It was no secret that the First-Generation Firebird was rushed into production. Ford's 19641⁄2 Mustang took Detroit by surprise, leaving everyone to catch up. The Camaro made its debut just two years and five months after the Mustang's arrival. While the structural design of the Camaro was similar to the existing Chevy II (a chassis pan with front and rear subframes), the Fisher-built F-Car body structure/frame was completely new. Pontiac didn't come onboard with the new F-Car until the spring of 1966, six months before the Camaro's debut, and had less than a year to make a Firebird out of the Camaro.
Considering the astonishingly short lead-time, the 1967 Firebird was impressive. To give you some perspective on how much lead time goes into making a new car, just after the 1967 Camaro was released, GM designers started working on the Second- Generation F-body. This time, Pontiac's designers were involved from the beginning.
During the design process, many ideas are examined and considered. A few designs looked like a GTO with Firebird-proportioned long hood/short deck. One had the unique side design that was eventually used on the 1973 Grand Am coupe. Another concept featured a Porsche Targa-like lift-out roof panel. The F-Car's finished look didn't come together until Pontiac Styling Chief William "Bill" Porter integrated the B-pillar and rear-window style of the 1961 Ferrari 250GT SWB into the design. After Pontiac's contender for the basic design and shape of the Second-Gen F-body beat out Chevy designers' ideas, it was time for Chevrolet and Pontiac to make their cars unique.
John DeLorean left Pontiac in early 1969 to become the general manager of Chevrolet. His replacement, F. James MacDonald, inherited a determined team of engineers and product development people who poured their enthusiasm into the new Trans Am and Firebird. The engineering staff was so excited about making a great car that test models were taken on cross-country drives for evaluation. Engineers drove the cars hard during the day, and then made adjustments at night.
The Second-Gen Trans Ams and Firebirds had a delayed launch due to labor strikes, as did the Camaro and Corvette, and are therefore referred to as 19701⁄2 models. The new Firebird line had four models: the base Firebird and Esprit were boulevard cars, and the Formula 400 was a serious muscle car.
Then there was the Trans Am—the halo car—and it came at a premium price. For $1,430 over the base Firebird, or approximately $4,305, customers received a fully integrated performance package that included the 400-cid Ram Air III 345hp engine, four-speed transmission, limited-slip differential, calibrated shocks and springs, power brakes, variable-ratio power steering, Formula steering wheel, rally gauge and clock, Shaker hoodscoop, front and rear spoilers, front fender vents, and dedicated badges. Colors were limited to Polar White with blue stripes or Lucerne Blue with white stripes, plus the usual assortment of upscale Pontiac creature comforts. It was over-the-top delicious!
To qualify for the SCCA's Trans-Am Series, Detroit's automakers had to make production versions of the cars. Pontiac only produced 697 1969 Trans Am Firebirds, so when MacDonald told the sales department he needed 3,200 production Trans Ams, the sales executives cried, "No way!" MacDonald trumped them, built 3,200 Trans Ams, and they all sold!
The automotive press loved the 19701⁄2 Trans Am. Popular Hot Rodding declared, "It seems to us that engines like the Ram Air in cars like the Firebird are just too good to be true. So hot-foot it down to your Pontiac dealer and make sure they're for real." When Hot Rod magazine did a side-by-side test of the 19701⁄2 Z28 and Trans Am, it said, "The Trans-Am wins the battle of the flippers." There was nothing to not like about the new Trans Am.
As glowing as the new Firebird's reviews were, the automobile business is about selling cars. In 1969 Pontiac sold 87,708 Firebirds, and that dropped to just 48,739 units in 19701⁄2. Negative factors at work included a 21⁄2-month labor strike, heavy premiums to insure muscle cars for young drivers, and a faltering economy. The muscle-car party of the 1960s was over.
The 1971 Trans Am was more refined and a 455 H.O. engine was standard, but sales dropped to 2,116 units.
The low point came in 1972 when only 1,286 Trans Ams were sold. It was the first year that GM began using net horsepower figures, and on paper the numbers looked like a performance disaster. The 455 H.O. had a gross power rating of 325 hp, but a dismal advertised 255hp net power rating. Also, it looked like retooling the Firebird's front end for the 1973 federally mandated 5-mph crash bumpers would be very expensive. GM president Ed Cole considered killing the F-body after the 1972!
The F-Car faithful from both the Pontiac and Chevy camps argued strongly for the cars. They proved that the Pontiac and Chevy pony cars successfully pulled buyers away from the other car manufacturers. Ford was selling Mustangs, 149,678 units in 1971 and 125,093 in 1972. The Dodge Challenger sold 29,883 units in 1971 and 26,658 in 1972. Firebird sales hit 53,124 in 1971 and 29,951 in 1972. From a bean counter's perspective, pony cars were dying and the Firebird and Camaro lines were in trouble.
But people don't buy beans, they buy cars they're excited about owning and enjoying. While the Camaro got a large, heavy-looking chrome bumper for 1973, the Endura front bumper on the Firebird already passed the 5-mph bumper test! You could say that the Firebird survived by the skin of its beak.
By 1974, the only performance/sporty cars in America were the Mustang, Corvette, Camaro, Trans Am, and Firebird. Look what happened to the Trans Am's sales: 1972—1,286; 1973—4,802; 1974—10,255; 1975—27,274; 1976—46,701; 1977—68,745; 1978—93,341; and 1979—117,108.
Now here's the odd part of the story. The 1973 Z28 outsold the Trans Am 11,574 to 4,802. In 1974, the Trans-Am did better, but Chevy still sold more Z28s; 13,803 versus 10,255. Chevy then walked away from the Z28 for the next two years, making the Trans Am the only performance car in General Motors' stable besides the Corvette. When the Z28 came back for 1977, the Trans Am had a solid foothold (thanks to Smokey and the Bandit ) and the Z28 never caught up for the rest of the second-generation F-body run. Pontiac's Firebird lines remained in continuous production until 2002.
Imagine—30 years before, GM's classic pony car almost came to a screeching halt.