The cars we loved.
It seemed that there was a special edition Trans-Am every 5 years or so, causing all but hard-core F- body fans to really notice. In some ways the 1989 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans-Am (TTA) could have been one of those cars. It looked unassuming as a Trans Am could, with its stark white paint and …Buick engine. But wait, a Trans-Am with a Buick turbo short of the usual 2 cylinders inside! This was no ordinary Trans –Am by any stretch of the imagination. In fact it was the fastest Trans-Am ever to roll out of Van Nuys and the first Indy pace car fast enough to pace the race completely stock. Not only was it the fastest factory F-body car ever, it upstaged the pre ZR-1 Corvette and nearly everything else sold in North America at the time – save for the Ferrari F40. There have been other turbo Trans Ams in the past, but this one unlike the 1980-81 models this one used a V6 as its starting point.
One Car Two Occasions
By the late 80s, V8 powered rear wheel drive cars like the Mustang and Firebird were being challenged by a new breed of light front wheel and sometimes all-wheel drive cars that came close to if not surpassing some aspects of muscle car performance. For Pontiac an opportunity arose to add some real excitement and diversity to the Firebird line with the demise of Buick’s rear wheel drive G- Bodied cars. More specifically,
the potent 3.8L turbocharged V6 from the Regal Grand National had nowhere to go. The new breed of front wheel drive Regal could not handle the power, so the engine sat on the shelf. When Pontiac was chosen to pace the 73rd Indy 500, it jumped on the opportunity to get its hands on Buick’s turbo V6. This would be a special car in that it was both an anniversary edition and pace car, making it a rare alignment of superlatives in Firebird history.
Old Heart, New Body
The engines were outsourced to PAS Inc, an engineering firm that built the engines, shipped them to the Camaro/Firebird Van Nuys, CA factory, and then the cars were shipped back to PAS for extensive testing. Random GTA frames were used, so there were no special numbering sequences identifying TTAs. . In continuing the blending in theme, Pontiac wanted the engines to be warranted like their others, so instead of Buick’s 12 month/12,000 mile original, they went with a 5 year/50,000 mile warranty after extensive testing improved durability. Like the GTA, TTAs had all the features that the loaded Trans-Am of the late 80s would have (except for CD player and V8 engine). The TTA was the most loaded standard equipped Trans-Am ever. The only options were a glass t-bar roof and tan leather seats. A four speed automatic was the only transmission available, but that did not slow the TTA down.
Fast, Furious and Finesse
The performance of the TTA was phenomenal by any standard of the 80’s or today for that matter. Any talk about the impotency of V6 engines in muscle car applications was silenced (as if the GN or GNX was not proof enough). The factory conservatively estimated a 0 to 60 time of 5.4 seconds. By contrast the heavier 5.7L V8 equipped Trans Am GTA produced 240hp with a run to 60 mph in the high 6 second range. Launching the TTA could be tricky, but in the right hands a lower time could be achieved. Car and Driver magazine reported a 4.6 time proving that the TTA was faster than any S/D 455, LS1 or Ws6 Trans-Am. It was even faster than the Corvette! The revised intercooler from the GNX and other modifications needed to fit the Trans Am’s engine bay resulted in improved exhaust flow and engine response. The whine of the turbo with the growl of the V6 at speed was a strange sound coming from the bonnet of a Firebird, but the acceleration was not. The very wide power band combined with the quick and smooth shifting auto transmission allowed for quick jumps into pockets at highway speeds. Around town the engine felt like any other efficient V6 with muted sounds in parking lot maneuvers and stop and go traffic.
In another bout of conservatism, the factory rated horsepower at 250, it was actually closer to 300. The TTA did a great job of going fast in a
straight line like a traditional muscle car, but it also had the moves in the curves. Beefed up anti sway bars and 245/50 VR16 Goodyear Gatorbacks aided in achieving .86g of lateral grip. The TTA could stop as well as it accelerated with a 60 to 0 distance of only 139 feet thanks to heavy-duty police package brakes with Corvette calipers. As a pace car it might have been one of the closest to production version ever, with only a few safety items and lights added during race day.
Even with all the great performance this turbocharged Trans Am had, it was still after all a product of early 80’s Pontaic engineering. That usually meant quality issues in the fit and finish department. In addition to the regular Firebird squeaks and rattles, problems developed with the glass roof panels. The panels leaked and in a running production change were switched from glass to Lexan. Lexan panels had a darker tint and were lighter, but reoccurring problems resulted in glass being used again as buyers got warranty repairs.
Only 1,500 TTA came out of the factory before Pontiac had to pull the plug. Lucky buyers got a special kit that included a leather-bound owner’s manual, a letter reminding you that you bought something special and a series of pace car replica decals that the owner could install on the door or front windshield. The timing of the TTA was during a bittersweet period in the GM performance saga. The Grand National and Fiero had just been canceled and the ZR1 Corvette was just around the corner. The 89 TTA proved once and for all that a V6 could equal performance when coupled with a turbo and electronic fuel injection. Although not thrifty by todays fuel economy standards, the 3.8 could get 20 or more miles to the gallon on the highway. The V8 Trans Ams were closer to 18.
Unfortunately, as if to just prove a point and move on, Pontiac would not flirt with turbocharged V6 engines with a few exceptions in the early 90’s. The efficiency of the V6 turbo and its power would have made for an ideal lighter F body car when the new ones appeared in 1993, but it was not to be so.