The Pontiac Trans Am was a performance edition of the Firebird sports car offered from 1969 to 2002. The reason most people know the car is simple, the 1977 film Smokey And The Bandit. The movie had the second highest box office gross of the year (behind the original Star Wars) and catapulted the Trans Am from little-known performance package to international fame.
Of course, featuring a car in a movie is only half the battle. The car also has to be good enough to make the buyer take the car home after a test drive, and the Trans Am had that in spades. There were two engines installed in the 1977 Trans Am, which was the model’s second generation, a 400 CID V8 made by Pontiac or a 403 CID V8 from Oldsmobile. The reason for the two engines was that the Olds engine performed better at higher altitudes (where air pressure is lower) and also conformed to stricter emissions regulations in California. In markets that weren’t in California or at high altitudes, the Pontiac V8 was the standard. As far as performance, neither engine was that much better than the other. The Pontiac engine output 200 horsepower in standard factory tuning (although many enthusiasts tweaked the engine to perform much better). The Olds engine had a bit less horsepower, at about 185 (though it varied by altitude), but the higher compression ratio in the Olds engine gave it a much wider torque, so accelerations from city speeds to higway speeds were quicker with this layout. The base Firebird of that year had options for the same engines as the Trans Am, but those were tuned to provide about 20 less horsepower.
As far as the ride was concerned, the basis for the Trans Am package over the base Firebird was to add suspension options and improve handling, as well as add styling accents. Through stronger anti-roll bars and tighter suspension, the handling abilities of the Trans Am far exceeded the Firebird. These changes did make the ride stiffer and bumpier, but for performance enthusiasts, the trade-off was more than fair. The cosmetic changes included new hoods, new bumpers, different headlights, a modified spoiler, and new wheels.
The Pontiac Trans Am was discontinued in name after the 2002 model year, but the spirit of the model lived on in the IROC Racing Series Firebird package until the Firebird was discontinued in 2006. The Trans Am, in its 33-year lifespan, represents one of the longest-lived performance packages in muscle car history, and as detailed above, there was good reason for this. Having the car featured in a blockbuster movie certainly helped, but the Trans Am had star power before it ever rolled onto a movie set.