The cars we loved.
As Trans Ams go, the first generation may well be the least favorite of all of them. It’s design was hastily cobbled together and to make matters worse Mercury’s new Cougar stole much of the spotlight when it made its debut the same year as the TA. The Firebird itself was a kind of constellation prize for John D. Delorean who really wanted a true Pontiac sports car. So when GM brass decided to allow Pontiac to clone the Camaro, the stylists at the Advanced Pontiac Studio had little time to differentiate their car from its host. There must have so little time that the only color scheme they could get ready was white with blue stripes.
The clean lines of the Camaro were matched by the Firebird in most respects. The front end was arguably more attractive with its quad headlight design. The Firebird was attractive, but at a quick glance it looked too much like the Camaro for some critics.
One way that Pontiac would further distinguish it’s new Firebird from the Camaro was by developing a new top of the option package, called the Trans Am (WS4). A series of awkward looking side gills and other aero add-ons gave the first Trans Am a boy racer feel, a trait that would define the TA until its demise in 2002. The interior however was more restrained, befitting a luxury sport GT car.
The name Trans Am was inspired by a popular SCCA race series which the Firebird never participated in because it’s engine was initially too small. The name however would stick for Pontaics top version of the pony car, costing the company just $5 a car to use the name. Despite the instant casche of naming your car after a race series, few people were even aware of Pontaic’s pony car. The automotive world seemed more obsessed with the Camaro, Cougar and Mustang. The timing only made matters worse. Due to the Trans Am’s mid-year arrival in the model year, only 697 would be made. With little or no advertising to promote it, the TA would quietly become the better of GM’s pony cars.
Mercury’s pony car more cleverly disguised its Mustang origins the Firebird did from the Camaro. The Trans Am was a bold step forward in furthering that distinction from the Camaro in not only appearance but in performance also. Pontiac would make up for any lack of originality with more civilized handling and in the case of some of the Ram Air versions, considerably more power.
There were three flavors of Trans Am, although most people were accustomed to the first two. All Trans Ams would start a 6.6 L V8 Ram Air III good for 335 hp. A popular step up was the same engine with the Ram Air IV package that bumped power by 10 hp. The first gen Camaro was noted for their tricky handling. All Trans Am variants benefited from refined handling thanks to beefed up sway bars and a heavy duty suspension. In the end the Trans Am was closer to the Mercury Cougar than the the top versions of the Camaro in that it was a proper GT car with a more comfortable ride and better handling.
The most powerful Trans Am was a rare dealer installed option package centered around the same 6.6 L V8, but with Ram Air V that made around 500 hp. While this was uncommon, the most rare of first gen Trans Am were the Ram Air III convertibles. Only 8 were made with a even split between 4 speed manual and 4 speed automatic transmissions.
Interestingly so few people knew the Trans Am even existed and because it was only on lots for half a year or so, they would be gone by the time GM would roll out its new F-body cars for 1970. The rest would be history as the beautiful second generation Firebird would benefit from plenty of styling time in the clay room. Even though it may be unloved by the casual Trans Am fan, the brute lines with all it’s ducts, scopes and spoiler glory has its appeal.