The cars we loved.
Unless you are a big Pontiac Firebird aficionado, you may have never heard of the Trans-Am SD 421. While not truly from the “factory”, this was for all intents and purposes the last new Trans-Am to roll out of Detroit (or was that Ontario). With ironic timing, GM’s Performance Division developed the ultimate TA and displayed it just in time for the 2003 Woodward Dream Cruise, a year after the F body was canceled. The event also featured a special Camaro, as if to rub salt into the wounds of the F body faithful. The one-off car was assembled in the Performance Division’s studio in using a 2002 Firebird as the base.
With the intent to pay homage to the legendary 1971 455 H.O. Trans-Am, The Performance Division crafted parts that looked as close to possible to the original ’71 designs. Many parts like the functional shaker hood scope required some rescaling to fit the more bulbous proportions of the fourth gen F body. A custom rear lip spoiler, side air vents, front end and subtle ground effects in the style of the original SD car were built on the spot for the special TA. Finished in white with a prominent blue stripe that ran the length of the car from the top, it recalled the classic paint scheme of early 70’s Trans Ams. Even the decal for the word ‘Trans AM’ was done using the pre-disco 70’s font.
The inside of the car got the retro treatment as well, to the extent that it could in a modern factory interior. The famous machined surface of the dashboard was recreated in a much smaller area on the modern dash. Somehow the curved and rounded padded blue leather upholstery was reminiscent of earlier cars aimed at women like the 1977 Bluebird Firebird. It’s not the best feature of the SD 421, but then again the interior was never the high point of the fourth gen Firebird in any color. The retro theme extended down to an old style floor mounted Hurst shifter. The end product introduced a fresh take on what was possible with what had seemed like a tired design eight years after the 1994 debut of the new look.
The centerpiece of this modern re-interpretation was of course the engine. Because GM no longer built 421 SD blocks, Katach, a company known for the racing engines in cars like the Cadillac CTS-VR and the Corvette La Mans, built a special 427 c.i. Ram Air V8 that put out 580 hp at the crank. In final running form the show car made 455, over 100 hp more than the original 1971 car. The “show car” also benefited from a modern chassis, fitted with big 20 inch custom wheels with 285/30/ZR20 tires in back!
Had such a car gone on sale as a limited edition, it surely would have sold out, but probably not make a dent in shrinking F body sales overall. The new Camaro was welcome news to many, but the loss of the Firebird (and the brand) still has the Pontiac faithful in a rut. Fear not, new Trans Ams or a close approximation are available as customizations based on the new (fifth generation) Camaro. A small handful of tuners have converted Camaros for about half the cost of a new base car (or less). Some of these conversions capture the look and sprit of the ‘70-‘74 cars better than SD 421, but also mimic the ’77-’78 model years as well. The SD 421 was a fitting tribute to the Firebird, capping a long and storied history of muscle car performance. Its only sad that so few people got the chance to see it or buy it for that matter. The lone SD 421 is owned by GM and is stored in a garage somewhere in Michigan, awaiting a time when its legacy can be shared with a future generation.