1978 Pontiac Grand Am CA – One Big Missed Opportunity

September 27, 2011

1978grandamca-s.jpgIf you were a performance car fan back in the 1970s, finding something on the new car dealership lots that could burn the tires was a very hard task especially by the late-1970s. Every automaker during the 1970s ran away from performance cars, displacement had shrunk and horsepower did a nosedive. Only one automaker by the late-1970s was still delivering true performance and that was Pontiac. After the performance bubble of the muscle car era burst in 1972, Pontiac released one of its most potent muscle car engines the 1973-1974 Super Duty (SD) 455 CID V8. The 1973 and 1974 SD 455 with underrated factory horsepower ratings of 310 and 290 net horsepower respectively, beat many of the best 1960s muscle car engines. It was as if someone forgot to give Pontiac "the muscle car era was dead" memo. Even when Pontiac was forced to pull the plug on the SD 455, it still offered a 200 horsepower 455 CID V8 in its Trans Am for 1975 and 1976 – it may have been plucked right out of the Pontiac Catalina station wagon but performance fans were glad to have it. Even Chevrolet for 1975 threw in the towel and the big-block 454 CID V8 was no longer an option on its Corvette and the small-block 350 CID V8 was all that was left. GM unfortunately stepped in and forced Pontiac to retire the 455 V8. Pontiac bounced right back in 1977 with a new high-performance package for its 400 CID (6.6 liter) V8 called the W72. The 1977 W72 which was available in the Trans Am and Firebird Formula and standard in the 1977 Can Am produced 200 horsepower according to Pontiac (wink, wink – underrated of course). For 1978 the Can Am was gone and the W72 400 now factory rated at 220 horsepower (also underrated) was available on the 1978-1979 Trans Am and Firebird Formula as an option. The W72 was so underrated in fact that the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was forced to rate the stock 1977-1979 W72 at 260 horsepower which was a more accurate figure.

No new American V8 packed more punch in the late-1970s than Pontiac’s W72 400, it was the undisputed champ. And sales of Pontiac’s Trans Am couldn’t have been better. However there was one problem with the W72 – it was on borrowed time. And by 1978, GM dropped its gavel and the Pontiac 400 was cancelled. Pontiac was smart enough to set aside a little over 8,000 1978 W72 400 V8s for use in the 1979 Trans Am and Firebird Formula. But that left Pontiac’s lowly 301 as its performance motor for 1980 and beyond.

Pontiac had introduced the 301 CID (4.9 liter) V8 for the 1977 model year as a fuel efficient low-displacement V8. However right from the beginning Pontiac wasted no time working behind the scenes to improve its performance. And it was a good thing since the 301 in turbo form was able to step in as the hot performance motor for the 1980 and 1981 1978grandam-1.jpgTrans Am providing 210 and 200 horsepower respectively. The (LU8) turbo 301 may have not have been as powerful as the W72 400, but it did fill the performance gap for the Trans Am and Firebird Formula fairly well after the W72’s departure.

Pontiac also had another plan for the 301, not many are aware of. It was also slated to be an avenue for the performance revival of Pontiac’s A-body. The 1964-1973 GTO had been Pontiac’s performance A-body model and it’s credited with being the first muscle car (the 1974 GTO was built on GM’s X-body platform). In 1977 Pontiac released a 1977 Can Am which was built on GM’s A-body platform, it was the second coming of the GTO which was canceled at the end of the 1974 model year. In 1978 GM downsized the A-body and the Can Am never returned. However Pontiac had just the replacement. It built a special prototype which it released to the auto press back in 1978, that showed that its new A-body could be easily turned into a performance car and gave a glimpse of the rear-wheel drive mid-sized V8 powered muscle car performance revival that would occur in the 1980s. The prototype was was the 2-door 1978 Pontiac Grand Am CA.

Granted there had been a Grand Am model available since 1973 which came in both two-door and four-door models – the Grand Am was Pontiac’s version of a European touring sedan. For 1978 the Grand Am had been downsized like all the other GM A-bodies that year. Unfortunately the larger displacement engine options on previous Grand Ams were no longer available, the hottest ticket was a 150 horsepower 4-bbl 301 V8, not bad for the times but nothing to get the pulse of a performance buyer racing. The two-door version of the Grand Am was very sporty and attractive so it was no surprise that a majority of Grand Am buyers went with the two-door – 7,767 to be exact versus the 2,841 that went with the four-door. 1978grandamca-6.jpgThe Grand Am for 1978 was essentially a sporty more upscale LeMans. The Grand Am had the LeMans exterior styling however used its own unique front-end and front grille design (which was more aerodynamic than the LeMans) and it also had the Grand Prix’s more upscale dash.

A two-door 1978 Grand Am buyer ended up with a nice looking A-body with decent performance and decent handling but overall it was only a little more slightly performance oriented than the standard GM A-bodies. The Grand Am feel short on power output and especially cornering – it lacked a Trans Am quality handling suspension. Snowflake wheels however were available on the Grand Am but unlike the Trans Am’s 15×7 inch and 15×8 inch snowflake wheels, the poor little Grand Am was stuck with 14 inch wheels so sadly the best wheels on the option list were 14×6 inch snowflakes.

Pontiac wanted to change this perception, even though it saw skyrocketing sales of its Trans Am throughout the 1970s (with 1979 Trans Am sales even hitting an incredible 116,535 units), it realized there was a market out there for a performance A-body – something with the power and handling of a Trans Am. Pontiac was smart enough to understand that there were plenty of Trans Am and other performance car buyers who actually had the need for a true-performance car that could fit five people comfortably and had a family useable sized trunk.

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This is where the 1978 Grand Am CA came into the picture, it was a fully functioning prototype that all it needed to enter into production was Pontiac management’s blessing. The exterior was as racy as the Trans Am with an aggressive lower front air dam and Trans Am style fender flares. A wild Trans Am style rear trunk spoiler was also present. However the real surprise was an attractive hood scoop which  had a hump about the size of the Trans Am’s shaker hood scoop. This scoop was fixed to the hood and unlike the Trans Am wasn’t connected in any way to the engine but on the rear of the scoop it had a LED readout of engine rpm along with a timer (to clock your performance times). Dave Wallace in his July 1978 Hot Rod magazine article had this to say about the readout – "difficult to decipher in the sunlight, the large red digits flat steal the show after dark." Just like the late-1970s special edition Trans Ams, pin-stripping littered the 1978grandamca-2.jpgexterior of the car. The Grand Am CA also used the two-tone paint scheme with the secondary color acting as a lower body accent like the production Grand Am and the Firebird Formula from this era. The primary color was metallic silver. Also finishing off the exterior visual styling were a set of chrome splitter exhaust tips taken right out of the Trans Am’s parts bin.          

Chuck Nerpel in his May 1978 Motor Trend article covering the CA described it the following way – "it is obvious this package was put together by real enthusiasts." He then went on to say, "a look inside and the enthusiasm becomes even more apparent with the first whiff of the odor of real leather, the sight of an engine-turned instrument panel and the feel of a floor-mounted Hurst shifter for the 4-speed gearbox. The instrument array behind the small, hand-stitched-leather-covered wheel is just as impressive with all the necessary gauges befitting a real sports car". Wallace was also equally impressed with the interior, "our top-of-the-line Grand Am cabin also offered power windows and door locks, bucket seats and console, Delco FM-stereo and other selections from the 1978 LeMans/Grand Am option sheet. Air Conditioning was not included."

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Pontiac intended for the CA to handle the curves as well as if not better than the Trans Am which was one of the best handling cars available in America back in the late-1970s. Nerpel described the CA’s suspension, "the modifications to this Grand Am are more extensive than mere cosmetics. The suspension system has been upgraded with firmer springs, revalved shocks for better rebound control, heavier anti-sway bars front and rear, extra lower control arm braces and less resilient rubber bushings on all control arm pivots. The handling is solid but not jarring, and some of the road feel through the power steering system is preserved so the driver does not have that floating-on-air feeling between the steering and road wheels." This suspension used the same 15×8 inch snowflake wheels which were first introduced on the 1978 Trans Am equipped with the WS6 handling package. Nerpel was impressed with the addition of these wheels to the CA’s suspension, "credit for much of the car’s good handling must go to the 8-inch rims that widen the track a bit and the P235/60Rx15-inch Pirelli tires. These tires really grip and hang on, through side loading, full-throttle acceleration and maximum-effort braking."

Braking was the crown jewel of the CA – it was equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, something the 1978 Trans Am didn’t have, but would be part of the Trans Am’s WS6 handling package for 1979. You can’t help but think that the CA might have been the thrust behind this move, or the CA was intended all along to be a test mule for four-wheel disc brakes that would later be available on the Trans Am. Nerpel then remarks, "designed to stop as well as go, the test car was equipped with power-assisted caliper discs all around. Combined with the suspension modifications, anti-dive geometry and the super tires, these brakes can bring the car to a non-screeching halt, wet or dry, in about 120 feet from 60 mph." As a comparison a 2011 Nissan NISMO 370Z takes 123 feet to do the same 60-0 mph stop. So you can see the CA which was tested 33 years ago was way ahead of its time. Wallace commented about the CA’s handling – "the average commuter will run out of nerve before this 1978grandamca-1.jpgPontiac runs out of either handling or brakes. GM’s unbeatable variable-ratio steering box, stiffened up here for increased effort and road feel, gives all the right directions to eight-inch T/A snowflake wheels and short, fat, sticky Pirelli radials."

The CA used a 4-bbl 301 V8 which looked like the same 150 horsepower 4-bbl 301 that was the 1978 Grand Am’s top performance engine. However looks were certainly deceiving – the only tipoff this 301 may have more grunt under the hood were the Trans Am’s W72 style chrome valve covers. The CA’s 301 packed an extra 40 horsepower – giving the CA’s 301 a rating of 190 horsepower. Torque was also up to 255 lb-ft versus the 240 lb-ft of the standard 4-bbl 301. Wallace described the CA’s engine, "the motor modifications, which all team up to boost this particular Pontiac’s power rating to 190 (net) ponies, are fairly straightforward. They won’t reveal all the details yet, but Pontiac Engineering sources trace most of the extra muscle to the feedback ignition, a modified Trans Am exhaust, a replacement (hydraulic) camshaft and 1.65:1 rocker arms. In conjunction with a neck-snapping, close ratio four-speed (2.85, 2.02, 1.35 and 1.00:1) and Saf-T-Track rear (3.23:1), the little 301 took us down a drag strip in just 16.26 seconds." This figure was very impressive compared to other performance cars of this era and especially when you consider the CA weighed in at a hefty 3,785 lbs according to Wallace’s Hot Rod article. This by-the-way was a few tenths of a second faster than the average 1/4 mile time of the LU8 turbo 301 equipped 1980-1981 Trans Am. Nerpel in his article mentioned the CA was good for 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds.

Pontiac claimed the CA’s 8.4:1 compression ratio 301 ran best on (high octane) 91 octane gas, however Wallace commented "the same tank of gas (El Cheapo unleaded) returned 17.2 average miles per gallon! Two days later we checked again and improved to 19.1 mpg." So even under heavy magazine test driving with low octane gas the CA’s 301 proved to be a very fuel efficient motor that performed well. And worth noting the CA was emissions compliant according to Wallace "the standard 49-state Grand Am emissions package, including catalytic converter, remained operational throughout the test weekend." Wallace summed it up well when he stated "we find it reassuring that the mid-sized sedan of the future has the potential to deliver both high economy and low elapsed times."

Wallace’s predictions (based on information from Pontiac sources at the time) concerning a future CA and the application of its performance related components to the Trans Am and Grand Am lineup were only partially true. He stated, "our friends at the factory predict the appearance of certain CA components next year, but not the actual automobile. The four-wheel Delco discs could be stopping 1979 Trans Ams, and much of the CA suspension is likely to come standard with next year’s Grand Am line-up. The rest of the car could see production by 1980, we’re told, and turbocharging (probably on a beefed 301 V8) is already under consideration." He was right about the four-wheel disc brakes being optional on the 1979 Trans Am and a future turbo 301 however these and most of the other CA performance components never made it to the Grand Am. The Grand Am just lingered around virtually unchanged for the 1979 and 1980 model years (except the four-door model was dropped for 1978grandamca-3.jpg1980), and then it was canceled at the end of that year. The Grand Am later returned in 1985 as a front-wheel drive compact car on GM’s new N-body platform.    

Pontiac with the CA was way ahead of the curve, the 180 horsepower Monte Carlo SS and 170-180 horsepower Hurst Olds/Oldsmobile 442 of the mid-1980s both provided V8s with muscle car punch, performance tuned exhaust systems, muscle car inspired styling, specially tuned handling packages, plenty of room for 5 adults, and big trunks. However as good as these cars were, they didn’t have four-wheel disc brakes like the CA. Unfortunately Pontiac had no worthy performance competitor for these Chevrolet and Oldsmobile mid-1980s muscle cars. The closest it came was the 1986 Pontiac 2+2 which had the styling but was only equipped with a 157 horsepower 4-bbl 305 CID (5.0 liter) V8. Most certainly it would have been a different story had the Grand Am CA made it into production intact for 1979 or 1980. Pontiac would have cornered the two-door mid-sized muscle car market and more than likely held on to its supremacy during the 1980s – especially if Pontiac had been able to keep and perfect its turbo 301 like Buick did with its turbo 3.8 liter V6. For 1979, mid-sized muscle car fans instead only had the 1979 Hurst Olds which returned from a few year hiatus to quench their performance thirst – a small-block Oldsmobile 350 making 170 horsepower was its power source. And though the styling was there, the 1979 Hurst Olds didn’t have the handling, braking, or grunt under the hood that the Grand Am CA possessed.

The CA prototype never being produced is like watching a NFL Super Bowl game with one team annihilating its competitor and on its way to an easy victory, then suddenly deciding with a few seconds left in the fourth quarter to forfeit the game. Pontiac in not producing the Grand Am CA, walked away from what might have been one of the best performance cars of the 1980s – it may have even eclipsed the Trans Am. Unfortunately we’ll never know.

Written contents in this article – © 2011 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved

Picture credits – Motor Trend (May 1978) and Hot Rod (July 1978) as noted.
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