1981 Pontiac Trans Am NASCAR Edition – the Last Trans Am with a Pontiac Soul

1981transamnascar-s.jpgThere are those who believe that Trans Am production ceased when the 2002 model year came to a close. Technically they would be correct, but from a purist point of view they would be wrong. The last Trans Am truly in tune with the original Trans Am spirit ceased production in 1981. The Trans Ams that came after 1981 were worthy performance cars and many of them are downright fun to drive, however a Pontiac V8 was no longer part of the equation from 1982 until 2002. Pontiac at the end of the 1981 model year was forced by GM’s new for 1982 corporate engine policy to retire its last production Pontiac V8 – the 4.9 liter (301 CID). Thereafter the Trans Am had to make due with the same Chevrolet derived small-block V8s that were found in performance Camaro models from 1982 to 2002. Pontiac could have picked other engines from GM’s corporate engine list such as the Oldsmobile 5.0 liter (307 CID) V8 or Buick’s 3.8 liter V6 starting in 1982, but it wisely chose the small-block Chevy V8 due to its large array of aftermarket performance parts.

There  were suspension tuning differences between the Trans Am and the performance Camaro models from 1982 to 2002, but when it came to its soul, the Trans Am had become a pseudo Camaro with a  Trans Am exterior and interior. Only time when the Trans Am after 1981 deviated from this course was with the (1989) 20th Anniversary Edition Trans Am which was equipped with the powerful Buick SFI Turbo 3.8 liter V6. Most Trans Am fans during this era adapted and accepted these cars with open arms – they were just happy a rear-wheel drive performance oriented V8 powered Pontiac Trans Am was still around even if a Chevrolet small-block was nestled under the hood.

To understand the purist point of view you have to go back to the heyday of GM in the 1950s and 1960s when each GM division had its own unique engines to go with its unique exterior and interior styling. Very rarely were engines shared among cars from different GM divisions. In other words when you bought a Buick you got a Buick motor under the hood painted in a Buick engine color like red. When you bought a Pontiac, it had a Pontiac motor painted in one of the different Pontiac engine blue hues. And with a Chevrolet there was a bright orange painted motor under the hood. All these differences fueled rivalry between these different GM divisions as if they were different auto companies and not divisions. As an example, if someone said back in the day he or she was a Chevrolet person they didn’t even think to venture onto a Pontiac dealership lot – that was enemy territory.

By the 1970s things were changing, engine sharing among the different GM divisions was becoming more commonplace, however the different divisions still 1981transamnascar-3.jpgproduced their own V8 engines. By the late-1970s GM mandated that its divisions paint their motors in GM corporate blue which remained the official GM engine color until black (starting in 1983) became the new official color for all GM engines.

When most of the other muscle cars in the 1970s either disappeared or dropped their engine displacement. Pontiac had no part in that sellout, for its high performance Trans Am motors during the 1970s it provided Pontiac 400 or 455 CID V8s – even the Corvette and Camaro Z28 had dropped to 350 CID  by the mid-1970s and the Mustang was down to 302 CID. Not Pontiac, it started off the decade with the high-performance 345 gross horsepower Ram Air IV 400 CID V8 as the 1970 Trans Am’s top engine and ended the decade with the high-performance 220 horsepower (rating was underrated) W72 400 V8. The W72 which had high performance heads along with some other performance goodies was rated by NHRA at 260 net horsepower. Hot Rod magazine tested a 1979 Trans Am equipped with the W72 400 and obtained a 1/4 mile in 14.6 seconds @ 96.6 mph – very impressive considering the 1979 W72 Trans Am weighed in at almost 4,000 lbs. Unfortunately GM  cancelled the Pontiac 400, and all that was left for the 1980 model year was the Pontiac 4.9 liter (301 CID) V8. The 4.9 liter was an engine that had been released for the 1977 model year as a economy V8 and was soon unexpectedly was elevated to top dog performance engine for Pontiac. Filling the shoes of the W72 400 and the other large displacement V8s before it, was an amazingly tall order – similar to a star quarterback being replaced in a Super Bowl game with a third string quarterback with no NFL experience. Pontiac engineers who even in the roughest of times in the 1970s always managed to keep the Trans Am at the top of the performance heap, released a turbo 4.9 liter V8 as the 1980 Trans Am’s top performance motor. It was a bold move and it worked, it was rated at 210 net horsepower and 345 lb-ft of torque which was more horsepower and torque than the 1980 Camaro Z28 and 1980 Ford Mustang. For 1981 the magic continued however an onboard computer was added and horsepower dropped to 200, and torque to 340 lb-ft. Though the turbo 4.9 was considerably slower than the W72 400, it managed to keep Trans Am buyers happy and remain ahead of most of the competition. Not to mention the (LU8) turbo 4.9 liter V8 was a Pontiac developed and engineered V8 giving the Trans Ams equipped with this motor and the base 150 horsepower 4-bbl 4.9 liter V8 the distinction of being all Pontiac. However as a foreshadow of the near future the 145 horsepower Chevrolet LG4 4-bbl 5.0 liter (small-block) V8 was also a Trans Am engine option for 1981 – the next year the LG4 would become the all-new third generation Trans Am’s standard motor. For 1981 the 5.0 liter was the only Trans Am engine that could be equipped with a manual transmission – a 4-speed. The 5.0 liter for 1981 could not ordered with an automatic transmission.



1981 may have been the last year of the successful second generation (1970-1981) Trans Am, but Pontiac ended this run with a bang – it released a limited production NASCAR (Daytona Pace Car) edition. The NASCAR edition just like the 1979 10th Anniversary and 1980 Indy Pace Car edition Trans Ams, had a two tone paint scheme with lots of wild decals and pinstripes. The NASCAR edition had a white exterior color with black paint accents, decals, and stripes. Also included on the NASCAR edition were large white lettering which spelled "PONTIAC" on the top of the windshield to give the car an authentic pace car look. The NASCAR edition was an exact replica of the Trans Am that paced the 1981 Daytona 500 race – even the official Pace Car related decals were all there. The only items missing on the production NASCAR edition were the roof mounted yellow strobe light and the attached official NASCAR race flags.   

The second generation (1970-1981) Trans Am was in its twelfth model year by 1981 with essentially the same body style so it was a little long in the tooth. However Pontiac had done such a good job of providing slight periodic updates which kept the exterior looking up-to-date. The last update was done for 1979 which gave the Trans Am a new aerodynamic nose and an updated rear design which included blacked out taillights. The 1981 NASCAR edition carried over this styling with the only change being a bird emblem (a new standard item found on all 1981 Trans Ams) right in the middle of the two large rear taillight assemblies – the area where this bird emblem resided also happened to be a hidden door to the gas tank cap. One thing that made the NASCAR edition look so sharp were a set white 15×7.5 inch turbo cast aluminum wheels. The NASCAR Trans Am with the exception of the exterior chrome door handles and door 1981transamnascar-1.jpglocks, didn’t have any exterior chrome – most trim pieces were painted black. The look of black trim accents with no chrome would remain popular among performance car buyers during the entire 1980s. All-in-all the 1981 Trans Am NASCAR edition was one very sharp looking car. The second generation Trans Am had subjectively the best styling of the four Trans Am generations. It was elegant yet macho. A little over thirty years may have passed since the last one left the assembly line but the styling today is more popular than ever.   

The Trans Am NASCAR edition came standard with the turbo 4.9 liter V8. You have to give Pontiac an "A" for effort when it came to the turbo 4.9 liter V8. Pontiac could have just soldiered on with the 4-bbl 4.9 V8, producing 150 horsepower in 1981 it was more than adequate – any V8 in the early 1980s producing more than this was a real rarity. In this context the turbo 4.9’s 200 horsepower seemed like "the sky’s the limit" type horsepower. However there was one little problem – a turbo forcing air into a carburetor was not the best way to make horsepower. Even the carburetor equipped Buick turbo 3.8 liter V6 was a recepient of the same problem, and it didn’t start to have tire burning power until it received a sophisticated Sequential-Port Fuel Injection (SFI) system and soon thereafter an intercooler. Unfortunately the turbo 4.9 was not around long enough to get a SFI system and an intercooler. However this didn’t mean the turbo 4.9 was a weak attempt at producing power. Quite the contrary the turbo 4.9 managed to move the heavy over 3,500 lbs NASCAR Trans Am 0-60 mph in mid-8 second range and the 1/4 mile in mid-16 second range. This was a whole lot better than the normal 4-bbl 4.9 liter V8 and most performance cars of this era, so for Pontiac it was mission accomplished with the turbo 4.9. Unfortunately the turbo 4.9 didn’t have the tire burning power of the W72 400 it had replaced but it provided the spirited performance of a much larger displacement motor. The power was best summed up by one auto magazine writer back who described the power of the turbo 4.9 liter V8 as feeling more like a smooth accelerating 350 CID (5.7 liter) V8. Back in the low-tech era of early 1980s, Pontiac did a fantastic job with pulling as much power as it could out of the 4.9 liter using the limited technology (of the period) while at the same time meeting stringent emissions regulations, providing good fuel economy, and good reliability. On all accounts Pontiac hit a home run. And by no means was the turbo an afterthought, examining carefully all aspects of the engine, you can see a lot of homework went into this motor. In other words Pontiac just didn’t slap a turbo on your average 4-bbl 4.9 V8, it re-engineered the 4.9 to work with the turbo. Even the 4-bbl carburetor was moved to the driver’s side of engine bay to accommodate the turbo and its accessories. Unfortunately the 4-bbl was raised high enough when it was moved that it 1981transamnascar-2.jpgwouldn’t clear the hood when closed so Pontiac engineers made mandatory with the turbo a raised driver side hood scoop to allow clearance. In the middle of the 1980 model year Pontiac added a standard turbo boast lights on the back side of this hood scoop which showed the interior occupants how much turbo boast the engine was receiving.  

The good news was the turbo 4.9 was standard on the NASCAR edition. The bad news was the turbo 4.9 was stuck with a mandatory 3-speed automatic transmission – a manual transmission would have have improved performance. However Pontiac at least showed performance still matter by offering a standard semi-performance oriented 3.08 rear axle ratio.

Where the Trans Am was way ahead of its competition was in the area of handling. The NASCAR edition came standard with the Trans Am’s beefy WS6 suspension which included 4 wheel disc brakes a well tuned suspension and P225-70R15 performance radial tires which were mounted on the white 15×7.5 1981transamnascar-4.jpginch aluminum wheels. The result was a large Trans Am that was light on its feet and could obtain .81 g on the skidpad handling test.  

The NASCAR edition may have seemed like a 10th Anniversary or a Indy Pace Edition with a different paint scheme however entering into the plush interior immediately gave one a feeling of this car being a lot different. The familiar Trans Am metal dash and the Pontiac formula steering wheel were there on the NASCAR edition. The difference was the addition of new state-of-the-art Recaro seats. These seats unlike previous Trans Am seats which were made to just look nice, these new front seats looked great but hugged every contour of the body. No longer would a Trans Am driver or front passenger have the expected back and leg stiffness during long driving trips that previous Trans Am seats gave. These front Recaro seats even had adjustable rear seat-backs something that previous Trans Ams and most performance cars didn’t have before that time. However most importantly when taking the NASCAR Trans Am into high speed turns, the Recaros provided fantastic side lateral support that kept a driver and front passenger planted in their seats where with previous Trans Am seats if it wasn’t for the door or the center console a driver or front seat occupant would easily slide completely out of the seat in a high speed turn. The plush cloth Recaro seats had a sharp looking red and black color combination. The rear seats may not have been Recaros but they were used the same red and black colored plush cloth as front Recaros. As to be expected of a special edition Trans Am of this era there was a embroidered big bird on the rear seat-back between the rear seats. It’s truly amazing how spectacular the red and black color scheme mades the Trans Am interior look. And the overall plushness of the interior made this Trans Am the envy of even the most demanding of luxury car buyers. By far the NASCAR edition’s interior was one of the best looking Trans Am interiors to leave the factory. The appeal was so 1981transamnascar-6.jpggreat with this interior that some buyers bought the NASCAR Trans Am because they like the interior – no other 1981 Trans Am could be ordered with this plush cloth interior with Recaro seats. It’s a shame Pontiac never revived this color scheme on another Trans Am along with making Recaro seats standard in every Trans Am after 1981. There were other special edition Trans Ams for a few years after 1981 that had different color Recaro seats but Recaro seats were unfortunately last seen on the 1984 Trans Am 15th Anniversary edition.
As for options, the NASCAR edition came standard with a lot of Trans Am options however if that was not enough for a buyer there were a few other optional items that could be ordered. All-in-all the NASCAR edition was a very well equipped car. You couldn’t order a stripper version of the NASCAR edition to keep the price down – when you ordered the NASCAR option – Y85 package you got all  standard goodies, none of which could be deleted. And who could blame Pontiac since only 2,000 NASCAR editions were produced, they wanted to keep these cars special by having them leave the factory loaded with standard features and options. The NASCAR edition was a hot seller, with many selling for well over sticker price. Unfortunately this success didn’t extend to the overall 1981 Trans Am production which had dropped to 33,313 units – a massive drop from just two years before when the Trans Am had its best selling year with Pontiac for the 1979 model producing 116,535 units. It was the dated design and the fact that many buyers were waiting it out for the all-new third generation Trans Am which debuted in 1982, for the drop in sales.  

Today the Trans Am is sorely missed, especially the second generation models like the 1981 Trans Am NASCAR edition which happened to be the last Trans Am with a Pontiac V8 – in other words the last Trans Am with a Pontiac soul. NASCAR Trans Am prices have been skyrocketing in recent years and it’s no small wonder since it’s the last of its kind.


Written contents in this article – © 2012 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved