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This or That: 1979 Chevy Camaro Z28 versus 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

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1979 Chevy Camaro Z28 (top); 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (bottom). Images by the author.

Editor’s note: This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a weekly basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.

This episode of This or That features a pair of icons from GM’s divisional rivals: a 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 versus a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Both former Hemmings Muscle Machines feature cars, each were fitted with contemporary power, spoilers, stripes, and a firm suspension, most of which harkened back to the glory days of the performance era. Perhaps this is why the ’79 F-body brethren sold so well, despite growing emission and safety regulations, and two oil embargos that had every mechanical engineer thinking in terms of new CAFE standards. Both the Z28 and the Trans Am lineage had been well-cultivated through multiple marketing outlets.

Take the Camaro Z28, for instance. Since 1977, the continuously massaged second-gen pony was the car-of-choice for the uber-competitive IROC (International Race of Champions) Series, festooned with now legendary names such as Andretti, Waltrip, Parsons, Petty, Rutherford and Unser, to name a few. And then there was Chevy’s 1979 ad campaign that touted the second coming of the homologation special (technically re-launched in ’77):

When it comes to hugging a road, there’s nothing quite like the feel of a Camaro Z28. It’s the hugger’s hugger. What makes it so are things like Z28’s standard 5.7 litre, 4-barrel V-8, a Sport suspension that incorporates special shocks, front and rear stabilizer bars, a close-ratio Four-Speed transmission with a 2.64:1 first gear connected to an 11-inch high-capacity clutch. Add to that the fact that Z28 sits lower to the ground than most cars, and you’ve got a car that’s more than capable on a winding back road or an open straightaway.

It outlined a simple yet successful performance formula. What was conveniently missing was the fact that the 5.7-litre V-8 (a 350 small-block) made 175hp; healthy for the era but hardly the 360-horse screamer of yore. What the manual-shift Z28 lacked in vintage power more than made up in attitude. For 1979, engineers fitted the aforementioned 11-inch (diaphragm-style) clutch in conjunction with a Borg-Warner Super T-10 four-speed transmission, which was linked to a sturdy 8.5-inch 10-bolt differential via beefy driveshaft featuring massive yokes. Then they added the classic Z28 five-spoke 15×7-inch steel wheels, painted to match the body, which could have been swapped for optional aluminum turbine wheels. And aside from the F-41 sport suspension, a 13:1 steering box was included.

We previously outlined the Z28’s new visual cues in the September 2013 article:

For 1979, a front air dam led the way into the next decade and the lower front three-quarters of the car was wrapped in racy two-color accent stripes that terminated in bold Z28 callouts. The nonfunctional hood scoop returned for 1979, as did the louvered vents on the fenders. Inside, the big news for ’79 was a redesigned dash, which replaced the control panel that had been around since the beginning of the second generation. This change, according to one source, took place because the tooling for the dash had worn out, but it’s just as likely that stylists were looking for a more contemporary shape. The Z’s trademark four-spoke steering wheel with simulated string wrapping returned for ’79.

The end result was that Camaro Z28 sales rocketed to a staggering high of 84,877 examples for 1979.

Meanwhile, Pontiac was reaping the benefit of mass marketing late in the decade, the most obvious example being Trans Am’s staring role in the 1977 hit flick Smokey and the Bandit, followed by Hooper a year later. Just how much? The division sold 117,108 examples; outpacing the Z28 by 27 percent.

What helped considerably was that, like its sibling, the F-body’s performance formula stayed true to itself as best it could, despite the platform’s growing heft. Base power was now an Oldsmobile-supplied 6.6-Litre ( that made 185 hp; however this engine mandated the installation of a THM automatic transmission. A tuned heavy-duty suspension, Safe-T-Track differential, power front disc brakes, Rally II wheels and power steering completed the basic road-hugging chassis. That 403, of course, could have been supplanted by the last of the W-72 coded 220-hp Pontiac engine, which could have been backed by an 11-inch clutch and four-speed manual. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the WS6 suspension package that also added cast aluminum wheels and four-wheel disc brakes. Curb appeal, like the Camaro, was bolstered by loud graphics, shaker hood and functional spoilers.

Our feature car was special ordered with T-tops, power windows and door locks, air conditioning, tilt wheel, cruise control, AM/FM stereo cassette, custom trim group–velour, custom color-keyed seatbelts, lamp group, floor mats, vanity mirror, controlled wipers, remote decklid release and electric rear defrost inside. Exterior extras included door edge guards, white letter tires, Soft Ray glass, roof drip rail, windowsill moldings and 15 x 7 cast-aluminum wheels; and a heavy-duty alternator and battery.

Armed with this F-body muscle knowledge, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?