Many experts claim the golden era of the American muscle car ended at the end of the 1971 model year or at the end of the 1974 model year. However the real end of the Golden Era was at the end of the 1979 model year. It would never be the same after 1979, even though American muscle cars and performance cars would make a big comeback in the 1980s which is a trend that has still continues today. However something very special was lost after the 1979 model year that will never again return.
The last muscle car standing was the 1979 Pontiac Trans Am and when it’s production came to a close at the end of the 1979 model year, the Golden Era was officially over. It was the last golden era muscle car because it was the last American performance car with a large displacement V8 equipped with a 4-barrel carburetor. During the Golden Era, the quintessential muscle car consisted of a large displacement V8 equipped with a 4-barrel carburetor or a fancy multi-carburetor setup. The smallest of these golden era muscle car large displacement V8s was the 383 cubic-inch big-block V8 which powered many Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars. The largest were the 455 cubic-inch V8s produced by Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac during the golden era. In today’s engine measurements the golden era muscle cars had an engine displacement range of 6.3 to 7.5 liters. Today the only American performance car V8 that falls into this displacement range is Stellantis’ 6.4 liter HEMI V8 which is more commonly known as the “392 HEMI V8” because of its 392 cubic-inches of engine displacement.
By the late-1970s the Pontiac Trans Am was the only performance car left with engines in this engine displacement range. Worth noting, its more conventional brother the Firebird Formula could be ordered with these same Trans Am engines during this time. The Trans Am was technically a pony car since it competed with the Ford Mustang. However since the departure of Pontiac’s once top muscle car the GTO, the Trans Am took over that role as Pontiac’s top muscle car.
At the end of the 1978 model year, GM cancelled production of Pontiac’s large displacement 400 cubic-inch V8. The only other V8 engine Pontiac had in it’s inventory was the 301 cubic-inch (4.9 liter) V8 which ironically was a very rare engine delete option that was available on the 1979 Trans Am which discounted the sticker price by $195. This was the first time the Trans Am would have an engine option that was not a large displacement V8. The 301 V8 was a popular engine that had been around since the 1977 model year, it had decent power and good fuel economy for this era. Starting in 1980 the Trans Am would only be available with low displacement V8s which consisted of two 301 V8 options and a Chevrolet 305 (5.0 liter) small-block V8 option.
However the good news was more than 97% of the 116,535 1979 Trans Ams produced had a large displacement V8. The standard engine in 1979 Trans Am was Oldsmobile’s 6.6 liter (403 cubic-inch) small-block V8. It was rated at 185 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. It was equipped with a Rochester Quadrajet 4-barrel carburetor just like many of GM’s muscle cars during the golden era and it was mandatory with a 3-speed automatic transmission. Even if this was as good as it got for the 1979 Trans Am, the 403 V8 equipped Trans Am had more than enough power where it would have been remembered as a true contender of this era.
Fortunately Pontiac took it one step further and horded 8,693 of its high performance 1978 model year produced W72 400 cubic-inch (6.6 liter) V8s for 1979 model year use. Pontiac called this engine the T/A 6.6. 8,326 found their way into the 1979 Trans Am and 367 into the 1979 Firebird Formula.
The W72 400 cubic-inch high-performance V8 had a 800 cfm 4-barrel carburetor, a performance oriented camshaft, free-flow heads, and other performance goodies. It also was accompanied by a mandatory Borg and Warner Super T10 4-speed manual transmission which came factory equipped with a Hurst shifter and a performance oriented 3.23 limited slip rear axle. It also was standard with the Trans Am’s WS6 handling package which consisted of 4-wheel disc brakes, a close ratio steering box, and one of the best tuned handling suspensions of its day. The heavy 3,800-lb W72 400 equipped Trans Am was very fast and had the handling and braking that could match the best European sports cars of this era. Both the Oldsmobile 403 V8 and Pontiac W72 400 V8 equipped Trans Ams had a dual resonator exhaust system which had twin splitter chrome exhaust pipes on each side of the vehicle behind the rear wheels.
The 1979 Trans Am’s W72 400 V8 was factory rated at 220 horsepower which was about 15% less than its true power output. The National Hotrod Association (NHRA) saw the discrepancy immediately and rated the stock 1977-1979 W72 400 at a more realistic 260 horsepower. Back in 1979, this made the W72 400 the most powerful American built performance engine for 1979 making the W72 equipped 1979 Trans Am faster than all of its competition that year. Hot Rod magazine (the February 1979 issue) obtained a quarter-mile time of 14.61 seconds at 96.67 mph with a W72 400 equipped 1979 Trans Am, no other 1979 model year American built car could beat this time. Car and Driver magazine (the January 1979 issue) test drove a W72 400 equipped 1979 Trans Am and obtained a 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds. As a comparison a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a Pontiac Ram Air 400 cubic-inch V8 went 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds, proving the low compression and emissions control devices equipped W72 400 powered 1979 Trans Am’s performance would have been considered very good even during the heyday of the golden era of the muscle car. It should be noted that Car and Driver magazine (the January 1979 issue) obtained a quarter-mile time of 15.3 seconds at 96.6 mph when testing the W72 400 equipped 1979 Trans Am.
Pontiac was the last automaker to deliver a true traditional muscle car performance package with the W72 1979 Trans Am. It would be the last muscle car to have all the key elements of a golden era muscle car. When the last W72 400 equipped Trans Am rolled off the assembly line near the end of the 1979 model year, the original golden era of the muscle car was officially over.
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