intact until the end of the second generation’s run in 1981.
The third generation Firebird debuted in model year 1982. Like the Chevrolet Camaro, its wheelbase was shortened to 101 inches. The bodywork resembled that of the then-new third generation Camaro. The trim levels for the Firebird were Base, S/E, and Trans Am. The base model was powered by a 90 horsepower 151 CI (2.5L) “Iron Duke“; the S/E got the 173 CI (2.8L) Chevy V6; and the Trans Am got the 305 CI (5.0L) V8. Depending on setup, the Trans Am could develop either 145 or 165 horsepower. The first option, codenamed LG4, was the 4-barrel carb variant. The LU5 option added 20 horsepower to the 305 V8, replacing the 4-barrel carburetor with Cross-Fire Injection; a system also seen in the Corvette that year. In 1983, the S/E came available with a “high output” 2.8L. This unit now made 125 horsepower. As for the Trans Am, power went up to 150 horsepower. The 25th Anniversary Daytona 500 Limited Edition amped that power up to 175 horsepower. In 1984, the Trans Am was also available with a “high output” version of its 5.0L V8. This engine produced 190 horsepower. In 1986, the base model transitioned to V6 power and the Trans Am got tuned-port fuel injection (TPI).
In 1987, the S/E was dropped from the lineup and replaced with the Formula. The Formula model got power from a 5.0L V8, a feature on past Trans Ams. This 5.0-liter developed 155 horsepower. The Trans Am could throw out 165 horsepower from the same 305 V8. New for 1987 was the Trans Am GTA (Gran Turismo Americano). The GTA utilized a 350 Ci (5.7L) V8 with tuned port injection, which developed 225 horsepower. 1989 saw the addition of a Corvette-sourced 5.7L TPI and a Buick-sourced 3.8L V6 in the Trans Am models. The TPI threw 230 – 240 horsepower, and the Buick V6 developed 250 horsepower. In 1991 the Firebird lineup was given a facelift. The new design made the vehicle look more rounded and aerodynamic. Convertible versions of the V6 and V8 base and Trans Am were available. The third gen Firebird soldiered on until 1992.
The fourth generation Firebird reflected styling cues from the 1988 Banshee IV concept. This meant the new-for-1993 Firebird had a more aerodynamic contour, in leu of the Camaro’s redesign that year. Also, the production facility relocated to Sainte-Thérèse, Quebec (Canada). The base model got power from the 3.4L L32 V6, developing 160 horsepower. This was the base engine for the Firebird across the board, except for California. California models were installed with the Series II 3.8L Buick V6. A new-generation LT1 (also referred to as LT1 350) was the sole power for the Trans Am. Following tradition, the LT1 was a 350 cubic inch (5.7-liter) V8; also installed in the Corvette. Power ratings for the LT1 were detuned from the Corvette variant, making 200 horsepower for the Trans Am. Depending on the model, the transmission options ranged from 4-speed automatic, 5-speed manual, and 6-speed manual. The Turbo-Hydramatic 4L60/4L60E was the automatic transmission available in the Firebird for its entire generational production. The Borg-Warner T-5 was the 5-speed manual that was available in some V6 models, and the T56 6-speed manual was installed in the Trans Am. For 1994 only, a special version of the Trans Am, called Trans Am GT, was produced. The GT retained the look of its base counterpart, and some GT models could be had with an “uplevel spoiler”, coupe, targa, and convertible tops. While these weren’t official Trans Am GT packages, but were installed anyway. The majority of the available equipment on the 1994 GT would become standard on subsequent Trans Ams. In 1996, OBD-II (onboard diagnostics) became standard on all vehicles. This included the Pontiac Firebird. The Series II Buick V6 previously available only in California models were now the base engine for the Firebird. In 1997, all models got air conditioning, daytime running lights, digital odometer, and compact disc (CD) players as standard equipment. In conjunction with SLP Engineering, Pontiac produced 29 examples of the LT4-powered Firehawk. The Firehawk was named after the Firestone Firehawk tires installed on the car, and the LT4 was a 350 cubic inch (5.7-liter) Small-Block V8.
In 1998, the Firebird received a mid-cycle refresh. Notable changes included a more aggressive body kit with wide air intakes and circular fog lights inserted into the front splitter. The Formula and Trans Am switched to the all-aluminum LS1 engine. Although the Corvette-sourced units produced nearly 350 horsepower, the Trans Am produced 325 horsepower. 2002 was the Firebird’s final model year. To celebrate, a “Collector Edition” Trans Am was produced. Features included special exterior paint colors, pin-striping, decals, and a WS6 performance package. Power mirrors and power antenna were standard equipment for the Firebird in 2002.
In the wake of the 2008-2009 economic recession, General Motors began to consider phasing out some brands, including Pontiac. After chapter 11 bankruptcy was filed, Pontiac’s fate was sealed. Pontiac manufactured its last ever vehicle (a G6 sedan) in January of 2010. The Pontiac brand was officially defunct in October of that year. Although the Chevrolet division had announced a comeback of the Camaro after an 8-year hiatus, Pontiac couldn’t afford to bring the Firebird back – not even for 2010. Thus, it can be said that the Firebird/Trans Am lives on in spirit in the form of its former platform cousin the Chevrolet Camaro.