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Second Generation (1970-1981)
Late arrivals were already something of a Firebird tradition by the time the second-generation car went on sale in February of 1970 as a "1970½" model.
The general shape and engineering of the second-generation Firebird was shared with the second-generation Camaro, but with its own fenders and wheelwell shapes (the Camaro's were slightly squared off, the Firebird's almost perfectly round). The most distinct Firebird design element was the plastic "Endura" nose that completely surrounded the split grille and single headlamps and produced a bumperless appearance. The second Firebird was gorgeous; a muscle car with styling that looked as if it had been designed in Italy.
Under the skin, the structure and chassis elements were also shared with the Camaro and were only an evolutionary development of the first generation. The front-subframe-bolted-to-unibody design carried over along with the leaf springs on the solid rear axle and front A-arm suspension (now with the steering gear moved from behind the axle line to in front of the axle line).
For '70½, the Firebird lineup was divided into base, luxury-oriented Esprit, muscle-minded Formula 400 and intimidating Trans Am. At the base level, the slick Pontiac OHC six made way for Chevy's 250-cubic-inch straight six making a mediocre 155 horsepower. With such a lackluster base powerplant, buyers had every incentive to step up to the V8s, and most did.
Ponying up for an Esprit brought a two-barrel version of Pontiac's 350 V8 rated at 255 horsepower and backed by a standard three-speed manual transmission, though most opted for the three-speed automatic. The Formula 400 put a 330 horsepower four-barrel version of the 400 V8 under its unique twin scooped hood and most buyers opted for either a four-speed manual or the automatic rather than the standard three-cog gearbox.
Starring in '70½ was the Trans Am with its rear-breathing shaker hood scoop, deep front spoiler, front fender vents and full-width rear spoiler. It was available either in Polar White with blue tape stripes or Lucerne Blue with white tape stripes — both with a relatively modest bird stencil at the tip of the nose and the words Trans Am across the rear spoiler.
Under that shaker scoop was either the Ram Air III 400 V8 making 335 horsepower or the optional 345 horsepower Ram Air IV. The standard transmission was a four-speed manual, and the suspension (tuned by famed road racer Herb Adams who was then a GM engineer) was instantly hailed as providing the best handling of any American car — including the Corvette. Only 3,196 Trans Ams were sold during that first abbreviated model year, but the car would go on to define the decade.
High-back bucket seats appeared for 1971, and some of the power disappeared as emissions control regulations came on-line, but the four-model Firebird line continued. The big change came in the engine bay of the Formula and Trans Am models where Pontiac offered the largest version of their V8, a 455-cubic-incher rated at 335 horsepower (standard in the Trans Am) and offered the 350 in the Formula for the first time.
Sales of the '71 Firebird were miserable (a mere 2,116 Trans Ams were sold), and General Motors threatened to cancel the car for 1972. So, with GM unwilling to throw good money after bad, changes for 1972 were scant. Engine outputs dropped again, and the memorable "honeycomb" wheels made their first appearance, but the Firebird itself was familiar stuff. The Trans Am's "Code X" 455 was rated at just 300 horsepower, while the "Code M" 350 in the Esprit dropped to a measly 160 horsepower. A strike at the plant kept Trans Am production to just 1,286 that year.
Going into 1973, things looked grim for the Firebird, but two modifications to the Trans Am would change that. First was the appearance of the large "screaming chicken" hood graphic, which nearly covered the entire hood. And second was the offering of the 455 Super Duty engine, which was shockingly close to a race engine and appeared at a time when virtually all other cars were retreating from performance.
The SD-455 (it said so right on the shaker scoop) had a reinforced block, special cam shaft, aluminum pistons, oversize valves and header-like exhaust manifolds but carried only a 310-horsepower rating. That was an understatement, as many experts estimated the output at 370 horsepower, if not more. Only 252 Trans Ams got the Super Duty in '73, and just 43 Formula 455 models were also blessed with this powerplant. About the only other change on other '73 Firebirds was a new "egg crate" grille texture and even less power. The Formula 350's V8 was now rated at only 150 horsepower, and the most powerful Formula 400 could only muster 250 horses. The Super Duty was a rare ray of light in an increasingly dim performance universe.
Bumper regulations necessitated a new front end for the 1974 Firebirds with a slight wedge shape and a revised rear end with a body-color bumper and longer slotted tail lamps. And the model lineup remained intact, but engine ratings changed. The 350 V8, for instance, was now rated at 155 horsepower, while the awesome Super Duty 455 was re-rated at 290 — even though there was no apparent drop in performance. There were 953 '74 Trans Ams built with the Super Duty and 57 Formula 455s so equipped in 1974 — and that was it for the Super Duties.
The 1975 Firebirds were easy to distinguish from the '74s by their wraparound rear window, but were otherwise quite similar. Banished from all Firebirds was the 455 and the Esprit's standard engine was now the Chevy inline six. All engines were strangled by the first catalytic converters, with output of the Trans Am and Formula 400's 400-cubic-inch V8 measuring an absolutely pathetic 185 horsepower. Somewhat good news came mid-year when the 455 was reintroduced for the Trans Am, but in spite of its large displacement, it made a truly gimpy 200 horsepower.
Revised, more angular bumpers made the 1976 Firebirds a bit more handsome, but changes were otherwise minimal. This would be the last year for the 455 in the Trans Am and the first year for the black-and-gold Special Edition Trans Am (which was also the first Firebird with a T-top and would soon become the best-known Firebird of them all). As ho-hum as much as the '76 Firebird line was, it was the first model year in which the car sold more than 100,000 units.
A new "Batmobile" front end with quad square headlamps was the great innovation for the 1977 Firebird, and the engine choices became increasingly complex. The Chevy inline six was dumped in favor of Buick's 105-horsepower 231-cubic inch (3.8-liter) V6 as the base powerplant; a new 135 horsepower 301-cubic inch (4.9-liter) version of the Pontiac V8 was available in Esprits and Formulas (along with the Pontiac 350); and the Trans Am's redesigned shaker hood covered either a 185-horsepower Oldsmobile-built 403-cubic-inch (6.6-liter) V8 or the Pontiac 400 (T/A 6.6) now making 200 horsepower. Meanwhile, some Firebirds (mostly in California) came with the Chevy 305- and 350-cubic-inch (5.0- and 5.7-liter) V8s aboard.
This was also the year the Trans Am became firmly established as the car of the 1970s when Burt Reynolds drove a black-and-gold Special Edition through the unexpected hit Smokey and The Bandit. The Bandit's Trans Am may have looked great, but it wasn't particularly quick — Hot Rod magazine tested a similar car and could only muster a 16.02-second run down the quarter-mile at 89.64 mph. It sure was popular, though, as Pontiac sold 68,745 Trans Ams along with 86,991 other assorted Firebirds during 1977.
With no reason to mess with success, the 1978 Firebird and Trans Am basically carried over from the '77 except that there were a lot more "special editions" like a gold Trans Am with brown accents and blue "Sky Bird" and red "Red Bird" Firebirds. America snatched up 93,341 Trans Ams and 93,944 other Firebirds for an astounding total of 187,285 — the best sales year ever.
Pontiac put yet another new nose on the Firebird for 1979 with the four rectangular headlamps all in their own bezels, and the split grille was now down below them. The tail was also redesigned with blackout panels disguising the taillights on the Formula and Trans Am. Otherwise, except for some revised graphics, the '79 was nearly identical to the '78. It was also the last year for the beloved 400-cubic-inch V8, and a special silver 10th-Anniversary edition Trans Am was sold.
With fuel economy a primary concern, Pontiac turned to turbocharging for Trans Am and formula power during the 1980 model year. The result was a single Garrett turbo lashed to the 4.9-liter V8 (301 cubic inches) to produce the notorious "Turbo 4.9." It was rated at 210 horsepower, but the Turbo 4.9 was ultimately the most pathetic lump of iron to ever be allowed near a Firebird. "There's no boost indicator," explained Motor Trend in its comparison of the Turbo T/A with other turbo terrors of the era, "only the momentary (sometimes a lot of moments) heavy pinging, when the car is accelerated hard or pushed into passing gear, to let you know the turbo is at work." That pinging was often heard just before the engine detonated into shrapnel. It was an unpleasant engine to drive and a miserable one to keep running. Motor Trend's Turbo T/A ran a sluggish 17.02 at 82.1 mph quarter-mile. However, a special white Turbo T/A did pace the 1980 Indy 500. Trans Am and Firebird sales crashed in 1980 and deservedly so.
The 1981 Firebird line was a rerun of '80. We shudder even thinking about it. Pontiac sold only 70,899 Firebirds and Trans Ams combined during the 1981 model year. That's just 38 percent of 1978 sales.