The cars we loved.
The opening years of the third generation meant drastic changes for GM’s F body cars and buyers had to make adjustments to their perceptions of ponycar performance. With Ford already offering a 4 cylinder version of the Mustang for a few years by 1982, GM made four cylinder engined versions of the Camaro and Firebird available for the first time by using its “Iron Duke” which had been in service since the early 70’s. The base model had the purest form of all the Firebirds with one of the sleekest shapes ever from GM by 1982. The cd was a then unheard of .31 (or lower with a Trans-Am fitted with turbine 15in wheels).
Pontiac’s Firebird was offered in three trim levels in 1982: Base, SE and Trans-Am. The Trans-Am and SE models got a lot of press, so much that it was easy to forget that there was a four-cylinder car anchoring the line up. For about $8k,the base model came with a 90 hp 2.5 L four-cylinder. Although not enough power to move a 3000 lb. car with any authority, especially with the three speed hydromatic transmission. At least it was lighter than any 81′ model. While SE and Trans-Am buyers enjoyed more options and a more favorable power to weight ratio thanks to one of the two V8s (the V6 had only 112 hp), base model drivers were comforted in the notion that they could achieve up to 34 mpg on the highway if driven carefully. The outward appearance of the base model was not too different from the SE in that neither of them had full ground effects. In 1983, a 25th Anniversary Daytona 500 pace car replica featured new lower body panels and skirts that would become standard on all TA’s after 1983, furthering the visual differences between the top and bottom models. Looks aside, the big differentiator was what was under the hood. Now it was much easier distinguishing the Trans-Am from the S/E or base cars. Base cars were usually identified by their 14 inch Rally style steel wheels or wheel covers. Some even came with dealer installed add ons that blurred the distinction from the SE. Rear spoilers could be had on the base model as a separate option or later as part of the Rally package. No V8 engines were ever shipped with base cars.
Oddly enough, the 4.9 litre V8 used in the 81′ Trans-Am was originally slated to be turbocharged, possibly making it the star of the lineup. More likely, a smaller engine would have received the turbo treatment, possibly the 2.4. The 82′ Trans-Am had an asymmetrical hump in its hood that was originally intended to house some sort of turbo. It carried over to the V8 and V6 SE model as nothing more than a stylistic touch when the decision was made to scrap the ideal at the last-minute. With Ford was having some success with its turbo 4 cylinder Mustang and GM not quite comfortable with electronic fuel injection, a turbo would have filled a performance and economy gap in a time when the best Trans-Am need almost 9 seconds to get to 60 mph. The hump would become a functional air vent for the V8 cars. It was gone anyway by 1985, in favor a new design with two sets of smaller vents near the front of the hood (on V8 cars).
1985 marked the final year for the 4 cylinder Firebird. The 2.4 would receive revisions to its electronic fuel injection in its final year and other modifications that improved engine response and efficiency, but reduced horsepower to 88. Other improvements like the jump from a 4 to 5 speed manual improved drivability. Eventually the base model would get its own rear light treatment and black wrap-around bumpers that would become a basic design element for future SE and Formula models. Like other Firebirds, the final year saw a revision of the dash, making the former harsh edges softer and somewhat more ergonomic. Sales were always low and the base model had difficulty keeping up with lighter GM cars like the Cavalier and Sunbird that were using the same engine, but weighed much less.
By 1987, there was no 4 cylinder option in any Firebird, as Pontiac decided to make its base engine a 2.8 L V6. What was once the low-end Firebird market was better served by the scrappy Sunbird GT anyway. All was not lost for those who had the four-cylinder engine. Tuner companies offered modifications that would boost the 2.4’s output. The most aggressive tuner option came from Pontiac itself. The Pontiac Motorsports Engineering Group offered a Super Duty kit that turned the 2.4 into a 300 hp 3.0 V6.
The four-cylinder cars are mostly forgotten today as they were not big sellers and very few remain on the roads today. Like all third generation F body cars, there is a sizable aftermarket waiting to turn your 4 cylinder car into whatever you want it to be, so a used one can be picked up for dirt cheap if you can find one. Enthusiasts have already taken it upon themselves to do what Pontiac should have and add a turbo to the 4 cylinder cars. Most used examples end up with modifications that make them resemble the SE at best, with fancy wheels, stripes and rear spoilers added.
Had Pontiac followed through with its original plan, the Mustang would have had a true competitor and maybe four-cylinder engines could have been thought of as something other than economy car motivation. It would be years for that perception to change in the minds of most Americans. Europe and Japan, motivated by various issues have always placed small displacement engine development front and center. The powerful, high revving and efficient import market got a considerable jump on the big three for this reason.