Although Pontiac was known as a performance leader in the 1950s, it was the Pontiac Firebird that helped solidify that reputation. Conversion from stodgy sedans to goin' machines began in autumn 1954, when a brand-new high-compression V-8 elbowed aside the old-fashioned straight-eight engines.
Among other features, the new powerplant had stud-mounted rocker arms, smaller combustion chambers, and -- foretelling the near future -- ample room for growth.
After Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen became Pontiac's general manager in 1956, he borrowed a team from Oldsmobile to shape the V-8 for performance. For 1957, the engine was stroked to 347-cid. That evolved into 370-cid, breathing through optional fuel injection or a Tri-Power (triple carburetion) setup.
Pontiac went "Wide-Track" for 1959, as its 389-cid Tri-Power V-8 reached the 345 horsepower mark; then, 421-cid and 405 horsepower for 1961. Resistance to top-management pleas for restraint led to Pontiac's reputation as GM's "outlaw division."
That performance "rep" was etched permanently by 1964 with the debut of the GTO -- the vehicle that helped to usher in the muscle car era. With its 389-cid V-8 and optional Tri-Power carburetion, the "Goat" lured thousands of youthful drivers into Pontiac showrooms. Even those corporate folks who weren't enamored of automotive muscle couldn't argue against sales that neared 100,000 in 1966 alone.
What next? With a two-seater down the drain, a sporty four-seat model seemed in order -- even if its basics had to be borrowed from GM's bread-and-butter division.
Chevrolet was well underway with its F-body "Panther" project (renamed Camaro by production time), based on the Chevy II chassis with 108-inch wheelbase. Camaro was similarly unibodied, employing a separate front subframe. One difference: its coil springs were mounted on lower control arms instead of uppers.
Chevrolet's objective was to replace the rear-engined Corvair Monza as a sporty compact -- but with a conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout. High-performance mavens at both Chevrolet and Pontiac could see one big bonus: the chassis could carry a mild-mannered six-cylinder engine, or hold GM's biggest V-8s.
Because Pontiac engineers and stylists didn't get a close look at the Camaro until well into its development stage, the production decision came too late to make the car strictly Pontiac.
Firebird engineer Bill Collins later admitted that the '67 was "just kind of inherited from Chevrolet [with] all the Chevrolet sheetmetal and all the same exterior hardware except for the grille and taillamps."
Had the Ford Mustang never been born, no Firebird would have joined the Pontiac fleet -- and a Trans Am badge might never have adorned a Pontiac. And had Chevrolet not created a sport-focused Camaro to target the ripening "youth market," no equivalent Pontiac could have been produced.
Though sharing the Camaro's 108-inch-wheelbase chassis and bodyshell, the first Firebirds displayed a surprising number of distinctive features. Up front sat a "classic" Pontiac split grille. Out back, fluted taillamps blended into the rear panel. Mild sculpturing in rear quarter panels veered away from Camaro's more straightforward shaping.
Jack Humbert served as chief designer, assisted by Ron Hill. Despite the short development period, the end result was definitely Pontiac.
Get details on the design process for the Pontiac Firebird on the next page
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The 1967 Pontiac Firebird
Pontiac's engineers were busy at work on the 1967 Pontiac Firebird, and came up with a vital improvement over the Camaro: more even weight distribution for better handling, accomplished by shifting the engine rearward. To cope with the infamous single-leaf rear springs, they also added traction bars to prevent spring twist under hard acceleration.
As for badging, John DeLorean may have preferred Banshee; Scorpion and Fireball had their proponents; but Firebird won the name battle. Derived from American Indian mythology, Firebird was claimed to stand for "action, power, beauty, and youth."
The name had previously been used on an experimental gas-turbine car that appeared at the 1954 GM Motorama -- and on its successors of 1956 and 1959. To capitalize on that connection, the 1954 Motorama car appeared at the debut of its 1967 namesake.
That launch came late. Whereas Chevrolet's Camaro entered production at Norwood, Ohio, in the fall of 1966, no mention of Firebirds accompanied the announcement of Pontiac's 1967 line-up. Not until January 1967 did the ponycars finally start leaving the factory.
Like the cars themselves, Pontiac's marketing approach differed from Chevrolet's. Instead of being offered as option packages, the five Firebird variants were separate models, keyed to their engines.
Literature, in fact, asked: "Which Firebird is for you?" The "magnificent five" list included base, Sprint, 326, 326 HO, and 400 Firebirds. Each was offered as either a hardtop coupe or convertible.
Base and Sprint versions held a 230-cid overhead-cam inline six (exclusive to Pontiac). The base edition, with single-throat carburetor, delivered 165 horsepower. Four-barrel breathing and a hotter camshaft boosted the Sprint's six to 215 horsepower.
Also used in Tempest Sprints, Pontiac's six-cylinder "cammer" engine was just a year old, generally promoted as much for performance as for its more miserly gas mileage.
Billed as a "family sportster," the 326 Firebird carried a 326-cid V-8 with two-barrel carburetor (250 horsepower). Breathing through four barrels was the HO (high output), branded Pontiac's "285 horsepower light heavyweight."
Because Ford had issued an optional high-performance 390 V-8 for its Mustang, Pontiac couldn't ignore the upper end of the spectrum. A new 400-cid V-8 was the hot one -- also installed in the 1967 GTO. Decked out with chromed valve covers and air cleaner, the latter sitting atop a deep-breathing Rochester Quadra-Jet carburetor, it yielded 325 horsepower.
For another $263, the top engine could be ordered with GTO-inspired Ram Air induction. Then, the 400's twin hood scoops switched from decorative to functional, delivering shivery cold air to the four-barrel. Customers also could order a hood-mounted tachometer -- an innovation that some loved and others scorned.
Even in the abbreviated model year, 82,560 customers took home a 1967 Firebird, helping Pontiac to grab nearly 10 percent of the market. Sure, Camaro sold twice as well that year, but combined F-car sales passed 1/4-million, cheering GM accountants.
Without a doubt, the "youth market" of early "baby boomers" was spreading its wings -- despite the fact that 475,000 American troops already were serving in Vietnam.
John DeLorean and his cohorts had known this a few years earlier, when their proposal for a sports car focused on the fact that 45 percent of Americans -- and 19 percent of licensed drivers -- were under 25.
See the next page to learn about changes for the 1968 Pontiac Firebird.
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Changes for the 1968 and 1969 Pontiac Firebird
Astro-Ventilation was the most evident change for the 1968 Pontiac Firebird, which meant the useful front vent windows were gone. Also that year, the base overhead-cam six grew to 250-cid and 175 horsepower, while an optional 350-cid V-8 replaced the 326-and was installed in the vast majority of Firebirds.
Five more horses went into the 400 V-8, which came in new HO (high output), (335 horsepower) form; optional Ram Air induction was replaced at midyear by a Ram Air II setup. In its first full model year, Pontiac Firebird production rose to 107,112.
Significant styling revisions, front and rear, were evident in the 1969 Firebird. Fresh sheetmetal gave a more sculptured look to the beefier body, which displayed greater front overhang. Quad headlamps now sat within square bezels outside the narrowed split grille, with prominently protruding snout.
The front panel was made of Endura energy-absorbing plastic (like the GTO's nose). Less Camaro-like, the Firebird had an aggressive new look of its own -- definitely GTO inspired.
Base engine was again the high-revving 250-cid overhead-cam six, which carried four-barrel carburetion in Sprint models. Pontiac finally was attracting seekers of honest all-out performance, as evidenced by increasing V-8 popularity. Two Ram Air versions of the 400 could be ordered, rated at 335 or 345 horsepower.
This was the final appearance of a Firebird convertible (until 1991), the last ohc six-cylinder engine, and the last hood-mounted tach. Not everyone appreciated the bulkier look, evidently, as sales slumped to 87,708 -- this despite a long model year, as problems delayed the debut of the next-generation Firebird.
Never content to rely on past accomplishments for sales, both Chevrolet and Pontiac had race-performance aces up their corporate sleeves for midyear 1969 debuts. Chevrolet planned a performance-packed Z28 coupe, race-ready for competition in the Trans-American series.
But wait -- Pontiac had no appropriate V-8 engine, as the rules of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) limited displacement to 305 cubic inches.
See the next page to find out what Pontiac did to get the Firebird race ready.
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Birth of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
IN 1968 and 1969, Pontiac engineers were busy with a project to get the Firebird Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) ready, which led to the development of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Known as PFST ("Pontiac Firebird Sprint Turismo"), the racing prototype was developed largely by chassis whiz Herb Adams.
Powered initially by the ohc six, the PFST project also served as test bed for a small-block (303-cid) V-8, with special tunnel-port cylinder heads. But development problems axed the small-block engine, so a Special Projects committee (including Adams, chief engineer Bill Collins, product planner Ben Harrison, and merchandising master Jim Wangers) turned instead to a potent Firebird with Ram Air 400 V-8 and PFST-type chassis tuning.
Collins wanted their creation to handle like a race car, but without neglecting straight-line performance. Styling would be inspired by the coming-for-1969 GTO "Judge."
Favorable press reports of the 400-cid prototype encouraged the Pontiac gang to proceed with what would become the immortal Trans Am. Neither patterned after a race car or created for racing homologation, Trans Am was instead an outgrowth of the program-from the same group-that came up with the Judge.
Destined for legendary status, the first Trans Am wasn't a model at all, but an option package for the Firebird 400. It debuted after the Judge, early in 1969, at the Chicago Auto Show.
Known officially as the Trans Am Convenience and Performance package (code WS4), it arrived with little fanfare or advertising -- and no sales literature, apart from a little sheet tucked into dealer albums.
Though it sounds blasphemous today, other names had been considered. The car might have been called Sebring, but Plymouth had reserved that moniker for a sporty intermediate that would be introduced for 1971. Formula was also suggested, though Pontiac had other ideas for that name.
Trans Am won the toss, even though GM had to pay a royalty of $5 per car to the SCCA for use of the Trans Am designation. This amounted to pocket change for 1969, when a mere 697 Trans Ams went to customers; but few envisioned how popular the ultra-performance model would become in the next Firebird generation.
Enthusiasts approved heartily. Who cared that the Trans Am had been created "by committee" and was essentially a cosmetic option (most of the performance goodies could be ordered on a regular Firebird 400).
Hot Rod magazine called the Trans Am surprisingly civilized in "slow driving, hot weather, or tight spaces," adding that its "suspension will hang on a lot longer than most drivers will."
Applauding its valor on mountain roads, Sports Car Graphic branded the nimble-handling T/A "an animal: a souped-up, sharp-horned, hairy mountain goat."
Trans Am "was the car that started a cult," declared author Martyn Schorr some years later. Still, the brief first-generation Firebird's day in the sun was nearly over. Like its Chevrolet cousin, Pontiac had some fresh ideas in mind for the 1970s, not yet aware that the era of the muscle car would soon draw to a virtual close.
To continue learning about Pontiac Firebird muscle cars, explore the links below for photos and in-depth information on various Firebird models throughout the decade.