The hood bird is from an '80...
The hood bird is from an '80 Trans Am because owner Gary Firch liked the fact that it had more colors than the '81. You may have noticed that a torrential rainstorm arrived as we began the photo shoot. We kept shooting anyway.
As you would expect, by the '81 model year, Pontiac had the Second-Gen styling, suspension, and brakes dialed in. The WS6 was the cream of the auto-industry's handling crop, and with a 1.25-inch sway bar up front paired with a 0.750-inch bar in the rear, 14:1 constant-ratio high-effort steering, specific springs, bushings, and shocks, and four-wheel disc brakes, even like-era Corvette owners had to take notice of the Pontiac's handling prowess.
Adding to those attributes were new low-drag brakes and a quick take-up master cylinder made of aluminum with a plastic fluid reservoir, which cut weight over the cast-iron unit and improved brake pedal feel. Even the A/C compressor was redesigned to a shorter unit that cut a few more pounds off the front end.
With all of this going for it, why did the '81 T/A only sell 33,493 units after selling 117,108 units in 1979? Here are a few reasons-lack of power, very modest changes to differentiate it from the '79 and '80 models, and never-ending hype regarding the soon-to-come '82 models.
While the top engine choice, the Turbo 301, debuted in '80 at 210 hp (200 hp in '81) making a statement on paper by only dropping 10 hp from the '79 W72 400's rating, on the street and at the dragstrip, the 301 couldn't match the numbers of its older, bigger brother. What was to blame? First, was its high sensitivity to the octane of pump gas, which resulted in detonation in some cases that was discussed in a few magazine road tests. Second, there was no manual trans available with the 301 Turbo, while the '79 400 couldn't be had without one. Third, the rear gear was a 3.08, where the 400 enjoyed a 3.23 set. The final blow came in the form of a sit-back-and-wait mentality of consumers due to the speculation regarding how great the '82 Trans Am was going to be. Many decided to wait for the '82 instead of buying what was a 12-year-old model by '81, which hadn't had any major body revisions since '79.
What most don't realize, but Gary Firch did, is that the '80-'81 WS6 T/As are great starting points for a Pontiac project. The styling is classic, the chassis and brakes perform very well in stock form, and all the Pontiac really needs is an injection of power to be a very comfortable cruiser or even a terror at the track.
"My Trans Am runs great on...
"My Trans Am runs great on the street or the strip, thanks to modern technology," Gary says. "It's a dependable musclecar, and I'm pleased with the way it all went together."
A gold Arrowhead adorns the...
A gold Arrowhead adorns the SE T/As.
It looks like a stock '81...
It looks like a stock '81 SE T/A, right? Not so fast-this one has 505 cubes and runs high 10s.
In 1993, Gary, an assembly line worker at the John Deere plant in Moline, Illinois, decided to take his 8-year-old son Jeff along to Geneseo Motors in Geneseo, Illinois, to have his '91 GMC pickup serviced. While waiting, Jeff spotted the SE T/A on the used-car lot. "I looked it over, test drove it, and bought it that same day," Gary says. The 26,725-mile 301 Turbo WS6 suspended '81 Y84, "was in very good original condition."Being an SE, of course, the Norwood, Ohio, built T/A was loaded with options such as T-tops, power windows and door locks, custom interior, door-edge guards, pulse wipers, A/C, cruise control, tilt steering column, radio-suppression package, and more, yet it was radio-delete.
Before we get into the resto work and mods done to this T/A, it's important to note that Gary is a Pontiac guy who likes to do his own work. In fact, in the early '80s at just 22 years old, he built a '67 Firebird 400 with a 462, a 6-71 Dyers blower, and a four-speed. "I built the engine and repainted the car and did nearly all the work myself," he recalls. The result was so good that the Pontiac was featured in the April '84 issue of Auto Buff magazine (now defunct). It was also a multiple show winner for many years before Gary sold it in 1994.