Why Jay Leno Loves the Second-Generation Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

100-mph speedometer or not, this one is still a gem after 40 years.

byMáté Petrány|
People photo


As the performance-enthusiast underdog of General Motors under John DeLorean's leadership, Pontiac was not allowed to turn its Banshee line of concept cars into production two-seaters. What it could do, instead, was shape the Chevrolet Camaro's F-Body platform into its own Firebird, a 2+2 sports car ready for 1967 in both coupe and convertible forms.

The Firebird launched with a 3.8-liter six-cylinder as a base engine, along with the tuned Sprint six and a trio of V8 options. The high-performance Trans Am followed for 1969, while the second-generation Firebird was ready in 1970. An oil crisis later in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit featuring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field became America's second-biggest grossing movie hit, only beaten by a certain space opera titled Star Wars.

Flickr | Alden Jewell

Thanks to that starring role as "the speedier car," 1978 and 1979 Firebird Trans Ams sold pretty well, with 1979's sales recorder model also marking the 10th anniversary of the Trans Am. That year, with the high-output T/A W72 400 engine under the shaker hood, Pontiac claimed just 220 horsepower from the 6.6-liter V8, along with 325 pound-feet of torque. Even with the catalytic converter in place, these were rather conservative figures from the factory.

Unlike the 1968 Sprint that's getting restored at the garage, this well-kept 1979 Trans Am isn't Jay Leno's car. It's on loan from the Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, which bought it for around $40,000 with under 20,000 miles on its clock. Today, it shows 20,240 miles, which still makes it practically new at 41, all while being a comfortable and torquey cruiser from an American brand we can no longer support with a new purchase. 

Youtube | Jay Leno's Garage

This Trans Am is pretty much all-original, with all its service history kept since day one. A stick shift with a cloth interior, it sold for $8,200 in 1979 dollars due to having almost all the available options. The graphics pack with the snowflake wheels, shaker hood, four-wheel disc brakes, and of course, the t-top.

If you're wondering what Pontiac's RTS, or Radial Tuned Suspension meant, it's just a reminder that bias-ply tires were long replaced by radials, and Pontiac thought of its Firebirds' perhaps higher cornering speeds. Either way, the end of the 1970s, the badge on the dash was no more than a marketing gimmick.

Jay Leno doesn't have a second-generation Firebird, yet after driving this Trans Am, we wouldn't be surprised if he bought one. Without the chicken on the hood, no doubt.

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