The Trans Am GTA was considered...
The Trans Am GTA was considered the most upscale of the Third Generation F-bodies. It utilized a more refined suspension that allowed it to still carve corners while reducing ride harshness. GTAs also featured more creature comforts and were targeted to change the way Americans thought about musclecars.
Successfully amassing a collection of Pontiacs produced in limited numbers can be a rewarding experience for any hobbyist. Some appreciate the scarcity and beauty of these automobiles, while others are strictly collectors with value in mind. Whatever the reason, rarities are the focal point of many collections. Such is true of Dave Alger and his son, Carl, of Lexington, Kentucky, who are in the process of gathering up a rare Trans Am from each year of the model's 35-year production run.
You may think, with enough cash, that it wouldn't be too difficult, given the rare Ram Air and SD T/As of the First and Second Generations. But what about the Third-Gens, aside from the Anniversary cars or possibly a 1LE? Anniversary T/As weren't produced in every model year, so what rarity was produced in 1988, for instance? Do you remember the GTA notchback?
The GTA Notchback Story
By 1988, the aerodynamic Third-Gen Firebird was in its seventh year. Unfortunately, sales weren't as hot as the car's body lines suggested. Executives at Pontiac were eager to differentiate the Firebird from the Camaro, but were limited by their shared chassis. The year before, the Gran Turismo Americano, or GTA, was introduced as a step in the right direction. It featured a more comfortable ride, one that was commended in the June '88 issue of Motor Tend, and it helped begin the separation of the two F-cars.
The GTA came standard with...
The GTA came standard with a 5.7L V-8 rated at 225 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque and an automatic transmission. If you liked shifting the gears manually, available five-speed cars required the Tuned Port Injection 305ci H.O. V-8. Power was down from the 5.7L with only 215 hp and 285 lb-ft, though.
Chief Firebird Designer John Schinella and Firebird Engineering Manager Tom Goad discussed with Auto-Fab owner Bill Bailey the possibility of a special notchback hatch design for the GTA. It was intended to further set the '88 apart from the Camaro, as well as the rest of the Firebird line. The simple addition was made from fiberglass to save on tooling costs. Dealers, as well as Pontiac executives, found the notchback to be aesthetically pleasing so it was given the green light. "I felt that it provided the GTA with a unique look and more character on the street and, at the same time, distanced it from the Camaro," says Schinella.
Pontiac officials anticipated they would need 8,000 to 12,000 units per year, but Auto-Fab's output capacity was limited to roughly 2,000 to 2,500 units. Regardless, notifications were sent out to dealers stating that the new option AA8 was available.
There aren't any changes that...
There aren't any changes that jump out at you when you open the doors to the notchback versus the regular GTA. Inside, you'll find no short list of creature comforts, putting the driver in-tune to his needs. The only noticeable addition to the interior is the new rear seat backs with incorporated headrests-also available on the '89 Turbo Trans Am.
According to Pontiac's Sporty Car Marketing Manager Lou Wassel, shortly after the announcement, problems surfaced at the Van Nuys F-body assembly plant in Southern California. It appeared that the notchback didn't fit and all AA8 orders were put on hold until Auto-Fab could identify the cause of the problem. Lou recalled that Auto-Fab rebuilt its molds using a new design. Fresh notchbacks were sent out to Van Nuys where they faced the same obstacles. The assembly was yet again closely inspected. Lou claims that the notchback wasn't actually the cause of the fitment issue; rather it was variances in the production tolerances of the car bodies.
Lou says that modifications were made to the design one more time before they reached an acceptable fit. By this time, it was late in the '88 model year. Some dealers had lost interest and were hesitant to promote an option that had been delayed twice, certainly affecting their sales. Adding to this, there wasn't any mention of the option in dealer literature that year and many of the salespeople weren't educated on the notchback, either.
This car was originally sold...
This car was originally sold in Canada
For 1989, however, Pontiac dealer literature did not ignore the new, shapely notchback design. An entire page was dedicated to the option, but there was one small snag: production had been abruptly cancelled. A Car Distribution Bulletin, dated August 30th, 1988, states that production had been terminated and that no further orders of the option were to be accepted. All prior orders that contained AA8 were removed by Pontiac, too. The impetus was lost, and Pontiac's efforts to create a unique look for the GTA had only extended to a few hundred instead of a few thousand. When the smoke cleared, the GTA continued on with a strong production run, minus the special rear hatch. GM's production total for '88 is just 718 units, making the notchback GTA extremely rare. This fact was not lost on the Alger family.
Finding This GTA Notchback
For Carl, the GTA notchback is one of the crowning jewels in his family's substantial collection of rare Trans Ams. Carl's obsession with Pontiacs can be traced back to his youth. His father always had cool cars around, which greatly influenced his interests; but it all came together when he turned 16, in the fall of 1986. The family owned a five-speed 305 H.O.-powered '83 Trans Am and decided to pass it down to him. "Pontiacs just seemed to fit," Carl recalls. This was just the beginning, though.
The profile of the notchback...
The profile of the notchback GTA is like no other. The aerodynamic body lines complement the short-deck look and it just seems to fit. John Folden and the rest of the Pontiac design team came up with the final product. Pontiac executives Tom Goad, John Schinella, and Lou Wassel felt the notchback was a very good-looking aesthetic feature, but not everyone agreed-it was either loved or hated among Third-Gen fans.
His parents replaced the T/A with a new '87 Grand National that same year. Carl was captivated by the performance of the GN, so when the marriage of the turbo 3.8L engine and Trans Am body came together in '89, he had to have one. The opportunity came in early 1990 and, sadly, the rare five-speed '84 had to be traded in for the 20th Anniversary Edition. In 1992, he and his father purchased a '69 Ram Air III Trans Am. Many other T/As have been added since then.
For the '88 model year, the choice was clear-the notchback GTA with a digital dash and a five-speed. "If you wait long enough, it will turn up," Carl says. A close eye on eBay rewarded the Algers in 2005 when this outstanding Flame Red Metallic '88 notch turned up in Canada. The kicker came when they found out the low odometer reading-just over 7,000 miles. Despite the low mileage, the owner was asking too much for it. According to Carl, "Third Generation Trans Ams just weren't pulling that kind of money, even if it was rare. We made an offer, but he decided to leave it on eBay." Time ran out on the auction and he threw it back on there. Again, the auction ended. This time, the owner called the Algers to see if their offer was still good. They negotiated a price and Dave drove to Calgary, Canada, to pick it up.
"The GTA had been garage-kept and was in excellent condition. It was a little dirty, but well taken care of. The original owner had used it as a weekend car, so the mileage remained low. Interestingly enough, we found out that it was built in April but wasn't sold until October! This rare GTA sat on the lot for about six months," Carl says.
The GTA was a rolling exhibit...
The GTA was a rolling exhibit of GM's '80s cutting-edge technology. From radio controls on the steering wheel to the Buck Rogers-esque digital dash, there were plenty of lights and buttons to keep the driver entertained.
Adding to the scarcity of this Bird is the five-speed manual transmission, which came with a 3.45 rear gear. Only 809 GTAs received this option, but we haven't seen documentation as to how many notchbacks were five-speed cars. The Algers understand and appreciate that they own an extremely rare piece of Pontiac history so they treat it that way. "The most we have ever driven it was during the photo shoot," Carl says.
As the saying goes, a collector never stops collecting, and Carl and Dave Alger have a few more Trans Ams to procure before they complete one of the most robust collections imaginable. "We're always looking for another T/A to add. If it's a year we don't have and it's rare, we will try and pick it up," Carl says. That same philosophy led to the acquisition of this GTA notchback. Ironically, the option that was created to garner attention and distinguish the GTA from the rest of the F-bodies required too much effort to efficiently produce enough cars to get the recognition Pontiac sought. It's a catch-22 that resulted in an ultra-rare and unique Pontiac.
The hatch somewhat resembles...
The hatch somewhat resembles the design seen on early C3 Corvettes. Designers found a way to incorporate those cues and make them work with the shape of the Firebird.
The digital tach made for...
The digital tach made for quite a light show on the dash.
The notchback cars didn't...
The notchback cars didn't use the same rear spoiler as the hatchback T/As and Formulas. Instead, they used the spoiler normally found on standard models.