1970s Pontiac Firebird

The 1971, 1972, 1973 Pontiac Firebird
After a troubling time for muscle cars in 1971 and 1972, sales increased for the 1973 Pontiac Firebird, although much of the styling remained the same.
After a troubling time for muscle cars in 1971 and 1972, sales increased for the 1973 Pontiac Firebird, although much of the styling remained the same.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Each model year brought departures from the muscle car ranks, yet Pontiac continued to push its "Ultimate Driving Machine." For the 1971, 1972, and 1973 Pontiac Firebird, product planners wanted to appeal to a broader spectrum of customers. Therefore, the Formula could be ordered from mild to wild, with either a 350 or 400-cid V-8, or even the big new 455-cid engine.

As a portent of things to come, compression ratios were cut, so all GM engines could run on regular fuel. Nevertheless, with 325 or 335 horsepower on tap, Firebirds remained potent machines. Trans Ams carried the 455 V-8, but accounted for only a small fraction of total output.

Only a new honeycomb-mesh grille insert and minor interior upgrades marked the 1972 Firebirds, which carried the same engine choices.

What appeared to be a dramatic drop in horsepower and torque figures was due largely to a switch from "SAE gross" to "SAE net" ratings. Reflecting the engine's power output with all accessories attached rather than running unencumbered, the "net" figures were considered more realistic.

Rumors ran rampant that GM was ready to drop the Camaro and Firebird because of low sales in a rapidly dwindling ponycar market. Despite a slight drop in prices, Firebird output plummeted by a startling 44 percent.

Much of that decline, however, resulted from a lengthy strike at the Norwood, Ohio, assembly plant. In the end, Pontiac's sport coupe won a reprieve as a result of "lobbying" by certain corporate honchos.

"You obviously take the excitement of driving pretty seriously," said the 1973 sales brochure to Firebird customers -- most of whom were likely to concur. "Trans Am is as serious as they come."

Bold graphics livened the Trans Am, led by a monstrous bird decal on the hood. Conceived by John Schinella, and derided by some as the "screaming chicken," this emblem would nevertheless become an easily recognizable -- and welcomed -- Trans Am trademark.

An up-close look at the famed screaming eagle Trans Am hood decal.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Powerplant choices were essentially unchanged, and most buyers ordered a 350-, 400-, or 455-cid V-8. But topping the engine list was a new Super-Duty 455, initially yielding a claimed 310 horsepower.

Only 1295 were installed in Firebirds in 1973-74, and most actually contained a milder camshaft, for a rating of 290 bhp. No matter; that was still well above the 250-horse figure for the regular Trans Am engine. The Super-Duty amounted to a streetable race car, one of the few all-out performance machines offered in 1973.

Sales improved considerably for both Camaro and Firebird. A total of 46,313 Firebirds were built, as Trans Am output rose to an impressive 4802 units.

But world events would quickly threaten sporty, high-performance cars. Arab oil-producing nations enacted an embargo during 1973-74, making drivers face long lines at the gas pumps and the prospect of rationing.

By the time oil was flowing freely again, the era of automotive muscle had virtually come to an end. Ford abandoned its muscular Mustangs in favor of a shrunken successor, initially sans V-8 options.

Dodge's Challenger and Plymouth's Barracuda were about to depart, with AMC's Javelin/AMX soon to follow. Still, Chevrolet and Pontiac hung on.

Exactly how much did the oil embargo impact the 1974, 1975, and 1976 Pontiac Firebird? Find out on the next page.

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