Editor’s Note: the following Pete Dunton article was originally published in November 2012 on firebirdnest.com.
The introduction of the low-volume 1969 Trans Am had an original purpose of getting the still-born Pontiac 303 CID V8 certified for the Trans-Am circuit racing. Pontiac substituted two versions of its 400 CID V8 at the last minute when the 303 V8 failed to make it into production. With volume of only 697 1969 Trans Ams being produced, who would have thought Pontiac would have returned with an all-new Trans Am for 1970. But that was exactly what Pontiac did. The first generation 1967-1969 body style was history, its boxy styling was attractive but it was not attuned with the sleek sporty image that Pontiac wanted to convey for the upcoming 1970s. When the all-new second generation F-body platform was released that both the Firebird and Camaro shared, it was the perfect opportunity for the Firebird to be what Pontiac wanted with the mid-1960s 2-seater Pontiac Banshee. The Banshee was a sleek low, wide and long concept sports car. John DeLeorian when he was at the helm of Pontiac had fought hard to get the Banshee approved for production, however the GM corporate brass were afraid it would cut into Corvette sales so it was never green-lighted for production. As a consolation prize Pontiac was given at the last minute the (2+2) Firebird which would share the same GM F-body platform with the new 1967 Camaro. Pontiac engineers scrambled to give the boxy almost Camaro clone Firebird, a Pontiac identity. For the amount of time and budget they had it was amazing that the 1967 Firebird looked as good as it did. However with the 1970 Pontiac Firebird, Pontiac engineers had plenty of time to give the second generation Trans Am unique styling, thereby a very unique identity. And even though it wasn’t a 2-seater, the Firebird had all the European visual styling cues you would expect the finest European (especially Italian) sports cars of that era to have.
However with the 1970 (Firebird) Trans Am, Pontiac turned the sleek and European type styling and turned it on its head by adding muscle car styling cues. These cues were in the form of a wild duck tail style rear spoiler, racing style air dams behind each of the four wheel wells, an aggressive lower front spoiler, and the mother of all macho items – the shaker hood scoop. The shaker hood scoop not only moved back and forth from side to side as the engine was running, on the 1970 Trans Am a small metal flap on the backside opened up to suck in cool air into the 4-bbl carburetor. There were also two air extractors – one behind each of the front wheels on top part of the front quarter panels – they were fully functional and helped to some of the heat out of a hot engine compartment. The new Trans Am looked like it was plucked right off the race track. There’s no small wonder with the wonderfully styled exterior and all the racing spoilers and air dams that this car was so popular in the 1970s with every male under the age of 40.
Polar White replaced the 1969 Trans Am’s Cameo White exterior color. And with the Polar White exterior came one large wide blue racing stripe (with a black border) that went from the front part of the hood all the way back to rear spoiler. Unlike 1969, if buyers didn’t like white, there was another color to choose from called Lucerne Blue. With Lucerne Blue, the large stripe was white (with a black border). And it didn’t matter whether Polar White or Lucerne Blue was ordered right in front of the beginning of the stripe, on top of the front beak was a bird decal – it was the start what would become a Trans Am icon, the hood bird decal. For 1970 it was just right in front of the hood and it wouldn’t make the jump to the hood and increase in size until it was added to the option list for 1973.
The overall styling of the 1970 Trans Am was so ahead of its time when compared to its competition with its low stance, very long hood, and short decklid that it lasted twelve model years. Nobody back in 1970 would have predicted its longevity, after-all the first generation (1967-1969) Firebird’s basic body style only lasted for three years. Of course part of the success of the body style was that Pontiac gave the Trans Am attractive front and rear design updates every few years. For 1970, the front-end looked fantastic with a big twin grille design which was surrounded by a headlamp on each side – a two headlamp design (the 1967-1969 Firebird had four headlamps). Unlike the 1969 Trans Am which had chrome trim around these two grilles (and a small Endura piece), most of the front was surrounded by a large flexible Endura piece which was body colored. The look was innovative and put the Trans Am way ahead of its competition – all of which had chrome or painted steel bumpers as part of the front-end design. The rear design was also modern and had distinctive twin rear taillights that were very close to the rear taillight design of the mid-1960s Pontiac Banshee show car. The Trans Am had a long thin chrome bumper which spanned the entire rear and wrapped around the edge of the rear quarter panels. The Trans Am would not lose the rear chrome bumper until the 1974 model year.
The Trans Am didn’t hit the market place until February 24, 1970 due to production delays however with a production total of 3,196 it was almost five times the production total of the 1969. And for each successive year during the 1970s (except for 1971 and 1972), Trans Am sales would continue to increase. The 1979 Trans Am production total of 116,535 would be the best single year of Trans Am production. Most muscle cars were pushed into extinction or saw dismal sales during the 1970s. Not the Trans Am, the 1970s would be all about the Trans Am – it was the undeniable king of American performance cars and it had the sales to prove it.
One thing didn’t change in the transition from the 1969 to 1970 Trans Am, the engine choices remained the same. Pontiac had a good thing going with the (L74) Ram Air III and (L67) Ram Air IV 400 CID V8s offered in the 1969 Trans Am, so it saw no good reason not to carryover the two engine choices to the 1970 Trans Am. Ironically 1970 would be the last year for the high compression V8 in the Trans Am. For 1971, Pontiac upgraded to a round-port 455 (CID) HO V8 which had a low 8.4:1 compression ratio. Both the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV V8s had a 10.75:1 compression ratio. The same two motors were also available in the 1970 GTO, however in the GTO the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV produced 366 and 370 gross horsepower respectively. Pontiac had underrated the true horsepower of both engines with these ratings, and in the 1970 Trans Am the ratings were way underrated with the Ram Air III listed at just 335 gross horsepower and the Ram Air IV at 345 gross horsepower. These two engines also had a lower torque rating of 430 lb-ft versus the GTO which with these two motors had a 445 lb-ft rating. However these were just numbers for marketing purposes – the Ram Air III in real world gross horsepower was slightly above 370 gross horsepower, while the Ram Air IV was a little over 400 gross horsepower. Pontiac by greatly underrating the Trans Am’s horsepower ratings was protecting its crown jewel – the GTO which was the car that started the whole muscle car craze back in 1964. However the writing was on the wall for performance cars by 1970, and in a few years there would be room for only one top dog Pontiac performance car and the nod was given to the Trans Am. The 1974 GTO would be the last of the original GTOs – and it would only be available with a Pontiac 350 CID V8. However back in 1970, Pontiac was trying its best to keep the GTO as its top dog muscle car, it had in the past crippled the Rochester Quadrajet 4-bbl linkage for the 1967 and 1968 400 V8 equipped Firebirds to reduce horsepower to maintain GM’s corporate horsepower-to-weight ratio mandate. Fortunately for 1970, the difference was just on paper to give the GTO a bogus horsepower advantage.
The Ram Air III was a high-performance motor in every aspect – it used free-flow D-port heads, a free-flow cast iron intake manifold, high performance cam, and free-flow exhaust manifolds. The Ram Air IV was one step up with round-port heads, an aluminum intake manifold, and an even hotter cam. Both engines would get standard dual exhaust with chrome exhaust tips. Hot Rod magazine back in 1970 with a 4-speed manual transmission equipped Ram Air IV 1970 Trans Am obtained a 1/4 mile time of 13.9 seconds at 102 mph. Car and Driver magazine (June 1970) with a Ram Air IV 1970 Trans Am hit 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds. These figures were very impressive considering the Trans Am had a heavy curb weight of around 3,600 lbs. The Ram Air III equipped Trans Am was a few 1/10s of a second slower in both the 1/4 mile and 0-60 mph run.
The good news was that a 4-speed manual transmission was now standard with the Trans Am whereas the year before a 3-speed manual was standard. Both engines even though they were standard with the 4-speed manual, could also be equipped with an optional 3-speed automatic transmission. Also worth noting the standard (M20) 4-speed manual could be upgraded on both engines to the (M21) close ratio 4-speed. A heavy duty Safe-T-Track (posi) differential 12-bolt rear axle was standard with the Trans Am. There were four different rear gears to chose from. The Ram Air III was standard with a 3.55. When air conditioning and an automatic were ordered together with the Ram Air III the ratio was 3.08. When air conditioning and the 4-speed manual were ordered with the Ram Air III the ratio was 3.31. And there was an optional 3.73 rear for those who ordered a Ram Air III with a 4-speed (with no air conditioning). For the Ram Air IV, things were much simpler. The automatic transmission equipped Ram Air IV came equipped with a 3.55 rear and the manual equipped Ram Air IV was standard with the 3.73.
The Trans Am wasn’t for the faint of heart, with a base price of $4,305 only the well healed buyer could afford one. The base price was a 13% percent increase over the base price of the 1969 Trans Am (coupe). And even Pontiac’s sporty luxury flagship car, the Grand Prix, had a base price of only $3,985. If a Trans Am buyer added some power and luxury options, air conditioning, and a Ram Air IV engine the price easily exceeded the $5,000 mark. Which was around the base price of 1970 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. This may explain why not many Ram Air IV 1970 Trans Ams were produced – only 88 were produced. Surprisingly 59 of these Ram Air IV Trans Ams were equipped with the 3-speed automatic transmission, leaving only 29 buyers opting for the 4-speed manual. It’s hard to believe that with the Ram Air IV being such a hot performer that more didn’t opt for it with the 4-speed. Another factor for the Ram Air IV’s low production numbers may have been the dishonest factory horsepower ratings, on paper the Ram Air IV only made 10 horsepower more than the Ram Air III. Many buyers probably figured the 10 extra horsepower for the Ram Air IV wasn’t worth the hefty price tag – not realizing that the true horsepower variance between the two motors was much more. Also hurting was Pontiac didn’t promote the Ram Air IV motor. Of course by 1970, insurance companies were beginning to hit muscle car owners hard with very high premiums for the fastest of the muscle car engines. Pontiac may have wanted to fly the Ram Air IV under the car insurance providers’ radar screens.
Another interesting fact is GM starting in 1970 dropped the 400 CID maximum engine limit on cars that weren’t full-size. The GTO which had been affected by this GM edict, was available in 1970 with a (D-port) 455 CID V8 that produced 360 horsepower. The Trans Am didn’t get this engine option for 1970 – it was no great loss since the Ram Air III produced more horsepower than this 455. However it would mean good things for the 1971-1976 Trans Am which would have a 455 CID V8 option in its engine lineup for each of these years.
The Trans Am may have been pricey, but a buyer did get all the performance goodies necessary to defeat a good portion of the competition. For instance power front disc/rear drum brakes were standard and so was a suspension that was leagues ahead of most of the competition. Pontiac with the Trans Am was drawing the line in the sand, and giving the competition a glimpse of how the Trans Am was going to dominate handling in the domestic market during the 1970s, and even the Corvette during parts of this decade was going to have to take a second seat to the Trans Am’s handling capabilities. Pontiac ditched the 14 inch wheels of the 1969 Trans Am and made 15 x 7 inch Rally II wheels (sans trim rings) with super grippy wide bias belted F60-15 tires (with raised white lettering) standard. The Trans Am also had heavy duty springs, stiff shocks, and a thick front and rear anti-roll bars. Even the Trans Am’s steering was very tight and precise. What all this meant was the spoiler laden Trans Am could accelerate, handle, and brake like it came right off the racing track – Pontiac didn’t hold back with the Trans Am, it lived up to its racing circuit derived name.
Just as the exterior was a big jump from the previous year Trans Am, the same was true when it came to the interior which was worlds apart from the previous year. The optional simulated wood and basic dash layout of 1969 was replaced with what looked like back in 1970, a modern fighter cockpit. A quick trip down the 1/4 mile track would have most drivers thinking the Trans Am was ready to takeoff. The many dash gauges were all very nicely laid out and easy to read. However what made the dash layout so attractive was the large engine turning aluminum dash trim piece that surrounded all the gauges. The interior layout and style would remain virtually the same throughout the second generation Trans Am’s twelve year run – only the seats, the door handles, and minor trim would change. Just like 1969, bucket seats were standard for 1970. There were six different interior colors available for the 1970 Trans Am – blue, black, green, red, saddle, and sandalwood. Each color was available with the standard vinyl seating surface. Optional knitted vinyl seating was also available in all these colors. And there was an optional cloth and vinyl combination seating surface which was only available in black or sandalwood. The Trans Am had hit a home run with this interior – everything was right. The seating position was low, just like a performance car should be, and the optional center console was so finely shaped it was the icing on the cake. For those that didn’t order the center console with a 4-speed, it was not a big deal since Pontiac just put the shifter right on the carpet with a rubber boot and a metal outer plate. However if an unknowing buyer wanted an automatic and didn’t want to pony up the extra cash for the center console, this is where a buyer was in for quite a surprise when the car arrived at the local dealership with the automatic shifter on the steering column. It unfortunately ruined the looks of the interior. Fortunately most buyers paid for the center console and in return had the automatic shifter mounted in the center of this console. Another surprise Pontiac had for Trans Am buyers was that the unsightly exterior car radio antenna of the 1969 Trans Am was gone. Pontiac decided to run the antenna inside the center part of the windshield, which most people even on close inspection could not see. It was an innovative concept. Radio reception didn’t suffer with this new design and the exterior antenna was no longer there to hamper the exterior lines of the Trans Am. The Trans Am would continue to have this windshield antenna standard through the 1981 model year. The only exception would be the late-second generation Trans Ams that were equipped with the power antenna option.
The significance of 1970 Trans Am can’t be stressed enough. This car set the stage for all the other second generation Trans Ams during the 1970s. The Trans Am became the last holdout of the original large displacement V8 muscle car era. All other muscle cars caved in by the mid-1970s and dropped the large displacement V8 from the option list. Not the Trans Am, it came in the 1970s with a high-performance 400 V8 and left the decade with a performance-oriented 400 CID V8 still on the option list. And don’t think this has gone unnoticed, a look at the prices of good conditioned 1970s era Trans Ams rival many of the prices of hot 1960s muscle cars. And the 1970 Trans Am is one of the most sought after 1970s era Trans Ams, for a good conditioned example expect to pay at least $50,000. Some really nice examples are over $70,000. And if you’re lucky enough to find one equipped with a Ram Air IV, you are going to pay a lot more than that.
In summation, have you ever been to a concert where an act or band puts on an excellent performance? If the performance is really good, the audience will sometimes call for a encore presentation. And sometimes the act or band will oblige and re-enter the stage for another song. In a lot of these cases the encore is never what it is built up to be and comes off as a letdown compared to the fantastic show before it. The 1970 Trans Am was the encore presentation of the 1969 Trans Am, however this time the encore was much better than the original.
Written contents in this article – © 2012-2013 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved