There may not be any other Pontiac engine that harbors as much mystique as the Super-Duty 455. Introduced in ’73 as a maximum-performance effort capable of sustained 6,000-rpm operation, it was hampered by production regulations, but possessed a seemingly-infinite amount of power potential for those looking to extract it. It created significant buzz within the industry, and several magazines were praising its virtues for months before its actual release.
Upon purchasing his ’73 Trans Am, Michael Scicluna sent to PHS Automotive Services to obta
Delayed because of emission concerns and component procurement issues, its June ’73 debut was well-timed, perhaps coincidentally, with three exciting magazine articles showcasing the astounding performance of a Buccaneer Red ’73 Trans Am fitted with the new SD-455 engine. Hot Rod magazine’s June ’73 issue contained a two-part story that’s likely the most memorable to Firebird enthusiasts (part one is reprinted on the preceding pages). In stock trim, the Super-Duty Trans Am turned a quarter-mile best of 13.54 at 104.29 mph, setting the bar for perceived showroom-stock SD-455 performance. With some basic modifications and improved traction, it was reduced to 13.15 at nearly 107 mph.
Arguably the first production Super-Duty T/A ever built, the Firebird seemingly disappeared into obscurity once the magazine tests were complete. Nearly a decade passed before a teaser of its whereabouts surfaced. Now, after another 30 years, the very Firebird that fueled so many enthusiasts’ dreams may have recently surfaced, and it’s half-a-world away! Here’s the scoop.
The April ’83 issue of Car Exchange magazine gave the first clue of the SD T/A post-test existence. In response to an article about another SD T/A, reader Bill Eager wrote the magazine claiming to own the former test car. According to his letter, it was purchased by a Pontiac engineer following the magazine tests; Bill then bought it a couple of years later and remarked how well its SD-455 performed. Upon removing the intake manifold for a cosmetic repair, he found the SD-455 heads were professionally gasket-matched and suggested that Pontiac sent a “ringer” to the magazines.
HPP made a number of attempts to reach Bill over the years, but all proved futile. It wasn’t until recently that we learned of his passing several years ago. We were seemingly left with no way of substantiating Bill’s claim of it being a factory-prepped car or the timeframe he owned it. We half-heartedly accepted that this Super-Duty Trans Am may live on in memory only.
Buying A ’73 Trans Am
Michael Scicluna of Sydney, Australia, has been into American performance cars since he was a kid. “My father, Lorry, presently owns a ’79 Trans Am,” the 32-year-old Mariner tells HPP. “I have lived and breathed Pontiacs my entire life, and really love early Second-Gen Trans Ams.”
The Shaker’s original 455 decals have been replaced with those from an earlier 455 H.O. It
A Buccaneer Red ’73 Trans Am caught Michael’s eye at a Pontiac club picnic, and owning one like it became an obsession. “My goal was to find one that I could restore slowly,” he says. “I began searching several Internet sites for one in my price range. In June 2012, I saw a ’73 Trans Am for sale on eBay nearby.”
By its VIN, which contained a Y as the fifth character, the Trans Am seemed nothing more than a typical D-port 455, but the seller was quick to point out that its engine wasn’t original and he seemed honest about its condition.
Michael contacted the seller and they spoke for about 20 minutes. Following his gut instinct, he made an offer that was accepted. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later when it was delivered that he could check over the Trans Am closely for the very first time. Fortunately, it was exactly as the seller described; beyond general use, it was rather complete.
Attempting to learn more about his Firebird, Michael joined a few different Trans Am-specific websites. “I stumbled upon the factory-to-dealer invoices provided by PHS Automotive Services and a link to its website, so I sent my VIN and requested a packet.” To Michael’s surprise, and subsequent dismay, the invoice revealed that his Y-code Trans Am was originally equipped with the SD-455 engine option. “I was excited, but also disappointed its original engine was missing. I didn’t really know what to think of it, so I started asking local enthusiasts.”
The vacuum routing and solenoid placement of the first- and second-type ’73 emissions syst
Lacking the traditional X found in the VIN of original Super-Duty Firebirds, fellow-Australian Leigh Peddell set out to help Michael solve his mystery. Leigh started a thread on the Performance Years forum soliciting member thoughts and opinions. The responses ranged from a potential show car to a bogus invoice. Since Michael received his Trans Am’s invoice from PHS Automotive Services directly, there was no chance for the previous funny business. It’s at about this point that your author and his father, Jim Rotella, began taking a closer look.
Piecing It Together
We began searching Michael’s invoice for clues. It showed an MSRP of nearly $5,515, but the car was sold to Stan Chazen Pontiac in Santa Monica, California, at a bid price of $2,100. It was initially billed to Pontiac’s Los Angeles California Zone Office and assigned to Pontiac Engineering. The car’s VIN indicates it was built as a D-port 455 Trans Am relatively early in the model year (12B, or second week of December 1972), yet the PHS document shows a ship date of September 14, 1973.
We began pondering what took place in those nine months that could reduce the value of an Engineering-assigned car some 60 percent. In the past, it usually indicated some type of test mule, subjected to harsh testing and/or high miles. Then the elder Rotella noted that the optional equipment on Michael’s car is identical to that of the elusive magazine test car from 40 years earlier. We quickly pulled the articles for a comparison and found the two shared an identical color combination and complete list of optional equipment. Bingo!
When reviewing the production and selling information, and the timeframe in which the articles’ testing occurred, there’s little doubt that Michael had unknowingly purchased this special car. It’s possible that being built as a Y-code 455 on the assembly line also answers why the test car wears basic “455” decals on its Shaker in the article photos, as well as why it’s equipped with the “G92 Performance Rear Axle,” a $10 option, although 3.42:1 gearing was standard equipment with the SD-455 engine when combined with an automatic transmission and no A/C.
With Michael and his Trans Am half a world away, we couldn’t inspect it in person, but we wanted to learn more about its condition. Leigh Peddell put us in contact with Michael, who was astonished to hear our thoughts. He provided additional info and detailed photos in hopes of helping us positively identify his car.
The seller believed the non-original WT-code engine was a R/A-III 400; it wasn’t until Mic
We found that the Firebird was exported to Australia around 1981. First landing in Queensland, it was then sold to a buyer in Canberra in 1985 and taken off the road for some reason not long after that. It was sold again to a buyer in Melbourne in 2004, from whom Michael purchased it.
The exterior appeared rather rust-free, but the car had been poorly repainted in the distant past, and the finish was very faded and thin in spots. At least, some of the decals are not original and/or correct for the car. The Rally wheels were painted body color too. While the original rear bumper guards are missing, the bumper has the corresponding holes.
Crudely converted to right-hand drive, its dash panel was sectioned and stitched together, but most of the original equipment remained, including the AM/FM radio and instrument cluster, which shows 72,000 miles. The original Saddle Custom interior otherwise remains surprisingly complete, especially since the Firebird was seen as nothing more than a 40-year-old used car that was left in the elements until recently.
Unfortunately, the SD-455 is no longer with the car. It’s unclear whether a specially-prepped SD-455 engine was installed at the Norwood, Ohio, assembly plant or at another location, such as Pontiac engineering. We know from vintage photos that a Round-Port engine with a first-type emissions system was installed at some point, but we haven’t been able to determine if it was removed by Pontiac before selling or if it was left intact. Car Exchange magazine suggests the latter.
New engine and automatic transmissions codes accompanied the changeover to the second-type
The SD-455 was backed by a unique Turbo 400 with revised shift points and specific internal valving. Michael’s Trans Am has a correct Super-Duty-spec PQ code transmission in it, but unlike other production Turbo 400s, it’s seemingly void of any VIN stamp, possibly indicating that was installed at the same time as the SD-455. No matter the case, it’s definitely not the typical PR-code Turbo 400 used behind the D-port 455 in the ’73 Firebird.
When Hot Rod magazine installed wider rear tires to improve traction, it noted that the tires “fit into the fenderwells with a little bit of hammering on the interior sheetmetal.” Michael’s photos clearly show a bit of rough handywork was performed in the rear wheelwell area, which may very well provide further proof that this is the car tested in the magazine.
Michael’s initial plan was to restore his Trans Am over the next 10 years, but with the support of his wife, Amy, he’s now excited to complete the restoration sooner. “The experience has totally blown me out of the water,” he says. “I read all these amazing stories in HPP about other people’s Pontiacs. I never expected to own an SD-455 one day. I am honored to own this car, but I must admit, I feel it’s a slight burden in a way. I really want to do it justice, and make it look and feel just like it did when the magazines tested it.”
Here is the modification that Hot Rod noted in the second part of its original article, wh
Restoring the Trans Am back to its original glory, which includes converting it back to left-hand drive, is going to require a great deal of work and an enormous expense, but Michael is prepared for it. “It’s taken me so long to find the right car, I never intend to sell it. Restoring it is something I want to do right. I hope I can achieve the same standard as some of those restored by the Trans Am shops in America. I’m not sure I can afford an SD-455 engine right now, but I will definitely try over the years to find one.”
When considering all the evidence, there’s little doubt that Michael owns the SD T/A that so many magazines tested. Since learning of its existence, HPP has painstakingly attempted to contact several individuals who worked for Pontiac or the magazines back then, but little information has surfaced. The recollections of what took place some 40 years ago are understandably a bit gray.
We plan to continue searching for more information on this Super-Duty Trans Am with hopes of answering several additional questions, which includes the specifics of its SD-455, and whether it remained with the car when shipped to Australia or was removed beforehand. Rest assured that if any new insights come forth, HPP will be sharing them with you!