Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am GTA 5.7 (1987-1990) - Buyer's Guide

By: Cliff Chambers

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pontiac firebird pontiac firebird

While much of the muscle car magic had dwindled by the 80s, this transformative Firebird is one of the few desirable contempories

By the 1980s, any vestige of the character that defined 1960s US performance cars had been legislated out of existence, Well, almost. Hiding deep in the nooks of car company engineering and marketing departments were rebellious people who could transform quite innocuous mainstream models into something approaching enjoyable.

The Firebird GTA was more than just an option pack for the boring base-model. In addition to a tuned-port 5.7-litre engine the ‘Gran Turismo Americano’ option pack included WS6 suspension with a thicker front sway bar, a 24mm rear bar, gas suspension struts and faster-ratio steering. Some had ZR-rated rubber on Corvette-spec wheels, however most GTAs rode on 16-inch, gold-spoked alloys. Later cars could be specified with colour-keyed wheels.

New in 1987, a bare-bones GTA cost US$14,200. Adding air-conditioning and a few ‘comfort’ items would push the total up by more than $2000. Prepare for a shock though if you wanted your GTA shipped off to Australia, converted and complianced to qualify for unrestricted registration. The total at the bottom of that docket would show a figure approaching A$60,000.

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1989 brought a GTA derivative that ranks as one of the few genuinely collectible cars to emerge from the USA during the 1980s-90s. It was the last-ever Indy Pace Car to be supplied by Pontiac and while based on the GTA this one wasn’t V8 powered.

Beneath the bonnet was Buick’s highly-regarded 3.8-litre turbo V6 that on other days powered that brand’s Grand National range. Official output from the 3.8-litre engine was a conservative 187kW but the chunky Trans Am still scorched down Road & Track magazine’s test track to record a sub-14 second time for the standing 400 metres, making this GTA Pontiac’s fastest, most driver-oriented model in many years.

The TTA (or Turbo Trans Am) package added $4300 to the cost of a basic version. Decals on the doors and special paint treatment were all that bystanders would need to confirm the presence of a special and very quick car.

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Basic 5.7-litre GTAs appear regularly in the local market and numbers can be expected to swell now that all imports 25 years old or more qualify for full registration without needing RHD conversion. TTA cars are very scarce and not common even in their homeland. Just 1550 were made including 40 coupes without lift-out panels and just three convertibles.

GTAs currently in Australia and in reasonable condition begin below $20,000 and can reach $35-40,000 when outstanding. Four-speed automatic transmission was standard and the only manual cars likely to appear for sale (almost always in the USA) will be conversions done with Pontiac’s blessing by Prototype Automotive Services.

Turbo GTAs rarely appear for sale and in the US market normally manage US$30-35,000. One was advertised a while back at $40,000 but even at that elevated price it was a bit of a steal given the odometer reading was a verified 1600 miles (or 2600km) from new.

VALUE RANGE: Pontiac Firebird (GTA 5.7)

Fair: $14,000
Good: $25,000
Excellent: $35,000

(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)

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BUYER'S CHECKLIST

Body & chassis

1980s US cars seem for some reason to suffer more from rust than earlier ones, even though the later-models were supposedly better protected. Buying at long-distance, which will the way GTAs will be acquired for some time to come, means exercising caution and asking the vendor to video rot-prone areas like the luggage area - be suspicious of rotting carpet - the sills, door skins and rear wheel-arches. Watch for dull or mismatched paint which might mark the site of a crash or rust repair. Complete used headlamp units cost around US$200 per side and replacement motors are US$100 each. Freight, duty, currency conversion and GST will then send the total past A$1000.When inspecting a T Top car, ensure the roof panels are removed so the rubber seals and hood-lining can be inspected.

Engine & transmission

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Nothing alarming here however intending buyers need to be careful of cars recently arrived from offshore with no documented history. Unless you are personally familiar with older engines and their ancillaries, a professional mechanical inspection by someone who specialises in cars of this kind is essential. The 5.7-litre V8 is a very durable engine with problems including oil leaks from the back of the cylinder heads, rear main bearing seal and timing case. The Turbo V6 comes with its own set of issues, however these cars have become increasingly valuable and owners generally are spending time and money on maintenance. The four-speed automatics are durable and can be easily repaired or replaced.

Suspension & brakes

Basic all-coil suspension makes the GTA an easy car to maintain. US magazines rated the handling highly but Aussies might want something more. Suspension upgrade kits (prices ranged from US$895-2600) make a significant difference. Soft springs will spoil the GTA’s excellent stability and worn shock absorbers will wreck the ride. Replacement shocks start at around $100 each but a car like this deserves something like the adjustable front strut kit seen with a North American specialist at US$680. Disc brakes on every corner should pull the car up without locking or wandering. New rotors are available as are reconditioned boosters.

Interior & electrics

1980s electrics were made to last two decades at best and after 30 years there will be systems in even the best Pontiacs that aren’t working as they should. Be especially wary of dash lights that don’t illuminate at all because a vital sensor may have been disconnected to mask a problem. Get hold of an owners’ manual and work out what everything does and whether it’s important. Power windows that don’t work might need a $250 switch or $800 (parts only) rebuild. Same with the air-conditioner which could cost $2500 to put right. The seats weren’t all that exciting when new but if they have collapsed, are showing big rips or won’t move on the runners, there’s another $2000 in repairs unless you can find some second-hand.

1987-1990 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am GTA specs

Number made: 35,926 (GTA 1987-1992)
Body styles: Steel integrated body/chassis two-door coupe or convertible
Engine: 5735cc V8 with overhead valves & fuel injection or 3781cc V6 with overhead camshaft, fuel injection and turbocharger
Power & torque: 173kW @ 4400rpm, 447Nm @ 3200rpm (5.7-litre)
Performance: 0-100km/h 6.7 seconds, 0-400 metres 15.1 seconds (5.7 litre)
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, five-speed manual
Suspension: Independent with Macpherson struts, coil springs, A arms & anti-roll bar (f) Live axle with coil springs. locating links & telescopic shock absorbers (r)
Brakes: Disc (f) disc (r) power assisted
Tyres: 245/50ZR16 radial

 

From Unique Cars #447, December 2020

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