Phoenix Rising: How the Trans Am Was Turbocharged Was it one guy’s dream to turbocharge the Trans Am or just a bad couple of years at the end of an era?

From the April 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

The 1977 Pontiac Trans Am gets all the attention, what with its starring role in Smokey and the Bandit, but to me, the turbocharged 1980–81 Trans Am is the most interesting second-gen Firebird. I bought one last summer. It’s not exactly a basket case, but it’s certainly basket adjacent, which means my husband, Tom, and I spent a fair amount of time making eye contact with its aggro avian hood graphics while getting elbows deep in its draw-through, computerized-carburetor-topped turbo system.

1981 pontiac trans am

It’s a real weirdo. Along with being a historical standout as the second turbocharged Ameri­can V-8, the turbo 301 is also the last Pontiac V-8 to power a Trans Am. That might not mean much today, when LS-swapped Ferraris and 2JZ-powered muscle cars are common car-show fare, but to Pontiac engineers in 1979, keeping the T/A a fiery-feathered performer with a Poncho V-8 was worth a battle. And battle they did.

John Schinella became a Pontiac designer in the ’70s. His personal T/A triumphs include the black-and-gold paint scheme, which won over Smokey director Hal Needham, and the giant screaming chicken. He had to fight for the hood bird: “[The design and production teams] told me it was too hard to install, so I went down to the plant and found two guys doing the decals in a dark corner on the cardboard box the parts came in. I went back and said, ‘Maybe if you gave ’em a light and a table it wouldn’t be so hard.’ ” Schinella also has bragging rights to one of the best details of the turbo cars: the three-light pod on the hood that shows the boost level. “Originally, I had the light accelerate across, like what we did later with [the scanner light on KITT, the ’82 Pontiac from Knight Rider]. It would glow brighter as it went across. Engineering said we couldn’t do that. Engineering didn’t like me sometimes.”

1981 pontiac trans am

In Engineering’s defense, it was under a lot of pressure in 1979. “I was responsible for engines at a time period that was probably the darkest for engines in the automotive industry, driven by emissions and fuel-economy requirements that we were struggling to meet,” said Leo Hilke, Pontiac’s chief engineer of induction, emissions, and exhaust during the turbo-engine development. The turbo, he said, was the hardest to engineer of all the engines in 1980, but it was either blow the 301 or use a Chevrolet engine. (When he said the C-word, I’m pretty sure he spit to chase away the devil.) “We went with the 301,” he said. “We had optimized it for efficiency, and it was a very successful engine for what it was aimed at. Adding a turbo on top of it was quite a push.”

Jim Lyons was instrumental in making that happen. A professor at General Motors Institute (GMI), he had developed a turbocharged V-8 as a class project in 1974. So when “Pontiac was dreading the fact that they were going to have to put a Chevrolet engine in a Trans Am, I took our project car down and gave those guys a ride,” Lyons told me. “They didn’t even let me take the T/A back to Flint. Just handed me the keys to a company car, and then they rented me from GMI to help develop it.”

1981 pontiac trans am
Charlie Baker, a GMI student at the time, remembers Lyons being more aggressive in selling the idea: “He said, ‘You dead-ass guys ought to get off your dead asses and do a turbo for the Trans Am because you’re not in the swing of things here!’ ” Once the dead asses got moving, one of Baker’s first gigs was working on the car. “Lyons said, ‘Baker, you’re a hot-rodder. You know full-throttle tuning. Go do it.’ I said, ‘Fantastic. I’ll go out to the Milford proving ground.’ He said, ‘No, too much bureauc­racy. You can do zero-to-60s out in the parking lot. Don’t kill yourself, and don’t get caught.’ “

This resonated with me, as I do all my tuning on a closed course (parking lot) down the street. I texted Baker a video of my, er, “tire testing.” He wrote back right away: “Brings back memories!” Later I sent him the printout from the T/A’s smog test, which it passed. “A miracle, considering the technology,” he answered, with a smiley emoji. I told him it’s going to be my new daily driver, to which he replied, “I admire your confidence.” If I have a problem, I know who to call.

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Lest you get the impression from this article that the Pontiac 301 V8 was a decent engine in any way other than as an anecdotal example of cost cutting convenience at GM let me assure you that it was and is not. Super-thin-wall light-duty castings and no interchangeability with previous Pontiac efforts meant this end-of-the-line hash-up was doomed from the beginning. The upgrade for this engine is another engine altogether.
I’ve always been puzzled why Pontiac developed the 301 for this when they already had the 389/350/400/455. They are essentially the same block (different deck heights) and weigh almost the same. From a corporate standpoint, putting the turbo on any of the higher displacement motors would have cost less and made more power. Did the smaller displacement really help emissions that much? We saw a trend across GM with engines shrinking at the time. Caddy went from the 500 to the 362 on the same basic block, Chevy from 350 to 262 . I can’t help but think that GM was hoping if they closed their eyes, emissions standards would go away and they’d be able to tool back up displacement.
Question: I remember these as being highly variable in road tests, some running barely better than the n/a 301. What do they run like now, on premium unleaded — something I think was pretty thin on the ground in 1980? Do they do what they were designed — run at least as well as the non W72 400/Olds 403?
A great story. I remember some of those names as the CD Staffers would occasionally mention some of them in their articles. And I remember the Bowtie Poncho rivalry. Especially the response that Chevy made after the 82 F bodies came out and Firebird was found to be the most aerodynamic car at the time; “Only during the daytime when you don’t have to flip up the headlights”.
Jim Lyons was/is an Icon. He would get dragged out of meetings at Pontiac because he could powershift faster than anyone else. ALL his GMI students loved him. He was the faculty advisor to the GMI Car Club – ironically called the Firebirds. We had monthly chassis dyno runs with students cars. It was a hoot!
always like the turbo T/A’s…wish Pontiac would have had more time to do more development on the engine ..liked to have seen in the lighter 3rd gen T/A’s.–check out TTA Performance.—he’s working on some neat upgrades for the 80-81 TTA’s
Nice project– Test Drove a new one, felt real good up till about 70 or so, then started laying down –Aero, weight and lack of cubes starting showing up. But it was a neat rush while it lasted. I still had my ’70 T/A, RA lll, turned drag car, B/MP so I was a little spoiled. Have fun and keep us posted
  • As a Texas Instruments design engineer in the late 1970s, I developed and brought to production an Early Fuel Evaporation system mounted under the Quadrajet carb front two barrels. The Turbo was hung off to the side, so there was no heat from the engine to help driveability on cold starts, or to reduce the HC/CO emissions from fuel enrichment. It worked! The car passed emission durability tests. I never got a ride in the car, although I spent a lot of time at the Milford Proving Grounds
    • Forgot about the gold wheels. Geez, between the stripes and the wheels, what were they thinking? Good taste went right out the window.
    • I had a new 79 WS6 with the Olds 403 engine and the automatic. Totalled it in the fog then got a used 79 WS6 with the Pontiac 400 and 3 speed. Was very fast. That 301 of 1980 seemed a turkey.
      Leave it to 1980 to need a turbo to get a 4.9L V8 to puke out 210hp.
      I got my license in 1981 and this was my dream car. LOL is all I can say now
      What I recall (and I could be mistaken) was that the 4.9 Turbo Trans AMs were pretty slow, and certainly not as quick as the V6 Turbo Trans AMs to follow, which used the Buick Turbo V6 from the GNX….
      What do I think? I think we’re a long way from 1980. It’s cool to get these old Birds back on the road with their original equipment but for a Daily a modern induction set-up would make more sense. Just my nickels worth. I know the ’80-81s get unjustly forgotten but they’re already set up for Turbos so why not upgrade? They kept up with the Hero Cars from the years prior even with the handicap of rudimentary computer control. I’d love to see one that has been updated.


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