1980 Pontiac Firebird review

Producing 320bhp at the peak of its powers, the Firebird Trans Am was the go-to model for those who wanted serious performance during the Seventies
By Imran Malik, Features Writer
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March 18, 2017
The ride quality is better than you’d expect from a muscle car that’s almost 40 years old and it still packs a pretty good punch when you nail the throttle
The ride quality is better than you’d expect from a muscle car that’s almost 40 years old and it still packs a pretty good punch when you nail the throttle(1/7)
The Firebird has an indelible place in the hearts of motorheads all over the world
The Firebird has an indelible place in the hearts of motorheads all over the world(2/7)
Photos: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
Photos: Stefan Lindeque/ANM(3/7)
The second-gen cars — dressed with spoilers, scoops and decals — are real head-turners
The second-gen cars — dressed with spoilers, scoops and decals — are real head-turners(4/7)
The interior was a work of art with the comfy — if unsupportive — seats perching you before a gorgeous old-school aluminium-trimmed dash
The interior was a work of art with the comfy — if unsupportive — seats perching you before a gorgeous old-school aluminium-trimmed dash(5/7)
Photos: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
Photos: Stefan Lindeque/ANM(6/7)
That’s a 6.6-litre V8 with a four-barrel Holley. How cool does that sound?
That’s a 6.6-litre V8 with a four-barrel Holley. How cool does that sound?(7/7)

While most muscle cars were being consigned to the history books in the early Seventies, Pontiac showed the stringent new emission regulations — which killed off the Javelin, Challenger and ’Cuda — the middle finger. Rather than send its tyre-shredding Trans Am (which could go, turn and stop with all the alacrity its racing heritage demanded) into retirement, it shoehorned the Super Duty 455 (7.5-litre) V8 into the bay of the ’73 model year car. It was basically a race engine and made a whopping 320bhp. This — when virtually all other cars had retreated from performance — was for enthusiasts, and they snapped it up.

But the glamour car of the decade had its wings severely clipped as the Eighties drew closer. Ironically, while power was on the way down, its popularity was soaring; starring alongside Burt Reynolds in the smash-hit Smokey and the Bandit on the silver screen really helped. It defied the odds and was the last muscle car standing, battling on with its strangulated engines. The second gens gave those who pined for performance in those dark days hope, but it only produced 200bhp from the Pontiac 400 cubic inch (6.6-litre) V8. That wasn’t bad for the time, but nothing compared to those halcyon days. T/As with the Oldsmobile 403 (6.6-litre) had slightly less oomph than the Poncho motor, but the styling, graphics and overall polish made the car truly memorable.

This particular Firebird started life back in 1980 as a base model with the gutless 4.9-litre V8, which had spun a rod bearing before I bought it early last year. Repairing it wouldn’t be worth the hassle — not when the 301, GM’s economy motor, only made 150bhp. Many would choose to go down the LS conversion route, which would certainly add more power — but that’d be costly and I wanted to keep it original, so a low-mile 403 was eventually sourced, which now breathes through true dual exhausts and is painted the correct shade of GM corporate blue. An aluminium radiator keeps it cool even during the summer heat and with a 650cfm four-barrel Holley, this ’Bird has some of that old fire back in its belly. The latest mod is now complete (I’ve swapped the 2.73 rear end for a 3.23 limited slip) and it’s all too easy to light up those fat 275/55 rear tyres, just what you want from your muscle car.

This bright red Pontiac is quite the show-off (it has snowflakes wheels, chrome exhaust tips and a great big Firebird on the bonnet) and demands attention.

It drives remarkably well and is ever so smooth; yes, it has the odd rattle and squeak but that’s expected from an almost-40-year-old performance car. Nail the throttle and it shoots for the horizon with real intent and you’re accompanied by a thunderous roar from the Borla mufflers. The power steering is light and offers decent feedback and the brakes (discs in the front and drums in the back), in spite of being tasked in bringing this heavy coupé to a halt, are as robust as ever. This isn’t a car you can just jump into and go; first you need to pump the throttle to send some fuel into the carb, then you twist the key and when the V8 cranks you have to wait a few minutes to let it warm up. Skip any of these steps and it won’t get too far. Forward visibility is fine (check out the thin A-pillars!) but you can’t see much out the rear window, even though it was redesigned in ’75 to wrap around the B-pillar in a bid to improve the view out.

The doors are heavy and shut with a thud, it has no rear legroom to speak of and the boot space is laughable. And forget miles to the gallon — these cars are all about smiles to the gallon. It scores a near perfect 10 in the cool factor.

It’s great to test-drive new cars with all their tech, kit and high performance, but nothing comes close to cruising around in a classic with an obnoxiously loud exhaust and colourful decals. These cars had a hot image that drove their popularity when they debuted in 1967 – and that still is the case 50 years on...

Specs and rating

Model:1980 Pontiac Firebird

Engine:6.6-litre V8

Transmission:Three-speed auto, RWD

Max power:185bhp @ NA

Max torque:434Nm @ NA

Top speed:220kph

0-100kph:6.0sec

Cool factor:8