1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am: Buyers guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Greg Pajo

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Buyer's guide: 1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am Buyer's guide: 1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am
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A 70s muscle car with factory-fitted tribal tattoos pulled the rug out from under its rivals...

1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am: Buyers guide
Buyer's guide: 1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am

 

1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am

WHAT IS IT?

Pontiac’s Trans Am was born late into the muscle car era and was one of the finest of its genre. Originally intended as a competition car, its on-track achievements were meagre but that doesn’t stop it ranking among the most successful road models in 80 years of Pontiac production.

Popularity of later Trans Ams is due in part to an inexorable association with Burt Reynolds’ character in the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit.

The original Trans Am was introduced in March 1969, powered by a 6.6-litre V8 with Ram Air shaker and 335bhp (248kW). The 1970 ½ re-style delivered a more substantial structure and a 7.4-litre (455ci) V8 option. 1973 brought a Super Duty grunter that found its way into just 252 cars.

While many muscle cars disappeared with the smog rules of the 1970s, the Trans Am escaped, though saddled with emission controlled power units. A change from gross to net power figures also hurt numbers. By 1976, claimed horsepower of a clean 7.4-litre engine had declined to 200hp (148kW). Acceleration from 0-60mph (0-96km/h) at 8.4 seconds was two seconds slower than a dirty 455 SD. The decline could have been even more significant if not for revised gearing that masked the engines’ inability to safely rev beyond 4500rpm. Fuel consumption averaged 21L/100km.

Standard on the $4988 1976 Trans Am were power disc brakes and fast ratio steering with 2.4 turns lock-to-lock. Four-speed manual gearbox, sports seats and comprehensive instruments were also standard. Specifying a 7.4-litre engine over the standard 6.6 cost an additional $175.

Radial Tuned Suspension – a term later borrowed by Holden – provided uprated suspension along with Uniroyal radial tyres. Semi-elliptic rear springs were retained but US testers were impressed; America’s Road & Track described the Trans Am as ‘…exciting to drive at speed on narrow, winding roads’.

Styling changes during the late 1970s introduced a new, energy-absorbing nosecone with four deep-set headlamps replacing the twin, mudguard mounted lights of earlier models.

Special versions were a feature of late 1970s Trans Am marketing and include the black with gold pin-striped ‘Special Edition’ and 10th Anniversary in silver and black. A highlight of Trans Am embellishment was the "screaming chicken" decal which almost filled the car’s substantial bonnet.

Also sold in limited numbers was a 5.0-litre turbocharged model with 155kW and purportedly better economy than the 403ci (6.6-litre) Oldsmobile V8, though the 23L/100km reality proved different.

Cars delivered new in Australia were usually loaded with accessories like electric windows and air-conditioning to help justify pricing that – once the cost of right-hand drive conversion was added – placed them in the same bracket as a Porsche 911.

HOW'S IT DRIVE?

Despite having at least 6.6 litres of V8 underneath, 1974-’81 model Trans Ams aren’t nearly as daunting as their imagery might suggest.

"They are probably the most practical muscle car you can find and it attracts attention everywhere it goes," was Trans Am owner Josh Mikelat’s summation of his car’s endearing attributes.

"The Olds motor has got plenty of torque and handling with the heavier suspension bushings and the big wheels are excellent," he said. "Parts are easy to find and usually pretty affordable and in fact the only grumble I’ve got is the rain gutters that are so poorly designed you’ve got to drive with the windows up on wet days."

While the Trans Am suspension isn’t sophisticated, it is certainly effective and, allied to a quartet of 279mm disc brakes, combines sporty drivability with outstanding stopping power.

Trans Am interiors provide exciting playpens but not like the chrome-enhanced character of early Firebirds. Common in many 1970s cars, the combination of low-set seating, high waistline and small windows limit rear vision and make the car feel larger than it is.

Space for front seat passengers is generous but the rear compartment is too cramped to be regarded as more than a 2+2. The boot is tiny in relation to the car’s bulk so for two-passenger touring the rear seat provides a useful extension to the car’s cargo capacity.

CHECKLIST

Cars from the northern USA require close inspection for concealed rust. Floor pans, suspension mounting points, lower rear panels and windscreen surrounds are most vulnerable. Urethane noses decay with age however replacements are available second-hand. Leaks via removable T-Top panels are common and new seal sets are over $1000. Drooping doors can quite easily be realigned.

Pontiac or Oldsmobile V8s are quite durable, requiring little more than regular maintenance to provide 250,000-plus kilometres of motoring. Parts for Pontiac 400, 455 and Oldsmobile 403 engines are readily available. The scarce Turbo provides potential for electronic malfunctions and overheating, so is best avoided.

Worn bushes and shocks are common and affect handling. Virtually everything for the suspension is available, with repair kits for the front end locally available. Cars that will be regularly driven need a full-sized spare wheel instead of the standard space-saver.

Worn trim is common, as are waterlogged carpets due to poor gutter design. Seats can tilt towards the centre of the car due to worn mounting bushes but this is easily corrected. Another problem is damage to metal gauge facias; hard to source even from the USA.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

1974-81 Pontiac Trans Am

 

Body: 2-door coupe
Engine: 6556cc, 6605cc or 7457cc V8, OHV, 16v; 4943cc turbocharged V8, OHV, 16v
Power: 148kW (1976 model 7.4-litre)
Gearbox: 4-speed manual; 3-speed automatic
Suspension: unequal length A arms, telescopic shock absorbers, anti-roll bar (f) live axle with semi-elliptic springs, telescopic shock absorbers, anti-roll bar (r)
Brakes: disc (f)/drum (r) (disc/disc optional), power assisted
Price: $8000 - $30,000

 

*****

 

More reviews:

> Buyer's guide: Pontiac GTO 1964-72

> 1978 Pontiac Trans Am

> Marques of distinction - Pontiac

 

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