In Part II of the Lou Wassel "It's A Bird That Was Inspired By A Plane" interview, we asked the former Pontiac Sporty Car Marketing Manager to take us behind the scenes at Pontiac in the '80s and to share with us from his private wealth of information more details of the development of the Trans Am GTA and Formula.
HPP: What were your product responsibilities as Sporty Car Marketing Manager?
Lou Wassel: I was responsible for the Firebird, Fiero and Trans Sport minivan. In a sense, the fact that I was responsible for the Fiero made the GTA possible because most of Pontiac's management at the time was focused on the Fiero and sort of ignored the Firebird. Fiero was an exclusive Pontiac carline and a big hit when it came out in 1984. Management wanted to maintain 100,000 units per year volume, and I had a lot of help with the Fiero; so much help, in fact, that I actually found time to work on the Firebird and Trans Am without too much meddling.
The United States Air Force...
The United States Air Force SR-71 Blackbird that started it all for the GTA.
I was also lucky enough to have some outstanding mentors (engineers like Tom Goad, John Alfes, John Seaton, Jim Lyons, Dave Spence and the Firebird chief designers: John Schinella, Jack Folden and Bill Scott), who took the time to teach me how a vehicle should be designed and engineered. Nearly everything I ever thought about in support of the Firebird was run by these guys for their blessing.
Interestingly, near the end of my Pontiac tenure, we started putting together a strategy to have the Fiero model lineup mirror the Firebird lineup - Base Fiero, Fiero Formula, Fiero GTA. We got partway through it and GM decided to cancel the car. Pontiac had a neat little 2.9L V-6 turbo engine in the skunkworks from prior years for a Fiero GTA, but it never saw the light of day. Oh, my goodness, that engine would have turned the Fiero into a little rocket.
HPP: What in-house names did you and the GM Design Staff have for the Trans Am GTA?
LW: Up until the time our Chief Firebird Designer John Schinella decided to call it "GTA," we always called it the "Blackbird" in reference to the SR-71 Blackbird. When we went for our first divisional management review on March 31, 1985, I referred to the new model as "Blackbird" and explained how it was going to be our top-of-the-line Trans Am. Elwood (El) Schlesinger, who came from Oldsmobile as our new general sales manager, commented, "Oh, I get it now, your top-of-the-line Firebird is a Trans Am, and so you're going to have a top-of-the-line Trans Am called Blackbird. So the Blackbird is going to be like the Brougham." Brougham was Oldsmobile-speak. We got a big chuckle out of it and from that point on, often referred to the GTA as our "Trans Am Brougham."
HPP: What horsepower options did you study during the Trans Am GTA and Formula program development?
LW: Let me respond to that question by going back prior to the GTA's conception; in fact, even before I arrived on the scene. Pontiac floated several trial balloons for releasing the Corvette 5.7L V-8 engine in the F-body. Each time, Chevy came back and said it couldn't be done because they claimed it "couldn't be certified" in the F-body. It seemed to me they always had a good reason for not being able to do it until somebody high enough in GM management told them to put it in there. All of a sudden, there were no certification problems.
These were still the days of fierce divisional rivalries at GM, and you didn't dare give your sister division any advantage if you could possibly help it. Anyhow, we were prepared to go with the LB9 5.0L V-8 in the GTA and Formula until the Corvette engine was finally released.
Quite honestly, though, I always had my eyes set on the Buick 3.8L turbo for the GTA. At the time, Buick was developing a race version for the Indianapolis 500 and the street version was GM's most powerful engine. The 3.8L V-6 turbo was rated around 245hp or so, but it felt a lot stronger. The engine used turbocharger and intercooler technologies that I knew would be important to import buyers shopping in the Nissan 300ZX and Toyota Supra markets.
It may be different now, but in the mid-'80s, our marketing research told us that going fast wasn't an end in itself. What technology you used to make you go fast was equally, if not more, important to the buyers of import sporty and sports cars. These buyers definitely wanted technical sophistication in their engines. We might have been able to sell a big V-8 to a domestic-committed buyer, but we would never even get on the consideration list of buyers whose first choice was an import. A few of us at Pontiac were willing to let the Chevy IROC-Z keep the domestic buyer with the 5.7L V-8 and take our chances at conquesting import intenders with the 3.8L V-6 turbo in the GTA. It was a risk because there were other attributes to consider, like ride, handling and quality, but we believed that differentiating the IROC and the GTA was the best overall strategy for GM.
At the time I left Pontiac, Buick engineers were studying the packaging and certification of the 3.8L V-6 turbo in the GTA and truly had some significant challenges. It was not an easy or inexpensive proposition, but Buick engineering wanted to maintain a presence in the market with the engine so they had the motivation to make it happen, and eventually they did.
HPP: Were you offended that when the 3.8L turbo finally arrived in the '89 20th Anniversary Trans Am pace car, it was only a limited edition and not the standard engine?
LW: Oh, heavens no! I left Pontiac for the GM Finance Staff by that time, and to the contrary, I was absolutely delighted that the car finally had the right GM engine it, even if it was for only a limited-production run like an Indy Pace Car. In fact, as it turned out, the added cost of packaging the 3.8L V-6 turbo could only be borne by a special edition like that.
The lower door graphics on...
The lower door graphics on the '87 Formula are directly reminiscent of the '77 Formula graphics package. The earlier Bird was Lou Wassel's favorite Firebird of all time.
This '91 GTA is "Brilliant...
This '91 GTA is "Brilliant Red Metallic."
Lou Wassel, photographed in...
Lou Wassel, photographed in 2007, fondly reminisces about his direct involvement in the creation of the Trans Am GTA and the mid-'80s Firebird Formula.
HPP: Of all the GTAs, from '87 to '92, what year and color GTA is your absolute favorite?
LW: My absolute favorite is the original '87 GTA in Flame Red Metallic. That was the color we had on the press trips during the summer of 1986, and the color I ordered as my company car after introduction. With the gold Crosslace wheels, the car was just gorgeous. Flame Red Metallic turned out to be the best selling GTA color that year.
Let me also mention a color combination that was a sleeper for us: Gunmetal Metallic. We should have sold more of that color, but to my recollection, we only featured it in a couple of articles, which was unfortunately not enough exposure to build a following in the market. A friend of mine in Oxford, Michigan, owns a beautiful '87 GTA in Gunmetal Metallic with the original tires; in fact, he'll tell you in no uncertain terms, "original everything."
HPP: Was the GTA designed to continue past the Third-Generation of the Firebird lineage?
LW: Oh absolutely. I left the program in 1989, but I know their plan was to have a base Firebird, have the Formula take the place of the base Trans Am, and then have the Trans Am GTA standing out there as the image leader all by itself. Now I know there was a debate regarding whether they would call it a Trans Am or a GTA, and eventually they decided just to call it a Trans Am.