With convertibles gone from the American new-car landscape in the late ’70s, America learned to embrace T-tops. You remember T-tops—removable pieces of roof above driver and passenger, leaving a spine of original steel roof for rigidity, and letting the sun shine in the cabin while maintaining the safety of a solid B-pillar. The lift-out panes were made of glass, all the better to let the sun shine in even with the roof panels in place.
They were first installed as part of Pontiac’s 50th Anniversary black-and-gold package for the Trans Am in ’76 and became more widely available during ’77. With all of the focus on the T-tops, a factory sunroof wasn’t really in the cards for any flavor of the Second-Gen Firebird. If you’ve seen one, it’s probably one of those pop-up deals that was installed at the local car-stereo place with a hacksaw and some chewing gum in the early ’80s. This isn’t one of those. Is it?
When Tim Blattner ran into this Martinique Blue Trans Am for sale a decade back in Colorado, he sensed something was odd about it. The original owner of a Cameo White/Claret WS6/W72 1978 Trans Am with Hurst hatches, Tim recognized that the blue T/A, though rougher, was even better-equipped than his own car, that is it was optioned with an automatic, air conditioning (a $508 option—in snowy Colorado?), W72, and a tape-deck stereo that managed to cost more than its WS6 package ($351 versus $324). But a sunroof? He’d never heard of such a thing.
Indeed, the lack of a line item on the window sticker points to it being a dealer-installed option. But though the dealer (Pansing Chevrolet of Littleton, Colorado) had specified that a sunroof should happen, this one has the finished appearance more in line with a factory job.
Though dealer-initiated, there’s no way that the dealer actually installed this power-acti
“The dealer appears to have sent it to the same factory that installed GM factory-option power sunroofs in C- [Olds 98, Buick Electra, Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham], E- [Olds Toronado, Cadillac Eldorado], and K- [Cadillac Seville] body styles,” says owner Blattner. The Astroroof, as it was marketed in ’78, was a $900-$1,000 option designated for high-end luxury barges.
With the Firebird’s roof being a special-order item that had to be trucked from the Van Nuys, California, final assembly point to the sunroof facility (presumably in Michigan) and back to the dealership, it’s easy to see why few (if any) others were built on a car with a $5,799 starting price. (Even with A/C, WS6, W72, and more, a loaded T/A like this one had a hard time rolling out of the factory for more than $8,000 before destination charges.) At $625 in ’78, T-tops weren’t cheap—but they were more affordable than this solution.
“Someone at the dealership had to know someone in Michigan to get this done,” Blattner surmises. Perhaps it was ordered special by the dealership to be a traffic-generator.
As always, when we find head-scratchers like this one, we turn to Jim Mattison at Pontiac Historic Services, who offers wisdom and perspective. “The company that did those sunroofs for GM was the American Sunroof Corporation (ASC),” Mattison told us. “It had installation centers around the country, and did these for dealers. I’m sure that’s what this is, since this wasn’t a factory item.”
But he also puts a fork in our idea that a high-school kid with a hacksaw couldn’t possibly have executed work this clean. “Many installation centers were just ASC-approved facilities. There usually wasn’t enough work for ASC or GM to justify an entire dedicated facility, so it’s logical that if a dealer was outsourcing a local shop to install stereos or whatever else, that ASC could give them another item to work with. It makes perfect sense.”
When installed on Cadillacs and their ilk, a choice of a body-colored metal (code CA1) or tinted-glass (code CF5) roof panel sealed up the hole. The control switch, located between the sun visors in most cars so equipped, is between the trailing edge of the roof and the domelight in Blattner’s Trans Am. Holding the switch would allow the panel to retract into the rear portion of the roof.
The T/A also features a manually retractable panel made of aluminum sheet, finished in the same color and material as the blue headliner, and with a chrome handle at the leading edge so that you could let the sun shine in—or not, depending on your whim and comfort level. There was also a halo molding finished in matching light blue that snapped into place and hid all of the mechanisms and rough edges in the conversion. Imagine Blattner’s bemusement at having to scour the Cadillac section of the junkyard to find the right pieces to properly restore his Trans Am!
Beyond the roof treatment, Martinique Blue (code 24) is not a commonly seen color on Trans Ams of the era; it and the optional powder-blue velour interior—with color-keyed seatbelts—make for a striking period piece that doesn’t fall afoul of any “They’re all-painted black!” cliches. But it was a long road to get to the level of finish you see here.
As found languishing in Colorado, it was a 100,000-mile car, tired and clapped out. Accident repairs, patch panels, rust spots under cracked or otherwise dodgy paint—and that was just the body. A variety of pieces and brackets had gone missing under the hood, the seats were redone in the wrong material, and the interior panels had been hacked open and treated to a variety of sound equipment. The Space Saver spare was long gone, as was one of the fender-to-core-support braces.
Today, most of the pieces needed to make a Trans Am look better than factory-new can be sourced from a catalog. A dozen years ago, when Blattner wanted to make his unusual sunroof car match the cleanliness and beauty of his Cameo White ’78, he had to go the parts-car route.
“I had to scavenge the A/C compressor brackets from wrecking yards,” he recalled. “The right inner front fender commonly has a hole cut in it to replace the blower motor, so I had to find one of those. I got some of the last remaining Light Blue Velour material for my seats. I got a tail panel from a parts car—they now reproduce that piece. I also made my own air-cleaner-ducting adapter by basing it on the one I had on my white ’78; they now reproduce this piece as well.”
In terms of bang-for-the-buck for ’78, you couldn’t touch a WS6/W72-equipped Trans Am
In all, Blattner spent about 600 hours on the bodywork alone—mostly because he taught himself how to do it as he went along. He was more familiar with the basic mechanical package, which was the basis of one of the top performance cars available in the U.S., period. Anyone who sneers at ’70s cars need only be pointed in the direction of a late ’70s Trans Am to be schooled. In the language of Pontiac, W72 400 option was longhand for “Hot!” The veteran 400 block received a set of high-flowing 6X heads taken from a 350-cube Pontiac V-8, which also bumped up compression to 8.0:1. Tweaks to the 800-cfm QuadraJet, a hotter camshaft (274/298 degrees duration, 0.374/0.407 lift), and a high-volume oil pump count among the other improvements. For ’78, the W72 jumped up to a 220hp rating thanks to numerous small changes including a revised exhaust.
In case the power wasn’t enough for ’78, yet another dimension to the T/A’s performance was added. While they were always respectable handlers, a variety of minor tweaks took the Trans Am into another realm: 15x8-inch Snowflake wheels on 225/70R15 white-letter tires; a constant-ratio, high-effort steering box; a 1.25-inch front bar, larger ¾-inch rear sway bar, special sway-bar bushings, brackets, and and end-links on both ends; specific-rate front coil springs; a number of other chassis bushings; and firmer shocks made up the package. Quickly, the WS6 package was as big a deal as the W72 engine was. In terms of bang-for-the-buck for ’78, you couldn’t touch a WS6/W72-equipped Trans Am.
Blattner’s own chassis modifications have been minimal and subtle. Polyurethane bushings and KYB gas shocks, plus modern white-letter BFGoodrich radials, give the WS6 suspension a little more snap in the turns. (Although he’s not sure about the bushings: “I prefer driving this car over anything else I’ve ever driven, save for my white ’78 WS6. It still has the original rubber bushings, and the polyurethane gives a harsher ride but no noticeable handling difference.”
And then there’s that sunroof—a dealer-installed extra, sure, but a modification according to marque-specific show judges. This leaves a lot of people scratching their heads—judges and the owner alike. “The year I finished it, I took it to the POCI meet in Ontario, California. The sunroof meant they put it in the Modified class rather than stock, and then I got docked in the Modified class because I didn’t have the two other required modifications to fit in the class.” He took home a Bronze anyway.
Black-out taillight surrounds, exhaust splitters, those beefy tires tucked into the gently
Which means that there’s still plenty of room to go up. At the touch of a button, Blattner can retract that glass ceiling and reach as high as he dares. The sky’s the limit. And if that isn’t enough, he can always put his foot down and keep moving forward—as quickly as he can—toward bigger and better things.