Editor’s Note: the following Pete Dunton article was originally published on September 4, 2013 on Firebird Nest.
When the 1976 model year rolled in, Fall of 1975, the second generation Firebird began its 7th model year. For some at the time it was hard to believe it had been around that long, after-all the first generation Firebird only saw 3 years of production. If the auto business had run as smoothly in the 1970s as the 1960s, the second generation Firebird would have already had a replacement by 1975 at the latest. GM’s product cycles were running 3 to 5 years during the 1960s. However by the 1970s, GM had bigger fish to fry, or actually better stated, they were trying to stay out of the frying pan. With the shock of the 1973 oil crises sending gasoline prices through the roof, and a plethora of new U.S. Government emissions and safety regulations, it was safe to say GM had its hands full.
GM was forced to spend precious capital on downsizing cars, lowering engine emissions, and increasing fuel efficiency. In other words this meant there wasn’t the budget to develop an all-new second generation F-body (Camaro/Firebird) replacement. So Pontiac was given just enough money to freshen up the exterior and make very minor changes to the Firebird during the 1970s. And it wasn’t like a replacement was needed, after-all sales for 1976 were an impressive 110,775 total units (for that production year) which was the best Firebird sales figures up to that time for the second generation Firebird. This was more than double the 48,739 units produced for the second generation’s first year (1970) and it was 25% better than total Firebird sales for 1975 (84,063 units). The most astonishing aspect of these skyrocket sales wasn’t that a 7-year old platform was selling so well when in the past buyers would have tired of it after 5 model years. No, the most amazing aspect was the skyrocketing Trans Am sales. The Trans Am which began life as a low production high-performance Firebird only managed 3,196 units for 1970, just under 7 percent of all 1970 Firebird sales. For 1976, Trans Am sales made up 42 percent of all Firebird sales.
GM had the attitude with the Firebird – why mess with success? It milked the second generation Firebird platform for all it was worth, and would hold off and delay a platform replacement until sales started to taper off. In the second generation Firebird’s case, it last for 12 model years and wasn’t replaced with an all-new third generation Firebird until 1982.
So why was the Firebird selling so well in 1976 with a 7-year old platform? The answer was simple, Pontiac in 1970 had given the Firebird such a futuristic and attractive exterior design even by 1976 the same overall basic body shape was still way ahead of its competition in the looks department. In other words it was still one of the most attractive new cars on the road. Another factor was some of the Firebird’s competition had either disappeared or were remade into economy cars. The 1974-1978 Ford Mustang II was a perfect example of this. In 1973, it was still a sought after stylish sporty pony car, then a quick snap of Henry Ford II’s fingers and it was soon a compact car built on the Ford Pinto platform. And as performance engines were disappearing from the landscape, Pontiac still had on the option list a wide array of V8 engines going all the way up to 455 cubic inches. Pontiac had also done its part updating the front and rear of the Trans Am. It received its first update in 1974 giving the front a more aerodynamic shovel nose and the rear received very attractive new taillights. Unfortunately new 1974 bumper laws forced Pontiac to use a thin black vertical bumper in both the front and rear, Pontiac stylists integrated these new bumpers well enough into the 1974 and 1975 Firebird’s overall styling which allowed the Firebird to have a very attractive look. Fortunately for 1976 Pontiac fixed the bumper issue by offering Endura style body color bumpers which gave the Trans Am what appeared to be a new stylish look even though above the front and rear bumpers nothing had changed (except for the previous year’s front parking lights moved from the front grilles to the new lower front bumper).
There were four distinct 1976 Firebird models – the base, Esprit, Formula, and Trans Am. The base was aimed at the budget conscious buyer who wanted the sporty looks of the Firebird for a budget oriented price. The Esprit on the other hand was the luxury oriented Firebird. The Trans Am continued as the high-performance Firebird, it had the top performing Firebird engines, spoilers, wheel flares, a shaker hood scoop, and wild graphics. The Formula on the other hand was aimed at buyers who wanted performance but for lower price than the Trans Am or may have wanted a Trans Am but thought it was too outlandish. However for the budget conscious performance buyer who wanted a Trans Am but could not afford one, Pontiac had a special treat for these buyers, it introduced an optional wild graphics package (called the Formula Appearance Package) for the Formula bringing its appearance a few notches closer to Trans Am territory. What made the package so special was it didn’t borrow or steal from the Trans Am’s popular exterior schema, instead it used its own unique blend of decals which incorporated large "FORMULA" callouts, striping, and a two tone paint scheme.
To match the many diverse Firebird offerings, Pontiac offered a wide array of engines. The standard engine for the base Firebird and the Esprit was Chevrolet’s 110 horsepower 250 CID straight-6. Optional on both the base Firebird and the Esprit and standard on the Formula was Pontiac’s 2-bbl 350 CID V8 which produced 160 horsepower. Pontiac for the California market substituted the 2-bbl 350 with a 165 horsepower 4-bbl 350 V8. Next up the performance ladder was the 185 horsepower (L78) 4-bbl 400 CID V8 which was optional in the Formula and and standard with the Trans Am. However the big daddy performance motor for the model year was the 200 horsepower (L75) 4-bbl 455 CID V8 and that was only optional in the Trans Am. The 455 was only available with the Borg Warner (BW) Super T-10 4-speed manual transmission. The L78 400 was standard with a the Borg Warner Super T-10 4-speed and optional with a TH350 3-speed automatic except in California where only the TH350 was only available with the L78. The base Firebird and Esprit both were standard with a 3-speed manual while the TH350 3-speed automatic and the BW 4-speed manual were optional. The Formula when equipped with the standard 2-bbl 350 CID V8, the TH350 3-speed was standard and the 4-speed manual was optional (the 4-bbl 350 V8 was only available with the TH350 automatic for 1976). The L75 455 wasn’t available in California. Car and Driver magazine (April 1976) obtained with a L75 455 equipped Trans Am a 0-60 mph time of 7.0 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 15.6 seconds at 90.3 mph. For 1976 figures like these were super-fast and had one wondering if horsepower wasn’t slightly underrated (by maybe 10 to 20 horsepower) since the Trans Am weighed in at a hefty 3,700 lbs.
The exhaust system standard on the Trans Am and Formula wasn’t as free-flow as it once had been. Starting in 1975 its true dual exhaust system bit the dust and was replaced by a pseudo dual exhaust setup that split into two separate pipes after the catalytic converter and passed through a large single muffler. It was more free-flow than the single exhaust which was standard on the base Firebird and Esprit (the pseudo dual exhaust was optional on the base Firebird and Esprit). The good news was both the Trans Am and Formula received dual chrome exhaust splitter tips on both sides of the rear. It looked so much better than the setup of previous years. A few early production 50th Anniversary Edition Trans Ams were reported to have received black exhaust splitters in lieu of the chrome ones. The 50th Anniversary was a special black and gold colored Trans Am to commemorate Pontiac’s 50th anniversary.
Gear ratios for 1976 had grown tall across the Firebird lineup in order to improve fuel efficiency. Only the Trans Am equipped with the L75 455 had standard performance oriented 3.23 rear gears. The Trans Am and other Firebird models could be equipped with a 3.08 rear gears. And 2.73 and 2.41 rear gears were available across the Firebird lineup. Ironically all gear ratios were available with positraction. Positraction was standard on the Trans Am, even when 2.41 gears
were ordered. Indeed the times were a changing, Pontiac boasted with a magazine advertisement campaign that the 1976 Formula when equipped with the 2-bbl 350 and TH350 automatic combo, was the most fuel efficient new 350 CID V8 equipped car (back in 1976 every GM division except for Cadillac produced their own in-house 350 CID V8 and many cars were powered by these motors). The EPA gave the Formula with this combo a 21 mpg highway rating.
Handling was fantastic all across the firebird lineup, the Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) which first started as an option was now standard across the Firebird lineup. 14-inch wheels were standard on the base Firebird, Esprit, and Formula. The Trans Am was standard with 15×7 inch wheels in the honeycomb design or more traditional Rally II design. The base Firebird, Esprit, and Formula could be upgraded to 15×7 inch wheels. The 15×7 inch Rally II wheels were very popular among Firebird buyers. The big news for 1976 was that the Rally II wheels were now available in different colors to match the Firebird’s different exterior colors. Pontiac prominently showcased a Golden Rod Yellow colored 1976 Firebird Formula with matching yellow Rally II wheels in its advertisement literature.
For all intents and purposes not much was changed in the Firebird’s interior since 1970, except for periodic seat design and pattern changes. The interior had been so ahead of its time when it made its first appearance, even after 7 years it still looked modern compared to its competition. All Firebird models were standard with bucket seats. The previously mentioned 50th Anniversary started off a new Trans Am tradition – the removable t-top roof panels. All 50th Anniversary editions were originally slated to get Hurst t-tops however due to production issues only 643 of the total 2,590 produced received these t-tops. Within a few years t-tops were available on every Firebird model and would remain a popular option until Firebird production ceased at the end of the 2002 model year.
A contributing factor to why the 1976 Firebird lineup was so popular was its very reasonable base prices – $3,906 (base Firebird), $4,162 (Esprit), $4,566 (Formula), and $4,987 (Trans Am). The continuing escalating Firebird sales figures during the 1970s would help Pontiac forget about the loss of the GTO and its other past performance cars. In the 1970s the Firebird especially the Trans Am was the hottest ticket around. One of the biggest hit songs on the radio in 1976 was Elton John and Kiki Dee’s "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart". If the 1976 Firebird had a theme song it would have been "Won’t Go Breaking Your Heart", since it had the looks, performance, and reliability along with the charm that wouldn’t let you down. With all this considered, there’s no denying the reason why a car produced on a 7-year old platform was so wildly popular. The 1976 Firebird certainly didn’t disappoint.
Written contents in this article – © 2013-2014 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved