For decades now, including it’s post-production life, the Pontiac Firebird (and Trans Am) has too often been labeled as an afterthought to its Chevrolet Camaro cousin. We, the Firebird faithful, know better though and even though they debuted with intertwined development as 1967 models, Pontiac’s version evolved into its own very unique and special machine.
Arguably the most famed and potent of the marque, the iconic Trans Am arrived in 1969 and carried “The Excitement Division’s” torch through the ‘70s and ‘80s when most other performance cars became shadows of their former glory, or simply ceased to exist.
As of late, multiple aftermarket tuner shops have taken it upon themselves to create their own version of a Trans Am utilizing the fifth-/sixth-generation Chevy Camaro as a template.
As if 35-years of second-fiddle wasn’t enough, now we must endure these imposter ‘Birds, that are in every way a Camaro, even by VIN and DMV registration. As hard as it still is to accept, with the criminal demise of Pontiac Motor Division in 2009-’10, the return of any Firebird/Trans Am is impossible. Without the existence of the “Poncho” division to develop and build the cars, it’s all pipe dreams and sheet-molded panels with too many “screaming chickens”, they’re not real Firebirds.
So, with your author’s growing agitation apparent, I felt that a tribute to the last “true” Pontiac Trans Am was in order and LSX Magazine was just the place to give the final phoenix it’s just deserts and some much deserved screen time.
A Wild Concept: The Fourth-Generation Firebird
Appearing in 1988, the Banshee IV concept car gave a pretty vivid and accurate depiction of the upcoming fourth-gen Firebird. With a heavily sloped windshield and ultra-aerodynamic shape, the next generation promised to be a real stylistic departure from it’s predecessors. Some Banshee-like styling cues made it onto the 1991/’92 third-gen ‘Birds, but this was just a hint of things to come. When the fourth-gen T/A debuted in 1993, it was obvious that Pontiac stayed true to the Banshee’s awesome proportions and in the opinion of many, produced one of the most radical looking cars ever by an American manufacturer. Without argument, few mass-production cars from the early ’90s, or any decade for that matter, turn heads like a fourth-generation Trans Am.
In actuality and technicality, the fourth-gen Firebird/Trans Am was built in two distinct iterations, the first batch from 1993-’97 and the second and final examples from 1998-’02.
Meaning no insult to the more than capable and cool-looking 93-’97 LT1-powered cars, but for the purposes of our article, we will focus on the latter, being that they were the more potent of the two versions and represented the very last of the breed.
Fine-Tuned and Up-Gunned: 1998
After soaring onto the scene in 1993, the fourth-gen Firebird was transformed and renewed for the 1998 model year. Few sequels or continuations manage to upstage the original, but if the 1993-’97 ‘Birds were “Star Wars”, then the 1998-’02 cars are definitely “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Even with the Firebird/Trans Am technically defined as a pony car, Pontiac went full bore with their “The Muscle Car Lives” ad campaign, which touted the revamped WS6 Ram Air Trans Am as the Excitement Division’s poster car and performance flagship. The most memorable TV spot, had a new black, bulged-hooded beauty, pouncing-on and devouring what appeared to be a red Lamborghini–then belching in satisfaction–we all remember that one.
Exterior changes for the 1998 T/As were apparent and included revised front fascias that were more sculpted than the long beak on the ’93-’97 cars, with integrated fog lights, redesigned pop-up headlights (now with dual lamps), new front fenders with air extractor vents behind the front wheels, honeycomb patterned taillight pods with round reverse lights and a new smooth-style hood for non-WS6 Ram Air cars. Interiors also received a restyled center console and non-contoured flat headrests.
Now looking more put together and refined, it was what went under the hood that really put the ’98-’02 cars higher on the totem pole than their early fourth-gen predecessors. Sourced from the new-for-’97 C5 Corvette was the all-aluminum Gen III 346cid/5.7-liter LS1 super-small-block V8.
Without a doubt, the new powerplant was in a different league than the iron-block LT1 it replaced and the numbers proved it. In non-WS6 Ram Air-equipped T/As, the new mill put down 305hp/335 lb-ft, which was equal to Ram Air figures from the previous model. The suspension was tweaked as well, with accomplished SCCA champion racer and chief Firebird engineer John Heinricy making sure that the T/A’s reputation for road-hugging performance stayed true. Thus, with street-friendly springs and tuned DeCarbon shocks, a stock T/A could achieve 0.87g on the skid pad with minimal understeer–definitely impressive.
Cream Of The Flock: WS6/Ram Air Package
As if things couldn’t get any better, for an additional $3,150, they actually did. The extra change would net you the WS6 Ram Air performance and handling package, which added a redesigned twin-bulged functional ram air hood, wider 17×9-inch high-polished aluminum five-spoke wheels, a power steering cooler, low back pressure stainless steel tuned exhaust, a stiffer sport suspension and a badass attitude.
Arguably one of the most aggressive designs in Pontiac’s fabled history, the ’98-’02 Ram Air hood actually harkens back to its less conspicuous V8 brother, the Firebird Formula, circa 1970-’75 and was another home run for famed Pontiac designer John Shinella–father of the full-size “screaming chicken” hood decal, among other Firebird legends. As for power numbers, the WS6 goodies added 15 horses and 10 lb-ft to the party, leveling-out at 320 hp/345 lb-ft.
The Ram Air Trans Am didn’t just talk the talk, but could also walk the walk like no T/A before it. In the April/May ‘98 issue of Sports Car International Magazine, a ’98 Ram Air T/A put down a 5.3-second 0-60 mph and finished the 1/4-mile in 13.45 at 105 mph. For a car costing less than $30k, this was astounding to say the least.
Party Time For The Big 3-0: 1999 30th Anniversary T/A
Always up for an anniversary celebration, Pontiac would build a very special Trans Am to commemorate its 30 years of existence. All starting life as WS6 cars, 1,600 30th Anniversary Trans Ams were made, comprising 1,065 T-top coupes and 535 convertibles available in both automatic and six-speed manual guise.
On top of the already heady Ram Air fare, the birthday birds were bathed in GM white paint from nose to tail and featured blue stripes streaming from behind the iconic Firebird symbols at the front edge of each intake bulge on the hood, going over the roof bar and up-level rear wing on T-top coupes or finishing on the lower rear deck lid spoiler on ragtops. The $1,575 package also included unique blue-tinted high-polished aluminum five-spoke wheels with 30th Anniversary center caps, white leather seats with 30th Anniversary embroidery, white leather door panels, console-mounted numbered dash plaque and special exterior badges.
As if that weren’t enough, in recognition of it’s pace car duties at the 1999 Daytona 500, 30th Anniversary T/As were offered with a decal package, including race call outs on the doors and side feathers on the rear quarter panels. These could be dealer installed, or not, upon the owners request.
Y2K T/A: 2000 Trans Am
With a design that would warrant open jaws and admiring glances for decades to come, upgrades to the T/A focused on improved and more efficient performance. For 2000, all V8-equipped Firebirds received new cast-iron exhaust manifolds, an improved starter and a vapor recovery system canister.
Six-speed manual cars got an improved throttle linkage for smoother, tighter shifts and better launch response. Some early model year WS6 T/As were fitted with a new one-year only 17×9-inch spinning-blade (torqued-spoke)- design aluminum wheel, often seen in early advertisements for the 2000 WS6 T/A.
Ramping It Up: 2001
Just as it had done with the 1973-’74 Super Duty Trans Am, at the end of the original musclecar era, Pontiac refused to let it’s flagship pony car just soar off into the sunset without a squawk of protest. Therefore, even with the GM bean-counters sinister whispers of the F-body Firebirds cancellation now an unmistakable bellow, further refinement and more horsepower was lavished upon the Trans Am for 2001.
Reaping the rewards of LS1 improvements, primarily for the benefit of the Corvette, GMs corporate trickle-down effect became a positive power gain for V8 Firebirds as well. For 2001-’02, the already impressive LS1 received a new profile camshaft, the LS6 intake plenum from the crème-de-le-crème Corvette of the day–the Z06–and it lost its external EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve, all resulting in 5-more horses.
Standard T/As now put down 310 hp/340 lb-ft with WS6 RA birds making an underrated 325 hp/350 lb-ft. Later dyno tests on stock versions of LS1 Trans Ams of the 2001-’02 vintage show horsepower numbers closer to 350hp at the crank…just don’t tell the Vette guys. Pontiac also released a new (Speedline) 17×9-inch high-polished five-spoke aluminum wheel for the WS6 by mid-year 2001–Ram Air T/As would wear this wheel until the end.
Fading Out, But Flying High: 2002
For its last flight, Pontiac made sure to option-load the Trans Am for 2002. Many previously optional features such as a power antenna, door locks, mirrors and drivers side window with express-down feature all became standard fare, as did a steering cooler for all V8 birds.
Even more worthy of mention, an overstocking of (Corvette) LS6 blocks from GMs Mexico engine plant meant that a lucky limited number of late ’01 and ’02 WS6 Trans Ams, perhaps 20 percent of those produced, may have received the meant-for-‘Vette mill. This can be verified by looking for certain casting numbers stamped on the front of the block
In Your Face One Last Time: ’02 Collector Edition Trans Am (CETA)
Rather than curl-up into the fetal position and just die, Pontiac released one of its most potent and tantalizing limited edition T/As for 2002. Known as the (CETA) Collector Edition Trans Am, 2,391 RPO code Z15 T/As were built comprising T-top coupes and convertibles in both stick and automatic configuration. 2,000 graced the U.S. market and 391 went north of the border to hockey land.
Starting fresh with WS6-blessed ‘Birds, each special T/A was dipped in exclusive GM code-54 yellow paint with an adornment of “screaming chicken” Firebird symbols from hood to taillights and black/charcoal feather-like streamers gracing the twin-bulge Ram Air hood, doors and rear quarter panels. As usual, Pontiac equipped the limited T/As with exclusive 17×9-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels. This time, they were painted gloss black and had commemorative center caps shod with “screaming chickens.”
Completing the package were black anodized front and rear brake calipers, black-painted axles, a satin black rear lower valence, collector edition interior embroidery on the headrests and floor mats and an exclusive CETA owners portfolio as icing on the cake.
As for performance, for it’s Sept. 2002 issue, the more than enthusiastic staff of High Performance magazine put an auto-equipped CETA through it’s paces, putting-down a 5-second 0-60 sprint and 13.3-second 1/4-mile pass at 104mph. Not to mention, they also recorded 26 mpg on the highway.
Following no less than five of it’s predecessors, a Collector Edition Trans Am paced the 2002 Daytona 500, piloted by none other than Tonight Show host and renowned car collector, Jay Leno. The former late night king and respected car guy praised the special T/A for its poise and power on the track and other than special lights needed no modifications to pace the field of stock cars. Mr. Leno does include at least one CE Trans Am in his vast collection.
Factory Hot Rod: 1999-2002 SLP Firehawk Trans Am
At the tail end of the third-generation Firebird’s run, a very special and powerful version was developed and built by (SLP) Street Legal Performance out of Toms River N.J. Founded by former NHRA drag racer Ed Hamburger, SLP’s racing experience and OEM-grade manufacturing ability granted them a tier-1 designation from GM, meaning, they would develop exclusive performance parts/packages for GM’s F-body duo, with special emphasis on the Firebird.
Originally using the Firebird Formula, the SLP “Firehawk” offered unique performance enhancements including a larger open air-cleaner element, free-flowing stainless steel exhaust, extensive suspension/chassis upgrades, unique wheels and Ram Air hood. This marriage of old-school hot rodding techniques with new-school parts, (EFI) electronic fuel injection and modern computer controls, produced one of the most potent and best performing Firebirds ever.
SLP honed its Firehawk package through the fourth-gen Firebirds first iteration from 1993-’97, predominantly working with the Formula as it’s chosen template. During this period, SLP also developed the Camaro SS package for Chevrolet and was responsible for the WS6 Ram Air Firebirds revival in 1996-’97. By 1998, with the revamped Firebird line offering LS1 power and more aggressive looks, the SLP Firehawk followed suit.
After surrendering it’s WS6 contract with GM to competing (ASC) American Sunroof Company for fabrication and assembly of the new WS6 Ram Air cars, SLP was left to it’s Camaro SS efforts and developed even more appealing parts for it’s Firehawk program.
With no Firehawks built in 1998, SLP’s supreme bird of prey returned for ’99 with a new hood which followed the contours of the revised fascia, a closed high-flow air box, a new stainless steel performance exhaust and suspension upgrades including Eibach springs and Bilstein shocks. The new Hawks were good for 327 hp/345 lb-ft out of the box and the Formula was no longer the exclusive recipient, as now the Trans Am became the more numerous choice for those wanting the ultimate factory Firebird.
For 2000, a Firehawk could be ordered through your Pontiac dealer for the first time, by checking-off RPO WU6. Customers could also add multiple SLP options to the standard Firehawk package, such as a heavy duty Auburn 12-bolt rear end, Hurst shifter and hardcore 1LE suspension components.
For 2001, SLP celebrated it’s 10th-Anniversary and included a special limited edition 10th-Anniversary Firehawk T/A in the mix of it’s already super rare and prized birds. For an extra $1,899 on top of a standard Firehawk, the commemorative editions were dressed in a sinister black cloak with gold stripes, wheels, trim pieces, gold tail pipes, decals/badging and SLP’s unique IROC-inspired rear spoiler. Topping it off–literally, a special Firehawk car cover was included with the package.
With the unfortunate reality of the Firebirds demise looming, the SLP Firehawk saw a sales boom for 2002, with a little over 1,500 units built, most of them (1,100) T-Top-equipped Trans Ams. These final versions of SLPs fierce phoenix have been recognized as some of the greatest ‘Birds ever, with the collector car market already pricing mint, low-mileage examples accordingly.
Birds Of A Special Feather: Limited Editions
By the end of it’s run, it can be stated, that the high-performance V8 Firebirds, especially the T/A had become real enthusiast cars, attracting a very specific type of buyer. With that said, a small and talented cadre of late-model, high-tech hot rodders with a wealth of expertise and unwavering passion for Pontiac’s pony car sought to exploit the great machines name and history one last time, creating some of the greatest examples ever.
Arguably the most notable of these late-model ‘Bird doctors, was former SLP regional manager, Matt Murphy, who started his own GM tuning shop–GMMG Inc, in Marietta Georgia. Working in association with Kennesaw Georgia Pontiac dealer Carl Black, GMMG designed, developed and built 101 super rare and highly sought-after Trans Ams and Formulas, known as the GMMG Black Birds. This small but very special final flock combined modern performance massaging with retro-styling cues into a completely awesome package.
Every GMMG Blackbird was fitted with a free-flowing airbox lid/K&N filter, a sinister-sounding stainless steel chambered catback exhaust system-like those from the late ‘60s, specific engine tuning software for better performance, 1.5-inch Eibach lowering springs, a 160-degree thermostat, ASP underdrive pulley and 17×9-inch American Racing Torque Thrust II wheels, with painted dark gray metallic spokes, hood stripes, badges and white-faced gauges.
A variety of additional engine upgrades and components were available, depending on model and “stage”. Like the Royal “Bobcat” cars from Pontiac’s heyday, GMMG Trans Ams/Formulas are noted as some of the most unique and powerful birds ever hatched.
Another Trans Am trickster more than worthy of mention is Dennis Mecham of Mecham Design and Performance in Glendale Arizona. If GMMG followed the performance-enhancing path of legendary GM tuners like Yenko and Royal, it’s accurate in stating that the Mecham cars were more in tune with Baldwin Motion’s radical offerings.
Channeling the Macho T/As from the ’70s, the fourth-gen Mecham T/As were fitted with their signature quad-port heat-extractor Ram Air hood-often emblazoned with a more wild version of the Screaming Chicken” graphic. Mecham T/As were also known for their extensive engine-work, computer tuning, exhaust and suspension upgrades and specific wheels. Also offered in stages, the Mecham cars were not cheap and stand perched as some of the most rare final T/As.
True to its iconic name and 15 years post production, few discontinued cars have kept their flame burning on as hot as the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It’s three decade-long reputation for high-performance is not easily forgotten, nor is its iconic all-American style and attitude.
In its final iteration, the fourth-gen Firebird Trans Am dazzled the car world with its bang-for-the-buck credentials and refusal to go silently into the night. To this day, fourth-gen Trans Ams, with a little work, more than hold their own against today’s high-tech musclecars and their slick, yet muscular shapes, often draw equal if not more attention on the street and at shows.
As for reliability and longevity, the LS1, both with/without Ram Air is an engine that with proper maintenance and TLC can run strong to over 100,000-miles, then after a full tune-up, can go another 100k. The rest of the car is easily serviced and cheaply maintained, with many factory parts still available and a thriving after market that grows constantly.
In the opinion of this author, to spend six figures on a modern Camaro dressed-up like a Trans Am for Halloween, rather than drop that cash on a real T/A or two or three, is foolhardy and is an insult to the Pontiac Trans Am as well as the Camaro. From 1998-2002, Pontiac Firebird Trans Am coupe/Convertible and WS6 production totaled 76,003 units, (not including Formula) and SLP Firehawk Trans Am coupe/conv production was 3,208 units, (not including Formula), equaling a total of 79,211 Trans Ams built.
Remember, the last real Pontiac Trans Ams weren’t just paint and panels thrown together like some kit car, they were the final evolution of an iconic breed of performance car from GM’s proud “Performance” and “Excitement” division, which is no more. They had reached a pinnacle over 33 years, with radical styling and American brashness, always staying unique and special, right to its last days and its most dominant final version. There are plenty nice examples still out there, so go get a real one.