By C.J. Baker — Once in a while we get a test car that excites everyone on the staff, a car that is reasonably priced, that has outstanding quarter-mile acceleration, that handles like a true sports car, stops quickly and is comfortable to ride in, whether it's down to the corner grocery store or across the nation. The '73 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am is such a car.
Our Trans Am was equipped with the new 455 Super Duty engine, rated at 310 net horsepower. Since we initially covered the 455 SD in the October '72 HRM, we've received letters and calls from readers who had tried to order this engine and were refused by either their dealer or the factory. However, we are happy to report that on March 12 the management of Pontiac Motor Division gave its approval for the production and sale of the 455 SD in the Firebird series only. This means that you can indeed order this engine in a Trans Am (or any other '73 Firebird) and that service parts will be available. This was particularly good news since the Super Duty is both smooth and responsive without any of the ill manners usually associated with high performance engines —and it is very much a high-performance engine. As an extra bonus that is contrary to most '73s, gas mileage with the 455 SD, even when coupled to a turbohydro and a 3.42:1 rearend ratio (standard with all SD-equipped Firebirds), was quite good, ranging form 12 to 15 miles per gallon on low-lead regular fuel. For the complete performance story on our test car, see the Trans Am hop-up feature following this test report.
Probably the most impressive aspect of the Trans Am is the blend of handling and braking in combination with its ease of drivability and comfort. There are very few production automobiles sold in this country, including $10,000-plus imports, that can equal the performance of the 455 SD Trans Am. The 454 Corvette would probably be a close match on the drag strip and the road course, but the interior comfort and roominess, the four-passenger capability and the usable amount of trunk space make the Trans Am a solid favorite with those people who would like to combine performance, grace and styling with utility.
Entry and exit to the car is no hassle, thanks to the wide door openings. The bucket seats cradle you with good later support while simultaneously permitting sufficient movement to eliminate boredom or stiffness on long trips. Additionally, even people of above-average height or weight will find the interior adequately roomy for comfort. All of the controls are readily accessible, and the black and white instruments are well-placed and easy to read in the simulated engine-turned dash. An interesting thing about these instruments is that they work—they really do work. Oil pressure varies with engine rpm and the voltmeter responds to the demands on the electrical system, giving the driver an immediate indication of what's going on. Visibility is good and the thick, competition-style tilt steering wheel remains comfortable even after hours of continuous driving.
Interior design details also reflect an interest in the riding pleasure offered to the occupants. There are numerous compartments in the doors beneath the radio, in addition to the standard glove-box. Even the ashtray has a flip-up shield which protects the vynil from accidental burns.
Of course one of the unique features of the Trans Am is its distinctive exterior. The front and rear spoilers , wheel shrouds, shaker hood scoop and the optional $55 Firebird decal on the hood drew appreciative glances wherever we went. All things considered, at $5295 the 455 SD Trans Am is an exceptional buy for the driver who really appreciates a finely engineered automobile. Our only real complaint was that when we finished our tests, we had to return the car.
By John Fuchs
— In a world of production automobiles dominated by legislative overkill, it's a nice feeling to know that there are still a few truly exciting vehicles left in existence. And it's an even nicer feeling to drive one of them, even it's only for a very brief time. Such a vehicle is the Pantera by Ghia, a unique American V-8 powered Italian-built machine that has become this country's best-selling luxury sports/GT car in less than 2 years. A sleek, two-passenger, mid-engined automobile with four-wheel power disc brakes and a German ZF five-speed transaxle, the Pantera exudes class, but at the same time costs half as your run-of-the-mill Italian mid-engine exotica.
Since people who are likely to spend the $10,000-plus that selected Lincoln-Mercury dealers are getting for each Pantera are just not used to driving such a fine-handling and extremely responsive, we can easily understand why it has been detuned, so to speak, for the street. But because we understand why does not mean we have to like it.
The changes made included a good-sized dosage of design-in understeer and a rack-and-pinion steering with a ratio severely slower than you would expect in such a vehicle. Neutral steer can almost be achieved by adjusting tire pressures, but anything more will require sway bar changes. The goodyear Arriva bias-belted tires, C60 front and H60 rear, have been designed especially for the Pantera, and it shows. The car goes around corners as if on rails and drag strip traction was tolerable enough to permit a best time of 14.53/98.57, using only first, second and third of its five available gears. Not bad for a 3275-pound machine with smog legal engine. While the engine is in fact a 351 Cleaveland, it is not the same as the one available in many domestic Ford Motor Company products. The camshaft, along with several other items, has been changed to give a horsepower rating of 266 at 5400 rpm redline, the engine pulls in a manner reminiscent of the late-Sixties musclecars.
Inside the intimate, almost comfortable, cockpit, the Pantera has retained much of its racing heritage. Two large black-on-white instruments, tach and speedometer, nestle in the leather instrument panel behind a small-diameter leather-covered steering wheel that unfortunately hides a portion of both the tach and speedometer. Between the seats, one finds an informative array of gauges and a plethora of rocker switches, along with such creature comforts as an excellent AM/FM stereo radio and air conditioning. The chrome-gated shifter sits in the center console, and on the passenger side is a glove compartment that's just about big enough for a small pair of gloves. The seating position is closer to lying than to sitting, but once in place it surprisingly comfortable, even for very short distances of highway cruising. Our only complaint with the interior was the heater, which tended to fog up every window instantly when turned on. For $10,000 they can do better than that.
The Pantera's exterior, though, is its most appealing feature. It is low, lean, sleek, racy and all those other neat things, but above all else is it is ostentatious. In Southern California, however, being ostentatious is about is equivalent to being normal anywhere else, so the fact that it can and did attract a fair amount of attention during our three-week test should speak for itself. Psychologists would say that such a vehicle is an extension of one's masculinity, and indeed it is. But if you've got it, flaunt it. And owning a Pantera by Ghia is an excellent way of flaunting $10,000. The Pontiac Firebird is quicker and faster, more comfortable and practical, costs half as much, but doesn't have the inherent sex appeal, even with the $55 eagle decal on the hood.