In Sept. 19 IssueRussell County NewsBy Ron Cowell, Columnist
To get the Firebird into production, Pontiac shared the basic structure of the Camaro, but also most of the metal parts. The front fenders and door skins of the 1967 Firebird were Camaro pieces, and the rear quarters were Camaro parts with simulated vents stamped in. But with its split front grille, beaked hood and GTO-like taillights, the Firebird managed to get its own personality when it went on sale as both a coupe and convertible on February 23, 1967.
What gave the first Firebird its personality was beneath the hood. Pontiac built its own engines then and only Pontiac engines went into the Firebird.
Of the five engines offered in the first Firebirds, the one that stood out the most was Pontiac’s overhead cam inline six. Introduced along with the ‘66 Tempest, the lowliest 230-cubic inch (3.8-liter) OHC six poked out 165 horsepower, while inhaling through a one-barrel carburetor. Stepping up to the “Sprint” version included a four-barrel carb and higher compression ratio to swell output up to 215 horsepower. The six was backed by either a three- or four-speed manual, or a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The OHC six made the base Firebird a substantially more sophisticated car than the Camaro and the Firebird Sprint truly special.
Most ‘67 Firebird buyers wanted to feel that V8 power. Pontiac’s V8s had conventional overhead valve design and known for their low-end torque production and relative reluctance to rev compared to Chevy’s similarly engineered V8s. The ‘67 Firebird started with a 250-horsepower low-compression two-barrel 326-cubic-inch V8 and moved up to a higher-compression four-barrel “H.O.” version making 285 horsepower. There was also a 400-cubic-inch beast making 325 horsepower. Beyond that, Pontiac’s Ram Air cold-air induction system was available with the 400, yet it only moved the peak horsepower figure higher in the rev band. That, and the Ram Air system’s $600 option price, meant few ordered it. The V8s were available with similar transmission choices as the six’s, with the addition of the three-speed Turbohydramatic autobox.
Whatever engine was ordered determined the general model designation and trim of the ‘67 Firebird line.
Beyond that was an almost endless option list which ensured that no two Firebirds had to be alike.
For 1968, the Firebird’s appearance barely changed. The side vent windows disappeared as “Astro Ventilation” was adopted, but otherwise the most obvious change was the addition of wraparound turn signals under the front bumper.
But, in the engine compartment, things evolved as the 326 V8 grew to a full 350 cubic inches. Still a purely Pontiac engine, the 350 was available in two-barrel form making 265 horsepower and 320 horsepower when equipped with a four-barrel and higher compression. The 400 now came in four varieties — a 330-horsepower regular version, a 335-horse H.O. version, the H.O. with Ram Air and a 340 horsepower “Ram Air II” version. Back in the six-cylinder world, the base OHC engine was now rated at 175 horsepower, while the Sprint remained at 215.
The only other significant change to the ‘68 Firebird was the adoption of staggered shocks in the rear, one in front of and one behind the rear axle and the use of new multi-leaf rear springs.
While retaining most of its structural hard points, the 1969 Firebird got a restyling similar to the same year Camaros. It was broader in the fenders with a new front end that separated the headlights from the grille. Except for the revised body work and freshened interior, the basic elements of the ‘68 Firebird carried over to ‘69. The 350 H.O. gained five horsepower for a total of 325, and atop the mountain of 400s offered sat the new Ram Air IV making 345 horsepower. Those changes, though, were merely a prelude to the big news of 1969: Trans Am.
It wasn’t more power that made the Trans Am special, but its looks and handling. With a special dual intake scooped hood, deck spoiler, fender vents and white with blue stripe paint scheme, the Trans Am was easily the flashiest Firebird yet.
With its lowered suspension, big antisway bars, larger tires and Ram Air III, that made it 335 horsepower, or Ram Air IV 400 V8, it was also the best handling and most sophisticated. Going on sale in March of ‘69, only 697 Trans Ams were sold during this first model year. A slow start for what would become an automotive icon.
The last Firebirds came off the assembly line in 2002.
Yet today when you see these cars on the street, at a show or just setting in a driveway you can bet it will turn the heads of car lovers.
How can you even compare a classic Firebird to the Honda’s and Toyota’s of today?
The looks, the sound and the performance just can not be compared. The Firebird will be missed.