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Articles

1969 Pontiac Trans Am - a Star Is Born

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The introduction of the Firebird for 1967 had been a huge success for Pontiac. Though the Firebird added to Pontiac's sporty image. It was like a great tasting cake that was missing icing. What it needed was an ultimate performance model. For 1969, that's exactly what it got. The Trans Am, which was named after the Sports Club of America's Trans-Am Series (a racing series that has been around since 1966), was merely intended to be a low volume speciality Firebird model. It was supposed to be used as a tool to get Pontiac's small displacement high-performance 303 CID V8 certified for the Trans-Am racing circuit. However some of the most well thought-out plans sometimes take on a life of their own. In the 1969 Trans Am's case, that's exactly what happened.

Pontiac managed to build a few 303 V8s however it never made into the Trans Am or any other production Pontiac for that matter. Instead Pontiac decided to offer the 1969 Firebird's two top performance engines - the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV 400 CID V8s. The move may have been last minute, however it helped to build the Trans Am into not only a Pontiac star but a muscle car icon. Ford which offered its racing derived Boss 302 CID V8 and Boss 429 CID V8 in its 1969-1970 Boss Mustangs. Ford's motivation in offering the Boss Mustangs (was similar to Pontiac's original intention with the Trans Am) was to get its Boss 302 and 429 V8s certified for racing. Though both motors were a racing success (the Boss 302 on the Trans Am circuit and the Boss 429 on the NASCAR circuit), the low production Boss Mustangs they were found in only lasted two production years. A 303 CID V8 powered Trans Am, would have probably left production after one or two model years just like the Boss 302 and Boss 429 Mustangs. Instead the Trans Am lasted 34 consecutive model years.

The 1969 Trans Am was not just a Firebird with a new name. It looked the part of a top tier muscle car. By the late-1960s the image of the no frills muscle car was being revamped. Wild decals and racing stripes, along with racing derived spoilers and air dams were appearing on some special edition muscle cars including the Trans Am, by this time. The 1969 Trans Am was merely giving muscle car buyers what they wanted - a lot of glitz to go with the blitz under the hood. The Trans Am used the 1969 Firebird's exterior styling, the Firebird's rear with distinctive two horizontal rear lights on each side of the rear end were there. Also present on the Trans Am was the Firebird's attractive front beak which utilized four round headlamps that were surrounded by a new endura front nose piece. The 1969 Firebird's front and rear styling were new for 1969. When a buyer selected the Trans Am box on the Firebird order sheet - a wild rear wing fiberglass spoiler, a unique hood with two large fully functional hood air scoops, fiberglass dual air extractors on both front quarter panels, two blue stripes that ran from the front of the hood to the end of the rear spoiler, a black plastic lower front spoiler, blacked out front grills, and a white exterior paint scheme (Cameo White). "Trans Am" decals were present on the front quarter panels and on top of the rear spoiler. And all Trans 1969ta-3aAm's had an upper rear panel which surrounded the taillights which was painted in Tyrol Blue (which was the same color of the Trans Am's two body stripes).

The 1969 Trans Am was available in two Firebird body styles - (hardtop) coupe and convertible. Only 697 Trans Ams were produced for the 1969 model year. 689 of these were coupes, and the other 8 were convertibles. The convertibles have for many years been the holy grail of Pontiac collectors, and in recent years the same can be said of the coupes which in mint condition now commend six figure prices (it's anyone's guess how much a convertible model will go for, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the next one up for sale may even hit close or over the seven figure mark). The first year Trans Am has become one of the most sought after collectables from the original muscle car era. That will ensure that the 1969 Trans Am will never become extinct however on the flip side of the coin is that owning one is now out of reach of what the average classic muscle car owner can afford. However some are taking matters into their own hands and converting run-of-the-mill 1969 Firebird coupes and convertibles into Trans Am clones/tribute cars.

During the 1969 model year the base price of the coupe was $3,556 and the convertible was $3,770. With only a $214 difference between the coupe and convertible, it's a mystery why only 8 buyers wanted a Trans Am convertible. All convertibles were ordered with the base Ram Air III 400 V8.

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Most have the notion that the 1969 Trans Am came standard with just about every option on the Firebird option list, nothing could be further from the truth. The Trans Am may have had a flashy exterior but if a buyer didn't check off any options on the order sheet that buyer would have a stripped down car. For instance the Trans Am came standard with taxi cab style 14 inch painted steel wheels with poverty caps. Fortunately most Trans Ams were ordered with the optional very attractive 14 inch Rally II wheels with trim rings. The Trans Am was also standard with a floor mounted 3-speed manual transmission - not exactly what you would expect of a 1969ta-8
high-performance muscle car in the late-1960s. Most buyers who preferred to shift their gears manually, fortunately opted instead for the optional 4-speed manual. A 3-speed automatic transmission was also on the option list. And the 3-speed automatic when ordered without a center console was mounted on the steering column - when ordered with the center console it was mounted in this console. When the top-of-the-line Ram Air IV 400 V8 was ordered it was standard with  a 4-speed manual transmission and the 3-speed automatic was optional.

The (L74) Ram Air III 400 V8 may have been the Trans Am's base motor, but it still was one of the best Pontiac high-performance motors during the muscle car golden era. It was also the base motor for the (top-of-the-line 1969 GTO and new for 1969) Pontiac GTO Judge. The Trans Am's optional (L67) Ram Air IV 400 V8 was also the optional engine for the 1969 GTO Judge. However in 1969, the GTO was still Pontiac's top dog performance car, with the Trans Am playing second fiddle. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the horsepower ratings. The Ram Air III was rated at 335 gross horsepower in the Trans Am and 366 gross horsepower in the GTO and GTO Judge, the Ram Air IV was rated at 345 gross horsepower in the Trans Am and 370 gross horsepower in the GTO and GTO Judge. These advertised figures really didn't matter since the true gross horsepower of Ram Air III was over 370 horsepower and the Ram Air IV was slightly over 400 horsepower. There are presistent rumors that the Trans Am's Ram Air III and Ram Air IV V8s had a slight handicap due to rigged linkage in the Rochester Quadrajet 4-bbl carburetors that didn't allow the secondary barrels to open up all the way. These rumors are false, Pontiac had handicapped all 1967 and 1968 Firebirds equipped with Pontiac's 400 V8 1969ta-4with handicapped carburetor linkage to meet an internal GM corporate weight-to-horsepower mandate. By 1969 Pontiac stopped these petty games and just underrated on paper all the Pontiac 400 V8s available in the 1969 Firebird. So the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV V8s found in the 1969 Trans Am, were only handicapped on paper.     

The Ram Air III was powerful motor that utilized a cast iron free-flow intake manifold, high performance cast iron D-port heads, and special cast iron free-flow exhaust manifolds. It had a 4.12 inch bore and a 3.75 inch stroke which it shared with every other 400 CID V8 Pontiac produced including the Ram Air IV. The Ram Air III had a 10.75:1 compression ratio and came standard with 3.55 rear gears. The Ram Air III was a great street racing motor, it was the hottest D-port 400 V8 that Pontiac produced. The Ram Air IV in comparison was closer to a racing motor, it had a higher duration cam shaft than the Ram Air III, a free-flow aluminum 1969ta-5intake manifold, round-port heads, and other performance goodies. The Ram Air IV was standard with 3.90 rear gears. Both the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV engines had a free-flow air cleaner assembly which had a generous amount of foam which pressed against the hood when it was closed. When it was open, the foam gave the top part of the engine a look of an elaborate maze. When the hood was closed the two hood scoops sucked in the fresh air which passed through an air cleaner - the foam maze provided an unescapable walls for the rushing air, forcing it down the throat of the 4-bbl carburetor. When wide open throttle occurred the sucking sound of the air mixed with the beautiful melody of the unique wail of the quadrajet 4-bbl which would put a smile on the face of any muscle car fan. Both engines were painted in light metallic blue and dressed up with chrome valve covers. The Ram Air III Trans Am had two "Ram Air" decals on the hood whereas the Ram Air IV had "Ram Air IV" decals in the same locations on the hood. Hot Rod magazine back in 1969 test drove a Ram Air IV equipped Trans Am and obtained 14.1 seconds at 100.78 mph in the 1/4 mile run - which was fast enough to dust a lot of the competition back in the day. The Ram Air III was a few 1/10s of a second slower.

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The Trans Am was also (by 1969 standards) a great handling car, which made sense due to the Trans Am's name being derived from a racing circuit where great handling was the name of the game. Heavy duty shocks, heavy duty springs, a thicker anti-roll bar, and a quick ratio steering box were all standard on the Trans Am. Also power front disc 1969ta-6brakes (with rear-drums) were standard which helped to stop the Trans Am smoothly and with authority.

Pontiac may have been strict about mandating the exterior color on the 1969 Trans Am, however when it came to the interior it was bit more lax. A buyer could pick from the different interior colors offered in Firebird order sheet. Both black and blue seem to be the most popular among these colors. However there were some adventurous buyers who opted for red and other more non-standard colors. The interior was attractive even in Trans Ams not well equipped. Part of this was due to the standard bucket seats and the standard sporty wood steering wheel. Later in the 1969 production year, Pontiac replaced the wood steering wheel with the Pontiac Formula steering wheel which would become a 1970s Trans Am icon. The only difference between the two was the 1969 Formula steering wheel had the 1967-1969 Firebird emblem in the center hub while the 1970 and newer version used the later Firebird emblem design. When equipped with the optional center console which had a wood grain pattern, the interior was really spruced up, especially since the manual or automatic shifter handle when so ordered both also had wooden handles. The driver's side dash trim around the gauges was by default a matte black color, and 1969ta-1even when ordered with the woodgrain console it didn't convert over to a woodgrain dash design unless the optional woodgrain dash was ordered. So there were some 1969 Trans Ams produced equipped with woodgrain console and matte black trim around the dashboard gauges. It was certainly not the best looking combination, however many who ordered the console also ordered the dashboard woodgrain trim which when the wood steering wheel was present gave the interior a really classy look.

Times were good for Pontiac back in 1969, and its top muscle car the GTO was still riding high. Pontiac had no idea that in a few short years it would be pulling the plug on the GTO and the Trans Am would be its top dog performance car. After-all the 1969 GTO Judge which was a limited production GTO model (with 6,833 produced) outsold the 1969 Trans Am 10 to 1. Nobody not even Pontiac could have foreseen that only 10 years later 116,535 Trans Ams would be produced for the 1979 model year - which happened to be a higher number than any single year of total GTO production. With the 1969 Trans Am, a star was born - it would become one of the most revered performance cars America or any other country would ever produce.

 

Written contents in this article - © 2012 Pete Dunton - All Rights Reserved

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