From the Archive: 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Road Test
Aug 10, 2023
The surprise hit of the 1970s, at the top of its form.
From the January 1979 issue of Car and Driver.
If we had a collective pinch of sense among us, we'd organize a cooperative fund and buy up all the 1979 Trans Ams we could lay our hands on, like maybe every one that comes off the line. We'd put the everyday ones in storage and sell them for a fortune a few years down the pike, and we'd drive the hell out of the WS6 cars because they run like there's a gun-toting husband ten feet back and breathing heavy. We'd keep them forever, firing them up to vacuum the leaves of autumn into vortexes that would chase us down little-known paths of pavement through deserted woods. We'd let them slither and slew a little on the pavement sometimes, nattering with morning dew, evening showers, and midday torque, because that's how big, heavy thrash-around cars are supposed to behave, but we'd also enjoy the fine line a WS6 can describe when a practiced hand is on the wheel.
We'd talk about the wonderful thing Pontiac did for us when it brought something into the world that, indeed, runs as if there were no tomorrow. Here and now, in 1979, there is no tomorrow for the big-engined Trans Am. For the 400 T/A Pontiac engine, this is the last year. The likes of the mighty Trans Am, as we've known it, won't be seen from General Motors again. The engine is too big and too inefficient to make the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy grade for GM, and it's out.
So we'll get misty-eyed and the value will skyrocket. Whatever replaces the WS6 will doubtless be a better car, more in step with the times. But never again will it be really, truly the same.
Pontiac is playing its cards close, not telling just how many of its own 400-cubic-inch engines are on the shelf, ready to go into Trans Ams. No more will be built. The vast majority of Trans Ams in 1979 will come with tamer 403-cubic-inch Oldsmobile engines, basic utility devices that lend low-end oomph to other basic utility devices such as Catalina and Bonneville Safari station wagons. That's not much of a recommendation for employment as a hauler of your automotive ashes.
The redlines of the two engines are the same. Other than the V-8 configuration, that's about the end of the similarities. Pontiac finally got serious a couple of years ago about making the 400 willing to go around corners as fast as the chassis, adding a windage tray to the oil pan, which liked nothing better than voiding its pickup of oil in hard corners. With that problem solved, the 400's newly gained semi-rasty camshaft, more spark advance, and improved breathing (through a single-catalyst, dual-resonator, no-muffler exhaust) bumped the horsepower up from 200 SAE net to 220. The Trans Am became something more than just a contender in the get-down-and-grunt corner-exiting contest.
Corners are where the WS6 option comes in. It takes over at the point where Trans Ams have always been good. Wrap a Trans Am body around the WS6 suspension and brake pieces, and you discover maybe the best-handling production car ever from an American manufacturer. That's what the driver can feel all the time and what onlookers can imagine if the driver has any idea at all what the car is for and how to use it.
Onlookers don't need to imagine the looks. The budget portion allotted to engine and chassis development last year was siphoned into a nose job this year. The snoot of the car has been extended still further and completely reshaped. The strong Corvette similarity is not accidental.
For the sake of styling, the quad headlights are still rectangular. The radiator intake has sunk beneath the leading edge of the deformable front end, divided by a vertical, plowlike center molding. The horizontal grilles are inset and house the turn signals at their outer edges. The screaming-chicken-emblazoned hood slopes forward into the drooping beak nose, and the air dam and the front tire spats have been reshaped for better integration with the schnoz. The lower lines of the psuedo front flares are nearly horizontal, and the trailing edges are less rounded, more pointed.
The Bird's tail feathers have been ruffled, too. The license-plate receptacle has been pressed lower, into an extruded, flat-faced bumper. Looping up from the bumper is the familiar rear-deck spoiler. Separating the two is a dramatic black horizontal taillight treatment. The taillights themselves are only visible at night or under braking. Otherwise, they're secreted beneath horizontal black lines; the gas cap is also out of sight, under a central panel.
Although the basic shape of the Trans Am has remained the same, the new front and rear treatments garner lots of stares. The same shaker hood scoop looms up out of the hood, the same exhaust vents punctuate the front quarter panels, and the same walrus-mustache tailpipes droop below the rear quarters, but nobody who cares is about to confuse a new Trans Am with an old one.
Pontiac has also done some work on the interior, making its fast-moving pouch more comfortable for its occupants. Sitting in the Trans Am is a lot like peeking out of a mama kangaroo's front pocket. The seats are right on the floor, so you kind of scrunch way down inside next to the furry carpet, all warm and cozy from the transmission tunnel, and peer out over the top of the pouch past an inoperative hood scoop such as no 'roo has ever had.
The seats have been reworked, their padding increased and shifted around for improved lateral and lower-back support. The side bolsters could be still larger, but the seats are a considerable improvement over last year's. They're quite comfortable for long hours of touring and adequate for three-fourths of the serious driving you're likely to do, but it's when you're hard after the final 25 percent that the solid support of Recaro- or Scheel-type driving seats would help you get the most out of the willing chassis.
You would probably also find your own chassis considerably more willing after a really long day if the seats reclined. They don't, so you'll have to content yourself with the optional plush velour upholstery, which keeps your seat in the seat. The standard vinyl doesn't look bad, but a quick run down through Pine Hollow will smoothly transfer your buns from one corner of the car to another no matter how snugly you've tugged the harness.
The steering wheel is the same tilting, padded three-spoker that, when tilted too low, has hidden the important parts of the tach and speedometer in the Trans Am for years. A telescoping feature would be nice, but at least the tilt usually allows a reasonable compromise in arm and leg reach.
Ergonomically, the gear-shifting motion is hindered by an encroaching console that promises tennis elbow with every shift to the far side of the four-speed pattern. The console's sole saving grace is that it's narrow and deep enough to keep a couple of chocolate malteds from belching their contents all over your heel-and-toe loafers. The heel-and-toeing is another thing that works well. Here's a car with the pedals set up for heel-and-toeing, a nice change from the pedal mismatch so common in all kinds of iron, both domestic and foreign.
The shiny, engine-turned dash fascia confuses instrument legibility, but the layout and the selection of white-on-black gauges are good, offering oil pressure, water temp, voltmeter, clock, speedo, and a 6000-rpm tach that's orange-zoned at 4500 rpm, redlined at a comparatively low 5000.
There's an intermittent mode for the supremely efficient windshield wipers, a potent rear defogger, and, at long last, a column-mounted headlight-dimmer stalk integrated with the turn signals.
The Trans Am's back seat is still as silly as always, a fit place for neither man nor beast, unless it is a relatively small beast and one untroubled by claustrophobia. If you're really serious about putting people back there, you'll need a shoehorn for getting them in and a winch for getting them out.
The trunk is no better than the back seat. If you sell thimbles, a small sample case may fit, but if your market is in bowling balls, try a Vespa with saddle bags. Pontiac has somehow stuffed in a best-solution-in-the-face-of-adversity Space-Saver spare, but maybe the designers should've knocked out the rear bulkhead, eliminated the back seat, and given us a tremendous trunk.
Maybe that's not important. If all cars did everything well, there'd be no need for arguments or road tests anymore. The Trans Am is supposed to be a runner, pure and simple. That's important to us, and we're as impractical as the next guy, so we left air conditioning off the order form. It would've added 108 pounds, most of it over the front wheels, and it would've dragged on the engine like a lifetime of tar and nicotine, three packs a day.
Our WS6 runner came through gold in color, and that's the way it drove, all sparkle and shine. The heavy-usage WS6 option puts the legs of a marathoner under the Trans Am's sheetmetal torso and V-8 lungs.
The package includes the Pontiac high-output engine; eight-inch-wide, snowflake-spoked aluminum wheels, instead of the Trans Am's normal sevens; special steel-belted P225/70R-15 Goodyears; a 1.25-inch front anti-roll bar with plastic bushings; a 0.75-inch rear bar; stiffer rear-shackle bushings; firmer shock valving; and special steering gear. And this year, finally, the frosting on the cake is four-wheel disc brakes.
Other than for its refinement, the suspension is thoroughly unremarkable: independent, unequal-length control arms and coil springs in front; a live axle sprung by semi-elliptic leaf springs in back. The magic 400 engine uses unleaded gas, pumped into its 8.1:1 compression-ratio combustion chambers by a single Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel. It makes 220 brake horsepower at 4000 rpm and a hefty 320 pound-feet of torque at 2800 rpm. It lives and breathes in the low and middle rpm ranges, disdaining high revs through the gears but capable of pulling past its recommended 5000-rpm limit to no less than 132 miles per hour at 5400 rpm. The EPA estimates that it will consume a gallon of gas every twelve miles, about what we got.
This year's geartrain is different on one count: The final-drive ratio has been changed from 3.42:1 to 3.23. The bone-snapping Muncie M-22 "Rock Crusher" transmission favored a few years ago has long since been dropped in favor of the smoother Borg-Warner Super T-10. The new gearing allows the car to top out 4 mph faster, and the Super T-10 with updated linkage doesn't require a bionic arm to ram it into the next gear. The new linkage makes the drag strip all sweetness and light instead of the prelude to a visit to the chiropractor. The V-8 hustles its 3700-pound load through the quarter in 15.3 seconds at 96.6 mph. The high torque requires feathering the throttle off the line to avoid excess wheelspin, then standing on the gas when the revs begin to climb a somewhat normal curve. Third gear is good to 99 mph, so the Trans Am doesn't want fourth until just after a quarter-mile of pavement has been inhaled. First gear is good to 50 mph, 60 coming up in 6.7 seconds.
In really hard driving and on bad roads, Trans Ams (and Camaros) have always felt as if they have a big hinge at the base of the windshield. They do. The front of the car is supported by an add-on subframe that extends forward from the unit body. The mating of the two isn't really up to the rigors of backroad bashing; it's a culture shock for the coupe that began life as a cruiser and graduated to the big time. Herb Adams, of Pontiac racing fame, has some add-on stiffening members that help minimize the problem, but without them, kick-ass romps and washboard roads turn into a motorized Chubby Checker session and general rattle-counting fest.
Beyond that, it's the land of the free and the home of the brave. The only excuse you have for not making good time is bad eyesight or the cops. A weak heart is no excuse: The car's too stable and too forgiving for that to hold up.
The four-wheel discs live up to their advanced billing in fade resistance and stopping ability, arresting your 70-mph forward progress in a mere 179 feet. The booster can have a slight feel of fighting back, of trying to outthink you, but stop you do.
The new brake system is very well coordinated with the suspension. Braking in corners, over elevation changes, or when crossing irregularities has little effect on your direction of travel, and your rate of travel can be halved or eliminated in a trice. Pedal pressure is fairly high, but with a system like this, it should be. Call them adrenaline brakes, because they work superlatively when yours is up, yet they help keep it as low as possible. Driving a Trans Am fast is nothing to get excited about.
The Tran Am is easier to drive really fast than any American car has ever been. But its stability is not to be fooled with, not to be taken lightly. The failsafe point at which it begins to come unstuck is so high that, if something goes really wrong, the interest will compound very rapidly: the interest of the police, the interest of the doctors, the interest of the judge, the interest of the insurance company.
If that happens, the car won't have done it to you, you'll have done it to yourself. It will forgive you til hell won't have it. It understeers slightly, its attitude firm, poised, ready to defend against the unexpected. The steering, at 2.4 turns lock-to-lock, is quick, progressive, direct, and talkative, describing to your hands the bumps the suspension is handling better than a 3700-pound rear-leaf-sprung car has any right to. The back end dances a little over the worst of it, but the bad bumps are usually so visible you can drive neatly around them, crisply rearranging your line as you go. And all the while it rides well, not beating your noggin on the headliner, your shins on the radio, or your kidneys on your spine.
On smooth or mildly lumpy pavement the sensations are awesome for a street car: skating at 100 or 110, adjusting in increments with throttle and wheel, balancing, playing a slick nibbling ragtime on the tires, calling up a reservoir of power oversteer to expel yourself from the classroom of one corner to the next, always learning but never left behind. If you go in too hot and lift, the tail won't come around unless you've been woefully ignorant. All four tires react in coordinated patterns, freeing you from the necessity of overseeing an unruly and domineering machine. You need only look where you want to be in a few moments' time, and if you have taken the time to learn the car, it will have you there in very short order.
That's what a Trans Am is for. It's a short-order specialist and it will feed a need. It would be nicer if it could carry more, if it were smaller, if it were easier to see out of, if it were less thirsty. But none of that matters. This is not the time to be practical. This car is here and now, and it will not pass this way again.
1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans AmVehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe
PRICEBase/As Tested: $6299/$7285Options: WS6 Package, $434; 400 T/A engine, $90; custom interior, $150; hood decal, $95; AM radio, $86; tinted glass, $64; floor mats, $25; custom seatbelts, $23; lamp group, $19.
ENGINESOHC V-8, iron block and headsDisplacement: 400 in3, 6550 cm3Power: 220 hp @ 4000 rpmTorque: 320 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm
CHASSISSuspension, F/R: control arms/multilinkBrakes, F/R: 11.0-in vented disc/11.1-in vented discTires: Goodyear Polysteel Radial225/70R-15
DIMENSIONS Wheelbase: 108.2 inLength: 197.1 inWidth: 73.0 inHeight: 49.3 inCurb Weight: 3700 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS30 mph: 2.9 sec60 mph: 6.7 sec1/4-Mile: 15.3 sec @ 97 mph100 mph: 16.9 secTop Speed (redline limited): 124 mphBraking, 70–0 mph: 179 ft
C/D FUEL ECONOMYObserved: 12 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED
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