The muscle-car era was a wild time for Detroit car makers. There was a lot of variation in performance levels, as not all muscle cars were created equal. Some were very well thought out, and others were badge-and-stripes presentations with a little exhaust rumble. A few muscle cars had tuned-in staff, that is designers and engineers with a passion for performance. The Firebird had its share of them.
TThe unofficial short story has it that after model-year '70, the muscle-car party was over due to insurance rates, new exhaust emission controls, and safety regulations. Most manufacturers quickly watered down or dropped their muscle cars.
Passion can be a powerful force, and despite all odds, the Firebird line managed to survive. As I mentioned in last month's department, towards the end of '72, the F-Body line came perilously close to being axed. This makes the '73 and '74 Super Duty 455 Trans am and Formula Firebirds all the more amazing.
The pony-car market hit its high point at 1968 with an 11-percent market share. By 1971, its market share had fallen to just 3.9 percent. Then in the spring of 1972, the United Auto Workers initiated a strike at the F-Body assembly plant in Norwood, Ohio, and it lasted nearly six months. Production of '72 Firebirds fell from 53,127 units in 1971 to 29,951. To add insult to injury, approximately 1,100 unfinished Firebirds were scrapped because they could not meet the new-for-'73 bumper and interior materials flammability standards set by the feds. It all came together to create the perfect justification for killing the F-body lines.
Here's where the passion in Pontiac saved the line. It was no secret that the Norwood strike was dragging on, so it wasn't a surprise when the automobile magazines began to speculate the F-Body's future. One magazine even published a mock obituary. Regardless, it was a serious topic inside GM. Were it not for the lobbying efforts of Pontiac Assistant Chief Engineer Bill Collins and Chevrolet Director of Engineering Alex Mair (later to become Pontiac general manager), the F-Body line would have surely ended with the '72 models. Mair, with Collins' support, argued that Pontiac had developed a very strong, although not high, volume of loyal Firebird followers. Also, customers wanted cars with precision handling and good looks at a reasonable price.
Perhaps it was Mair's and Collins' grounded, engineering approach, but they convinced the decision makers within GM that keeping the F-Body line was the right thing to do. So with the Firebird line saved by a feather, what did Pontiac's engineers and designers serve up for the '73 Firebird line? A muscle-car legend.
It was as if Pontiac didn't know the muscle-car era was over. There were two new Firebird options that stunned Pontiac fans—the large hood bird and the Super Duty 455 engine. The hood graphic treatment was designed by Bill Porter as a way to integrate the non-functional, reverse hoodscoop design proposed by Collins and Special Projects Engineer Herb Adams. As chief designer for the new Firebird, Porter argued that for the scoop to work properly (facing forward), the hood would have to be molded in fiberglass, which would increase cost. He also felt the scoop interrupted the front-end center nose theme, which was supposed to flow straight back to the windshield without interruptions. The double-scoop design eventually used on the Formula was originally designed for the Trans Am. While the design worked better, the reverse scoop was much more entertaining and quieter.
There was also the challenge of how to apply such a large decal. First, 3M had to come up with decal material large enough, and then procedures had to be created to apply the decal onto the hood. While still on the shelf, Pontiac designer John Schinella worked with designer Bill Davis to refine the hood bird. When they came up with the look they wanted, Schinella had the art painted on the hood of his personal Trans Am and took it to the streets of Detroit. The response was instantly positive, but management wasn't convinced. The designers wanted the graphic to be standard on the Trans Am. Then Pontiac General Manager Jim McDonald said, “Let's make the graphic an option. We've got nothing to lose.” The Screaming Chicken became the Trans Am's new signature feature.