1967 Firebird Convertible
1967 Firebird Convertible
Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

In the second of our two-part tribute to the Camaro and Firebird, our resident auto historian, Bill Vance, looks back on the colourful history and development of GM’s other pony car, the Pontiac Firebird.


 
Pontiac Firebird

When the Ford Motor Company launched its sporty Mustang in mid-1964 it spawned the “Pony Car” market. It was an immediate success, and Ford had so thoroughly scooped the industry that Chevrolet took until the fall of 1966 to respond with its 1967 Camaro.

Naturally Pontiac wanted a Pony Car too. Pontiac had cultivated a performance image, achieving considerable racing success built around its overhead valve V-8 that arrived in 1954. It consolidated its hot car stature with the trend setting 1964 GTO “Muscle Car.”

Pontiac’s Pony Car was the 1967 Firebird, which arrived mid-year, named after GM’s 1950s gas turbine powered concept cars. It was a unit construction four-passenger coupe or convertible, and being cloned off the Camaro it had the same 2,743 mm (108 in.) wheelbase and Chevy II-based platform.

Pontiac touches included a longer nose with Pontiac’s identifying split grille with a chrome plated surround, and quad headlamps. The two-part taillamps gave a more distinctive appearance than the Camaro’s one-piece lights. One option was an attention grabbing hood-mounted tachometer. Apart from that, the Firebird styling was pretty much Camaro.

Like the Camaro, its front suspension was sub-frame mounted, with A-arms, coil springs and an anti-roll bar. At the rear was a solid axle and single-leaf, semi-elliptic springs. Sportier versions with manual transmissions or uprated power had trailing arms added to combat axle windup.

1967 Pontiac Firebird 400 convertible
1967 Pontiac Firebird 400 convertible
Photo: Bill Vance

Under the hood the Firebird got Pontiac’s engine line. And Pontiac followed the Mustang’s lead by offering many options in the Firebird’s five versions.

The two bottom models, the standard and Sprint, received Pontiac’s new-for-1966 3.8 litre (230 cu in.) overhead cam, inline six with 165 and 215 horsepower respectively. It had the Chevrolet six’s reciprocating and rotating parts, but replaced the pushrods with a belt-driven single overhead cam.

Next was a 5.3 litre (326 cu in.) two-barrel carburetor 250 horsepower V-8, and the same 5.3 (326) with four barrels and 285. If that wasn’t enough, a 6.5 litre (400 cu in.) V-8 came with 325 horsepower. Transmissions were a three- or four-speed manual, or a three-speed automatic.

This variety of series was intended to span a range of customer desires. Pontiac hoped that the Sprint, for example, with its exotic (for the American industry) overhead cam and firm suspension would be perceived as a competitor to European type grand touring cars.

The big-engined V-8s, on the other hand, were intended to provide out-and-out Muscle Car performance in a smaller package.

To evaluate Pontiac’s offerings at the two ends of the scale, Car Life magazine (8/67) did a comparison test of the Firebird Sprint and the 400. They recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 10 seconds for the Sprint, which was respectable but not particularly fast. Top speed was 174 km/h (108 mph). The 400, however lived up to its billing as a street brawler with zero to 96 (60) in a scorching 6.5 seconds. Top speed was 185 km/h (115 mph).

While straight-line performance was acceptable, the testers were critical of the brakes, noting an “… almost total loss of vehicle control during initial hard stops,” adding that “some means of preventing rear wheel lock-up is mandatory.” They also criticized the awkward manual shifter. These reproofs aside, they concluded that the Firebird was enjoyable, attractive and reliable, but not a European style GT car.

1969 Pontiac Trans Am
1969 Pontiac Trans Am

The Firebird didn’t change much for 1968, but in 1969 the sheetmetal was revised and the headlamps were relocated outside the grille. It was the last year for the overhead cam engine; it was replaced by the Chevrolet overhead valve six in 1970. Also for 1969, Pontiac spun off a new version called the Trans-Am, which got hood and side scoops, and a deck-mounted spoiler. It would become identified with its “superbird” hood decal.

The second generation Firebird, which arrived early in 1970, would carry through the 1970s, an unhappy decade of falling engine power, increasing fuel economy requirements and tightening emission legislation. Through it all the second generation Firebird/TransAm did surprisingly well in sales.

But in a changing world, the Firebird TransAm had to march with the times. In spite of GM’s transition to front-wheel drive family cars, the third generation 1982 Firebird stayed a rear driver, now with rear coil springs, and was smaller, lighter and more aerodynamic. It had a 2.5 litre (!) four cylinder engine as base power, although that would go in a couple of years. Firebird and Camaro engines – the four, a V-6 and two V-8s – were now the same.

The Firebird and its corporate sister Chevrolet Camaro were all new again for 1993. But with flagging sales, industry rumours began to circulate that the Firebird/Camaro’s days were numbered. The announcement finally came in September, 2001: in September 2002 the plant in Ste. Therese, Quebec, that produces them would close. To the many Firebird enthusiasts, it will be a sad loss.

Connect with Autos.ca