The second-generation Pontiac Trans Am was in production for twelve years, from 1970 to 1981, and effectively captured a generation of car enthusiasts in an era when Motor City muscle was in decline.
Admittedly, the Trans Am of the mid-1970s was a pale imitation of earlier models, an underpowered, portly beast that nearly fell victim to the same tightening government regulations that had killed the GTO and 'Cuda, and reduced the Ford Mustang to a gussied-up Pinto. But the film success of Burt Reynolds' Smokey and the Bandit lifted the Trans Am from just another muscle-car wannabe to the status of a cultural icon.
The film's real star wasn't Reynolds, but a black and gold '77 TA, an option package that actually went on sale the year before, when no one had ever heard of "Bo Darville." The 1976 Trans Am "Limited Edition" (LE) was introduced at the February Chicago Auto Show, featuring black paint, gold pinstripes, gold interior accents, gold honeycomb wheels and a fender decal featuring Pontiac's Indian mascot with a 50th Anniversary logo. The notorious decal package included a black and gold "screaming chicken" on the hood, special Trans Am logos in gothic lettering, and saw the debut of that disco-era automotive fashion statement, the T-top.
Engine choices for the LE included a 400-ci V8 making 185 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, and Pontiac's 455-ci "HO." Not to be confused with the fire-breathing Super Duty 455 of years past (though undoubtedly GM wouldn't have minded if you did), this corporate motor was also used in station wagons and Grandvilles, producing 200 horsepower and 330 lbs-ft of torque in the TA. The 400 could be had with either GM's Turbo HydraMatic automatic or a four-speed manual, while the 455 HO came only with the four-speed.
In 1977 the LE package returned, but was now called the "Special Edition" (SE), with gold snowflake wheels in place of the honeycomb pattern. The cost was $556 without the T-tops, or a whopping $1,141 with. A new split-nose grille with square headlights graced the prow of all '77 TAs, and for that true "Bandit" look, a factory-installed CB radio was a $195 option.
The 455 was no longer available in '77, but ordering the W72 option gave you a 400-ci V8 that GM called the "T/A 6.6." Its higher compression gave it 200 hp, and it was available with either a four-speed manual or the ubiquitous automatic.
Hollywood certainly had its effect: Pontiac sold over 68,000 Trans Ams in 1977, with 15,567 of them being SEs. This compared to total sales of just 21,625 cars for the entire first five years of the second-generation, 1970-1974 TA.
For 1978 there was a new SE color combination: Solar Gold paint with dark brown accents. Pontiac sold 8,666 of these "Gold Birds," as well as 3,643 of the original Bandit SE models. The W72 engine was bumped to 220 hp for '78, and the WS6 suspension package was introduced, combining a quicker steering ratio, wider wheels, stiffer shocks, thicker swaybars, and polyurethane suspension bushings. A 1978 TA could muster a 15.2-second quarter-mile, and sprint to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds.
The Gold Bird was discontinued after only a year, and the SE returned in 1979 as a Bandit only. Most were equipped with Olds 403-ci V8s or a 301-ci Pontiac V8. But a few of the desirable Pontiac 6.6-liters-the last of the big motors-were also available, and the WS6 option now included four-wheel disc brakes.
For 1980, the big news was a turbocharged version of the 301 that replaced the 6.6-liter as the top performance engine.
Making 210 horsepower and 345 lb-ft of torque, the turbo 4.9-liter could only be had with an automatic transmission. The 1981 TA was the last of the era, and coincided with a Smokey and the Bandit sequel. Only 5,263 Special Edition TAs were sold that year-confirming that sequels are generally lesser imitations of the originals.
Early 1970-1974 TAs are already bona fide collector cars due to their scarcity and powerful Ram Air and Super Duty engines. Today, the later TAs are starting to attract interest from enthusiasts as well, though these cars were sold in such high numbers that they're an uphill battle for much potential appreciation. Bandit cars will always have buyers, however, so picking one up to flip after a bit of retro fun shouldn't be more expensive than a few tanks of gas.
Potential buyers should beware that these cars rusted as easily as anything produced in the 1970s. The key areas to check are the sheet metal behind the rear fender spats, the dashboard metal in the corners of the A-pillars, the lower rear quarter panels, and the trunk floor. These cars have undoubtedly all been driven hard by now, and many may be missing the original engine-especially the very grenade-able turbos-so be sure to check the numbers if you're shopping for a keeper.
Watch out for clones, too, as these cars are easy enough to fake with a replacement trim package. The best way to authenticate an SE is to send the VIN to Pontiac Historic Services via fax (248.583.0596), where for a small fee they can document whether your car is a Bandit or Gold Bird (www.phs-online.com).
Today a Bandit in strong #2 condition with desirable options can bring as much as $15,000. A 1976 LE with the 455 HO will cost about ten percent more just due to the greater desirability of the motor. In theory, the Gold Bird would be worth the same as a Bandit; however, genuine examples are difficult to find so expect to pay a similar premium for a good example.
The real bargains right now are the '80 and '81 Bandits, cars with less of a following due to their smaller motors. That said, the turbo 4.9-liter cars in pristine shape may be a sleeper investment, as they were made in limited numbers and their survival rate is low.
In bang-for-the-buck performance, these cars were the kings of the road in the late 1970s, with some models even one-upping Corvettes of the era. Alas, in a Bandit you'll never get the respect afforded a Stingray (or the first-generation Trans Am, or the Super Duty second-generation cars of the early 1970s, or.) but you will be spending thousands less and are guaranteed to attract way more attention.