From 1896 to 1930, there were over 1,800 car companies in America. Today there are only around 40. Not very many celebrated a 50th anniversary, but Pontiac sure did in 1976, with not one limited edition, but two!
By the mid-'70s, muscle cars were seriously downgraded. The '74 GTO was built on a Chevy Nova platform and the Mustang II was built on a Pinto platform. The Firebird survived, despite lower levels of performance, thanks to its red-hot image.
In 1973, GM Chief of Styling Bill Mitchell got the ball rolling for the 50th Anniversary Trans Am when he mentioned to Trans Am Styling Chief John Schinella that he should do something different with the T/A—“something sneaky,” like the black-and-gold livery on the '72 John Player Special F1 racers. Schinella put the graphics-and-decal people to work on the project, and the team came up with gold pinstriping and a special black paint with gold metalflake. Using these cues, Pontiac built a '74 Trans Am show car that debuted at the 1974 Chicago Auto Show. It was a showstopper. This became the prototype for the '76 50th Anniversary [of Pontiac] Trans Am.
Unfortunately the black-with-gold metalflake paint never made it to production. To make up for it, designers came up with a feature that was not on the show car—smoked lift-off roof panels (T-tops). In the mid-'70s, lift-off roof panels were rare, so this was a cutting-edge feature. Hurst Performance was already in the specialty-car business and had a working relationship with Pontiac on many projects, so the company contracted to build all 2,400 50th Anniversary Trans Ams and open-order Grand Prixs. Unfortunately, the Hurst roof panels had water-leaking problems and the option was cancelled after 643 50th Anniversary T/As were converted.
While this was a disappointment for Pontiac, there was an upside—the price. With the Hurst roof panels, the 50th Anniversary Trans Am option cost $1,100 more than the Trans Am's $4,987 base price. Customers were looking at a $6,087 window sticker, and even more if extra-cost options were added. The 50th Anniversary option was reduced to just $450 for the remaining 1,757 50th Anniversary T/As. In hindsight, this was a steal for such a handsome machine.
The 50th Anniversary Trans Am package included gold polycast Honeycomb wheels, a gold-anodized damascened instrument panel, gold steering-wheel spokes, a gold grille, gold headlight liners, and gold emblems. The Goodyear tire lettering was supposed to be gold, but it was changed to white. A few cars were built with black-chrome side- splitter exhaust tips, but the part cost too much; the majority of the cars received silver-chrome tips.
This special T/A's graphics were extensive. The logos and hood graphic were in gold. Pontiac workers applied gold pinstriping—more than had ever been added to a production Pontiac before. This graphics package made the 50th Anniversary Trans Am pop and sizzle.
With all of the visual delights of the 50th Anniversary Trans Am, one could almost overlook the two engine options. Standard was the L78 400ci engine with 185 hp. For a little extra grunt, there was the optional L75 455ci powerplant, rated at 200 hp. With a near 100-percent increase in the price of gasoline since 1970, 0-to-60 and quarter-mile e.t.'s and top speeds weren't so important. Zero-to-60 times were in the 7-second range, with quarter-mile times in the mid-15s and trap speeds in the low 90s. While a '76 Trans Am wouldn't get you to the disco as quickly as a '73 SD-455, it got you there in style!
For the slightly older buyer who wanted a high-end, luxury touring car, Pontiac offered the 50th Anniversary Grand Prix. The Grand Prix was always Pontiac's sporty big car, and beginning with '73, it shared the Colonnade body platform with the Chevy Monte Carlo, Olds Cutlass, and Buick Century. The '76 Grand Prix had two models above the base J-model: the SJ (sporty) added goodies such as Radial Tuned Suspension, Strato bucket seats, and the Rally gauge cluster; the LJ (luxury) came with pinstriping and velour interior trim. Both models came with the standard 400, and like the Trans Am, a 455 was optional.
Two features made the 50th Anniversary Grand Prix stand out—the bright Anniversary Gold paint (shared with the Cadillac Seville as Autumn Gold) and the Hurst/Hatch removable roof panels. More subtle details included the white landau opera roof, special H/H (Hurst/Hatch) fender badges next to the Grand Prix script badges, and a 50th Anniversary logo that used the classic Pontiac Indian Head incorporated in the standup hood ornament and the trunk key cover. The steering wheel was decorated with a gold arrowhead logo, and an H/H badge adorned the center console.
Unlike the limited-edition 50th Anniversary Trans Am, the 50th Anniversary Grand Prix was an open-order car. By the end of the year, 4,807 of them were sold.
The Grand Prix was a true road car. On the highway, it was smooth and cushy, but with Radial Tuned Suspension it handled well for a big car. The 400 and 455 engines had plenty of grunt for high-speed passing. Between the Pontiac trim and the extra 50th Anniversary bling, this was a beauty that Pontiac product planners should have been proud of. Regardless, one has to wonder if the 50th Anniversary Grand Prix would have had more punch if it had been given the 50th Anniversary Trans Am's black-and-gold treatment.
To make Pontiac's 50th Anniversary even more special, Mitchell suggested to Schinella that Pontiac should do something at the races similar to the Corvette Corral, the Porsche Park, and the Datsun Z-Zones—a special place where Trans Am owners could gather, show off their cars, and connect. Pontiac General Manager Alex Mair thought that was exactly what Pontiac needed to celebrate its golden anniversary.
Schinella posed the challenge of the concept to his design staff. It was designer Bill Davis who coined the term Trans Am Territory. Once Mitchell signed off on T/A Territory, Pontiac Design staff (under Schinella's direction) collectively came up with with the color schemes, signage, and logos.
Trans Am Territory was launched at the Road America race at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, on June 5-6, 1976. To help Pontiac, SCCA designated a black-and-gold '76 50th Anniversary Trans Am as its official car for the 10-race Trans-Am series!
Alex Mair had just been promoted from GMC Division to become Pontiac's general manager, and he used his connections to procure the GMC motorhome that became the Trans Am Traveler. Featuring black and red stripes, and a special Trans Am Territory logo that used half of the T/A's screaming chicken graphic—big as life—on its flanks, it served as a mobile Command Center at the tracks. It was driven to and from events either by Pontiac PR representative Jill Rogers or Schinella.
Trans Am Territory events included other special Pontiac show cars, including the Silverbird Trans Am racecar, the Pininfarina-built Type-K Trans Am station wagon, and the stunning '73 Banshee III experimental. Plus, Firebird owners got to take a parade lap around each track, and special awards and t-shirts were given out. Some events had as many as 325 Trans Ams and other Firebirds gathered inside Trans Am Territory. In fact, Trans Am Territory participation was so strong, Schinella had car owners line up and do parade laps by car color.
Pontiac sure knew how to build awesome special edition cars—and how to throw a party!