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1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

by DrivingEnthusiast

At the January 2015 Leander car show, we were treated to a very rare site: a Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am. Not the rare and highly collectible later model with the Buick V-6 turbo, but Pontiac’s own and very poorly received single turbocharged 4.9 liter iron OHV V-8. With only 200 horsepower and 340 lb-ft of torque, performance was a 17.5 second quarter-mile and an almost 9 second run to 60 (Road & Track). Awful performance, even for the period, and well behind the Corvette (in the days before GM engines became “corporate” and were shared across the line) as well as Nissan’s own Turbo 280ZX. Electronic controls were sorely needed, and all GM had to offer was a primitive and ineffective electronically controlled spark advance module, which couldn’t retard the ignition curve enough to prevent detonation in acceleration tests. And the Trans Am hood decals were even larger and more outrageous for these years.

Nonetheless, when equipped with the famous WS6 suspension package, the Turbo Trans Am was still one of the best handling and stopping cars you could buy. All that was needed was a true performance engine, and less weight, and the second generation Firebird was not a light car. That would come with the lighter third-generation Firebird – with an all-new chassis – coming in 1982.

2 unique features make the Turbo stand out: the offset clearance bulge on the hood and the unique “chicken” decal, and the Turbo identification on the rear spoiler.

1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

The conventional carb is offset to the right.
1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

And the turbo to the left, on top of the engine. Not shown, a heat shield on the underside of the hood.
1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

View from the front. There is a very restrictive exhaust crossover underneath the engine to feed the turbo.
1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

Note that the turbo doesn’t have a modern water-cooled bearing jacket.
1980-1981 Pontiac Firebird Turbo Trans Am

So this was the last performance Firebird in the second generation. The engine only lasted 2 years before it was cancelled. The third generation car was far more advanced from a chassis design standpoint, and the move to standardized GM engines eventually provided the performance engines that the car needed. Those engines evolved in stages and eventually included a standard 350 cubic inch engine, fuel injection, and development on race tracks.

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