Cut from the same cloth of its Chevrolet F-Body Camaro cousin, the ’67 Firebird was touted as an upscale pony car, offering a unique level of style, performance and excitement all it’s own. Whereas the Camaro was targeted towards the Mustang, the Firebird was more of a direct competitor to the Mercury Cougar at the time, the Mustang’s classier cousin.
Seizing upon its late-‘60’s success, the 2nd-Generation Firebird took off in 1970, cruising on through the 1981 model year. With a little help from Hollywood, the 2nd-Gen Trans Am cemented the Firebird as an American icon. The ‘80s however, would present a new list of requirements for a fresh ‘Bird, with a new take on an old theme.
Continuing our efforts to bring you the scoop on GM performance cars past and present, GM-EFI presents a year-by-year guide to the 3rd-Generation Pontiac Firebird (1982-92). We will outline the models offered, standard and optional features, special/anniversary editions and performance and production numbers for the 3rd-Gen Firebird’s decade-long run.
Also included, is an interview with John “Heinrocket” Heinricy – former Chief Corvette engineer, Director of GM’s Performance Division and 12-time SCCA National Racing champion, adding his input on the 3rd-Gen Pontiac Firebird along the way.
A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW:
Even though the 2nd-Gen Firebird had by 1981 become a bit “long in the beak,” its highly recognizable, iconic appearance was a hard act to follow. By the early ‘80’s, much if not everything had changed since the 2nd-Gen’s initial flight in 1970.
Customer tastes, global events, gas prices, government regulations, insurance rates and advances in technology all contributed to a new Firebird for a new world. Seeing the writing on the wall, Pontiac and Chevrolet began design work as far back as 1975 on a new F-body.
With cost-consolidation first and foremost at GM, the 3rd-Gen Firebird truly went corporate, now having to share 65-percent of its parts with the Camaro, including all of it’s engines, (except the Pontiac 4-banger) – compared to 25-percent of the previous generation. Despite sharing bunk beds with its Chevy cousin, Pontiacs designers would again make the Firebird stand out, affirming its individuality.
A NEW BIRD FOR A NEW GENERATION: 1982
After initial designs from Roger Hughet at Bill Porters Advanced Studio, to the final clay models from Pontiac No.2 studio headed by John Schinella, the new Firebird presented a sleek, aerodynamic shape, much more streamlined than those of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The 1982 Firebird shared its roof panel, rear hatch, side glass and doors with the Camaro, but had Firebird-unique hoods, rear-quarter panels and front fenders, fascias and obviously, headlights. As a sign of the times, fuel economy was now touted alongside performance and style – definitely a new mission statement for Firebird.
Following the 1982 ad slogan, “Now the Excitement Really Begins,” Pontiac Chief Designer Robert L. Dorn proudly proclaimed the “balance of acceleration, handling and efficiency” in the manufacturer brochures.
Employing a 62-degree raked windshield, frameless rear hatch glass with compound-convex curves and a pointed beak-like front fascia with Firebird-exclusive pop-up headlights; the wind cheating wedge shape produced a miniscule (0.323 Cd), the lowest coefficient of drag in GM’s test history.
Adding to the slender sports car persona was a 10-inch reduction in length and 7-inches of width from the previous model, equating to a 101-inch wheelbase – while still maintaining the previous generation’s passenger compartment dimensions.
Completing the efficiency was a 500-lb. drop in weight compared to the ’81 model.
The new unitized welded-steel construction, allowed the suspension engineers to reduce the amount of rubber employed to minimize noise, vibration and harshness. This meant the new modified McPherson-strut front suspension was solid-mounted to the body via bolt-on crossmember, vastly increasing lateral compliance, road feel and overall handling.
Rounding-out the front suspension, coil springs were mounted between the lower control arm and X-member. Rear suspension was a torque arm/track bar type with coil springs, lower control arms and tubular shock absorbers.
Even though the new Firebirds still followed the fear of horsepower mantra started in the mid-‘70’s, the 3rd-Gen’s handling abilities were up several rungs on the performance ladder.
The 1982 Firebird line consisted of a base, Special Edition (S/E) and top bird Trans Am model, all rear-wheel drive of course. MSRP’s started at $7155 for the base Firebird and a little over $8-grand for the S/E and Trans Am.
Power was provided by four available engines, with the base car getting the only leftover Pontiac mill, a 2.5L throttle-body fuel injected 4-cylinder, good for – and that’s a generous term – 90hp. The luxury slated S/E model received a 105hp two-barrel 2.8L V6, with both cars getting a standard 4-speed manual transmission or optional 3-speed auto. Choosing the top tier Trans Am, and why wouldn’t you, netted a 5.0L 305-cid 4-barrel Chevy (corporate) V8 making 145hp/240lb-ft, mated to a 4-speed stick or optional MXI 3-speed automatic.
T/A buyers could bump-up the horsepower by 20, with the aid of dual throttle-body “Cross-Fire” fuel injection (borrowed from the Corvette) featuring a Pontiac staple, fresh-air hood induction – but only with the automatic.
MODELS and STANDARD EQUIPMENT:
Base ‘Birds came with a front air dam, power steering, front disc/rear drum brakes, reclining front bucket seats, black-finished instrument panel, full-length front center console, front stabilizer bar and 14×6-inch 5-lugnut steel wheels with hubcaps.
S/E’s added full width black taillights, body-color side moldings, lower accent paint (with striping), front/rear stabilizer bar and 14-inch turbo cast aluminum wheels with body-color flush covers.
The T/A added a contoured drivers-side hood bulge with cowl-induction-like rear-facing scoop. Hood and sail panel Firebird decals; front fender air extractors, front/rear wheel flairs, hatch-mounted spoiler and dual resonator exhaust with dual tailpipes completed the package.
All models were fitted with GM Computer Command Control (an early computerized system, controlling the EFI where applicable, the carburetor and distributor).
Gone for now, were the large hood-encompassing “Screaming Chickens” and muscular-styling of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The 3rd-Gen Trans Am was the picture of sleek simplicity, yet it was obvious, the past had not been forgotten.
RECARO TRANS AM:
Only available on black T/A’s with gold accents, the Recaro package, named for it’s interior enhancements, was much more.
For between $2500-$3000, depending on which V8 and transmission you requested, the Y84 Recaro option included:
- Recaro front bucket seats/rear luxury seat
- Parella cloth seat trim
- Luxury door trim panels/map pockets
- Custom seat belts
- Limited slip differential
- Special handling package (WS6 or WS7*)
- Sport hood with graphics
- Removable (T-Top) hatch roof panels
- Four-wheel disc brakes
- Gold-finished turbo cast-aluminum wheels/215/65R15 tires
*WS7 was the same as WS6 special handling package on S/E and T/A, minus four-wheel disc brakes (drums in the rear).
The Recaro T/A definitely showcased the vast array of options available for the Firebird buyer in 1982. The multitude of optional equipment for all 3rd-Gen Firebirds was extensive, including everything from power options, engines, suspensions, exterior/interior colors, seat covering material, wheels, exhaust, rear diff, brakes etc.
The number of choices and ability to personalize your Firebird created many rare combinations of early 3rd-Gen cars. Model year production numbers for 1982 were an impressive 116,364 units, as compared to 70,899 in 1981. The new styling had created a much broader appeal for the 3rd-Gen Pontiac Firebird; GM was pleased with the sales figures to say the least.
BURT REYNOLDS EXIT STAGE RIGHT- ENTER-DAVID HASSELHOFF: KNIGHT RIDER TV SERIES
Hollywood had played an integral part in spreading the immense popularity and notoriety of the 2nd-Gen Pontiac Trans Am with the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit. With the coming of the ‘80s, a new generation would come to know and love Pontiac’s prime pony car via the small screen instead of the silver one.
Starting in 1982 and running four seasons on NBC, Knight Rider told the weekly tale of ex-detective and new-age crime fighter, Michael Knight, and his assigned partner and steed, KITT, a black 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.
KITT, or (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was no factory T/A, but a highly modified version equipped with a stealth fighter-like cockpit, indestructible outer shell, “Turbo Boost” and onboard weapon systems controlled via artificial intelligence. KITT’s Ivy-League voice gave the T/A a sophisticated persona.
Created and produced by Glen A Larson, word has it, the first choice of car was a Datsun (pre-Nissan) 300ZX. With Larson not sold on the idea or the Datsun, production exec, Harker Wade and automotive talent agent Eric Dahlquist of Vista Group Automotive, came together in the spring of 1981, soon agreeing that the new for ‘82 Pontiac Trans Am was perfect for the role.
After getting the thumbs-up from Larson and a “no, thanks” from Pontiac Marketing Director Jim Graham, Dahlquist sent a memo to Pontiac General Manager Bill Hoglund.
Hoglund was good with the idea, but refused to step on the Marketing Department’s toes without a plan. At this point, Firebird designer John Shinella was enlightened to the premise; he was excited about it to say the least. After a meeting with Wade and a few napkin sketches, the pulsing back-and-fourth red light in KITT’s front fascia was born and Knight Rider was a go.
Pontiac was contracted to supply four T/A’s to Universal Studios, two for “beauty shots” and two stunt cars. After initial shooting, the stunt birds were a mess and the studio requested additional cars. With the model brand new, they were hard to come by, truly rare birds.
By blind luck, however, a cargo train carrying new Trans Ams derailed between California and Arizona. Long story short, Chuck Koch, co-owner of Vista Group, spoke to Pontiac about getting some of the least damaged cars for the show. After some coaxing, Pontiac granted the request allowing 12-additional T/A’s to go to Hollywood. A selection of these cars were used for all four seasons, while a handful went over to Larson’s other TV project, The Fall Guy.
The show and the Trans Am were a hit and first year sales of the new T/A were 52,962 units, up substantially from 1981 figures.
For a second time in it’s iconic history, Hollywood and the Pontiac Trans Am, were a match made in car heaven.
UPPING THE ANTE AND SPECIAL EDITIONS: 1983
Flying high from its 1982 release, the Firebird received some upgraded features and increased engine output for 1983.
Added to the list of engines, was the H.O 2.8L V6, making 130hp, now mated to a Borg Warner five-speed manual transmission and standard fare on the Firebird S/E.
The four-barrel 5.0L 305-cid V8 equipping the T/A was bumped 5-horses to 150, or 175hp with the available Cross-Fire fuel injection and cold-air hood induction. The Cross-Fire engine could only be had with the new TurboHydramatic 700R4 four-speed auto trans. Other additions were few but significant.
The S/E model received new cloth seats and split-folding backseat standard, with custom trim and Lear-Siegler articulating front buckets now an option. The T/A still came standard with the 4-barrel 5.0L V8, now wielded by a five-speed manual with 3.73:1 rear axle gears.
SPECIAL EDITION RECARO TRANS AM:
Adding “Special Edition” to its title, the Recaro T/A was back for another model year. Remaining much the same as in the previous year, the package included gold accents on the door handles, Firebird emblems, hood bulge appliqué and 15-inch Turbo finned cast-aluminum wheels, highlighting the exterior.
Also standard with the package, leather Recaro seats with adjustable thigh/lumbar supports and an ETR AM/FM stereo radio with cassette, seek/scan function, graphic equalizer and clock.
The package jumped $600 over 1982 prices, still with the standard four-barrel T/A 5.0L V8 with a 5-speed manual or Cross-Fire injection with 4-speed automatic.
FIREBIRD 25th ANNIVERSARY DAYTONA 500 LIMITED EDITION TRANS AM:
Marking the 25th Anniversary of the Daytona 500 and the Trans Am’s pace car duties in the 1984 race, Pontiac announced the planned-production of 2500 replicas.
Similar to and including much of the Special Edition Recaro T/A’s options, the 25th Anniversary Daytona 500 Limited Edition package added:
- Special mid-body two-tone paint scheme, with white upper and midnight sand gray metallic lower-body finish and NASCAR/Daytona 500 graphics
- Special W62 Aero ground-effects package with unique covers on 15×7-inch Turbo-aero aluminum wheels
- Special light sand gray Recaro front bucket seats with pigskin leather inserts, bolsters/headrests with Daytona 500 floor mats
- Both 5.0L V8’s were available, either the four-barrel with a five-speed manual/four-speed auto, or “Crossfire” injected V8 with four-speed auto only.
- Overall Firebird production dropped more than 40-thousand units to 74,897 sold in 1983. Despite the drop, the future looked bright for the Firebird.
EVEN FLIGHT AND A FIERY FIFTEETH B-DAY FOR THE T/A: 1984
Notable changes for 1984 included, the discontinuation of “Crossfire” injection, and replacement with a new H.O. (high-output) L69 four-barrel 5.0L V8 making 190hp. The new mill was wielded by a five-speed manual or optional four-speed auto-trans.
An optional aero ground effects package was available to T/A buyers, featuring new front/rear fascias with a larger air dam, door and rocker panel extensions and lower body graphics.
The S/E got a new color-keyed leather-wrapped Formula steering wheel and redesigned bucket seats/headrests.
The S/E came equipped with a H.O. V6 with a two-barrel Rochester carburetor and five-speed manual. An optional automatic was available as was the 150hp four-barrel LG4 5.0L V8.
SPECIAL EDITION RECARO TRANS AM:
Nineteen eighty-four would be the last year for the Y84 Special Edition Recaro Package.
Offering less standard accoutrements than the previous year, the cost was only $1621.
Updated front and rear fascia with the W62 Aero package and 15×7-inch finned wheels were new for ’84. Both V8’s with a five-speed manual or four-speed auto were available.
15th ANNIVERSARY TRANS AM:
Continuing with what was fast becoming a T/A tradition, Pontiac rolled out a special anniversary Trans Am commemorating its 15th year in production.
Harkening the first 1969 T/A’s color scheme with an ‘80’s flair, 1500 15th Anniversary T/A’s were built, all shod in white with blue trim from top to bottom/beak to tail. The Special package was an additional $3499 over the cost of a T/A and included:
- White-painted W62 Aero ground effects package with white grille slot inserts and medium blue trim/graphics (including hood bulge and “5.0-liter H.O. decals and body perimeter pinstripes)
- White 16-inch aluminum high-tech wheels, with medium blue rim stripe-wrapped in 245/50VR16 Goodyear Eagle GT rubber (from the new C4 Corvette)*
- White rear deck lid spoiler
- Recaro leather trimmed seats with large/small “Trans Am” lettering on gray suede inserts
- Leather covered steering wheel, shift knob, glovebox pouch and handbrake
- Special blue 15th Anniversary interior/exterior shield badges
- Removable hatch roof (T-Tops)
- WS6 special handling package, with 34mm front/25mm rear antisway bars, tuned shock absorbers, tighter steering and a 3.73:1 rear axle gear ratio
- L69 H.O. 5.0L 305-cid V8 making 190hp/240lb-ft mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission
*The 15th Anniversary T/A’s were the first Firebirds to wear 16-inch wheels/tires.
Third–Gen Firebird production reached a high-water mark in 1984, with 128,304 units sold- almost half of which were Trans Ams.
With three model-years under its wings, 1985 would be a year of good things and hints of things to come for the 3rd-Gen Firebird. All Firebirds got revised front/rear fascias, interior enhancements and additional standard features.
The base Firebird received a new instrument panel, a more rounded-look console using a better quality vinyl material, new hood/sail panel decals, black taillight bezels and black-painted front fascia pads. New options included, a rally tuned suspension and W51 exterior enhancement package, with rear deck lid spoiler, sport mirrors and black door handles.
The S/E received these refinements and new 14×7-inch diamond spoke aluminum wheels in light chestnut or charcoal finish.
Still standard on the S/E was the 2.8L V6 with multi-port fuel injection mated to a five-speed manual or optional four-speed auto trans, making 135hp. Two optional V8’s were available, the 160-horse 305-cid 5.0L V8 or H.O. 190hp four-barrel.
As usual, the big news surrounded the top of the line Trans Am.
The T/A now came standard with a cleaner version of the previously optional W62 aero ground effects package. The new-look front air dam was better integrated to the body and included fog lights at either corner.
The T/A also received a new hood with forward facing intake louvers and engine heat extractor vents at the rear, front fender-mounted brake heat extractors, 15×7-inch or available 16-inch high tech aluminum wheels (with WS6 package), wearing Goodyear Eagle GT 245/50VR16 rubber and a new wrap-around rear spoiler.
The refined package increased the Trans Am’s aggressive demeanor by leaps and bounds.
Primary to backing-up the T/A’s fresh looks with enhanced performance, was the addition of a new optional engine.
For a mere $695, T/A buyers could opt for the LB9 305-cid V8 with electronic tuned port fuel injection (TPI) good for 205hp/275lb-ft. Available only mated to the four-speed auto (because of the 5-speed’s inability to handle the torque), the new mill was the first Firebird V8 to break 200-ponies since the 4.9L Turbo V8 of ’81.
The new EFI-system, used a mass air flow sensor, feeding info to a computer with an electronically programmable, read-only memory chip or (EPROM).
Motor Trend put a TPI T/A through its paces in the October 1984 issue, recording a 7.8-second 0-60 dash and a 16.07 1/4-mile time at 84.5mph. Not exactly blistering fast, but acceptable for the era.
The new motor and EFI, was the writing on the wall for Firebird performance enthusiasts as the good ‘ol days, were slowly but surely returning.
Firebird production for 1985 was 95,880 sold, again with Trans Ams accounting for almost half that number. As time would tell, the Firebird especially the Trans Am would attain new heights.
RETURN OF THE SCREAMING CHICKEN: 1986
With the 3rd-Gen Firebird enjoying sales and stylistic success, changes for 1986 were few, but it was obvious The Firebird line was gradually flying back to performance with the T/A leading the way. Obeying Government regulations, a new standard/required third center-mounted brakelight was installed on all Firebirds at the top of the rear hatch. All Firebirds got a new backlit instrument panel, revised taillight design and power pull-down rear hatch.
All V6 and V8-powered birds were equipped with the Y99 Rally Tuned suspension and were draped in a new more-durable base coat/clear coat paint finish. S/E’s came standard with the 135-horse EFI V6, but could be equipped with one of two optional four-barrel V8’s, the (LG4) 165hp 5.0L or (L69) 190hp with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic.
Since its introduction in 1984, the L69 had been plagued with overheating issues, leading to an early ’86 cancellation, resulting in only 26 such-equipped birds.
Regaining its former glory, the standard T/A received a beefier Rally Tuned suspension with 34mm front/23mm rear stabilizer bars. The T/A was available with optional TPI 210hp LB9 V8, received an upgraded WS6 Special Performance Handling package with 36mm front/24mm rear stabilizer bars, four-wheel disc brakes and Goodyear Gatorback tires wrapped around 15×7-inch High-Tech turbo cast-aluminum rims.
Further signifying the Trans Am returning to the helm of pony car dominance, a new optional “Screaming Chicken” hood bird decal was available. Not engulfing the entire hood, the new single-color appliqué bird of prey was a nice nostalgic finishing touch and for only $95, why not?
Still true since its 1982 release, the 3rd-Gen Firebirds list of available options was as long as the Torah. Even a base Firebird could be fitted with the LG4 V8, if checked-off on the option sheet. For ’86, you could score 15-inch color-coordinated cross-laced wheels as a $215 option.
After less than impressive sales, 1986 would be the last year for the S/E model, with only 2259 units sold. Total Firebird production for 1986 was 110,463 cars. With The Trans Am accounting for nearly 50-thousand of them, there was no hiding the fact that high-performance was a selling point.
GTA AND THE “FORMULA” FOR EXCITEMENT: 1987
Drawing from it’s iconic history, 1987 would see Pontiac changing vowels from GT[O] to GT[A], offering an up-gunned version of it’s ultimate image car, the Trans Am. Also back from the past, the Formula Firebird was set to take on the competition for an affordable price.
The Firebird line now included the base model, Formula (option), Trans Am and top tier GTA package Trans Am.
Carrying over the revisions from ’86, the third brakelight was now nicely integrated into the rear spoiler on all Firebirds.
Gone with the wind was the 2.5L 4-banger, as an electronic multi port fuel injected 2.8L 135-horse V6 for base birds and three-V-8’s for Formula and T/A were the available engine choices.
Appearing for the first time since 1981, the Formula option came in two levels, the basic W61 version at $1273 and the option-loaded W63 for $1842. All Formulas came standard with the 155hp four-barrel 5.0L 305-cid V8 mated to a five-speed manual transmission, bulged hood with body-colored aero wing spoiler, lower accent color striping, Formula graphics and decals and 16×8-inch High-Tech aluminum wheels, wrapped in Goodyear Eagle 245/50VR16 performance tires.
Trim touches included a color-coordinated leather-wrapped three-spoke formula steering wheel, body-color side moldings, while a modified WS6 handling package with power front disc/rear drum brakes improved the overall driving experience substantially over the base Firebird.
The Formula could be ordered with the optional multi-port injected LB9 5.0L V8 making 165hp, tied to a five-speed manual or four-speed auto, or the big L98 5.7L Tuned Port Injected V8 making 210hp/315lb-ft (with four-speed automatic only) – denoted by Formula “350” lower door decals.
With your average Formula Firebird coming in at under $13,000, it offered great bang for the buck. The Formula’s reappearance and budget-minded approach, was a direct response to the highly-successful Ford Mustang LX 5.0. Ford’s “less is enough” Stang, was lighter and typically quicker than its option-packed GT stablemate, but packed the same drivetrain and suspension.
Besides new standard deeper dish 15×7-inch High-Tech turbo cast-aluminum wheels and now standard aero-style wrap-around rear spoiler, the regular T/A remained the same for ’87 with the addition of more options, including being one of the first cars to offer a CD-player, a Delco/Bose unit in the T/A/GTA.
Trans Am GTA:
Channeling its inner Italiano, Pontiac’s GTA (Grand Turismo Americano), was meant to be the ultimate grand-touring Trans Am. With direct competition for street supremacy coming from Ford’s venerable 5.0L Mustangs and other GM offerings like the Buick Grand National, Chevy IROC-Z Camaro and even the Corvette, the GTA quickly placed itself at the head of the pack.
Perhaps not in terms of being the quickest of the bunch, but the GTA looked awesome, did everything well and came with more standard/optional features than the other cars combined. On top of standard T/A fare, the GTA option included:
- Aero ground effects package with integrated fog lights
- Body-color aero-style rear deck spoiler
- Dual power side rear view mirrors (on first 100 cars built)
- Articulating front bucket seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Delco-GM monaural push-button radio, Rally gauge instrumentation with full-length console
- Specific GTA front fascia-mounted and front fender-mounted cloisonné badges
- Specific 16×8-inch gold cross-laced (diamond spoke) aluminum wheels, wrapped in Goodyear Eagle 245/50VR16 performance tires
- Power four-wheel disc brakes, limited slip rear axle as a part of WS6 special performance handling package
- L98 5.7L 350-cid V8 with Tuned port fuel injection and 3.27:1 gear ratio, making 210hp/315lb-ft mated to a four-speed overdrive automatic-only
Performance numbers according to AutoWeek Magazine’s Sept 1, 1986 issue, stood at 6.5-second 0-60mph and 14.7-seconds in the 1/4-mile.
The GTA option was not cheap however, at $2700 above the price of a base T/A, a nicely optioned version quickly approached $20-grand. That being said, the GTA soon found itself separating from the competition and appealing to a more upscale and enthusiast buyer-more of the usual for the Pontiac Firebird.
Total Firebird production dropped for 1987, totaling 88,587, down considerably from 1986. As a result, GM closed its Norwood Ohio plant in August ‘87 relegating all F-body Firebird and Camaro production to the Van Nuys California facility. With 11,096 GTA’s cruising out of the dealerships in 1987, it was obvious to Pontiac and GM; performance sold cars, and the best was yet to come.
MORE OF THE GOOD STUFF: 1988
Following the Trans Am GTA’s success the previous year, Pontiac got even more serious about performance in 1988.
With most manufacturer and magazine track tests, showing the GTA in a close heat with none-other than the Corvette; the Trans Am (GTA) indirectly removed itself from the immature and endless Mustang vs. Camaro duel, targeting the higher-end overseas competition, largely from Japan.
Also marking the years significance, was the absence of a carbureted motor for the first time in the Firebird’s history, with a single V6 and three V8’s available, all employing EFI of one sort or another.
Base Firebirds still got the 135hp 2.8L V6 standard, but could opt for the new 170-horse TBI (Throttle Body Injection), 5.0L motor. Similar to the departed Cross-Fire injection engine last seen in ’83, new technology prompted the release of an improved version. This engine was standard in the Formula and Trans Am.
Returning as an option on the Formula, T/A and GTA was the 5.0L H.O. (High Output) TPI V8. Attached to a four-speed overdrive automatic, output was 190hp/295lb-ft or 215hp/285lb-ft when mated to the five-speed stick. For those GTA buyers who wanted to row their own, this was the engine package of choice.
The crème de le crème remained the 5.7L TPI 350-cid V8 standard in the GTA. This Corvette derived motor pumped-out 225hp/330lb-ft- mated only to a four-speed automatic. The 5.7L was an optional engine on Formula and Trans Am with automatic only.
Notable features/options for 1988 include:
- RPO AA8 optional notchback liftgate/spoiler package on GTA only*
- 140mph speedometer standard on all 5.0/5.7L equipped cars
- Serpentine belt drive system, 15×7-inch High-Tech Turbo or Diamond spoke aluminum wheels, redesigned four-spoke steering wheel and revised interior with additional power features on Base Firebird
- New 16×8-inch High-Tech Turbo cast-aluminum wheels on Formula
- New standard features on GTA include-Pass-Key theft-deterrent system, AM/FM radio cassette/graphic equalizer, full appointment of power options
*Certainly considered rare, only 624 (AA8) notchback GTA’s were ordered for 1988 and one for ’89. Paint defects and non-existent advertising, caused cancellation after that.
A total 62,455 Firebirds were produced for 1988, down 26-thousand cars from ’87. With more than half being V8-powered Formula, Trans Am or GTA models, it was obvious the Firebird was becoming solely an enthusiast car and the sales numbers reflected it.
A TURBOCHARGED TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY: 1989
Every make and model has a standout year, one memorable above the others, with some cars having several. Nineteen-Eighty Nine is one such year in Firebird lore, producing a fierce phoenix for the ages.
In commemoration of the T/A’s twentieth year in production and being chosen to pace the Indianapolis 500, Pontiac built 1555 1989 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Am Indy 500 Pace Cars, including 5 test cars.
Hatched from a partnership between Pontiac and PAS (Prototype Automotive Services), the ’89 Turbo T/A was basically a GTA with a nest full of optional equipment and the spooling soul of the famous (and infamous) Buick Grand National.
Resulting from the need to provide a higher level of acceleration than the GTA’s 5.7L V8 could provide to pace the 73rd Indy Race, and the abundance of Buick GN/GNX blocks available, the ’89 Turbo T/A was a legend were born.
- A more powerful version of the Buick Grand National’s 3.8L Garret T-3 Turbocharged V6-mated to a TH200-R4 automatic transmission
- White exterior with *camel-colored interior, specific “20th Anniversary” Cloisonné hood/sail panel badges and front fender “Turbo Trans Am” emblems
- Analog gauges/turbo boost gauge
- WS6 Performance handling package with limited-slip axle and four-wheel disc brakes with 1LE components
- 16X8-inch Gold cross-laced aluminum wheels/specific WS6 center caps
- 18-gal. Competition-type fuel tank
- Stainless Steel exhaust manifolds
- Special Indy 500 Pace Car decals owner/dealer installed
*Removable hatch roof (T-tops)
1350 had leather seats, the rest were with cloth
*1515 Turbo T/A’s were T-top equipped with 40 hardtops.
Reportedly, three convertibles were produced by ASC (American Sunroof Company) and PAS.
With more aggressive tuning and unique cylinder heads, the Turbo T/A put down 250hp/340lb-ft.
After a flogging by Car and Driver, which produced a 4.6-second 0-60 launch and 13.4 1/4-mile time, it was obvious these numbers were underrated.
Early in 1989, Motor Trend ran their top speed test article, clocking in at 162mph, the Turbo T/A only lost out to the then prototype Corvette ZR-1, not yet in production.
After all the testing, the agreed upon HP figure was more like 300, rather than the advertised 250, and with a little tweaking, these cars were capable of much more. Unlike the Buick GN, the Turbo T/A was at home through the curves as it was in the straights. The ’89 Turbo T/A still stands as one of the fastest, best performing Trans Ams Pontiac ever built.
Other 1989 notables include:
- Revised disc brakes across the line
- Three-point lap/shoulder belts in rear seat
- Pass-Key anti-theft standard on all models
- Security ignition key standard across the line
- FE1 suspension for all V6’s with 30mm front/18mm rear anti-roll bars
- V-8 models get standard T/A-style F41 suspension
- T/A with manual and new dual-cat converter low-back-pressure exhaust 10-additional hp, up to 225
- GTA with 5.7L now rated at 235hp
Total Firebird production for 1989 was 64,404, holding steady from the previous year. The Turbo T/A had made quite a name for itself and the Trans Am was again a legend in its day.
SHORT SHIFT: 1990
Nineteen-Ninety was a short and crazy model-year, impacted by a recession and Pontiac’s desire to release a freshened ’91 Firebird line early in the spring of ’90 . These factors lead to 1990 model-year production ceasing by Dec 1989.
Changes focused on engine choices and output. The base Firebirds were blessed with a new, smoother MFI 3.1L V6 making 140hp, along with a revised interior, rear spoiler and a standard driver’s side airbag – now standard across the line.
Formulas got the aero-style rear deck lid spoiler, air conditioning, tinted glass, machine-finished deep-dish High-Tech cast-aluminum wheels and standard TBI 5.0L rated at 170hp, both (LB9) 5.0L’s and the 5.7L were an option.
The optional automatic-equipped (LB9) TPI 5.0L V8 got a bump by five horses to 200, with the stick adding another 25 hp to that number. The 5.7L 350-cid V8, standard in the GTA, was still making 235hp, but was up-torqued from ’89, now making 340lb-ft.
Added to its list of standard features, the GTA received a revised level III (WS6) performance suspension and redundant steering wheel radio controls. Down drastically from ‘89’s figures, total production was 20,532, obviously related to the factors mentioned above.
THE FACE OF THE BANSHEE: 1991
As always the case with Pontiac, end of model runs were signified by great additions, rather than a boring fizzle. Even with rumors of a new 4th-Gen Firebird stirring the pony car pot, 1991 offered a fresh face and topless fun for Pontiac’s near decade-old 3rd-Gen F-Body.
Drawing heavily from the 1988 Banshee concept show car, ’91 Firebirds received a new front and rear fascia, employing body-color “Endura” thermoplastic, a material familiar to GTO and Firebird owners from the late ‘60’s-early ‘70’s.
The new beak incorporated driving-lights/turn signals and foglights. Although slightly smaller, the pop-up halogen headlamps were improved. Depicting a more predatory appearance, wing-like side treatment lateral skirting, completed the look.
Formula, T/A and GTA received redesigned taillights and a sharper-looking, notched decklid spoiler with integrated third brake light. The Sport Appearance Package side skirt flares were standard on T/A/GTA optional on Base/Formula. All Firebirds got revised and improved sound systems.
Base ‘birds were fitted with the FE1 suspension, T/A with F41 Rally Tuned suspension and GTA/Formula with WS6 as standard.
Both (LB9) 5.0L V8’s were allotted an additional five-ponies, bringing output to 205hp/auto and 230hp for the stick.
The GTA’s standard weapon, the 5.7L, also received a handful more horses, now pumping-out 240hp/340lb-ft.
As a result of the 5.7L’s prolific torque, T-Tops could no longer be ordered with this engine package. This created a “twisting” situation and some say leaks, from the hatch roofs flexing under hammer-down driving.
OPEN AIR: CONVERTIBLE FIREBIRDS 1987-‘92
For the first time since the Firebird’s 1st-Generation 1969 model, 1991 marked the availability of a convertible through regular Pontiac RPO (Regular Production Order) procedures. Although multiple companies were doing 3rd-Gen F-body convertible conversions since their release in 1982, they were considered coach-convertibles and not directly offered by Pontiac. Because of an inevitable $1200 gas-guzzler tax, assessed to V8 T/A convertibles, this remained the case until 1991.
ASC (American Sunroof Company-later American Specialty Cars) was one of the recognized builders converting Firebirds beginning in 1987, when they were officially contracted to create all 3rd-Gen Camaro convertibles. Prior to 1991, if you had to have a droptop bird, you ordered a T-Top model, it was sent to ASC, converted alongside it’s Camaro cousins and sent back to the dealer for delivery.
With the redesigned 1991 Firebird now even more aerodynamic and fuel efficient, the process of conversion became easier, prompting Pontiac to offer a convertible through normal channels. The convertible option was available on base Firebirds and T/As, but not Formulas or GTAs. Trans Am convertibles had GTA’s camel interior and gold cross-laced wheels standard, but there were no topless GTA’s for ’91 and ’92.
Convertibles could have V6 or either of the 5.0L V8’s no 5.7L engine and came standard with the Sport Appearance Package. A total 555 T/A convertibles were produced for 1991.
KICK IN THE PANTS: SLP PERFORMANCE KIT
Also new for ’91, was the SLP (Street Legal Performance) hop-up kit for 5.0L and 5.7L V8-equipped Firebirds.
Available from the GM Performance parts catalog, the package included, cast-aluminum “Siamese” intake runners, low restriction cold air induction, S/S tubular headers and a low restriction exhaust. Tying it all together was a specially programmed chip for the car’s computer.
Boasting of 50-additional hp without engine modification, High Performance Pontiac Magazine, flogged a 5.7L Formula fitted with the SLP goodies and recorded a 5.7-second 0-60 sprint and 14.2-second 1/4-mile at 100mph, putting it in Corvette territory.
Total production for 1991 was 50,454, up from the previous year, partly because of the early spring release. Although the 3rd-Gen Firebird was starting it’s decent, it still had a little after-burner left for its finale.
END OF AN ERA AND BIRTH OF A LEGEND: 1992
After eleven model years, the reign of Pontiac’s 3rd-gen Firebird was at an end.
Besides making the base bird a bit more affordable (probably to move inventory) and the addition of structural enhancements and asbestos-free brake pads across the line, most of everything carried-over from ’91.
Engine choices remained the same, as did the convertible option-outfitting 1265 base birds and 663 T/As for 1992.
Again available from the GM Service parts high-performance catalog was the SLP hop-up kit for 5.0L/5.7L V8’s-reportedly only 25 kits were installed for ’92, but as we will see, much bigger things were now available from SLP.
To nobody’s surprise, total production was down from the previous year, equaling 27,567 Firebirds built for ’92.
Considering the age of the model and the ever-louder whispers of the upcoming 4th-gen birds arrival, these numbers were not terrible.
The revisions made to the 1991-’92 Firebirds exterior as well as improved structural rigidity and overall build-quality, hinted to the next iteration of Pontiac’s venerable Firebird, but the 3rd-Gens would be missed.
SLP FORMULA “FIREHAWK”:
The brainchild of former NHRA drag racer, hot rodder and entrepreneur Ed Hamburger, the Formula Firehawk would wildly expand upon the success of SLP’s performance package that debuted in 1991.
Mr. Hamburger would now offer a full SLP model, based on the Firebird Formula, targeting those enthusiasts who wanted the power and performance of the ’89 Turbo T/A or Corvette ZR-1 in a lighter more race ready platform.
Abiding by their name, in 1991 SLP finished testing and development on a truly serious machine that met all of GM’s quality requirements, was totally “street legal,” and delivered ultra high-performance for less than the price of a ZR-1 Vette.
Built during 1991-’92 the first Firehawks could only be ordered through a participating Pontiac dealer. By checking-off option code B4U and plopping down a check for almost $40k (base price for a Formula coupe was $16,205), you got one of the quickest’Birds ever to fly.
Each Firehawk was equipped with:
- A 5.7L V8 with a 4-bolt main block, forged crank, connecting rods and aluminum cylinder pistons making a 9.8:1 compression
- SLP roller cam/modified Corvette aluminum heads
- SLP T-Ram intake with a 52mm Throttle body and dual snorkel intake with twin air filters
- SLP S/S headers with stock dual catalytic converters, pipes and high flow muffler/dual tips exiting from the drivers side
- A ZF 6-Speed manual transmission with specific SLP clutch and bell housing.
- Dana 44 rear axle with 3.54 to 3.70 gear ratio (customer preference)
*Standard SLP Firehawk suspension includes, 1LE adjustable Koni shocks, stiffer bushings, upgraded control arms, higher rate springs and larger disc brakes
Unique 17×9.5-inch Ronal R-15 wheels with body-color-painted inner spokes, wrapped in *Firestone Firehawk 275/40SZ17 tires
*From 1987-’90, Pontiac Firebirds ran in the Firestone Firehawk showroom stock race series in the Grand Sport class (partly responsible for the great bird’s name.)
*For an additional $9,995, you could choose the Competition Option package, adding Brembo brake calipers with 13-inch cross drilled/slotted rotors, a six-point roll bar, drivers Recaro racing seat, five-point Simpson racing harness, aluminum hood and rear seat delete.
A total of 11 ‘92 Firehawks had the competition package
All this equated to 350hp/390lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
The performance numbers were impressive:
- 4.6-seconds to 0-60mph
- 13.2-second 1/4-mile at 107mph
- 0.92 lateral Gs
- Braking from 70mph-0 in 164ft
- Top speed of 158mph
Shy of its 250 car projection, only 25 first year Firehawks flew from SLP’s coop, but it was clear that a legendary phoenix had risen from SLP’s facility in Toms River NJ, one that would evolve, becoming ever greater over the next decade.
HARDCORE: 1LE RACING PACKAGE
During the mid-80s, a resurgence of showroom stock road racing occurred in which the 3rd-Gen F-body was a prime player.
Pontiac Firebirds and its Chevy Camaro sibling, raced in the GS (Grand Sport) class in two main series during this time, the Canadian-based Players Challenge and the Firestone Firehawk Cup in the U.S.
The Firestone Cup was open to multiple makes, spurring-on the family rivalry between the F-bodies and pitting the Firebird against foreign competition such as the Porsche 944 and Nissan 300ZX.
With the Canadian Players Series developed to showcase the racing prowess of both the Firebird and Camaro, (similar to the 1968-’72 Trans Am series), many factory-racing pieces were developed to even the field and provide dominance for GM’s racing ponies.
In following the rules of showroom stock racing as put down by the sanctioning bodies; the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) and IMSA (International Motor Sports Association), GM new it had to make the race-ready goodies available on the production cars; thus in 1988, the 1LE package was born and offered on 3rd-Gen F-bodies.
Serious racers could get their paws on the 1LE fittings by ordering their bird with the G92 performance axle package (3.23’s/5.7L-automatic or 3.42’s with a 5.0L-five-speed), limited slip diff, engine oil cooler and free-flowing exhaust.
From there the 1LE would add:
- Special race-tuned shocks, struts and springs
- Specially balanced aluminum driveshaft
- Special fuel tank with increased baffling (reducing fuel starvation in high-G cornering
- ’89-on, dual cat converter exhaust system-adding 10hp
- Upgraded 4-wheel power disc brakes with- front/rear aluminum PBR calipers with 12-inch front and 11.4-inch rear rotors
In an effort to dissuade posers from ordering 1LE equipped machines (and to save weight), most every convenience feature was deleted, including the AC (C41 AC-delete) and all but the drivers seat in some cases.
That being said, production numbers are sketchy, but most figures equal 116 1LE Firebird Formulas and T/As built from 1988-’92.
HEINROCKET: INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HEINRICY
GMEFI: Working at GM through the ‘70’s leading-up to its release what were your impressions of the 3rd-Gen F-body Firebird?
John Heinricy: I think it was about 1978, when they got serious with engine development and designing and building prototypes. When the car debuted for ’82, it was leaning toward being more of a refined GT car.
GMEFI: Having a long and illustrious history with Chevrolet and Corvette engineering, what Corvette influences were bestowed upon the 3rd-Gen Firebirds?
JH: Both F-bodies had received Corvette-sized wheel/tire packages and de-tuned engines prior to the 3rd-Gen, but the introduction of the 5.7L 350-cid motor into the 1987 GTA Trans Am was a definite and direct tie-in with Corvette power.
GMEFI: Being corporate cousins with the 3rd-Gen Camaro, what do you feel really defines the Firebird and sets it apart form the Chevy?
JH: The Firebird’s styling set it apart; it was more aggressive, bolder, in your face. Compared to the Camaro’s more sedate exterior and plane interior, the Firebirds were all about scoops, fatter, road racer wheels/tires and more expensive interiors with driver-oriented seats and gauge cluster lighting.
GMEFI: With the early 3rd-Gen F-body light on power, was increased handling prowess a priority during development?
JH: Handling was a priority no matter what. Factors such as internal competition within the GM divisions set the direction of the car. Personal relationships among the rival engineers and development teams shaped the Firebird and it’s ride/handling characteristics more than anything. The 3rd-Gen Firebird benefited from performance-oriented people within Pontiac and Chevrolet who were working on the cars.
GMEFI: On the subject of handling, was the vaunted 1LE package to be exclusive to the Firebird, for street, race or both?
JH: The 1LE was developed for both Firebird and Camaro, to compete in the IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) races against foreign competition like the Porsche 944 and Nissan 300ZX. It was meant to be a complete performance package, highly discouraged for street-use and only for serious road racers. Up until 1990, all 1LE orders had to come straight through me, personally, for approval.
GMEFI: What is your favorite 3rd-Gen Firebird, year/model etc?
JH: I would choose an ’89 Formula 1LE with the 5.0L TPI motor, 5-speed, 3.45 gears and no power options – in silver.
GMEFI: Nice – the choice of a true racer!
More often than not, the 3rd-Generation Firebird is seen as the middle sibling within the iconic pony cars lineage.
With the 1st-, 2nd- and 4th-Gen ‘Birds considered to be among the more coveted examples, the ’82-92 cars seem always to get shortchanged from enthusiasts – although we have a feeling that’s about to change.
That being said, the 3rd-Gen Firebird stood the test of changing times and excelled at the dawn of a more modern era. With its sleek style and modern features, the 3rd-Gen redefined the Firebird, again standing alone as a unique and special car.
Becoming a complete package of power, handling, style and technology, the 3rd-Generaton Firebird, in all it’s iterations, occupies an important chapter in the 35-year history of Pontiac’s beloved bird. With machines like the ‘82 Recaro T/A, ’87 GTA, ’89 Turbo T/A and 1992 SLP Firehawk gracing the pages of automotive history, it’s a chapter that will never be forgotten.
Since obtaining his driver’s license way back in 1987, Andrew’s automotive interests have revolved around late-model, GM EFI iron. Predominantly a Pontiac guy, he had grown-up driving and experiencing many EFI cars from the ’80s to the present. Since 2008, he’s been a freelance writer/photographer for multiple niche auto enthusiast magazines and websites. Andrew claims to have a short yet definitve list of passions, in which late-model performance cars, hold a top spot.