In the depths of the automotive depression that was the 1970s, the Pontiac Trans Am towered like a giant among Lilliputians. A garishly dressed and badly coiffed giant perhaps, but a giant just the same. And the impression it made among that decade's youth is one that, for some of them at least, hasn't faded with time.
"My brother's friend had a '79 Trans Am," recalls Bill Halsey, who has a red '79 today. "I saw the car only one time, but it had all those wild colors on the hood, and it was kind of extreme for back then. I just loved the car. It always stuck with me."
This is not an isolated feeling. For a certain generation of car nut, Pontiac Trans Am worship is a near-universal part of one's past--and, for many, the present. There was a time when nearly every red-blooded American male had a picture of a Trans Am on his wall, probably not too far from the poster of Farrah Fawcett-Majors in a red bathing suit.
Although the Trans Am is associated with the '70s, the option package actually debuted in 1969, on the first-generation Firebird. But it was restricted to a white-with-blue-stripes color scheme, and it wasn't very popular. When you say "Trans Am," the cars that spring to mind are the second-generation body style, model years 1970-1/2 through 1981. Like most muscle cars, though, the bad-boy Firebird spent the first half of the Me Decade lying low. (Sales reached their nadir in 1972 at 1286 units.) But unlike most, the Trans Am never checked out entirely. Meanwhile, the Ford Mustang had become a joke (Mustang II Cobra II, anyone?), and the once-mighty Mopars had fled. So when the dark clouds over muscle cars began to lift slightly in the latter half of the 1970s, the Trans Am was there to take center stage.
An available black-and-gold color scheme, introduced in 1976, gave the Trans Am a distinctive look, one that caught the eye of movie director Hal Needham. In an interview years later, Needham remembered: "I saw a picture of the Trans Am, with the T-tops, in a magazine--and it was black--and I thought, `Boy, that's a slick, sexy-lookin' car.' " In what is perhaps the most successful bit of product placement ever, Pontiac agreed to give Needham three black-and-gold 1977 Trans Am Special Editions (plus two sedans to use as police cars) for Needham's Burt Reynolds flick, Smokey and the Bandit. Sales skyrocketed.
One sale was to Jim Middleton of Panama City, Florida. Ask him when he got his black '77 T/A, and his wife answers, "About two weeks after we saw the movie." They still own it.
But for many of the young theatergoers who were starstuck in 1977 by the Pontiac supercar that jumped creeks and eluded Smokies, the wait was longer than two weeks. A lot longer.
"I was eight years old when the movie came out," says David Hershey, who's in his mid-thirties now. "Honestly, I don't really remember the whole plot. I didn't understand why they were doing what they were doing. All I remember is that they had this really cool black car that could outrun anything. And that always stuck in my head."