How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

1980s Pontiac Firebird

Firebird showed surprising sales strength in the '80s, averaging some 100,000 per year through 1986. But that only reflected the renewed interest in performance cars that began around 1982, making that year's all-new Firebird exceedingly well-timed. Inevitably, it shared a redesigned F-body platform with that year's new-generation Chevy Camaro, striding a trimmer, 101-inch wheelbase.

Though these ponycars were more alike than ever, Pontiac stylists under John Schinella maintained a distinctive Firebird look via a low-riding nose with shallow twin grilles and hidden headlamps -- the latter a first for Firebird -- plus full-width taillamps with a smoked lens on some models for a "custom" blackout effect.


Initially, the third-series Firebird was limited to base, midrange S/E, and racy Trans Am, all "glassback" hatch coupes, but the Formula returned as an option package for 1987, along with the "big" 350/5.7-liter V-8 of bygone years. That engine also powered an even meaner-looking Trans Am called GTA. Other developments largely paralleled Camaro's except that Pontiac wouldn't field another Firebird convertible until 1992; it also continued offering specific chassis tuning and trim/equipment mixes.

Styling was good enough to last through 1990 with only minor annual tweaks, many of which were exclusive to the Trans Am. Most noticeable was a grilleless "bottom-breather" nose for '84.

Recalling 1976's Limited-Edition T/A (for Pontiac's 50th birthday) and 1979's Tenth Anniversary Trans Am was yet another celebratory Firebird for 1989: the 20th Anniversary Trans Am. This involved a 1500-unit run of GTAs powered by the turbo­charged 231-cid/3.8-liter V-6 from Buick's recently departed GNX muscle coupe.

Though sold only with four-speed overdrive automatic, the "blown" Bird was the most-potent T/A in more than a decade, packing a quoted 250 bhp and an imposing 340 pound-feet torque (versus the V-8 GTA's 225 bhp and 330 pound-feet).

You could have any color as long as it was white, just like the '69 original; no racing stripes, though, just subtle "20th Anniversary" cloisonné emblems and "Turbo Trans Am" badges.

Performance was straight from "the good old days" -- better, really. Would you believe 0-60 in 5.4 seconds? Believe it: This Firebird was chosen pace car for the 1989 Indianapolis 500 and required no engine modifications for the task.

Price was reasonable, all told, at about $25,000 with included T-top roof and pace-car decals. In all, this was a glorious reminder that nobody in Detroit still cared more about hot cars than Pontiac.

Unfortunately, Firebird fell on hard times after 1986, with production fading to some 80,000 for '87, then to an average 63,000 a year through '89. The situation grew even more grim for 1990, when fewer than 21,000 were sold.

A little-changed basic design and fast-rising prices were mainly to blame (a new F-body wouldn't appear until 1993), but so were intensified import competition, rising hot-car insurance rates (Camaros and Firebirds were long notorious as frequent theft targets), and continuing lackluster workmanship.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

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