Once in a blue moon, a car achieves icon status via Hollywood that spans all demographics, one that burns its image into the memory of everyone from serious car nuts to folks who wouldn't know Ram Air from air-conditioning. During its 10th year in production, the Pontiac Firebird achieved screen idol status thanks to the appearance of a 1977 Firebird Trans Am SE (the black and gold edition) in the movie Smokey and the Bandit.
Thankfully, there's been much more to the Firebird than just its cornball association with Burt Reynolds (or even cornier relationship with David Hasselhoff in TV's Knight Rider). As with its corporate twin, the Chevy Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird was born in 1967 to do battle with the original American sport coupe, the Ford Mustang. Although the sheet metal was virtually identical between the Camaro and Firebird, a different nose and tail, as well as slight differences inside gave the Firebird a little more excitement in the looks department. Coupe and convertible body styles tempted buyers.
In the car's early years, performance buffs gravitated to the Pontiac Firebird thanks to its enticing array of power plants that included the same 400 cubic-inch V8 used in the GTO. Pontiac even offered a high-output overhead-cam inline-6 in hopes of making the Firebird more appealing to those who preferred less weight, more nimble handling and a higher-revving engine. This was also the period when the legendary Trans Am trim first debuted, wearing white paint with two blue stripes running over the body.
At the dawn of the 1970s, a redesigned Pontiac Firebird emerged, available only in a sleek coupe body style. But as that decade progressed, the Firebird's performance diminished while body graphics and spoilers, as if to compensate, grew more extroverted. The third-generation Firebird appeared for 1982, wearing a lighter, wedge-shaped hatchback body with flip-up headlights. Although performance of this generation was weak at first, handling was a strong point and by mid-decade, powerful V8s were again becoming available.
Staying true to its heritage, the fourth-generation Firebird, which bowed in 1993, still offered V8 power, a rear-drive chassis, swoopy styling and a choice of a coupe or convertible. It also offered more than 300 horsepower and 13-second quarter-miles in the Formula and Trans Am versions.
Though an outstanding performance bargain, the Firebird from this era became increasingly aged as the years went by. For many consumers, it came across as unrefined and even crude, especially when compared to other sport coupes and convertibles. Sales were weak, and Pontiac finally pulled the plug after 2002.
Most Recent Pontiac Firebird
Running from 1993-2002, the last Firebird generation continued the age-old tradition of performance and style above all else. Initially only a coupe body style was offered in base, Formula and Trans Am trims, the former coming with a 3.4-liter V6 (160 hp) and the latter pair with an "LT1" 5.7-liter V8 (275 hp). Transmission choices included a five-speed manual (V6), a six-speed manual (V8) and a four-speed automatic.
The following year saw the return of the Firebird convertible, while 1995 brought a 3.8-liter, 200-hp V6 for the base Firebird. For 1996, the V8 made 285 hp and Ram Air induction returned for that engine, boosting output to 305 hp.
A midcycle refresh took place for 1998 with a new front-end look and powerful new "LS-1" 5.7-liter V8s that made 305 hp or 320 hp (with Ram Air). Apart from minor trim differences and a bump in power to 310 hp for the V8 in 2001, the Firebird soldiered through 2002 mostly unchanged. Ironically, that last year also marked the Firebird's 35th birthday, which was celebrated with a special yellow Trans Am with strange graphics splashed over its body.
Although fast, stylish and affordable, this Pontiac Firebird lacked refinement, particularly in regards to the interior. The clunky steering wheel design was about as sporty as a taxicab's and there was an abundance of low-grade plastic trim. Furthermore, the seats were rather plain, and short on lumbar and lateral support. On the upside, there were large gauges, decent cargo capacity and buttoned-down handling (though midcorner bumps could upset the solid rear axle suspended out back).
In our road test of a 1999 Firebird Formula, we found ourselves intoxicated by the rumbling V8 performance and racetrack-friendly handling. Major gripes concerned the harsh ride, awkwardly operating ABS, low seating position, dicey rearward visibility and low-quality interior trim.
Consumer feedback is mostly favorable toward Firebirds from this era. Praises center on the strong performance for the money (even with the V6), mechanical reliability, cargo capacity, handling and styling. Chief complaints concern cheap cabin construction, a smallish interior considering the body size and occasionally leaky T-tops.
Past Pontiac Firebird Models
The previous-generation (1982-'92) Firebird was slow out of the blocks, but soon blossomed into a road burner. At first, this hatchback coupe came in three trims (base, luxury S/E and Trans Am) and power ranged from a 90-hp, 2.5-liter inline-4 to a 165-hp 5.0-liter V8. A four-speed manual and three-speed automatic backed those engines up.
Mid-decade saw the return of the Formula (which offered Trans Am performance without the added flash and for less money) and engine options up to 210 hp (5.7-liter V8) and the addition of a gear to each transmission. Sub-15-second quarters with the 5.7 were possible, and the Formula and Trans Am were known for their tenacious roadholding. By the time this generation ended, the S/E was gone, the convertible was back and the 5.7 V8 was producing 240 hp.
Those considering one of these Firebirds would be wise to avoid the first couple of years, as the engines were dogs in terms of both performance and reliability, and build quality was hit or miss.
For more information on these and even older Pontiac Firebirds, go to our Pontiac Firebird history page.