Let’s dial back the clock 40 years 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 the big-cube Pontiac V8’s fuel economy and getting it past federal emissions rules. The Pontiac V8, 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 “T/A 6.6” 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 little 4.9 liter 301 V8, the last Pontiac-made V8 still being manufactured.
The downsized 301 had been conceived as an “economy” engine for lower-caste Pontiacs – not Trans-Ams.
It had only a two-barrel carburetor at first, 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 when it was conceived.
But by 1980, Pontiac had no other V8 of its own to work with, and if the Trans-Am was to remain Pontiac-powered then Pontiac would have to work with the 301.
Turbocharging, at that time, was becoming 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 V6 engine – a powerplant that would become famous for its performance by the mid-late ’80s in the Buick Regal Grand National and GNX.
Buick’s efforts probably inspired engineers within Pontiac to consider turbocharging the 301 V8, which circa 1979 was producing all of 150 horsepower – or 70 horsepower less than the ’79 T/A 6.6 liter Trans-Am’s 400 V8.
How to bridge that gap?
First, the foundations.
A specially reinforced block, for openers. A unique cam, with more lift and duration than the standard 301 stick. And of course, turbo-specific exhaust plumbing, along with a low-restriction dual outlet exhaust system similar to the ’79 T/A 6.6 400 V8s, which got two mufflers and pipes aft of the catalytic converter rather than the standard single pipe all the way to a single muffler and dual tips coming out of the muffler.
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 promising. The 301 turbo’s rated output was only 10 hp off the rated output of the last 400 V8, despite the deficit of almost 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.
Unfortunately, it didn’t shake out that way. For one, the actual power output of the T/A 6.6 400 was 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 V8 was probably making closer to 270 hp. The 301 turbo’s 210 hp rating was much more honest given the 1980-’81 Trans-Am’s 16 second quarter mile time and top speed of around 118 mph.
The turbocharged Trans Am suffered another handicap, too. It was not offered with a manual transmission – whereas the ’79 T/A 6.6 400 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. Which actually could have worked as turbo’d cars work well with automatics due to their low-RPM torque production. If there’s a loose torque converter. If the final axle ratio is aggressive enough.
But that hurts MPGs and Uncle hurts car companies that hurt MPGs.
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 had a great deal of potential – like the Buick 3.8 V6 – but it was hard to see it 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 V6, which was also a gimp at first.
But that changed.
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 GNXs.
Indeed, the ’89 20th Anniversary Trans-Am equipped with the turbo Buick V6 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. And for a brief moment, it seemed as though that was going to happen.
The car’s front subframe was designed to accommodate the Pontiac V8, 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 – especially 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. With a real 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 V8.
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.
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 about Pontiac.
And that was the end of Pontiac. Even though the name gimped on for almost another 20 years – before someone remembered to turn off the lights at last.
. . .
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