Bold School: 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

In 1967, GM’s official no-racing policy was wearing thin. Corporate brass recognized that Ford, Chrysler and even AMC were capitalizing on the age-old axiom of winning on Sunday and selling on Monday. Fear of falling behind, both on track (unofficially) and in the showroom, was a very real concern and they wanted back in the game. The SCCA had recently launched its Trans-Am Sedan Championship racing series, designed for pony cars with a maximum engine displacement of 5.0 liters (305 cubic inches), and Pontiac boss John DeLorean craved a piece of the action. While Chevy was able to play parts bin mix-n-match to build their soon-to-be-famous 302-ci screamer, Pontiac was left scrambling to produce a suitable powerplant. Pontiac’s solution was to utilize a shorter-stroke crankshaft in a heavy-duty 400 block to arrive at 303 cubic inches, comfortably inside the SCCA maximum. Dubbed the Ram Air V, it was capped with new tunnel-port heads and was set to make about 430 horsepower. There were also 366-ci and 400-ci versions of the RA V in the works, aimed at NASCAR and drag strip duty respectively. Unfortunately, for reasons never fully explained, none of them made it to regular production. The WS4 Trans Am Performance and Appearance package, however, became a Regular Production Option on the Firebird for 1969. With the Trans Am name licensed from SCCA (minus the hyphen) for $5 per car, one of the most enduring American performance icons was born. Major underpinning upgrades consisted of power front disc brakes, variable-rate power steering, revised springs and matching shocks, a beefier front sway bar and a Safe-T-Track limited slip differential with 3.55:1 gears. Topside, a ram-air hood, fender-mounted air extractors and a radical rear wing were added. The wing was said to add 100 pounds of downforce to the rear of the car at 100 mph. While the Trans Am was originally conceived to be the equivalent of the Camaro Z/28, the scuttling of the 303-ci engine put paid to that notion. Rather, the Trans Am was made available with two versions of the division’s 400-ci mill, aligning it instead with the big-block Camaro Super Sports. Standard power was from the 335 horsepower L74 Ram Air III mated to a heavy-duty 3-speed manual gearbox. Two 4-speed transmissions were offered, the close-ratio M21 and the wide-ratio M20. Also on offer was Pontiac’s venerable Turbo Hydramatic: the M40. A single optional engine was available: the badass Ram Air IV. Dubbed RPO L67, this 400-ci engine featured a heavy-duty block with 4-bolt mains, a cross-drilled crankshaft, and higher-compression, deeper-breathing, round-port heads. A lightweight, high-rise aluminum intake manifold and aggressive camshaft were installed to maximize the engine’s breathing. As installed in the Firebird, the RAIV was officially rated at just 345 horsepower. Curiously, this was considerably less than the same engine installed in the GTO, where it was assessed 366 ponies. Out in the real world, both produced something north of the 400 mark. Base price for the 1969 Trans Am was $3887. With its price so high, production numbers were predictably low. Just 689 coupes and 8 convertibles were produced. Ram Air IV mills further spiked the price tag and therefore found their way in to only 55 coupes while all of the drop-tops were delivered with the base RA III. The Trans Am was available only in Cameo White with a pair of bright blue racing stripes, matching tail light panel and subtle lettering on the fenders and spoiler. Pontiac never realized the same on-track success in SCCA Trans-Am racing enjoyed by Chevrolet. But the Trans Am went on to be the most enduring nameplate from the muscle era, with production continuing uninterrupted through the 2002 model year. THE BASICS Make: Pontiac Model: Firebird Year: 1969 Engine: 6.6L V8 Horsepower: 335 See more of the 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am here The car featured above was auctioned off by RM Auctions in March of 2010 at the The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Florida.