The 1977 Firebird visually differentiated itself from the Camaro, but...

The 1977 Firebird visually differentiated itself from the Camaro, but it was a standout where it really mattered: under the hood. There, you could find a torque-laden 455-cubic-inch V8, which was really needed to get the heavy machine rolling. Credit: AP

It quite literally had the "Formula."

In the early 1970s, the absolute peak of all-out automotive muscle and attitude, the Pontiac Firebird represented not only what was fast, but was also cool and hip.

The car was a foamy broth of performance and passion, a heady mixture that kept it clearly in the sights of the bulging, baby-booming youth market, plus anyone else who doted on driving a car that was several cuts above hum-drum.

In an unfortunate twist, though, one of the hottest-looking machines on the planet nearly fizzled on the launch pad.

Buyers waiting to catch a glimpse of the all-new Firebird for 1970 were forced to wait well past the traditional autumn introduction window. In fact, it wasn't until several months later, an eternity in the car business, when the curtains finally parted, the GM publicity mill got up a head of steam and prospective buyers could finally drink their fill.

Why the delay? These days, mid-year new-car introductions are commonplace, but 40 years ago, it was practically unheard of for a domestic manufacturer to miss a fall unveiling.

General Motors was embroiled in a lengthy strike with its unionized workers and was forced to push back the release of its star "ponycar" attractions, the Pontiac Firebird and close-cousin Chevrolet Camaro.

When the Firebird finally did arrive, the sounds of jawbones smacking the asphalt could be heard throughout the land. What Pontiac had wrought was nothing less than sensational. The car shared no resemblance to the previous 1967-'69 'birds, but had that clean and mean look of a real racer.

Even the base models, priced below the $3,000 threshold, looked every bit as glamorous despite hiding a 250-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine that could do no better than 155 horsepower.

For anyone who didn't want to play pretender, the new Firebird had three V8 options: a 255-horse 350-cube V8 for the mid-grade Esprit; a 400-cube engine for the more sporting Formula (identified by two large scoops jutting from its hood); and the King-Kong-sized 455-cubic-inch V8, complete with shaker hood scoop, fitted to the Trans Am model. The latter was as close to an all-out performance machine as you could find in any Pontiac, with up to 370 horsepower on tap and a slick-shifting Hurst handle to help get you where you wanted to go. Trans Ams were also fitted with front and rear spoilers while the side rain gutters, standard on nearly every car back then, were shaved from the bodies, more in the interests of style than practicality.

Despite the late start to the model year, Pontiac managed to find homes for nearly 50,000 new Firebirds, including about 3,200 Trans Ams, the buyers of which were able to come up with the $4,500 entry fee (excluding the exorbitant insurance premiums).

Unlike its Ford Mustang, Mercury Cougar, Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger competitors, the Firebird (as well as the Camaro) were only available in a one-coupe-fits-all version. The decision not to drop the top probably cost GM some sales, but the design really didn't lend itself to a folding top and the corporation wisely left well enough alone.

Brute strength continued to be the order of the day, but stricter emissions regulations and the move to lead-free gasoline meant detuning the Trans Am powerplant to a more sedate 335 horsepower in 1971. To compensate - somehow - Pontiac offered a giant Firebird decal positioned across the hood.

It wasn't for everyone, but plenty of buyers who wanted to announce to the world their specific brand of automobile in a none-too-subtle way sprung for the low-cost option.

By mid-decade, the Firebird's reputation as a hip and quick transportation device was further reinforced through product placements on TV and in the movies. On the popular series, The Rockford Files, James Garner's private eye character tooled around in a tan-colored Esprit while Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields co-starred in a couple of Smokey and the Bandit films, sharing top billing with a black T-roofed Trans Am.

Nothing could stop Burt and Sally in that car. But the Firebird's wings were being clipped with each passing year. The 455 monster motor breathed its last after 1976, but the much tamed 400-cubic-inch engine remained on the order books, as did the hood scoop with the engine displacement (strangely, in metric liters typed across the side).

Toward the end of its run, Pontiac even tried turbocharging the Firebird's base 301-cubic-inch V8, but there was by then little left of the performance attitude that once struck fear into the hearts of stoplight challengers everywhere. Still, these sporty coupes at least looked the part, a fact that kept sales pointed on an upward path.

General Motors replaced the Firebird and Camaro with all-new versions in 1982, bringing an end to what had been the glory days for both makes. The third-generation Firebird became more of a Camaro clone than ever, and, without a high-horsepower big-block option, would never be the same.

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