"Acclaimed as one of the most visually stunning cars ever built, the Trans Am's styling will no doubt remain timeless. ... If you think '57 Chevys still look good, you'll love the Trans Am - even 20 years from now."
- John Baechtel, "Different Strokes" comparison test
HOT ROD MAGAZINE, August 1986
The other cars out there are nothing more than mundane transportation devices, a collection of anonymous and dreary shapes lurching homeward with their anonymous and dreary occupants tired after a long day behind an unappreciative desk in a thankless, meaningless job.
But yours is not just a mundane transportation device. It is not anonymous and dreary. From the wide aluminum spinning wheels that plant fat, sticky rubber to the hot asphalt to the enormous rear spoiler, to the vibrating high output port fuel injected small block V8 under the hood that actually makes the ebony bird seem to come alive with each pulsation ... this is an orgy of image and power, a visceral assault on the senses of all who behold it.
It is Trans Am and its thick padded steering wheel feels oh so right under your leather driving gloved hand as you maneuver in and out of traffic like a great bird of prey riding the air currents through a target-rich environment. It is moments like these that truly make life worth living and the 6 to 5 regime a small daily price to pay to own such a rare machine.
Well, she's back.
She who has taken my money, my time and my heart for so very long. Ever since I first saw her in that magazine spread all those years ago, way back in 1985 I knew that one day I would have her. I would track her down and make her mine.
It took me 21 years to find her and after 6 long years of ownership (most of that time being either kept in a rental storage unit or taking up space in my garage and in one stage or another of disassembly) I finally got off my ass, pushed some money around and restored the 1986 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that I've owned since 2006. You can find the link to the good stuff over there on the right ... it's the link labeled "Project Car".
I can't believe how well this TA turned out ... After six years I can't believe that I have in my garage one of my dream cars. When I was a teenager, I saw the one page advertisement for this car and fell in love with it. Patience is the most important thing you can have in life. Patience is the most important thing that you can teach a child in life because patience will get you through bad times like nothing else will. Six years is a long time, especially for a project car to just sit up and go unused but patience has a way of making six years seem like six days, at least in hindsight. In hindsight, it seems like just last week that I bought the TA off of Ebay, flew to Greenville, North Carolina, picked her up and drove her back home.
And now she's restored. 26 years of use and abuse have been cosmetically erased and she's been returned to her glory days, to a time when she first rolled off the Norwood, Ohio assembly line way back in late 1985 as the flagship of the Pontiac performance line and as a clear example of the "We build excitement" creed that Pontiac had adopted. I got the TA back last Tuesday and I've been having a blast driving her. She's the car now that I wanted her to be 6 years ago. Her exhaust growls as she prowls the city streets. Her 5.0 liter Tuned Port Injected small block V8 engine screams through its powerband. Her four speed automatic bangs through each gear with authority and she'll break rubber loose from first to second gear with an authoritative bark of the tires. The thick leather wrapped steering wheel feels good in my gloved hand, allowing me to translate the TA into any maneuver that I need to, any maneuver that I want to, with the flick of a wrist and the response of a quick ratio power steering unit which has two and a half turns lock to lock. The WS6 optioned suspension setup makes for a ride like a Sherman tank, I feel every irregularity, telegraphing the condition of the road to me and giving me a control over my TA that few other cars can lay claim to. When darkness comes, her driving lights snap on and her headlights flip up with the whir of now ancient electric motors. Her dash and interior are illuminated in a soft reddish orange glow inspired by fighter aircraft and still she prowls ... and I love every single minute of it.
Patience pays, maybe not now but later on, oh, it pays. Make your plans, stick to them, and just be patient. It's all on the wheel because it all comes around eventually.
Looking back now I told you 6 years ago in this very blog that life was too short to drive mediocre cars and I stand by that statement. The automobile industry has become homogenized these days ... Mind numbingly homogenized. Cars and trucks have given up muscle, individuality, character and performance for stereotypical styling, bland design, improved fuel economy and all with a nod towards being environmental friendly. Cars and trucks today have no charisma, no personality ... they're just transportation and they're built around social engineering, that is, forcing you to behave a certain way by putting up restrictions and obstacles to behaving any other way. Factors like economy, emissions, comfort and design are forced on you limiting your choices through artificial means. I'm not advocating acting like a hooligan with a car or using it to ruin the environment but cars and trucks today tend to emulate, even broadcast, the emerging social trends and the social trends I see in the cars and trucks built and sold today are boring. ... we're so serious about the environment that we've forgotten how to have fun. Junk pseudo-religion based scientific nonsense like Global Warming has robbed us of our ability to have fun. If you want to know where this insanity has taken us, just look at decible limits at race tracks ... you can get booted off the track if your car is too loud ... at a race track! The 1960's were full of high performance, something that died a slow, painful death in the 1970's and only began to come back around in the 1980's. This TA is an example of that rebirth ... when suspension and handling was superior to the 1960's offerings and where the power of computer controlled, high tech fuel injected engines could nearly match the performance of their big cube predecessors.
I remember the 1970's ... I remember the OPEC Oil Embargo. I remember lines of cars at the gas stations. I remember the crappy cars that GM, Ford and Mopar pedaled off on the consumer ... crap like the biodegradable ever rustworthy Chevy Vega and the highly explosive Ford Pinto where economy and corporate profit was considered forefront to driver and occupant safety. I remember speedometers that only went to 85 miles per hour by federal government mandate. I remember choking emissions equipment, seatbelts that prevented cars from starting unless they were fastened, the forced phase-in of unleaded gas, the phasing out of leaded gas and the dreaded catayltic converter. The 1970's were the dark ages of high performance and only one car company kept the light of high performance not only burning but burning bright, like a beacon in the darkness, all alone in the night (cue epic Babylon 5 music).
The 1980's were a Renaissance in high performance. Computer controlled fuel injection, emissions that weren't restrictive, four speed automatic transmissions with overdrive, five speed manual transmissions with overdrive, deep rear gears, sixteen inch factory wheels with V rated tires that were stickier than anything seen in the previous two decades, and compact turbocharged and intercooled engines. Hell, even the Japanese jumped on board and began deploying Far Eastern sport coupes to our shores. Seeing the turbocharged four cylinder engines from Mopar and the tremendous work that Buick did on their SFI turbocharged and intercooled 3.8 liter V6 was nothing short of inspirational. When a Dodge Omni GLH-S (which looked like crap) beat the snot out of a Shelby GT350 Mustang from the 1960's, enthusiasts were outraged ... and amazed. The use of technology to go faster wasn't something to be ignored. The 1980's saw an ever increasing climb in performance, a climb out of the mire and muck that had been the 1970's. As computers took more and more charge of what was going on under the hood, more and more power could be squeezed out of smaller and smaller engines all the while maintaining both emissions and economy. The fact that although emissions and economy standards got tighter almost every year yet horsepower and performance also increased each year was a testement to the march of high technology through the decade.
The muscle cars of the 1960's could still out power a 1980's sports car on the straight away, especially in the first part of the decade, but the 1980's machinery was far superior in handling and economy not to mention comfort and ease of ownership. The 1980's held so much promise ... it was the Woodstock of high performance and it lasted all decade long, coming on strong in the first to mid part of the 1980's and then starting to peter out towards the end of the decade but while it lasted it was glorious to live through, especially for a red blooded American teenager like myself. I got my driver's license in 1984 ... just two years after the third generation F-bodies debuted and I got to see these cars grow from their start to their finish in 1992. At the time they were considered some of the best handling and best performing cars in America if not the world as attributed in magazine article after magazine article and road test or comparison after road test and comparison. The Trans Am was compared to imports like the Porsche 911 and the Mazda RX-7, both highly competitive cars and both well respected. In fact, short of the Chevy Corvette, the WS6 equipped Pontiac Trans Am may have been the best handler of GM's offerings.
So much has changed since the 1980's ...
Cars and trucks are not tough today, no, they're cute and apologetic ... neutered and spayed direct from the factory and that's the problem. Somewhere along the line we forgot how much fun it is to drive, to really drive, to drive hard, to drive fast, to experience the thrill of acceleration, the ecstacy of winning a race, how it feels for your body to be strapped tight into a form fitting seat as you dance on pedals and row through the gears, making the car bend to your will. We've forgotten what it's like for the wind to be in our face and the engine to be howling under the hood as the needles on the dash spin in their crazy arcs. Look at how many cars are offered with manual transmissions today ... only a small percentage. Automatics are the norm on most cars. Where once transmissions were built for overkill and you could mod an engine to throw any kind of power at a Muncie four speed or a TurboHydraMatic 400 three speed automatic today when you mod cars, that is, if you can mod them, it's usually the transmission which is the first thing to give up the ghost. I learned that while playing with my 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. The L69 supercharged 3.8 liter V6 was a capable engine and could be modded fairly easily but the transmission behind that motor was a piece of crap and couldn't take much more than what the L69 was putting out stock. Any major mods to the L69 in the GTP and you had better be planning on replacing the stock transmission with an aftermarket pro-built unit. Today, cars are designed to do so much and not a lot more ... I guess this makes them more easily disposable and ultimately, much more forgettable.
Of course, some people never got to experience these feelings, these emotions, these raw, visceral examples of what it is like to be alive. No, their experience with cars was limited to some lackluster example of one breed or another, a gutless econobox designed to get from Point A to Point B or where ever else you wanted to go. Their experience was based on some wannabe car whose only claim to high performance was some fake hood scoop, a bolt on spoiler and a stripe and decal package to make it look sporty without ever actually having anything to back that image up. I don't understand why the government wants to use tax money to pay for birth control for women ... they already do that with what rolls out of Detroit. One look at the new cars on the dealer lot today and sex is the last thing that crosses your mind. In fact, just about any vehicle made in America after 2002 can be considered a rolling form of birth control ... and a general IQ decreaser.
Oh, there was a time when cars were art, art forms, forms of art and rolling works of art. Cars were sculpted, hand built and they were built with pride. Today they're built by robots while over paid union members sit around earning a paycheck for doing nothing and whining about not being paid enough. Have you seen what is rolling out of Detroit these days? The unions should be paying US, the American consumer, to drive their crap ... not the other way around.
I guess I'm different.
I guess I've always been different.
I love cars ... I love sports cars.
I love performance.
I love high performance.
I love high performance American sports cars.
I think that flowing body lines are sexy ... that aerodynamics are poetry in motion and that the sound of a high performance engine screaming through its power band is an orchestra if not an aphrodisiac in and of itself. Cars have never been something that I considered mundane or utilitarian in nature. Cars were members of the family rather than property.
"... the TA's handling is about as close as most people would want to get to an honest-to-God racing platform. ... The TA's chassis is extremely stiff, and its front and rear roll characteristics are well balanced and tuned to each other. With near-neutral handling characteristics at the limit of adhesion, and just a trace of understeer that easily transfers into controllable oversteer, the TA ... is a blast to hustle through corners. It makes good drivers better drivers, and instantly transfers a feeling of confidence to the novice. It is a car whose handling and acceleration are guaranteed to transform a bored rush-hour commuter into a wide-eyed and grinning enthusiast. This is a fun car."
- John Hanson, Motor Trend, April 1986.
Yes, this is a fun car to drive.
The 1986 Pontiac Trans Am is one hell of a fun car to drive because it reminds you that at one time, a time not that very long ago, there was a car company called "Pontiac" and Pontiac built excitement. Raw, unmitigated, unapologetic, brazen excitement that was accompanied with the rumble of powerful V8s that could plant you firmly back in your seat and easily do twice the maximum legal posted US speed limit (and then some). It was a time when performance wasn't something that made you feel bad about yourself and performance didn't require you to apologize to anyone for having it let alone enjoying it.
Take the T-tops off, turn the key in the ignition, let the rumble of the 5.0 liter port fuel injected V8 under the hood offer up a continual thump the likes of which the jacked sky-high, stupid ass paint scheme colored Chevy Impala next to you can't hope to match and you've got a certified time machine. I remember a time when cars thumped because of what they had under the hood, not because of what they had in the trunk. One of my T-shirts I used to sell had a simple slogan on it: "There's a big difference between being fast and powerful or just being loud and annoying." That opinion applies even more so today than it ever did before. When your car has more watts than horsepower, when your speakers are wider than your tires, when the color of your paint is the wildest thing about your car, when ugly design is used as a substitute ...
Where did it all go wrong?
Cars today have no guts ... which is why people take a $500 piece of crap car, put $6000 worth of jacked up wheels on it, put a $6000 paint job on it copied from some corporate logo scheme or product and fill it with $10,000 worth of stereo equipment ... and they still have a gutless, neutered $500 piece of crap car ... it's got $22,000 worth of bling on it, but it's still a $500 piece of crap car underneath. It's all part of the "Look at me! Look at me!" crowd, you know, the mediocre people who drive mediocre cars that you wouldn't look twice at (car or driver) if they didn't jack slap your personal enjoyment with their thump-thump-thump and vulgar lyrics blasted out of speakers that seem to be aimed directly at your car in traffic. They ride around on 26" inch or larger rims that make their mediocre cars look like misplaced farm equipment. These mediocre people want you to look at them, to notice them, and usually when they see you looking at them their first words to you are "What are you looking at?!"
The truth is ... nothing.
You're looking at nothing.
You know it and they know it which is why they drive a mediocre car. Bling Bling is just God's way of saying He's sorry your car doesn't have any balls or personality to it whatsoever, that He's sorry that you had to spend $22,000 on a piece of crap car just to get people to notice you but it's not you that they're noticing, it's your piece of crap car with all the ridiculous bling bling on it. If they notice you at all they're not thinking that you're rich or lucky ... they're thinking that you've got to be the biggest idiot in the world for driving something like that.
And what happened to all of the cool car names?
I mean, how seriously do you think someone is going to take you if you tell them that you drive a Plymouth Neon Expresso? If you drive a Plymouth Neon Expresso, chances are that you're not a Marine Corps Drill Instructor or a hard rock guitarist ... you're either an interior decorator or a florist.
Remember when cars had cool names? Barracuda. The Judge. Stingray.
Today we have cars with names like Expresso, Backpack, and Aveo.
Cute, meaningless names.
I'm still waiting on the Dodge Tampon, the Chevy Enema and the Ford Little Douche Coupe to appear in dealer showrooms. I mean, are we really running out of imagination and originality that much that we have to introduce a car named after a type of coffee or something that we use to carry our stuff when we go hiking? I guess so. I blame car names on the very problem that we've been talking about ... cars have no guts. Do you think that Ferrari would ever produce a model called the "Expresso"?
I doubt it.
We've lost something along the way ... in the years since we've lost the edge that cars once had ... the edge that separated cars from being just ... cars ... just transportation. That's what so much of what is on the road today is ... just ... basic transportation. Gutless, soul sucking, mind numbing transportation. It's comfortable, reliable, economical transportation with no guts but a great stereo and some wild paint color guaranteed to be right out of a twelve year old girl's locker ... or diary.
When you pull up in something real, in something with some guts, it's nothing short of amazing. It's like being a great white shark swimming with a bunch of guppies. When you drive something like this TA other lesser cars part away in front of you. Hemp adorned Environmental Whackos in their beat up, oil burning turbo Volvo station wagon rubber neck as you go by and the Obama supporters in their Prius just loathe and stare. Kids on the school bus press their faces against the bus windows as you slowly pass them on the side. Old guys at parts stores and gas stations come out to look at your car and talk shop, happy for the diversion. People your age reminisce openly telling you how they or their friend or their brother had a Trans Am, sometimes one just like this one and they brag on performance figures you know are false and untrue but you nod your head and smile anyway.
And that's why I don't drive mediocre cars.
Life is too short to drive mediocre cars.
Life is too short to drive something mundane and boring, something that you see five times going to work and eight times coming home from work because not only can anyone buy a car just like yours but everyone has a car just like yours. Life is too short to drive what everyone else is driving. If you want to be different, you've got to drive something different and that isn't always an easy thing to do.
Individuality doesn't come easy. I guess that's why I've always loved Pontiacs because Pontiacs were the rebels of GM. In the 1960's they led the muscle car charge with the Pontiac GTO, a midsize offering with a big engine that went head to head against the Ford Mustang for GM's share of the rapidly emerging youth market. Later, in 1967 the Firbird appeared and then the Trans Am did as well in 1969. During the 1970's when everyone in Detroit was running away from high performance like it was the Black Plaque, Pontiac was building cars like it was the late 1960's all over again. Through the darkest times in Detroit it was Pontiac and Pontiac alone which kept the performance fires burning at GM. When every other make and model of high performance muscle car had become extinct, when only the Corvette was left and even that was in diminshed form, when the Z28 had been killed off and then resurrected as a mostly decal and spoiler copy of the Pontiac Trans Am, Pontiac was still throwing 455 and 400 cubic inch V8 engines under the hoods of its Firebirds right up until the end of the 1970's.
Maybe it was dedication to a cause or maybe it was just that, out of all of the divisions at General Motors and out of all the other manufacturers, Pontiac just got it. Pontiac understood performance, probably more than any other GM division, probably more than any other automaker in the world because with Pontiac high performance became more than a cause ... it became a passion and maybe even an obsession.
This Trans Am is more than just a high performance American artifact from a long gone age, it's a symbol of what cars once were when performance wasn't something to be ashamed of and when having a fuel guzzling V8 wasn't considered heresey to the pseudo-religious beliefs of the whack jobs on the political Left. The death of the Firebird was long prophesied throughout the late 1970's and 1980's and it eventually came true only much later than anyone else would have thought. That in and of itself is both worthy of note and amazing. The Firebird and the Trans Am were survivors who went through the worst and best of American automotive times ... their deaths were ultimately handed out not by competition or dwindling fossil fuels but by useless bean counters who put short term corporate profit over priceless, non-purchasable things like heritage, legacy and legend. Things that had to be earned over time, not bought with capital outlays.
"Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, by the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore." - Edgar Allen Poe, "The Raven"
Standing here, now, next to this beguiling bird I have to say that I still find fault, real fault, with GM for killing the F-body. Pontiac understood, moreso with the Trans Am than with any other model, that you don't kill off a legacy vehicle full of heritage and history just because it starts to become somewhat inconvenient to produce.
Pontiac understood this.
It was business.
It was passion.
They got it.
GM didn't and in truth, probably never will understand what Pontiac stood for or what it meant to so many which is why a lot of us who own classic Pontiacs now also own Fords and Hondas and Toyotas and won't be buying any more General Motors products for a very, very long time ... if ever again. GM betrayed our loyalty for their own greed.
RIP Pontiac (1926 to 2009).
Gone but not forgotten.