Let’s dial back the clock a quarter century and return to the wee hours of the Reagan Era, when Pontiac made a desperate, last-ditch effort to keep the Trans-Am from becoming completely toothless via the engineering Viagra of turbocharging its flaccid 4.9 liter V-8.
It was spring 1980 – and things were looking dim for the Trans-Am. The last of America’s big-engined muscle cars had finally lost even the big engine. (Big horsepower had been gone since 1974, last year for a true high-performance V-8 in the form of the now-legendary SD-455, hilariously under-rated at 290 hp but in reality producing more than 330 hp. Because 4,000 pound Trans-Ams don’t run low 13 second quarter miles on 290 hp!)
1979 was the last year for both the Pontiac-built 6.6 liter “T/A 6.6” 400 V-8 (producing 220 hp) and the Oldsmobile sourced 403, which also displaced a still-impressive 6.6 liters – even if it only made 185 hp.
Both engines, however, could nor survive the one-two punch of ever-tightening fuel efficiency and emissions control requirements. Pontiac had actually stopped building the 400 in 1978, leaving a relative handful for installation in a few lucky ’79s.
The 403, too, was an engine that had outlived its usefulness.
As the 1980 model year approached, it seemed there would be nothing bigger than 4.9 liters in the TA’s engine compartment – in the form of the new 301 V-8. This engine, though still Pontiac-built, did not share a block or heads or crank or intake manifolds or any other major parts with the previous 400. Or any other Pontiac V-8, for that matter. It was designed to be a lightweight, high-efficiency engine – period.
With the downsized displacement would come downsized power. The little 4.9 liter V-8 that became the TA’s standard engine for 1980 was rated at a truly embarrassing 140 hp at 4,000 RPM. An optional “T/A 4.9” upped that to 155 hp at 4,400. This represented a drop of 30 hp over the ’79 Trans-Am’s weakest engine, the 6.6 liter Olds – and a loss of 65 hp compared with the ’79 TA’s optional 220 hp Pontiac 400.
The famous “chicken” decal on the hood seemed to be screaming in pain as a result of the cruel plucking the TA was being subjected to – not as a sign of the performance that beckoned.
But Pontiac had one last card to play – a way to literally breathe life into the wimpy 301.
In the mid-late ’70s, several automakers were turning to the turbo as a way to maintain a semblance of performance – on demand – while delivering decent gas mileage the rest of the time. Buick was fiddling with turbos as a way to goose the output of its 3.8 liter V-6 (and would achieve great success with this as the ’80s progressed). Ford put a turbo four in the Mustang II.
No one, however, had thought to bolt a turbo onto a V-8. Not since the 1960s, anyhow (when Oldsmobile briefly toyed with the idea).
No one, that is, except for Pontiac.
Turbocharging appeared to be the salvation of the 301. A specially reinforced block and other internal improvements laid the foundation. A unique cam was installed – and of course, turbo-specific exhaust plumbing.
Capping it off was an AIR Research turbo that fed compressed air to the engine through a specially calibrated Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carb.
Net result? 210 hp at 4,000 RPM and even better, 345 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2,000 RPM.
On paper, this looked solid. The 301 turbo’s rated output was only 10 hp off the rated output of the previous year’s 400, despite the loss of 100 cubic inches of displacement (as well as a similar amount of dead weight off the front end of the car; the 301 was a “light casting” that weighed about 100 pounds less than the 400). And the 301 turbo’s rated torque output was actually higher – and came on sooner (345 lbs.-ft. at 2,000 RPM vs. 320 lbs.-ft. at 2,800) than the 400’s.
Actual performance, therefore, ought to be very close, ’79 vs. ’80.
Unfortunately, as we know now, there were some flies in the proverbial soup. For one, the ’79 TA’s L78 400 was (like the ’74 SD-455) almost certainly underrated. The published peak hp of 220 and the ’79 TA’s low 15 second quarter miles times and 130-plus top end don’t line up. The T/A 6.6 400 was likely making closer to 250-270 hp. Meanwhile, the 301 turbo’s 210 hp rating was much more honest, if the 1980 TA’s gimpy 0-60 and quarter mile time slips are any indication. It was considerably slower than the ’79 400 Trans-Am, waddling through the quarter in a so-so 16 seconds. Top speed, at 118 mph or so, was also about 10-15 mph off the pace of the ’79 T/A 6.6 Trans-Am
The turbo TA suffered another handicap, too. It was not offered with a manual transmission – whereas the ’79 400 had only been sold with a 4-speed manual. Reason? Pontiac could not “emissions certify” the 301 with a manual transmission – though mighty efforts were made to get it done. The best it could do was to fit a “performance calibrated” THM350 automatic to the car.
Another problem with the 301 turbo was that it was carbureted. Carbs and turbos don’t work well together, in part because carbs can’t meter the fuel as precisely and also because the turbo must “blow through” the carburetor – and carbs are by design intended to operate under vacuum, not boost. The final nail in the 301’s coffin was its not-ready-for-prime-time electronic controls.
Like early jet engines, the 301 was still going through its teething phase when it was put into a production car. It had tons of potential, but that was hard to see through the enfeebled performance (even when things were working right).
But had Pontiac been given time to massage the technology, the 301 turbo almost certainly would have matured into one of the most formidable engines of the ’80s. Doubters should look across the aisle to the miracles Buick eventually worked with the 3.8 liter turbocharged V-6. EFI, intercooling and digital controls turned this engine into the most powerful production engine GM made in the mid-late ’80s, when it was installed in Regal Grand Nationals and the 1989 20th anniversary Trans-Am.
These were cars capable of high 12 second quarter mile times and 150 mph top speeds. Indeed, the ’89 20th Anniversary Trans-Am with the turbo Buick V-6 engine was the first Trans-Am in 15 years to beat the performance stats of the ’73-’74 SD-455 Trans-Am.
Pontiac clearly hoped it would get the chance to develop the 301 to its full potential. When the redesigned 1982 Trans-Am appeared, it had an offset “turbo bulge” hood scoop, just like the ’80-’81 Turbo Trans Am. The car’s front subframe was designed to accommodate the Pontiac V-8, too. In the smaller, lighter third generation Trans Am, a 250-300 hp turbocharged 301 would have been absolutely ferocious. Probably, it would have been quicker and faster than the Buick Regal Grand National given the same advances in EFI/intercooling but with two more cylinders and more displacement to bring to bear.
A five-speed equipped mid-1980s Turbo Trans-Am would have been a memorable ride. And with a true Pontiac V-8 under its hood, it would have retained its Pontiac personality – as well as assured its future collectibility.
Unfortunately, GM management decided to kill the development of the Pontiac V-8 altogether. The 301 would be the last-ever Pontiac V-8. Beginning with the ’82 model year, all Firebirds would have the same engines as the Chevy Camaro. V-8s would henceforth be exclusively Chevy-built, so that from ’82-up, there was no meaningful difference under the hood between a Camaro Z28 and a Trans-Am.
It was a “Pontiac” in name only.
Arguably, this helped kill off the Firebird line itself. After all, why bother with the (so-called) Pontiac when the same car was being sold for less money at the Chevy store? Yes, there were exterior and interior differences, but these were superficial. The Pontiac’s still-beating heart had been ripped out of its engine bay – and the transplanted Chevy mill could never provide more than artificial life support.
How different it might have been – the saddest six words in the entire English language.