How the Pontiac Firebird was born - | WBTV Charlotte

How the Pontiac Firebird was born

Ford's 1964 release of the Mustang left GM scurrying to catch up and led to the birth of the Pontiac Firebird. Pictured here are the 1976 Trans Am (top) and 2002 models of Pontiac's ponycar. (©GM Corp.) Ford's 1964 release of the Mustang left GM scurrying to catch up and led to the birth of the Pontiac Firebird. Pictured here are the 1976 Trans Am (top) and 2002 models of Pontiac's ponycar. (©GM Corp.)
By Jack Nerad
There was a time when the Pontiac Firebird wasn't a cliche. There was a time when, if you wanted to empty a bar in New Jersey, you didn't call out, "Hey, Vinnie, somebody hit your Firebird!" There was a time when General Motors was proud of the Firebird and wanted to see it thrive, rather than letting it die a slow, lingering death.

Sadly, that time was nearly four decades ago, when the "ponycar" (loosely defined as a front-engine, rear-drive two-plus-two built by an American manufacturer) was considered a hot product, not an insurance liability or an image embarrassment. The introduction of the Ford Mustang in the spring of 1964 had set the automotive world on its ear, and the competitors from General Motors and Chrysler were scurrying to catch up.

Of course, if you had asked the brass at GM about a Mustang fighter in 1964, they would have pointed at the now much-maligned Chevrolet Corvair, the rear-engine small car some dubbed the "poor man's Porsche." But as the Mustang tidal wave grew bigger and bigger, GM executives had to admit that they needed another bullet to combat the Ford phenomenon. And they wanted to get it into the showrooms as quickly as possible, which translated into a car (or in this case cars) that would debut for the 1967 model year.

This gave them about two years, a very short span of time to style and engineer a new automotive product. And, in the case of the Mustang fighter, GM decided to build two new products - a Chevrolet (that would be called Camaro) and a Pontiac (that would be called Firebird.) The Camaro was the priority because it was slated to go up against the Mustang head-to-head in a segment that was hot, hot, hot. The Mustang alone would sell in a quantity of more than 500,000 units in its first model year. And GM execs were well aware that a Mercury variant of the Mustang (to be called Cougar, a name that had been considered for the Ford product) was waiting in the wings. GM decided a Pontiac ponycar could counter that threat.

Luckily, GM's parts bins were filled with good pieces, which allowed at least some differentiation between the Camaro and Firebird, though they shared the same chassis and virtually the same body panels. For the engine compartment, Chevrolet could boast the legendary small-block V-8, a decent in-line six cylinder and a big-block V-8 engine as well. Pontiac brought to the table its own overhead-cam inline six-cylinder engine (shades of European sophistication here), its own small-block V-8 (326 cubic inches) and the big-daddy 400 cubic-inch big-block V-8. In all, it was an embarrassment of riches.

But into what platform should these worthy engines go? Well, GM engineers took a page from the Mustang development manual and decided that the Chevy II chassis would be the equivalent of the Mustang's Falcon underpinnings. Like the Chevy II, the first Firebird was a blend of unibody and separate body-and-frame techniques. From the cowl rearward the Firebird was a unibody car, but the car used a ladder-construction "stub-frame" ahead of the cowl to locate the engine. The front suspension, a double-wishbone arrangement, was borrowed from the mid-size Chevelle, while the rear suspension was a very mundane live-axle design directly from the Chevy II.

When it came to styling, the Camaro borrowed the Mustang's long-hood short-deck profile, but the Pontiac stylists went to some lengths to differentiate the Firebird from its Chevrolet brother. The Firebird featured the same overall profile - windshield angle, roof and rear deck -- and with its big "hips" over the rear wheels, the Firebird recalled other GM designs like the Corvette and Riviera. But while the Camaro offered a full-width grille, understated round headlights and thin bumpers, the Firebird presented a split-grille in the Pontiac mode, and its rear treatment with slits for taillights was more upscale than the Camaro's rectangular units.

The greatest differentiation was under the hood, because it was in the powertrain department that GM had always given its various motor divisions free rein. So the Firebird, like the Mustang, could be had in a variety of configurations - everything from a thrifty grocery-getter to a full-on muscle car.

The base car was equipped with a one-barrel-carb version of the 230-cubic-inch overhead cam six, and it shuffled along on 165 horsepower. A buyer with a hankering to step up could opt for the "Sprint" powered by a four-barrel version of the six that offered up 215 horsepower. Even a Firebird Sprint offered good performance, but any red-blooded American who could afford 19-cent gasoline in those days stepped up to a Firebird V-8.

At the low end on the V-8 ladder was the two-barrel 326, which delivered 250 horsepower on regular-grade gas, making it a good budget choice. For a little extra cash you could order the H.O. (for "high output") 326 that produced 285 horsepower courtesy of its four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. Finally, at the top of the food chain was the Firebird 400, boasting the 400 cubic inch V-8 lifted almost directly from the GTO. The 400 actually came in two versions - one with Ram Air and one without - but both were rated at 325 horsepower. It seems that might have been a bit of prevarication for the sake of insurability and the like, since the Ram Air 400 used a "hotter" camshaft, beefier valve springs and actually took in air through twin scoops on the hood. One would think all that good stuff would resort in higher horsepower, but only your dyno will know for sure.

Transmission choices were almost as varied as the engines. Three-speed manuals were the norm on most, while four-speed manuals could be ordered for the extra touch of sportiness. Those who wanted automatic transmission could chose a two-speed on the sixes and a three-speed on the V-8s. A wide variety of axle ratios was also available on the option list, all the way up to a 4.33:1 rear end for serious drag racers who like to hear their engine wind even when cruising. You'd be hard-pressed to knock the results, at least if you're a fan of straight-line performance, because a Firebird 400 could rocket from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 6.2 seconds and clear the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds at 98 miles per hour.

Even though the Firebird was late to the ponycar party, it was an immediate sales success. Of course, its sales never reached Mustang proportions, but in its initial year some 82,000 Firebirds were delivered by Pontiac dealers, starting a long run for the model that would extend until the millennium turned. By then Firebird would have a completely different image in the market place, but it is nice to remember when it - and we - were young.

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