Here’s the latest reader question, along withmy reply!
Huy writes: I was watching your old clip with the AMSOIL for the 2nd generation Trans-Am. I’m wanting to add a last car to my collection. Can you tell me which Trans-Am from the second generation would you recommend? I know the 455 is the better motor to get but they are so expensive. I was going to go over to the 400 motor but see some had had either Pontiac or Oldsmobile motor. So which year or motor would you recommend?
My reply: Every now and then, I get a question that makes me snap my knuckles with satisfaction! This is one of them, being something of a maniac as regards the second generation(1970-1981) Firebird and Trans-Am.
As you probably know, 1976 was the last year a 455 was available from the factory and only in very limited numbers. The last year a high-performance 455 was available was 1974 – and those (SD-455 Trans-Ams and Formulas) were offered in extremely limited numbers.
1971 was the first year for the 455 (designated 455 HO) and it was the standard (and only) engine in the Trans-Am that year and in 1972.
In 1973, two 455s were available – one a mild-performance unit, the other the very desirable, high-performance SD-455.
In 1974, you had three engines to choose from. The standard engine was now a mild-performance 400; there was an optional also mild-performance 455 and you could also opt for the high-performance SD-455 (final year for this engine).
1975 started with the Trans-Am coming only with the 400 – detuned to 185 hp. Mid-year, a 455 option (designated “455 HO” but not the same engine as the ’71-’72) appeared. It produced an advertised 200 hp and was paired only with a manual transmission.
Beginning with the ’77 models, there were two Pontiac 400s available- the standard 400 and an optional high-performance version of the 400, initially rated 200 hp (to replicate the power output of the discontinued 455) vs. the standard 400’s 180 hp.
For the first time, there was also an Oldsmobile 403 on the roster, added to make up for the limited supply of Pontiac 400s.
The performance option 400 came with different identification decals on the shaker hood scoop. Cars equipped with the base 400 Pontiac and Olds 403 had a shaker that read: “6.6 litre” (spelled that way).
The optional 400 had “T/A 6.6″on the shaker.
The base 400 and Olds 403 were was not offered with a manual transmission but the optional 400 initially came either with the 4-speed manual or a performance calibrated THM 350 automatic. The latter are pretty rare – and so desirable.
1979 was the last year for the Pontiac 400 – and only the “T/A 6.6” performance version of it, sold only with the four speed manual. The base engine became the Olds 403.
For the final two years of second generation production, the Trans-Am came with two versions of the new 301 (4.9 litre) V8, one with a turbo, the other not – and a Chevy 305 V8s. Cars with the turbo 301 were all automatic only.
The 1981 Trans-Am is historic because it was the last Trans-Am to come equipped from the factory with a Pontiac V8. The Trans-Am continued to be built until the early 2000s – but all Trans-Ams built after 1981 are mechanically identical to their Z28 Camaro cousins.
The early (1970-74) cars are all desirable, regardless of engine, due to their lower production numbers and because they were all higher-performance than the ’75-81 cars, which came with catalytic converters (1975 was the first year) and single exhaust (even the ’77-79 “T/A 6.6” cars, which had dual mufflers aft of the single catalytic converter).
The good news is that the “smog” (as they were called) ’75-up 455 and 400s could be easily modified to recover much of the lost performance, as by installing a true dual exhaust system, tuning the ignition and carburetor, etc.
Many parts from the earlier, higher-performance Pontiac V8s such as cylinder heads (to achieve higher compression) physically bolted right up – though be aware that the ’70 Ram Air III 400, the ’71-72 455 HO and the ’73-74 SD-455 are round port engines; all other Pontiac V8s are “D” port engines. Still,many parts directly interchange and there is a wealth of aftermarket performance parts available for all Pontiac V8s except the 301.
Though this engine is a Pontiac engine it is an entirely different engine and no parts interchange with the earlier Pontiac V8s; there are also almost no aftermarket performance parts for this engine.
I think the ’75 and ’76 cars are among the most desirable of the “second half” of the second generation – because they are the final years for the availability of the 455 and also the final years for the single round headlight and the factory Honeycomb wheels, which look like aluminum alloy wheels but aren’t.
The ’75 and ’76 also have unique, one-year-only front clips. 1976 was also a neat year because of the availability of unusual colors such as Carousel Red and Goldenrod Yellow.
The pick of the above litter in my view would be either the ’75 with an “HO 455” or a ’76 with the 50th Anniversary package, which was the first year for the black and gold paint scheme made famous in ’77 via the Smokey and the Bandit movie.
The ’76 50th Anniversary cars could be had with either the 400/manual, 400 automatic or the 455/manual combo. (The “455 HO” decals were replaced with “455” if the car was so equipped; if it had the 400, the decal read “400.”)
1976 was also the first year T-tops were available – only with the 50th Anniversary cars. But these tops were not factory installed. They were aftermarket Hurst tops installed after the car was built; the Hurst tops are smaller – and leakier – than the larger Fisher tops that were available with the later cars.
Obviously, any ’77-79 TA with the “T/A 400” is desirable, especially the ’77-78 models with the automatic and the ’79 with the manual. But don’t overlook the base 400 – or the Olds-powered version. They both have potential for much more performance and are collectible in their own right. You’re also likely to get more (nicer) car for your money.
I would also not rule out an ’80-81 with the 301, especially the turbo versions. Especially if you can find a preserved/original condition example. These are really neat, good-looking cars (note the cool off-center turbo hood bulge) and while not fast, they are fun to drive. The handling is very good (especially if the car has the WS6 package, with 15×8 snowflake wheels) and these cars are among the first American cars to have come with four wheel disc brakes, too. There were NASCAR and Daytona pace car editions in very attractive white/charcoal paint schemes with turbine wheels.
Much of your decision will be personal – coming down to which “look” you like best. Given that the last second-gen TA is now almost 40 years old, all second generation Trans-Ams are historic/collectible and neat cars to own.
If you drive a selection of them, you’ll find the ’70-72s are harder-edged (no mild-performance versions) while the ’73-74 cars with the base engines and all the ’75-’81 cars are surprisingly easy-to-live with cars that practically anyone can drive comfortably. The ’80-81 cars especially are basically gran touring cars; Pontiac did a lot of work quieting them down, improving the ride and handling.
But I think you’ll be happy with any of them.
Here’s an excellent resource for in-depth technical/production data about the ’70-81 cars.
Keep us posted!
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