GM’s pony cars, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, received a thorough redesign for their second generation, which debuted in 1970. The Coke-bottle styling of the first-generation cars gave way to a sleek coupe with a long hood and taut fastback rear. The shape was balanced and restrained (at first), showing a decided European influence. The redesign would prove long-lived, remaining in production until 1981.
In keeping with the pony-car formula, buyers could dial in performance ranging from mild to wild or interior appointments from poverty spec to near-luxury levels by ticking the right option box. However, it’s outside the purview of this brief piece to delve into all the variations of the car.
As the ‘70s progressed, ever-tightening emissions and safety regulations had drastic effects on car designs. The Firebird lost some of its sleekness and power in the name of cleaner exhaust and greater passenger safety.
Pontiac countered this assault in several ways. First, even though power was down, a 6.6-liter Trans Am was still among the quickest cars of its day. Handling was good across the lineup, too, thanks to “Radial Tuned Suspension,” as betokened by a plaque on the dash of Firebirds and Trans-Ams. Secondly, the clean coupe shape of the cars responded better than most to the installation of federal impact bumpers by using a molded one-piece bumper-cum-nosecone.
The 1970s were glory days for personal luxury coupes, even the humble Pontiac Sunbird (sibling to the Chevrolet Monza) could be ordered with a quarter-vinyl roof and other broughamizations.
The Firebird lineup had its own personal luxury touring car, the Esprit. Given their role, Esprit’s powertrains varied depending on the year, but they couldn’t be ordered with Trans-Am level engines. They were usually bedecked with creature comforts like tilt-wheel, air conditioning, and other luxuries like extra sound insulation. They could also be specified with that most 1970s of options, T-tops.
Capitalizing on the fashion-forward mood of the day, Pontiac designed special versions of the Firebird aimed specifically at women, who it was estimated made up 30 percent of Firebird buyers. These would be the so-called “Color Birds,” the first of which, the Sky Bird, was shown in 1977 and sold well. From today’s vantage point, it’s very easy to dismiss Pontiac’s marketing of a pastel-colored, not very fast, car to women as misogynistic and patronizing – and it was. However, the 1970s were a very different time.
Gender equity aside, the cars were very attractive. Sky Birds were a lovely pale blue hue and had color-keyed interiors and snowflake wheels. The exterior was enhanced with optimistic-looking striping specific to the car. Building on the Sky Birds’ success, a Red Bird replaced it in 1978 and it ran through till the following year. Red Birds also featured color-keyed wheels and interior trim and special striping but were otherwise just like other Firebird Esprits.
The Yellowbird that followed in 1980 would be the last of the series. Unlike its predecessors, the Yellowbird’s cockpit was tan instead of color-keyed. Probably for the best, since in this writer’s opinion, butter-yellow interiors really only work on Lincolns, Cadillacs, and Imperials.
Why This Car?
When it comes to late second-gen Firebirds, the Smokey and the Bandit Tans-Ams steal all the attention. This is all well and good if your idea of a fun road trip is outfoxing a corpulent Southern sheriff while smuggling beer across state lines. But, in the days of disco, most folks were more concerned about looking suave while K.C. and the Sunshine Band blasted on the 8-track and a feathered roach clip dangled from the rearview mirror.
I know this to be true because that’s exactly what my mother did in her two successive Trans-Ams. Admittedly, the first one was a 1977 6.6-liter, painted white, not Smokey livery (grandpa wouldn’t countenance his daughter driving a car with a screaming chicken on the hood). Mom wrapped the 6.6 around a telephone pole while riding with her buddy Jose Cuervo and replaced it with a 1981 running a weedy 301 cubic-inch V8. That car was black and sleek, if slow. Still, with the faux engine-turned dash and a full assortment of gauges behind a sport steering wheel, it managed to feel special; a real blue-collar Gran Turismo car.
Style is where the one-year-only Yellowbird makes its mark. Lacking performance, it’s a poseur and has zero shame about it (even if this particular example has a more powerful engine installed). Finished in an exclusive pale yellow with a nifty stripe package, color-keyed snowflake alloy wheels, and a complimentary tan interior, the Yellowbird is as light, bright and friendly as a Smokey car is sinister. It’s a rarity too. Only 17,277 Esprits of all types found buyers in 1980, making Yellowbirds the rarest of all the “Color Birds.”
This example appears to be a survivor, while some corrosion is evident at the bottom of one of the doors, as shown in the pictures, the car still “rings true.”
On the debit side, there’s a damaged door handle, and the paint is original but probable beyond anything but preservation at this point. While the interior looks presentable, aftermarket gauges have been fitted to make up for the fact that the original buyer didn’t opt for a complete set of factory items.
The present owner has installed a tuned 350 cubic-inch V8 and a BM shift kit for the automatic transmission but has retained the original 301 cubic-inch powerplant, which is included in the sale. As with many high-power engines, idle quality is not good, according to the ad. While it was a factory A/C car, it is not presently functional, partly due to the engine swap.
On balance, the fact that this is a surviving example of a rare and unusually stylish car outweighs its condition and modified drivetrain. Especially as the factory engine is included, the car could be returned to its original specification if desired.
Things to Watch Out For When Buying a 1980 Pontiac Firebird
Corrosion is always a concern with any car of this vintage, and Firebirds are no exception. Pay special attention to the kickup over the rear axle and rear frame rails. The trunk floor is another problem area, as are rear spring hangers. The lower areas of fenders and quarter panels also demand attention when inspecting for corrosion.
Powertrains are, by and large solid. Even the 301 isn’t too heinous, even if it doesn’t make much power. Apply the same inspection techniques you’d use for any car, check the dipstick and oil filler caps for emulsified coolant and oil, and do the same for the radiator cap. Pull the transmission dipstick and carefully sniff. If it smells burnt, it’s not a good sign.
When test driving, pay attention to shift quality, which should be pretty smooth (for unmodified cars), and power delivery should be linear.
The good news is, parts commonality with other GM cars and a robust collector community means most mechanical parts are readily available for Firebirds and Trans Ams. Routine maintenance chores are well within the abilities of a home mechanic.
Summing It Up
This is a rare surviving example of a one-year-only car that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of its time. Whether you chose to keep the built-up 350 cubic-inch V8 the present owner has installed or return the car to factory spec is a matter of preference. As for me, I’d buy a roach clip to hang from the rearview mirror and drive the wheels off it exactly as it sits. However, I’d make sure to leave Jose Cuervo at home.
TTAC Throwback is a new series devoted to cars we think deserve to be owned by someone who really loves them. Just imagine Sarah McLachlan crooning In the Arms of an Angel as the camera pans past a deserving car up for adoption, hoping desperately that it doesn’t get recycled into a Nissan Versa (I’ve, I’ve got something in my eye). Now go ahead, put in your bid; there now, don’t you feel better? You’re doing the right thing.
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