That's a gorgeous Trans Am," said the feminine voice from over my shoulder. It's the price you pay for photographing a Pontiac like this, in the middle of a road, in a thriving housing development, at dusk. (Photos in the story,, however, were taken at the track.) This was the sixth visitor in 10 minutes. But I don't mind. "Thank you." I learned to be courteous and not get into the whole, "It's not my car, it's a test car," deal. That just takes too long and light fades fast. "We used to have a Firebird," she added. "Really?" I said, and turned. In front of me stood a woman in her 60s ... who recently owned a Firebird? "We loved that car," she continued. "But we had to get rid of it a couple of years ago because it got too hard to get in and out of. I was sorry to see it go but its replacement is an Eldorado that's much easier to hop in and out of. My grandson is upset. He says, 'That Firebird made you cool, grandma.'"
And there it was in a nutshell--the Firebird's mission statement--to make you look cool! It didn't matter who you were or where you came from, or if you were short, tall, fat or small. Behind the wheel of a Trans Am you were cool--even a grandma. And the Firebird provided this self-esteem enhancement service for 35 years.
Why isn't it cool to be cool anymore? Where did all the cool people go? Why is it fashionable to be a geek nowadays? Some sport compact car guys wear the title like a badge of honor. That's one reason the T/A is going away as every kid reaching driving age wants a Honda. Cool just isn't in. Maybe it's an outgrowth of the computer age due to the fact that past computer geeks are now running the world. Let's ask Bill Gates.
Possibly it's the technophile attitude, pervasive in computer circles that kids now grow up in, that makes them view cars in this way. These youths gravitate to the Hondas and Mitzus with DOHCs and variable valve timing and other mouth watering polysyllabic technical jargon. The Trans Am would be the antihero in this situation with its perceived antiquated pushrod engine, rear drive and solid rear axle. Anti because they would hate that old stuff, but hero because it would still blow the doors off whatever they came up with. No matter the reason, most kids and 20-somethings aren't buying Trans Ams and secretaries aren't buying Firebirds or Camaros either. So out they go.
Aside from the fact that performance models were very hard to get over the last few years, at least on the east coast, there is a case to be made against the very design of the Firebird as a reason for its sales decline. Sure, it looks great but it can be a chore to co-exist with it. The Firebird is a predominantly plastic bodied (save roof and rear quarters) 2+2 with an aluminum engine that weighs in excess of 3,500 pounds. That's small SUV territory today. Your bag lunch can fill the hatch area, its back seat was designed by the Marquis DeSade and the Firebird spots headroom to a chopped '49 Merc. And there is that massive A-pillar always looming in your peripheral vision. If that's not enough, you can't get in or out of it without looking like a contortionist. Let's not forget the headlight doors that slam shut like a pair of sledgehammers pounding the nose and the fact that the rear view from the interior resembles a mail slot, bisected by a spoiler. And where did all the space that made the outer shell so large go on the inside? 'Cause there ain't much wiggle room in the cockpit.
The nod of the potential sporty car buyer goes to the Mustang in many cases because it's more upright coupe styling is easier to enter and exit. Mustangs are selling very well. So it must be ergonomics right?
Maybe. But most of these complaints about the F-body are not new. In fact they are 30 some years old. Once GM abandoned the shared cowl height with the Nova for 1970 1/2, the F-body became a low slung GT machine. You don't get into a Firebird; you put one on ... like a pair of well-worn jeans or a tailored suit. The Second and Third Gen. Birds were nightmares with regard to effective space utilization. The Second Gen. trunk space deficiency alone probably created the soft luggage industry. But what the Firebird maintained through every iteration was exceptional style, and the designers were willing to sacrifice all else to maintain it. In the early 1970s, when musclecars and ponycars were disappearing on a daily basis, the Firebird weathered the storm and thrived. When the Mustang became an economy car the Firebird soldiered on. When the Vette went disco, the Trans Am held its ground (it kind of went disco too but don't tell anybody). Incredible handling as compared to its contemporaries didn't hurt either. The T/A was basically a Vette with a solid rear axle. It cornered as well on smooth pavement and it was much cheaper. The Firebird also offered a modicum of power most of the time. They were cool when cool was cool.
So where are we now? How can any self-respecting car nut not get excited about a 325-horse aluminum engine with a 6-speed manual or 4-speed auto trans that can traverse the quarter in the low 13s and get 26 MPG on the highway without giving up a single creature comfort? And a car that outhandles just about everything on the road except a Vette, costing nearly 20K more? GM has installed the greatest pushrod V8 to date in a retro-ponycar and kept the price equal to that of some other manufacturers' economy cars, and nobody is buying.
So what do we do at HPP after screaming from the rooftops for years that without an infusion of new buyers the F-body would not survive? Well, we lick our wounds and get one for a couple of weeks to experience one last blast into the past. And we drove it like a Trans Am is supposed to be driven--hard as hell but not like a punk. So sit back and enjoy what could be the last Trans Am full-on, smokin' tires, road and track test that you'll ever read.
Our tester was of course the penultimate Collector Edition decked out with over $3,000 worth of special decals over a bright yellow body. This pushed the price to $35,700 with aid from the Ram Air package that cost $3,290, a remote compact disc changer for $595, traction control at $50 and the performance axle at $300. With no less than 17 birds on the T/A, even low flying aircraft will recognize it. Love it or hate it, the T/A is bowing out the same way it bowed in, with an outrageous graphics package.
Under the skin, this Collector car is no different from any other Ram Air T/A or Formula and, with the addition of the LS6 intake and a new cam back in 2001, power is at an all time high for the LS1 in an F-body. These machines are producing rear wheel HP numbers approaching the advertised power ratings, nothing short of amazing.
Putting a foot through the water pump will be rewarded with forward thrust from an engine that winds up like a Swiss watch, and as the revs climb you will be pushed ever deeper in the leather seats. At 5500 rpm the 4L60E slams into the next gear and the shock to the 3.23 geared performance axle breaks the tires loose when the traction control is disengaged. Quarter-mile performance for our automatic-equipped Collector was 13.13 at 104 mph with a 3,740 pound race weight. That is impressive in anybody's book and all this on street tires with 28 pounds of pressure. The launch technique was simply to rev it against the converter to 2000 rpm at the line and mash the pedal to the floor on the last yellow. Though it was ham handed, finesse was not needed during this outing, as the result each time was a clean launch with no tire spin. Needless to say, the E-town surface was exceptional on our test day and the Pontiac really rose to the occasion.
Of course the binders were on target too with 60-0 braking distances ranging from 119 to 124 feet with very little fade evident in successive stops. Again, impressive for a Pontiac this heavy. Then there was the skid pad; a .94g two-way average was registered on a bumpy parking lot 200 ft.-diameter circle. How could you not want to drive this car? Sure it will understeer somewhat but a blip of the throttle will kick the back end out in short order. Too much throttle will bring it around at will since power oversteer is as close as your right foot. I just can't see having this much fun in a Honda. But that's why M&Ms come in a variety of colors. Everybody still wants something different.
Our couple of weeks with this special T/A covered all bases from strip testing to braking and skid pad, to lots of road time as we took full advantage of our last ride. Few things are more fun than tossing a T/A around on the back roads. And, surprisingly, the ride was quite good even with the 275/40-17 steamrollers. Rick Jensen, HPP associate editor, got to practice his burnout technique for the cover shots and took low ET honors with his 13.13 pass to your portly editor's 13.16. All told, we really enjoyed our time with this last holdout from the musclecar days. It performed flawlessly and the T-tops didn't even leak in the rain. Was this the case of an old flame trying to give us one last glimpse of what we'll be missing once she's gone? Probably.