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Disco Inferno: The Infamous Pontiac Trans Am Turbo

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Disco Inferno: The Infamous Pontiac Trans Am Turbo

Edmunds.com calls its engine "the most pathetic lump of iron to ever be allowed near a Firebird." Its muscular styling still conjures up bad memories of gold chains and exposed chest hair, a last gasp of disco-era glory. It was Pontiac's first turbocharged car, but it also brought down the curtain on a storied era of unique Pontiac engines. This is the story of the little-loved, oft-forgotten Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Turbo.


Even before the advent of emissions standards, the cost of designing a completely new engine was daunting. Design, development, testing, tooling, setting up supply chains -- it's a complicated process, and the price tag for the whole enterprise rises quickly. It's no surprise that most manufacturers share engines across as many models as possible, even across different brands, to spread those costs around.

We may take it as a sign of General Motors' once vast wealth and market share, then, that until the late 1970s GM's individual divisions designed and manufactured most of their own engines. There were a few instances of one division using another's engines, usually for low-volume applications -- Pontiac bought a few Buick aluminum V8s for the 1961-1962 Tempest; Oldsmobile used Buick's Fireball V6 for some F-85s and Eighty-Eights -- but those were the exception, and divisional leaders preferred to avoid it. The result was that the corporation had a plethora of different engines of similar capacities and outputs. By 1969, for instance, Buick, Chevy, Olds, and Pontiac all offered 350 cu. in. (5.7 L) engines, each of distinctly different design. Since each division's output topped that of some rivals' entire corporations, it seemed an acceptable indulgence.

While Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick each had distinct small-block and big-block V8 engine lines, Pontiac really had only one. Pontiac's "Strato-Streak" V8 had bowed for 1955, replacing the division's hoary flathead engines, which dated back to the 1930s. It had certain features in common with the contemporary small-block Chevy, such as rocker arms pivoting on studded ball joints, rather than rocker shafts (a feature that had actually been developed by Pontiac engineers and shared with Chevrolet), but it had some significant internal differences. It was also somewhat bigger and heavier than the Chevy engine, with greater growth potential.

Grow, the Strato-Streak did -- from 287 cubic inches (4.7 L) in '55 to 455 (7.5 L) in 1970. Over the years, it was offered in a bewildering number of states of tune. Fuel injected, it had powered the first Bonneville, Bunkie Knudsen's declaration of intent that Pontiac was no longer grandma's car. In highly tuned 421 (6.9 L) Super Duty form, it had been a formidable competitor on both drag strip and NASCAR oval. In 389 (6.4 L) form, it had made the reputation of the class-defining GTO, progenitor of the sixties muscle car.

The Pontiac V8 was a sturdy engine with considerable power potential, but it was on the porky side, particularly in its small-displacement versions. The 350 was a good 70 pounds (32 kg) heavier than a Chevy 350 and more than 100 pounds (46 kg) heavier than the Ford 302 (4.9 L), which had adverse effects on weight distribution and fuel economy, particularly for smaller cars.



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Pontiac V-8 was extensively redesigned for '59, effectively leaving the '55-58 Strato-Streak behind. From '59 thru '79 tho- that block is basically one & the same (there were different journal sizes, among other differences).

And of course the Pontiac V-8 weighed more than the Chevy small block; the Pontiac engine wasn't as small as the Chevy, and on the flip side, the SBC could not achieve the displacement range the Pontiac block could. Duh.

BTW- the Pontiac 350 was actually a 355 (just setting the record straight).

The problem I have with the above in general is that the author is looking at the era thru 'today's glasses' - seemingly unaware of the organizational aspect of GM thru it's first 72 years or so. Each Division building their own engines wasn't an extravagance in as much as it was a necessity and natural. They were largely autonomous all those years.

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