From the April 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
The 1977 Pontiac Trans Am gets all the attention, what with its starring role in Smokey and the Bandit, but to me, the turbocharged 1980–81 Trans Am is the most interesting second-gen Firebird. I bought one last summer. It’s not exactly a basket case, but it’s certainly basket adjacent, which means my husband, Tom, and I spent a fair amount of time making eye contact with its aggro avian hood graphics while getting elbows deep in its draw-through, computerized-carburetor-topped turbo system. It’s a real weirdo. Along with being a historical standout as the second turbocharged American V-8, the turbo 301 is also the last Pontiac V-8 to power a Trans Am. That might not mean much today, when LS-swapped Ferraris and 2JZ-powered muscle cars are common car-show fare, but to Pontiac engineers in 1979, keeping the T/A a fiery-feathered performer with a Poncho V-8 was worth a battle. And battle they did.
John Schinella became a Pontiac designer in the ’70s. His personal T/A triumphs include the black-and-gold paint scheme, which won over Smokey director Hal Needham, and the giant screaming chicken. He had to fight for the hood bird: “[The design and production teams] told me it was too hard to install, so I went down to the plant and found two guys doing the decals in a dark corner on the cardboard box the parts came in. I went back and said, ‘Maybe if you gave ’em a light and a table it wouldn’t be so hard.’ ” Schinella also has bragging rights to one of the best details of the turbo cars: the three-light pod on the hood that shows the boost level. “Originally, I had the light accelerate across, like what we did later with [the scanner light on KITT, the ’82 Pontiac from Knight Rider]. It would glow brighter as it went across. Engineering said we couldn’t do that. Engineering didn’t like me sometimes.”
In Engineering’s defense, it was under a lot of pressure in 1979. “I was responsible for engines at a time period that was probably the darkest for engines in the automotive industry, driven by emissions and fuel-economy requirements that we were struggling to meet,” said Leo Hilke, Pontiac’s chief engineer of induction, emissions, and exhaust during the turbo-engine development. The turbo, he said, was the hardest to engineer of all the engines in 1980, but it was either blow the 301 or use a Chevrolet engine. (When he said the C-word, I’m pretty sure he spit to chase away the devil.) “We went with the 301,” he said. “We had optimized it for efficiency, and it was a very successful engine for what it was aimed at. Adding a turbo on top of it was quite a push.”
Jim Lyons was instrumental in making that happen. A professor at General Motors Institute (GMI), he had developed a turbocharged V-8 as a class project in 1974. So when “Pontiac was dreading the fact that they were going to have to put a Chevrolet engine in a Trans Am, I took our project car down and gave those guys a ride,” Lyons told me. “They didn’t even let me take the T/A back to Flint. Just handed me the keys to a company car, and then they rented me from GMI to help develop it.”
Charlie Baker, a GMI student at the time, remembers Lyons being more aggressive in selling the idea: “He said, ‘You dead-ass guys ought to get off your dead asses and do a turbo for the Trans Am because you’re not in the swing of things here!’ ” Once the dead asses got moving, one of Baker’s first gigs was working on the car. “Lyons said, ‘Baker, you’re a hot-rodder. You know full-throttle tuning. Go do it.’ I said, ‘Fantastic. I’ll go out to the Milford proving ground.’ He said, ‘No, too much bureaucracy. You can do zero-to-60s out in the parking lot. Don’t kill yourself, and don’t get caught.’ “
This resonated with me, as I do all my tuning on a closed course (parking lot) down the street. I texted Baker a video of my, er, “tire testing.” He wrote back right away: “Brings back memories!” Later I sent him the printout from the T/A’s smog test, which it passed. “A miracle, considering the technology,” he answered, with a smiley emoji. I told him it’s going to be my new daily driver, to which he replied, “I admire your confidence.” If I have a problem, I know who to call.