Screen Cars: Pontiac Trans Am

Classic Cars / Comments

Pontiac and its Firebird may be gone but the Trans Am will live on forever thanks to its appearances on the small and big screens.

There are a few examples out there of movies or television shows in which a car is elevated to the status of a character in its own right. In some cases, it can even outshine its human costars, such is the case of Eleanor in the remake of "Gone in 60 Seconds" (more on that later in the series) or Herbie in a long series of movies which we have no intention of mentioning again. But the Pontiac Trans Am voiced by William Daniels and named KITT in "Knight Rider" did the best job of sharing the screen.

To be fair, the Trans Am was featured in more than just Knight Rider. Most notably, it was one of the most memorable parts of all three "Smokey and the Bandit" movies, and was also quite noticeable in "Hooper". But it is probably best remembered for the 90 episodes of Knight Rider, in which it played an arguably even more prominent role than that of James Bond's cars in those 23 movies. The reason is obvious, KITT could talk. William Daniels, while working on Knight Rider, was also working on "St. Elsewhere", a more serious dramatic role.

As a result, Daniels asked not to be credited on Knight Rider, so as not to steal focus from his more serious work, although his voice is instantly recognizable. The Trans Am really wasn't its own model, but was a special performance and handling package for the Pontiac Firebird. It was first made available in 1969, the last year of the first generation of the Firebird. This first generation numbered only a few hundred units, and today it is the second generation (1970-1981) of the car which is by far the more iconic. The car was named after the Trans Am race series, and Pontiac had to pay royalties to the SCCA in order to use the name.

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The somewhat humorous irony of which is that the Trans Am was actually initially barred from racing in the Trans Am series, as its 400cu-in (6.6L) engine exceeded the 5.0-liter maximum displacement rule for the series. This same 400cu-in engine carried over into 1970, but in 1971 a 455cu-in (7.5-liter) engine briefly became the only engine offered until 1974 when the energy crisis and later emissions regulations caused Pontiac to begin scaling down engine offerings. The 455 had a stroke which was relatively long for the size of the bore, and was thus built in order to emphasize torque over horsepower.

Officially, the difference between horsepower and torque seems fairly dramatic, with published figures of 360 horsepower and 500lb-ft of torque. However, since things like insurance rates were tied to horsepower figures but not torque, the underrating of such figures was a common practice among manufacturers at the time. Actual figures are difficult to pin down, but it can be safely assumed that it more than likely exceeded 400 horsepower. Engines had shrunk considerably by the end of the decade, and by 1980, a 5.0-liter engine was the biggest offered in the Trans Am.

However, for '80 and '81, there was briefly offered a version of the 4.9L V8 with a turbocharger, surviving examples of which are now quite rare. The introduction of the third generation in 1982 saw the demise of the Trans Am with an actual Pontiac engine. From this point on, the Trans Am would use only Chevy V8s (with the exception of the 1989 option of the turbocharged Buick V6 out of the Grand National), and the Trans Am became essentially a rebadged Camaro. There is nothing wrong with this per se, the Camaro has always had plenty of fans, but it would have been nice to give buyers a reason to pick the Pontiac for some reason other than styling.

The death of Pontiac means that the Trans Am isn't coming back. There have been some genuinely impressive aftermarket versions produced, although these are often terrifyingly expensive. Nonetheless, the Trans Am has been impressively preserved in our collective pop culture history thanks to its screen appearances.

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