Muscle Memory

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It was forty years ago that America turned 200 – and Pontiac, 50.76-50th-badge

1976 was a special year for both.

And for the Trans-Am, which by 1976 had become Pontiac’s signature muscle car.

The last still-available muscle car.

The GTO, which had been the muscle car – and not just Pontiac’s – petered out in 1974 as a hastily thrown-together package available as an option on the Ventura, a much smaller car, both in terms of its size and its curb appeal.

It wasn’t a bad car, in retrospect.

The problem – at the time – was that people compared it with previous GTOs, which were much larger cars (and much larger-engined, too). The ’74 GTO was the only GTO Pontiac ever made that came with a 350 (rather than a 455, a 400 or a 389).

The fact that the little 350 made decent power (200, SAE net) for 1974 didn’t matter.74-gto-ad

Psychologically – emotionally – GTO people couldn’t accept the “little” (and little-engined) GTO.

But the Trans-Am not only lingered, it prospered.

Largely – arguably – because it was still basically intact.

It had not been downsized. Or de-engined.76-ta-front

Pontiac (like everyone else making cars) had had to make some changes to accommodate the Feds – such as redesigning the front and rear bumpers to meet the new “5 MPH” impact standards. But had done so artfully – without ruining the car’s good-looks.

Pontiac – which pioneered the use of plastic-urethane and body-colored bumper covers (the late ’60s GTO got them first) applied the same technique to the Trans-Am, which resulted in a sleek-beaked front clip that was much more stylish than the awkward-looking metal bumpers grafted onto pretty much every other car.

Including the Trans-Am’s corporate cousin, the Chevrolet Camaro Z28.

Which, by the way, was no longer available.76-ta-shaker-1

You could buy a Camaro in 1976, certainly. But not a Z28.

Chevy cancelled the Z28 after the 1974 model year, deciding that the muscle car market was dead or soon would be. This proved to be a big mistake – one that Chevy would spend the rest of the ’70s regretting.

Because it left the Trans-Am as the only player still on the field. It had the market – which still existed – entirely to itself.

Whether it was accidental good fortune or savvy strategic thinking will likely never be known, but the fact remains: Pontiac kept its powder dry.76-ad

You could still get a really big V8, arguably the defining attribute of a true muscle car. Even more so than horsepower.

The ’76 Trans-Am came standard with 400 cubic inches.

In today’s terms, that’s 6.6 liters. This was a bigger engine than Chevy ever offered in the second generation (1970-’81) Camaro, which high water-marked in 1972, when a 396 was available for the last time.

The ’76 Trans-Am was available with a 455 cubic inch (7.4 liter) engine. The same-year Camaro came with nothing larger than a 350.

Truly, the ’76 TA was the last of the Mohicans.76-455-shaker

Granted, it wasn’t a 455 HO or 455 SD (last seen new back in ’74, too). But it was still a 455. It had the inches at a time when no one else did.

Like the Trans-Am itself, the basics were still there.

A weekend spent undoing the damage done by Uncle (especially the Y pipe single exhaust that fed both banks of the V8’s exhaust through a single, hugely restrictive catalytic converter) and the factory-delivered 200 hp 455 could be revived to a very credible facsimile of a 455 HO or even an SD 455.

And the rest was still there, too.455-1

The Borg Warner Super T-10 four speed, a box that made the same sweet music in ’76 as it had in prior years. The shaker scoop – which Pontiac thoughtfully left fundamentally intact as well. A “block off” plate – there to appease Uncle – had been placed to render it temporarily non-functional.

Three bolts undone and the scoop once again scooped.

A performance axle ratio (3.23) was still available.

And the fender vents, air dams, whale tail rear spoiler, machined aluminum (“engine-turned”) dashboard trim surrounding full gauges, three-spoke Formula steering wheel and the magnificent “screaming chicken” hood bird that made a Trans-Am a Trans-Am all still came standard, from the factory.

But, 1976 was also a bittersweet year.rim

It would be the last year for the 455 – although the 400 soldiered on through 1979 as the very last of the big-inch, old-school V8s.

And it would be the last time you could order Pontiac’s unique Honeycomb wheels – which looked aluminum but weren’t. A Pontiac engineer named Bill Porter designed them, developing what Pontiac later called “Polycast” technology to manufacturer them. Rather than cast out of aluminum – which Porter had originally intended – a urethane composite material was injection-molded onto a steel rim, giving the appearance of aluminum.76-gauges

They looked great but were – unfortunately – very heavy. They were replaced beginning in ’77 with a new (and actually aluminum) Snowflake wheel, which was offered in both 15×7 and (later) 15×8 sizes – the latter another first for an American car (other than Corvette).

The ’76s also still had the 8,000 RPM tach  – with 5,400 RPM redline – which was a relic of the Trans-Am’s earlier ’70s high-RPM engine days. This tach would be replaced by a more functionally realistic (for the late ’70s) 6,000 RPM tach while the 160 speedometer that had been standard since 1970 would likewise disappear in favor of a more politically correct 100 MPH unit.77-shaker

1976 was also the last year for the single (and round) headlight front end. In ’77, Pontiac restyled the car with a new quad rectangular headlight front clip – along with a new flat hood and a revised (smaller) shaker scoop that was no longer made easily functional. It was molded out of a single piece of fiberglass and to make it actually scoop air, it was necessary to cut out the rear section – permanently altering it.

Also, the engine ID callouts on either side of the shaker now made their proclamations in metric – “6.6” liters rather than “400” cubes.76-le-ta

And,  a 1976 black and gold Trans-Am was supposed to have been the star of the iconic film, Smokey and the Bandit. And – according to rumors – actually was. Except it looked exactly like a ’77 black and gold Trans-Am.

Pontiac – working with the film company – has agreed to provide new ’76 TAs for the movie, which was to have helped promote Pontiac’s jubilee year by featuring a Limited Edition ’76 TA. These Limited Edition/50th Anniversary cars were the first Trans-Ams to come painted black and gold and also had gold Honeycomb wheels (the first – and only – time Pontiac ever offered these) and also cool-looking German-style fraktur script for the “Trans-Am” decals and other badges. 77-bandit

But production delays intervened and rather than put out a new film (Smokey would reach theaters in 1977) featuring an old (1976) car, the ’76s Pontiac had donated for use in the movie were fitted with ’77 front clips and the new aluminum snowflake wheels.

Several of these cars gave their lives for the cause.

The film was a monster hit and triggered a Trans-Am revival. Sales boomed to 117,108 by the ’79 model year – more than double the ’76 model year’s total production of 46,701 (see here for the numbers).cb-bandit

But only a few in the know ever knew the cars in the film were really ’76s TAs, not ’77s.

Also, that there were 455 (not 400) engines under the shakers of the stunt cars.

They were incognito.

But it was no less glorious. depends on you to keep the wheels turning! Clovers hate us!

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  1. Nice article, but the 396’s in the second gen camaros were actually 402 cubes, so they were bigger than the 400.

  2. One correction – there was no FMVSS on the speedometer. There was no requirement until the 1980 model year, when FMVSS 127 went into effect. So, the lower numbers on speedometers were just the auto makers grabbing their ankles and spreading their cheeks for Uncle. Foreign carmakers kept their higher numbers until they were forced to by St. Joan Claybrook. Her rule was rescinded in October of 1981. By the 1983 model year, Honda and other manufacturers were putting 120, 130 and 140 mph speedometers back on their cars.

  3. This brings back memories of my friend’s old 455 Bonneville. So wide that it sat 4 people PER BENCH, less than 200 horsepower I believe, longer than the titanic, heavier than the moon, 8 mpg, 1,000 rpm on the freeway…so much fun.

    • AJ, I wrote a comment about that very thing last week or so. Only back in the 60’s they had considerable power. I called it a 9 passenger car, 4 in front and 5 in the back with the cattle trailer behind. Once cattle were out, you could drop the trailer and then go do all those things our daddies warned us specifically about. I never figured out why they wanted to pass along so many nefarious things we hadn’t thought about.

    • Hi AJ,

      Yup! If you can believe it (and you should, it’s true) the ’75-’76 455s had 7.4:1 CR… hence 200 hp! But they still managed to whelp out 345 ft.-lbs. of torque. Mind, this was the weakest 455 Pontiac ever produced!

      • 8 and Eric,

        In 1979 I picked up 64 Tempest. It was pretty much stock, but it had a two speed automatic.

        It ran at 4,000rpm on the freeway. Was that normal, or because I paid fifty bucks for the car?

        • T, I drove a 72 Chevy 1/2 T pickup with 4.11 gears and it did around 4000 rpm at 80 mph. If a torque converter fails to lock it will rev up instantly according to the power of the engine, vehicle weight, etc. and stay there until you reach a steady speed and drop down some but not to where it should. I once used a Powerglide torque converter from a Vega and it stayed revved up well past normal on the road. I went to a stock converter and had no more problems. Someone might have installed a low rear gear on that car. If it shifted normally and ran normally, that’s probably the problem.

          My wife’s sister ran their “3 sisters Falcon with the oil light on all one day. It got a rebuild right after that. I don’t know what to tell your wife. Red lights mean stop…..all the time.

  4. With all the concern for our well being, do any of the new cars have a switch that limits rpm to something like 0 when the “service/repair technician” forgets to replace the plug during an oil change?

    Or does it still just turn on a little red symbol?

    • Hi Tuanorea,

      Not to my knowledge!

      I wrote a rant a few years back arguing that a chime/buzzer would actually be helpful in such a case. But instead we get the chimes/buzzers for seatbelts and so on.

      • Since nobody who owns a big rig wants to replace an engine for any reason, especially a lazy, stupid driver(not the only scenario for low oil), lights for low oil, low oil pressure and buzzers exist. A low oil condition on most engines won’t allow the starter to engage and same goes for coolant. DOT mandates a gauge, a warning light and a buzzer must all 3 work for air pressure. I’m all for it and the other warning lights and buzzers as well. I’m big on the air brake application gauge also since it’s directly related to brake adjustment or a leak and subsequently performance. One reason I like a Peterbilt is their non-economy of gauges. When I operate a truck every day, the normal numbers on boost pressure, the pyrometer and a fuel pressure gauge will allow me to see any discrepancy that would be the first indication of a problem. Oil temp and pressure will coincide with one another and often the temperature of the coolant also. For a driver who pays attention, all those other gauges such as amperage and voltage are meaningful in relation to each other. I like to be able to see the temp of every gearbox too. When you have to load without weighing, a load gauge is a must as is learning what the maximum should show with every trailer you use.

        • 8,

          “DOT mandates”

          Of all the fucking things that have been mandated for cars, why not this?

          Who is the lobbyist that put the kibosh to that?

          His entire lineage should be wiped out.

          They have been trying to mandate a steering wheel that checks blood alcohol, blood sugar, and I think even cholesterol, but NOT an oil pressure cut off.

            • dbb, I’ve installed many of them monitoring all sorts of things. Scoot out to the end of a pumpjack beam and install a Murphy vibration switch, set up a Murphy liquid level switch. I saw one fail this year……installed incorrectly.

              • I’ve had a few of them fail over the years. dirt, wet & vibration gets to them after enough time has passed. usually just bypass the switch until I can get a new one installed.
                almost every drill rig I have ever run had at least one to kill the motor if the oil pressure dropped too low.

                • Everything eventually fails on a drill rig, the nature of the beast. They eventually fail on oil wells and everything associated with one. If it’s not brine water it’s a combination of gases that will destroy anything. Any place you have shakers and vibrators everything on them eventually fails. Those big engines two or three stories tall take their toll on them too.

      • Eric,

        So the car can be shut down remotely, but you can drive it with no oil until the pistons weld themselves to the cylinder walls?

    • On that tangent somewhat, one thing I could never figure out was why so many cars had the same “BRAKE” light for the e-brake and the low brake fluid warning. So many customers’ cars I’ve fixed with the warning on thought it was a bad e-brake switch and had no idea of the dual meaning.

      • AJ, I’ve had various vehicles that the brake light would come on when you depressed the brake because of brake shoes that were worn out. Luckily, most of those that did that did it when you braked fairly hard but there was still a bit of shoe or pad left and it wasn’t a metal to metal situation. At one time GM had a “squealer” to note worn out pads. Don’t know what happened to that.

  5. At full throttle, does this car upshift automatically at its 5,400 RPM redline? I watched your vid on youtube and it appears so. What controls this? Is it the modern OD transmission you put in? Or does the car have an ECM? If not what forces the upshift? Thanks.

    • Hi Brandon,

      I have an MSD ignition controller with a “soft touch” rev limiter that dials back spark at about 5,400 RPM.

      The Pontiac 455 is a very long stroke engine (it is not a “bored out” 400) and does not like high RPM. It is a torque engine. A beast. These things can make 450-plus ft.-lbs. in very mild street tune.

      • Eric thanks for the reply. When did cars start to have RPM limiters, from the factory? How was this achieved on the first iterations? And before rev limiters were implemented, when did automatic transmissions shift at full throttle? Thanks for the help, wikipedia isn’t really helping me.

        • Eric,

          If I could add to that (just in case you give a Readers Digest version), how does a fuel supply limiter keep from leaning it out to the point of overheating? Or is that just a problem with the air cooled?

          When Uncle decreed that 100LL (low lead) was a safe substitute for the engines designed to run on 80 octane (the fuel with only 25% of the lead than in the “new low lead”), every ten hours or so the plug gap would fill in with that new “low lead”.

          The cure, according to Uncle’s recommendation, was to lean it out so that it got so hot the lead would burn off, then shut it off and listen to the heads snap, crackle, and pop as they cooled down.

          Terms like detonation and pre ignition start to fill my little cranium when I think about using fuel or spark to limit rpm. The physical governor on a mini bike I can grok.

          • Hi T,

            I don’t know nuthing about any fuel supply limiter! The MSD box dials back spark as you approach a preset RPM. You can “program” it via removable max RPM (e.g., 6,000 RPM) chips that plug into the MSD box.

        • pre-electronic transmission shift points are usually controlled by a governor (weight/spring arrangement) and a vacuum modulator/kickdown cable/tv cable.
          setting shift points on these involves a bit of trial and error (different spring/weights on the governor and/or adjusting the modulator). Most people will say not to try to adjust shift points with the tv cable (700/200r4).
          My best guess as far as factory rev limters would be starting in the early/mid ’90’s. It was just written into the pcm, easy enough to change with the right software but gets a bit more complicated in the pre ’94 GM stuff (flash memory vs. burning prom chips).

          • The wife’s Cutlass has a limiter for no load and vehicle speed. No load, transmission in neutral, limits rpm to 4,000. I know it will rev a bit higher in gear than what the pre-set for each shift is but I’ve never held it in gear much above that since the factory shift points seem to be optimal performance wise.

        • Hi Brandon,

          Computer controlled fuel injection (and ignition systems) made this common and they came online circa the mid-late 1980s.

          Automatic transmissions have governors and shift timing is usually controlled by a cable that corresponds to throttle input. Some of the older transmissions had a very simple mechanical kickdown cable that attached to the throttle arm on the carburetor (or throttle body, if TBI). Some have a cable whose tension must be set precisely for proper operation.

          Recent/modern automatics are controlled by the computer (ECU).

        • Thanks eric, dirtybob,

          Very hard to imagine the science, engineering, and brainpower that went into mechanical methods of automatic shifting. Much easier to understand the modern stuff. Since everything can eventually be broken down into a TRUE/FALSE or 0/1. 😛

          • In older automatics the valve body controlled the shift points. Since nothing changed in the valve, rpm determined pressure of the fluid and when vacuum was the other factor shifts were accurate every time. You could make some changes in the valve body via channel size, springs and check ball sizes and change the shift point. B&M kits had add-on parts that changed the routing of the fluid as well as channel, check balls and spring sizes. It was fairly straightforward stuff. I believe I have a new one(B&M kit) somewhere now that I think about it.

  6. “We” sure do love to kill Indians.

    After the NCAA assassinated Chief Iliniwek, we joked about Pontiac being next. Boy, that was quick.

  7. In a lot of ways Pontiac’s last really big hit. Most people had no idea how endangered Pontiac was to become in a short time. I remember how popular Trans Am’s were in the late 70’s well into the 80’s.

    • Hi Rich,

      They fought a good fight. GM corporate’s decision to end the individual divisions’ V8 engine programs (and use “corporate” Chevy-sourced V8s in all GM vehicles except Cadillacs that still offered V8s) was the death knell of Pontiac as a viable separate division. The Firebird became a Camaro in every mechanically meaningful way after 1981.

      Pontiac did have a potential winner in the Fiero – but at launch, it did not live up to the hype and by the time they fixed it, it was too late to recover.

      Still, Pontiac gets credit for having brought to market some of the most memorable muscle cars, including the GTO and the Firebird but also the Grand Prix SSJ and Catalina 421, etc.


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