Anyone who is a car buff, and anyone who loved Burt Reynolds or has watched the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” will remember The Car. A 1977 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird, complete with the ‘screaming chicken’ decal. But there’s more to the Pontiac than just the movie. It had history going back to the fifties, although the iconic decal has only been around since the 70’s.
The name ‘Firebird was given to early GM prototypes from 1953, 1956 and 1959, which were displayed at Motorama auto shows. The designer, Harley Earl, was inspired by the innovations in jet fighter designs at the time. But the Firebird did not come into its own until 1967. Even then it had stiff competition. The Firebird was Pontiac’s pony car answer to the Ford Mustang, but it also came out at the same time Chevrolet brought out the Camaro, and Ford introduced the Mercury Cougar.
The first generation Firebirds, built from 1967 to 1969, did not sport the phoenix decal.In fact, their Firebird emblems had the wings turned downwards. A young graphic designer at Pontiac, by the name of Norm Inouye designed the first decal and it was put on the 1970½ Firebird Trans Am at the behest of his boss, Bill Porter. The decal was bigger than anyone had done before, designed specifically to wrap around the backwards facing hood scoop. The powers that be did not like the oversized bird on the hood of the car and the project was shelved for two years.
It wasn’t until GM designer John Schinella took over design of the Firebird in 1971 and started working on the 1973 Firebird, that the decal would eventually become a part of the car. He started driving around town in a Formula Firebird dressed with a Trans Am rear spoiler and a TA hood decorated with the oversized flaming bird. People started to notice the car and loved the phoenix decal. Soon he was mobbed at gas stations and drive-ins, people asking where they could get one.
GM management still didn’t like the oversized decal on the hood, considering it to be in poor taste, but finally acquiesced. Pontiac General Manager Jim McDonald gave the go ahead with a caveat for the graphic that would become synonymous with the Trans Am. From 1973 on, Pontiac provided the decal only as an option on the Trans Am. But it was an option everyone loved and wanted, especially at only an extra $55!
The Trans Am
Firebird had many different variations, the Trans Am being one of them. Pontiac borrowed the name from the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA); it was the name of their popular racing series. For each Trans Am Pontiac sold, they paid $5 to the club. The iconic Firebird decal was added only to the Trans Am, to set it apart from the other Firebirds, since this was their top of the line production car. With each successive generation of the car, the ‘screaming chicken’ got bigger and bigger. The 10th anniversary edition of the Trans Am had the phoenix wrapped around to the front fenders.
Smokey And The Bandit
The movie started out as an idea by a Hollywood stuntman named Hal Needham. He wrote the script and showed it to his buddy, Burt. Reynolds told Hal that the script was terrible, but he would star in it nonetheless. As it happened, most of the dialogue was improvised on the spot during filming. The Ford Mustang, called for in the script, was changed to a Pontiac Trans Am, after Hal saw some pictures of the car and fell in love with the idea of it in his movie. Although he was able to convince Pontiac to give him the cars, they only provided them with 4, rather than the 6 asked for – they weren’t convinced the movie would do well.
The Trans Ams that were provided were hybrid mutts, 1976 model year coupes that had been outfitted with the 1977 facelift that would be on the market during the movie’s planned release date. The actual ’77 Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams that were available to customers were marketed as “Special Editions,” with the Y-82 removable roof panels from Hurst (otherwise known as T-Tops) with two different 400 cubic inch V-8 engines to choose from.
All four cars that Pontiac gave for the movie, were wrecked, but the car stood out with its iconic hood decal and became a costar in its own right. All black, with a new gold “6.6 LITRE” sticker on the hood scoop, gold snowflake rims and gold interior accents, the car’s eight-cylinder engine delivered 180hp and 325 lb-ft of torque in base trim, it was the epitome of car design and the best Detroit had to offer. (Especially considering the exacting anti-pollution controls in place back then.)
Legacy Of The Movie
The movie grossed over $300 million worldwide, was the second most popular movie in 1977, behind Star Wars, and provided a renewed interest in the Firebird, especially the Trans Am with its phoenix decal. A second “Smokey and the Bandit” movie was made in 1980, with all the original stars, but an updated Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – a 1980 turbo model! Despite it grossing $66,132,626, it was panned by critics, but did well enough to spawn a third film. Despite the black and gold 1983 Pontiac Trans Am featured in the movie, it was a flop.
Legacy Of The Firebird Trans Am
The Bandit Trans Am has continued to be a cultural force, with newer models made through 2002 and many restorations and modifications of Firebirds to resemble that particular Trans Am. But anyone who loves the iconic Firebird, can join any of the Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am clubs.
A few of the local clubs include the Pontiac Firebird Club of Phoenix, which has a Facebook page that supports and talks about the car shows in the area, including Cars and Coffee, a weekly event held every Saturday and Sunday, for classic cars in the area. Arizona First Generation Firebird Club is another local club, but this one is, as the name states, for the first generation of Firebirds that came out 1967-1969. Contact info is 2343 S. Wildrose Circle Mesa AZ 85209. Then there is the Tucson chapter of the Pontiac-Oakland Club International called Old Pueblo Pontiacs.Their website is http://www.poci-azch29.com/
National clubs have chapters in Phoenix, like Firebird Nation, which is mostly an online club with forums, or the National Firebird and Trans Am Club, also mostly online, but advertising events and car shows across the U.S. The local chapter’s address is Box 16126 Phoenix, AZ 85011-6126. All of these clubs support and advertise the local and national car shows, events and get-togethers for like-minded Firebird and Trans Am aficionados like yourself. And when driving your ‘Screaming Chicken’ Firebird, remember to drive carefully out there and don’t let Smokey catch you!