By 1978 it was becoming evident to William “Bill” Porter—then Chief Designer, Advanced 1 Studio, and former Pontiac Chief Designer -- that the Second-Gen Trans Am, which was born in his Pontiac Studio, was a milestone car.
Bill enjoyed an exciting and varied career beginning with a 1957 summer internship at General Motors Styling. Working his way up through the ranks of GM Design, he ultimately held many executive positions over the next four decades. He retired from the General in 1996.
Bill had always wanted the Second-Gen T/A to feature functional Ram Air via twin scoops, i
Bill’s Pontiac highlights include the ’62 Big-Car grille details, the ’63 coke-bottle shape and tailpanel, the ’68 GTO/LeMans/Tempest body theme, the ’70½-’73 Firebird/Trans Am, the ’73 Pontiac A-body, the Honeycomb wheel, and preproduction Trans Am hood-bird designs.
Of course, the Second-Gen Trans Am stands out in his mind. “I finally woke up to the fact that the ’70½-’73 Trans Am was the most significant car I had worked on,” he tells HPP. “I drove lots of cars at Pontiac, but at the time I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. In later years, I started looking back and it dawned on me that the ’70-’73 T/A was as significant as the ’68 GTO for which I had designed the basic body theme -- a monocoque shell form with elliptical pressure bulges over the wheels. So I started looking for a Trans Am since I hadn’t kept one, which was dumb.”
Seeking out a low-mileage example in Brewster Green, Bill soon realized that even in 1978, Brewster Green ’73 T/A -- and low-mileage ’70½-’73 T/As in any color -- were becoming scarce. Finally, he located this Buccaneer Red ’73 in the Clarkston, Michigan, area north of Pontiac. It had the standard 250-horse 455 D-port engine, a Turbo 400 trans, a 3.08:1 Safe-T-Track rear, and A/C, among other options. With just 30,000 miles on the odometer and a $3,000 price tag, he couldn’t pass it up.
“One thing it was missing,” Bill laments, “was Honeycomb wheels. Since I had designed them, sharing the patent with Maurice ‘Bud’ Chandler, a designer in Pontiac Studio, I decided to install them and change the tires to radials from bias-plies. The T/A looked and drove much better with the new wheel/tire combo.”
Bill enjoyed his Trans Am for several years, but storage was a problem. “My old house in Birmingham, Michigan, had a terrible garage with a leaking roof, so I parked the T/A outside for years with a car cover over it. By the late-’90s, I began to feel that the Pontiac needed to be restored.”
Having had a very serious heart attack in 1987, Bill stopped smoking and drinking, and became a vegetarian. “It was a real wakeup call. I changed my whole lifestyle and began following Dr. Dean Ornish’s programs.” Bill’s health issues ultimately led to the T/As resurrection.
“For many years after my heart attack, I was in a cardiac-maintenance program conducted by Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. In 1998 or 1999 I met a fellow, and in a casual conversation he said, ‘My son Jim restores cars.’ A week or two later he told me, ‘Jim restored a Packard that won the Meadowbrook Concours.’ I was impressed, so I asked for his phone number.”
“Once I connected with Jim Nicholson, I had to wait quite a while before he could work on my Trans Am because he was finishing another car, and he only did one at a time.”
Beginning in 2000, Jim performed a complete rotisserie restoration on the T/A in his White Lake Township, Michigan, garage. Over the next two years, he handled the body and paint; chassis rebuild; and removing, cleaning, and reinstalling the original interior. Details on the resto are few, unfortunately, because Jim has since passed away.
The original 455 D-port engine was sent to Dan Jensen in Portland, Michigan, for a cam swap. Dan removed the factory 067 cam -- which boasts 273/289 degrees duration with 0.410/0.413 lift -- and installed in its place an 068 cam with 288/302-degrees duration and 0.414/0.413 lift with 1.50-ratio rockers. Since the engine still had less than 35,000 miles on it, a rebuild wasn’t deemed necessary, so Dan resealed the engine, stripped the outside, and repainted and detailed it. Upon its return to Jim, he reinstalled it in the T/A.
The restoration afforded Bill the opportunity to make a change in the T/A’s appearance that he had desired for the Second-Gen body three decades before. He installed a Formula hood and the Ram Air air cleaner in place of the Shaker hood. “It was the hood I wanted on the ’70½ T/A originally, and it’s functionally superior to the Shaker,” he says. “Pontiac Engineers Bill Collins and Herb Adams sold DeLorean on the Shaker before I had the opportunity to sell him on the Formula hood.”
Another issue Bill’s design staff faced regarding the Shaker was integrating it into the T/A’s design. “One of the main motifs on the Firebird hood was the raised center element, and the hole for the Shaker simply cut it up. At first I tried to split it around the scoop, and it just didn’t work, so we had to let it interrupt the raised element.”
Bill says his goal with the 70½ T/A was to make it an “important American sports car.” He and his staff went to great lengths to make the Trans Am stand out visually, while adding functionality to its design, even if it took a little inter-corporate detective work to do it. Though some information in the following anecdote was published in HPP years ago, it bears further discussion.
Bill recalls, “Doug Patterson was a project engineer who worked for Design Staff and was a racing fan. Chevy did a lot of work at the Lockheed wind tunnel -- in Marietta, Georgia, if memory serves -- with the Camaro. Doug had a great report on the car, but Chevy wasn’t going to use the info in its design, so he offered it to me. I viewed it as a golden opportunity to make the T/A an even greater car.
The low-mileage, standard 4X-headed D-port 455 still runs strong, having only had a cam up
Despite the fact that Bill Porter would have been much happier with his Honeycomb wheel ha
“According to the findings, the best configuration was nose way down and tail way up. This wouldn’t work on the street for ride-height and ground-clearance reasons, so I worked on the front and rear spoiler designs. Ultimately we got negative lift out of the front and rear spoilers, and the rear-wheel leading-edge spoilers also worked really well. The engine air extractors were positioned to function correctly and look great, even if they were a bit smaller than I wanted due to the inner fender bracing.”
All of these visual and functional aerodynamic elements were still in use on Bill’s ’73 model, and once it came out of restoration, it looked fantastic, so he enjoyed it for a few more years. By 2010, approaching their late 70s, Bill and his wife, Pat, realized that they were using the T/A less and less.
“About three years ago, my son, Adam, bought a Formula 400 to restore. My wife and I decided that he would get more benefit from owning our Trans Am than restoring the Formula, so we gave it to him. Last year Adam and I drove the T/A to the Trans Am Nationals in Dayton, Ohio, and we had a great time together.”
With a career at GM that would make any car guy envious, Bill Porter achieved what many can only dream of, and was instrumental in providing us with some of Pontiac’s legendary designs. His accomplishments have been and will continue to be revered, and now he too is finally able to “see the forest for the trees,” and enjoy the results of his work by speaking with Pontiac fans at the T/A Nationals and making memories with his family in this ’73 Trans Am.
William “Bill” Porter’s Career Path at GM
Automotive Designer -- General Motors Design Center, General Motors Technical Center
Summer Intern, General Motors Styling (now called Design Center)
Junior Designer, Design Development Studio -- designer in training, learned surface development drawing, full-size rendering techniques, etc.
Junior Designer, Research Studio—generated ideas in the form of sketches, scale models, drawings, and such, in GM’s most visionary design area; worked on technologically advanced concepts such as “people movers” for dense urban environments, vehicles for fully automated highways, etc.
Designer, Pontiac Studio, Exterior Production—made sketches, renderings, etc. of proposals for Pontiac production automobiles being modeled full-size in studio
Assistant Chief Designer, Preliminary Design Studio -- helped direct “think-tank” studio with many young designers using 1⁄5-scale models to develop new basic body themes; attended General Motors Institute for one semester, taking various automotive engineering courses to promote better communication between designers and engineers
Chief Designer, Design Development Studio -- recruited and trained new designers, both interior and exterior; visited design schools throughout the U.S., met with design educators, interviewed students, and directed training projects for newly recruited designers at GM Design Center (called “Styling Staff” at that time)
Chief Designer, Advanced 2 Studio -- directed design of various preproduction and concept cars
Chief Designer, Pontiac Studio, Exterior Production -- directed exterior appearance design of all Pontiac production vehicles: Bonneville, Catalina, Grand Prix, GTO, LeMans, Firebird, and so on
Chief Designer, Advanced 1 Studio -- directed design of various preproduction automobiles, mostly Pontiacs, and concept cars
Chief Designer, Buick No. 1 Studio, Exterior Production -- directed exterior appearance design of Buick intermediate and full size cars: Regal sedan, LeSabre, Park Avenue, and Riviera
October 1995-August 1996
Chief Designer, Buick LeSabre, Production Studio -- directed studio staff of designers, engineers, and modelers creating appearance design of entire vehicle, interior, and exterior