The last real Trans Am – and the end for Pontiac

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Let’s dial back the clock a quarter century and return to the early days of the Reagan Era – when Pontiac made a last-ditch effort to keep the Trans-Am from becoming a re-skinned Camaro powered by the same Chevy-built V-8 found under other the hood of its sister “F” car. 

The Pontiac-built 400 that powered the TA during its Great Days in the mid-late ’70s (when hundreds of thousands were made each year) was gone – killed off by GM corporate over concerns about fuel economy and complying with federal emissions rules. The big V-8, which dated back to 1955, needed an update – but GM didn’t want to spend money on it – so no more were made after 1978 and the last ones (left over in inventory) were installed in a few lucky 1979 Trans-Ams (and even fewer Formulas). 

Rolling into the 1980 model year, the Trans-Am was in real danger of being seen as a toothless, over-heavy Gimp. 

Its only engine choices were a Chevy-built 305 or the flimsy little 4.9 liter 301 V-8, the last Pontiac-made V-8 still being manufactured. The downsized 301 had been conceived as an “economy” engine for lower-caste Pontiacs. It had only a two-barrel carburetor (originally) a very low compression ratio and a block and heads made of relatively fragile, lightweight materials – all intended to take weight off the front end of the cars into which it would be installed – and to reduce fuel consumption. 

No thought was given to the 301 as a potential performance engine – at least when it was conceived.

But by 1980, Pontiac had no other V-8 of its own to work with, and if the Trans-Am was to remain respectable – and Pontiac powered – Pontiac would have to work with the 301. 

Turbocharging, at that time, was becoming somewhat popular as a way to goose the output of a smaller engine “on demand” while keeping the fuel economy reasonable the rest of the time. Buick, in particular, had done a lot of work in this area and was having some success with its turbocharged 3.8 liter V-6 engine – a powerplant that would become famous (and feared) by the mid-late ’80s in cars like the Buick Regal Grand National and GNX.

Buick’s efforts probably inspired engineers within Pontiac to consider turbocharging the 301 V-8,  which circa 1979 was producing just 150 horsepower. 

A specially reinforced block and other internal improvements laid the foundation. A unique cam was installed – and of course, turbo-specific exhaust plumbing, along with a low-restriction dual outlet exhaust system similar to the earlier “T/A 6.6” 400 V-8s.  

Capping it off was an AIR Research turbo that fed compressed air to the engine through a specially calibrated Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carb. 

This resulted in 210 hp at 4,000 RPM and even better, 345 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2,000 RPM. 

On paper, this looked really solid. The 301 turbo’s rated output was only 10 hp off the rated output of the old “T/A 6.6” 400 V-8 (220 hp) despite the deficit of 100 cubic inches of displacement. 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. 

Maybe even better, given the torque advantage. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t shake out that way. For one, the actual power output of the  “T/A 6.6” 400 was (like the earlier ’73-’74 SD-455) almost certainly underrated. The published peak hp of 220 and the 4,000 pound ’78-’79 TA’s factory stock low 15 second quarter miles times and 130-plus top end speed don’t line up. The car’s performance indicates the The 400 V-8 was probably making closer to 270 honest hp. The 301 turbo’s 210 hp rating was much more realistic  given the 1980 Trans-Am’s 16 second quarter mile time and top speed of just under 120 mph, all out. 

The turbocharged Trans Am 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. The reason? Pontiac, despite its best efforts, could not “emissions certify” the 301 with a manual transmission. (In the days before engine management controls and especially, electronic fuel injection, getting a manual-equipped car through the certification process was very difficult.) 

The best Pontiac could do was fit a “performance calibrated” three-speed Turbohydramatic automatic to the car. 

Another problem with the 301 turbo was that it was carbureted. Carbs and turbos don’t work well together – chiefly 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 turbo was still going through its teething phase when it was put into a production car. It actually did have a great deal of potential, but that was hard to see through the enfeebled performance (even when things were working right). 

Had Pontiac been given time to massage the technology, the 301 turbo almost certainly would have matured into one of the most formidable performance 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 low 13 second quarter mile times and 150 mph top speeds right off the showroom floor. Indeed, the ’89 20th Anniversary Trans-Am equipped with the turbo Buick V-6 engine was the first Trans-Am in 15 years to beat the performance stats of the V-8 powered ’73-’74 SD-455 Trans-Am.

Pontiac clearly hoped it would get the chance to develop the 301 to its full potential. And for a brief moment, it seemed as though that was going to happen. 

When the redesigned third generation 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, much lighter third generation Trans Am, a 250-300 hp turbocharged 301 would have been a tremendous performer. 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  – in a more aerodynamic and lighter package.  

A five-speed equipped, mid-1980s Turbo Trans-Am would have been a memorable ride. And with a real Pontiac V-8 under its hood, it would have retained its Pontiac personality – as well as assured its future collectibility.

And very possibly, the survival of Pontiac. 

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 from that day forward to the final year of production in 2002 would have the same engines as the Chevy Camaro. That meant from ’82-up, there was no meaningful difference under the hood between a Camaro Z28 and a Trans-Am. 

It has become a “Pontiac” in name only. 

Arguably, this is the thing that eventually killed off the Firebird line itself. And eventually, Pontiac too.

After all, why bother with the (so-called) Pontiac when the same car was being sold for less money at the Chevy store? It’s true 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. 

It’s sad to ponder what might have been.

Had Pontiac been given the chance to work out the 301’s bugs, not only might the Trans-Am have survived to the present day, but Pontiac itself might have also. By taking away its unique, Pontiac-built V-8, General Motors took away the fundamental quality that made a Pontiac different – and thus, desirable. It took away the reason for people to buy a Pontiac – since without a unique, Pontiac-built engine, the cars it was selling were just rebadged Chevys and Buicks.

Eventually, people stopped caring.

And that was the end of Pontiac.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve ben restoring a71 chevy pic up my dad bought brand new he’s now passed on I have a fresh 454 with a L88 cam 750 carb I had a turbo from a 80 T/A fall in my lap I know 10.1 is steep for this aplication but I really want someone to tell me I can put a square peg in a round hole plz help it’s driving me crazy

    • Hi Chis,

      It ought to be pretty easy to install a big block Chevy in a ’71 Chevy pickup as – IIRC – they came from the factory with big blocks. The 396/402/454 are (IIRC) all basically the same engine in terms of external dimensions and if one bolts up, they all ought to bolt up.

      The turbo from the ’80 T/A, though, is probably not a good choice. It was not a good choice for the ’80 Turbo T/A! I admire your gumption, though, for thinking about trying…!

    • Chris, I have a ’73 that used to have a 454, ran like a scalded dog and that was a stock compression ratio 6. something I think. That TA tranny won’t hold up but a 4L60# will work fine. BTW a 396 was never made as such. They were called 396’s to fend off the insurance companies but they were 402’s. 402, 427 and 454 basically the same engine. A bored 454 to 468 is a good choice too. Of course a 502 ain’t no slouch either.

      There should be no problems installing the engine as they came with those engines. It was something around a 90 model or later when the 454 was dropped for that 8.1L 496 that was only available in HD one ton trucks and larger.

      A friend worked for a company that used one to pull a big trailer. He said it would pass everything but a gas station. Good luck. I’d love to hear that bad boy running.

  2. Bought a 71 455HO TA 4spd in 76 at the ripe old age of 18.
    Did all the wrong things with it for six full years.

    Parked it and did 160MPH on jap bikes for the next 20 yrs.
    Walked away, bored, while I still could.

    I drove it for the first time in nearly 40 yrs last year.

    In the paint shop the past year and almost ready very soon.

    Be happy you own anything fun and it’s paid for.
    Nothing will ever be the fastest.

    Keep it near stock.
    Synthetic oil, K&N air filter, shift kit and realistic gears.
    Head work is too expensive for what the benefits will be.
    Any exhaust upgrade would be a very good idea for this combo.

    I’m 56 and was extremely reckless.
    I wish I had what I spent in back tires alone….

    Enjoy the scenery and consider yourself the caretaker of your unique car.

    I’m not scared to get on it or drive it, but I’m done wasting money just because I was a jerk doing something I knew I shouldn’t have.

    Good Luck

    • Hi Steve,

      Great car – and even greater that you still have it!

      The fastest I’ve had mine was an indicated 130 (very briefly) and it had no trouble getting there. I backed off because while the engine was plenty willing, the rest of the car did not feel up to it. I routinely drive very fast (on bikes and in modern cars) and so am pretty attuned to the warning signs of too much speed. Plus, doing more than 120 or so for more than a few seconds – in a straight line – on BF Goodrich Radial TAs – is not wise policy!

      If I had good tires, I think I could get her to 160-something…

      • eric, I sold a friend a set of Centerline wheels and some Pirelli speed rated tires, not rated for the heavy Elco I was going to put them on….I find out after the fact. He drove his ’80 Z-28 with 3.73 rears and a 4 sp. really hard to work some times, twisty roads with some long straights. He regularly got it to about 130 where the engine was redlined. That car went and went and went and still lives with his son.

        Chris, that should be a 4L60E transmission. If you like manuals the New Venture Gear 4500 would probably work well but if you’re making a great deal of torque and HP the 5600 might be the ticket. A friend has a SBC that’s pretty stout in a pickup and uses the 4500. You’ll probably never need the under gear but the OD will make you smile. They(GM) call this tranny a Heavy Duty 3 Speed with underdrive and overdrive so trailer pulling is never a problem with that underdrive. Otherwise, you only use 1st, 2nd, 3rd and OD. One from a Dodge has synchros in reverse and the one for GM doesn’t, only difference in the two.

  3. Eric:

    I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve an ’80 Turbo and was thinking about replacing the 301 with something with enough torque to scorch the tires to their rims.

    Any advice?

    Doug

    • Hi Doug,

      Well, a 400 or 455 would literally bolt right in. Your car is fundamentally the same as my ’76 (or any ’70-81). If you go this route, though, you’ll want to find/buy a complete engine assembly (ideally, from another TA) with the accessories (AC, power steering, alternator) still bolted to it, as your 301’s pulleys/brackets and so on may not bolt up to the 400/455. Less headaches that way. You will also probably need to upgrade your transmission. I recommend a “built” 2004R (Phoenix transmissions specializes in them) because it’s a four speed w/overdrive and bolts right up to the Pontiac V-8 without an adaptor and does not require a computer. Just a 12V hook-up for the lock-up converter.

      On the other hand, you could build your 301 – which would be neat. So few of these left – and even fewer modified. It’s harder to modify them because there’s not much aftermarket support and the 350/400/455 Pontiac parts won’t work.

      But, people have made ’em run.

      The big gains are in the exhaust (factory system is severely compromised) and also the turbo – which is too small for the application.

      Or – and this is something I have always wanted to do – build a 400/455 turbo TA. How sneaky would that be?

      A mild build ought to have no trouble making an honest 350-400 hp and 450-plus ft.-lbs. of torque.

      Which would most definitely spin your tires!

  4. I have a 1981 WS6 Turbo right now and I’ve been fighting with myself as what to do with the car. Thanks to your insight I’ve decided to keep and restore this rare bird eventually. It’s not in the greatest of shape (though rust free), but it runs and a turbo rebuild will make it drivable. Again, thanks for the insight and historical support.

    • Hi Chase,

      I suspect a large percentage of the ’80-’81 turbo TAs have been attrited by time and neglect; it’s rare to see a restored one these days – or even a decent driver.

      Good to hear you’ll be saving this one!

  5. I actually owned a 1980 Trans Am with a carbureted 301 V8, and it was a pretty good ride. That is, until that performance tuned automatic tranyy gave out. Desperate for a better solution than just pushing another 350TH into the hole, I went to the local salvage yard and managed to purchase all the parts I needed to turn the TA from automatic to manual transmission. All I could afford at first was a little Saginaw 4-speed, and it did alright for about a year. By that time I had lucked onto someone with a Borg-Warner Super T-10 setup, and it was back to the garage for the weekend. The new tranny really woke the little 4.9, and I was putting down some good rubber for the first time since I owned the car. If I ever get lucky enough to find another one, I’d definitely do it all over again!

    • Great car!

      If I recall correctly, Pontiac did offer a factory four speed (manual) with the non-turbo 301; they’re pretty rare. The 301 gets gets a lot negative press – but to be fair, it wasn’t given time to mature. Pontiac intended to develop it further – the third gen. ’82 Trans-Am was originally designed to be powered by the 301 turbo – but GM killed off Pontiac’s V-8 engine program. It had a number of advantages, including being much lighter than the old 400. But because it was conceived (originally) as an economy-minded engine, it didn’t do very well as a performance engine – in factory stock trim, anyhow.

      It’s too bad..

      • eric, it would seem that a forged crank and the right turbo(s) could easily make, in a mild tune, 500 hp in a 301. I’ve seen many SBC’s, 350’s mainly, that made over 1,000 HP with twin turbos. Not a stock part in them to be sure but there ain’t no free lunches or rides. A whispering(wouldn’t even need a muffler, just hear the turbo spinning at idle)301 making even 450 hp would certainly fool most people and it would be the best of all worlds(not quite since it would have a screaming chicken on it), a real sleeper.

        My old Malibu used to appear to be just a coupe unless you could hear it. After it got a Duntov solid lifter cam it was much more noticeable, esp. when cops pulled alongside and it was clacking and clattering and shaking like a pup. Then you have to try to leave nicely and that wasn’t easy with a high speed rear and a rock crusher. It had that Two Lane Blacktop sound gearwise. No mistaking it for a BBC though.

        Traveling highways it seemed like a DPS just couldn’t let it pass, speeding or not. Every time I saw one and the brake lights came on I’d drop a gear or two and mat it. By the time they got turned around and got that Fury up to speed I was 3 miles away.

        They say you can’t outrun a radio but you can be further along than they suspect. I was racing a hot Nova on the road one day and we meet a DPS. I just stayed into it and made 15 miles really fast, turned onto another major road going east instead of south and nailed it for another 30 miles. It just so happened I was at a gas station speaking to the owner I knew half an hour later when that same Nova pulled in. The driver was none too happy since he got stopped at a road block where I turned. We figured out they had set it up behind me and right in front of him. It’s almost always best to be in the lead.

        They gave him a hard time, convinced he knew me(we were complete strangers)and wanted him to tell them where I was. He had no idea which way I had gone and had never seen me before. He got a bad ticket although not like today where you’d go to jail if you weren’t gunned down first.

        Yep, I can recall when speeding was simply that, breaking the PSL and not being a domestic terrorist.

        • Hi Eight,

          I’m by no means an expert on the 301 Pontiac, but IIRC, the block was a very light-duty casting designed chiefly to reduce the weight of the total package (to improve fuel economy). Ditto the stock crank and heads (which were also severely flow limited; this engine runs out breath by about 4,500 RPM).

          And here’s the real problem with the 301: It is a Pontiac V8, but it’s not part of the same family as the 326/350/400 or the 428/455. No major parts interchange. And there’s not much aftermarket support for the 301, because it was such a short-lived engine and never properly developed by Pontiac for performance use.

          • eric, now that you remind me I realize that is exactly the situation. Not much way to make the block stronger either and that would be the deal breaker. Heads can always be improved(almost)and great heads aren’t necessary for turbo situations but you’re correct about the block.

            Ok then, use an SBC and stick valve covers and air intakes and other stuff on it with “Pontiac” writ large. Or use an aluminum SBC like the TA’s of the 90’s had…..that’s the ticket. Since they used identical engines in the last iteration(before the newest ones)Camaro’s and TA’s I don’t consider that engine to be a pure Chevy design. Mainly, it was simply GM performance. You know all those parts are in the Pontiac books too even though they’re in the Chevy books also.

            You don’t need to raise the hood when you’re teaching somebody a lesson on the street anyway. It could have a Z06 engine and who would know? And by golly, wouldn’t THAT be fun?

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