Open Menu
Open Menu

On the genesis of the third-gen Pontiac Firebird – and how it became KITT

Published in

[Editor’s Note: While the Firebird’s getting paired with the Camaro for many 50th anniversary celebrations this year, David Newhardt’s latest book, “Pontiac Firebird: 50 Years,” focuses just on the Pontiac pony car and various incarnations. In this excerpt provided to us by publisher Motorbooks, Newhardt takes a look at the third-generation Firebird and how it became the world’s most famous crime-fighting autonomous car.]

Chapter Three: The Dark Ages

As the 1980s gathered steam, it was clear that Pontiac, like all auto manufacturers, was being led by legislation. The US government had, starting in the late 1960s, imposed regulations via the Clean Air Act of 1963 that put limits on vehicle emissions. The air in some large American cities had become horribly polluted, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between tailpipe emissions and smog. As the decades wore on, the standards became increasingly stringent.

In 1975, Congress responded to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo by enacting the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations in an effort to improve vehicle fuel mileage and reduce US dependence on foreign fuel sources. Old ways of thinking were not going to get the job done. This one-two regulatory punch was a tough set of parameters under which to design a car, and it forced manufacturers to come up with new and creative solutions to a new brand of challenges.

It was with this umbrella hanging over their heads that the collective brain trust at Pontiac and Chevrolet had started planning the next generation of the F-body in 1975. It’s a rare day that any automobile can be designed with a fresh sheet of paper more than once. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, is standard operating procedure for manufacturers. So when it was decided that the F-body would be a truly new vehicle, enthusiasm within Pontiac was high.

The planners immediately settled on a new vehicle that was smaller and lighter than the second generation. Performance was on the list of must-haves in the new car, as well as improved mileage. On-board computers were becoming more common in vehicles, and with that revolution, engineers were learning how to let drivers have their cake and eat it too.

William Mitchell, vice president of GM Design, retired in August 1977, replaced by Irvin “Irv” Rybicki. As is tradition when a new department head picks up the reins, Rybicki wanted to see everything that the studios were working on, including the F-body. As related in Gary Witzenburg’s “Firebird! America’s Premier Performance Car,” Rybicki “asked Schinella, Porter and Palmer to bring their Firebird and Camaro models out for review.

“After looking them all over carefully, his comment, according to Palmer, was, ‘I think the basic theme looks good, but I feel very strongly that the F-car should have the single-panel side glass.’ In other words, no rear quarter window—a close-coupled, two-seat sports car sort of look—in keeping with the second-generation theme.”

With that edict from Rybicki, January 1978 saw the Pontiac studio under Bill Porter go to work again on the newest Firebird. Originally, the plan was to introduce the third-gen Firebird for the 1980 model year, but that got pushed back to 1981. Then 1982. As a starting point, Pontiac had used a 1976 rendering that Bill Porter’s assistant, Roger Hughet, had done, showing a beautiful wedge of a car with a very laid-back windshield and a one-piece rear window that used compound curves to flow into the trunk lid. John Schinella’s Pontiac No. 2 Studio massaged clay into shape that would work with the Firebird’s Chevrolet sister car, the Camaro. After considerable debate, the Chevrolet design staff adopted the Pontiac door design, which was critical because it set the stylistic tone for the entire profile. The two cars shared the roof panel, rear hatch, side glass, and doors; different hoods, rear-quarter panels, and front fender were Pontiac only. While the Camaro featured exposed headlights, Pontiac sprang for pricier pop-up lights, giving the new body a sleek, wind-cheating shape.

Southern Californian Gale Banks has been working with forced induction for decades, and this 1982 Trans Am was created to break 200 miles per hour. It did, briefly, until a distributor bushing called it a day. That in turn laid waste to the powerplant.

Beneath the slick body was a new chassis, with a shorter 101-inch wheelbase. It didn’t use a front subframe as on earlier cars; the new chassis featured fully unitized construction, with MacPherson struts at the front and coil springs in the rear, replacing the prior generation’s leaf springs. Both suspension designs were more compact than the old front A-arms and rear leafs, and the lack of a subframe allowed the suspension engineers to reduce the amount of rubber used for noise, vibration, and harshness control. This firmed up the handling, giving the driver more road feel. Pontiac chief engineer Bob Dorn explained in Firebird!, “The new modified MacPherson-strut front suspension is solid-mounted to the body structures through a bolt-on crossmember, meaning its lateral compliance is near-zero—and you know what that means to handling.

“Instead of loading the system up with a lot of rubber for road isolation, we’ve accomplished the same thing through fine-tuning of the body members to maximize stiffness while minimizing deflections at each suspension attachment point.” What that means in regular speak is that the suspension didn’t feel like it had rubber bands in it, compressing stretching with every steering input. The result was a car that had a more confident feel, as if it were tied to the ground. When you turned the wheel, things happened—right away. That behavior is ideal for a real driver’s car. And shaving off 500 pounds from the 1981 model’s weight didn’t hurt, either.

On top of that new chassis lay a stunning new body shaped like a curvaceous wedge. Extensive time spent in the wind tunnel had paid off, giving the Trans Am a drag coefficient of just 0.323. Lowering the nose an inch further improved the coefficient of drag to below 0.3, a far better number than those posed by its contemporaries. According to Schinella, also quoted in Firebird!, “The car is almost a perfect aerodynamic wedge, so it’s very sensitive to its attitude in the wind. Unfortunately, because of bumper-height and ride-travel requirements we can’t sell it that way.”

The third-generation Firebird was a little shorter than its predecessor—89.8 inches, a reduction of 8.3 inches. It was also 1 inch narrower, coming in at 72 inches, and .5 inch lower, at 49.8 inches. Contributing to the wedge look was a windshield sloping back at 62 degrees, unusual for its severity. At the rear, lifting a huge glass hatch revealed a deep cargo well, necessary due to the placement of the fuel tank and spare tire.

Flipping the rear seat backs down created a huge 30.9-cubic-foot cargo area. At the time the vehicle was first introduced, the complex curvature of the rear window was tough to manufacture, and this resulted in the problem that in early cars, shutting the rear hatch with too much enthusiasm resulted in the glass exploding. Pontiac and Chevrolet worked very quickly to fix the issue, and eventually a soft pull-down latch, like those used on Cadillacs, was used, eliminating the need for slamming the hatch.

The full 1989 Pontiac F-body lineup poses in the late afternoon desert sun. In the foreground is the GTA, to the right is a Trans Am, and on the left is a Formula. A base Firebird holds down the background. George Scala collection.

With the departure of the second-generation F-body, two names in the Firebird family were sent packing, the Esprit and the Formula. The 1982 Firebird line now consisted of three tiers: the $7,996 base, or “first level” model; the $9,624 Special Edition (S/E), which replaced the Esprit and Formula; and the top-shelf Trans Am, which started at $9,656. Each level had a distinctive design philosophy, and it helped to give the Pontiac F-body essentially three different versions.

The base car was just that, a bare-bones model that could be optioned up with as many goodies as the buyer was comfortable with. Bereft of a powerful engine, it was ideal for thrifty commuters who wanted to travel in style without breaking the bank. Pontiac took a different tack with the Special Edition, as John Schinella related in Firebird!:

We wanted this car to be a little more sedate, more sophisticated, a nice, clean, Porsche-type image that a buyer could relate to without all the goodies on the T/A. What we did was come up with a tone-on-tone concept, color-on-color, sort of like a guy in a gray suit with a light gray shirt and gray tie—tasteful, elegant. If you take the gold car, for example, the upper surfaces are light gold, the lower surfaces dark gold, and the turbo wheel covers match the upper body. When you get the rear wing it’s also body color. The mirrors are gold, and so are the door handles. The S/E lettering is gold-on-gold. The grilles almost made it in body color, too, which would have been neat but the material they’re made from can only be done in black, and it was too late to change the material.

The Trans Am, on the other hand, was taken to the other extreme. Instead of all the appendages of the past, this car has its aerodynamics built in. It’s very smooth to begin with, so we couldn’t shout about that. Instead we took a more mechanical approach. A lot of prototype work has this high-tech sort of look, with matte black finish. It registers “hightech” and it looks structural. The taillight bird insignia is a matte gray, but so are all the devices or appendages or pieces that identify the Trans Am so you’ll recognize that they’re there for a reason. These include the turbo wheel covers, the dual mirrors, the wing, the door handles, the grilles, the functional air exhaust just rearward of the front wheel, the lettering, the graphics, and the accent along the bottom of the car. The colors are bright, high-“chroma,” high-intensity in contrast to the S/E’s more sophisticated colors.

With the new version of the Firebird, new engines were shown the stage. For the first time, a four-cylinder engine was used in the F-body. This engine, UPC coded LQ9 and nicknamed the Iron Duke, was a Pontiac built, single-point, throttle-body, fuel-injected, 2.5-liter powerplant that pumped out 90 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 134 pounds-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm and came standard in the base Firebird. As fate would have it, the LQ9 engine was the last Pontiac-sourced engine that would be used in Firebirds. This engine was durable and cheap to make, and it could be made clean enough to appease the pollution watchdogs. It used an iron block and head, and its overhead valves used pushrods to work. In these frugal times, Pontiac invested heavily in a 5-liter V-8, and the little straight four shared many internal components with its big brother, including pistons, connecting rods, and piston rings. But sharing parts didn’t mean it could produce V-8 power; with this engine, the 2,858-pound 1982 Firebird needed about 20 seconds to coax the speedometer needle up to 60 miles per hour. A healthy kid on a 10-speed could beat it down the street. But many people lusted after the newest-generation Firebird’s shape, and if this was the least expensive way to be seen in the sleek design, acceleration be damned! General Motors spread the wealth with this engine, installing it in both X- and A-cars.

The first optional engine for the base Firebird was the LC1 Chevrolet-sourced 2.8-liter V-6, priced at $125.08 and bursting with 105 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 142 pounds-feet of twist at 2,400 rpm from 8.5:1 compression. Chevrolet used this same powerplant in its X-car but in a transverse front-wheel-drive application. This was the standard engine in the S/E, and it lost about 10 horsepower when installed in the F-body due to the use of an engine-driven fan, rather than the electric fan used in the X-car application.

Special Edition buyers who wanted a bit more grunt could purchase an alternative Chevrolet-sourced engine, the LG4, costing $170 to $195, a 5-liter V-8 that was rated at 145 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and produced 240 pounds-feet of torque at 2,000 revs. It breathed through a four-barrel computer-assisted E4ME carburetor and was mated to either the MM4 four-speed manual transmission or the MXI three-speed automatic.

The engine used a “Computer Command Control” engine management system to help with emission control. When installed in a Trans Am with the automatic, it would vault the car to 60 miles per hour in 10.8 seconds.

Next: Trans Am. The name evokes power. Pontiac knew this, and the division was doing everything in its ability to stuff more beans beneath the hood. The LG4 was the standard engine in the T/A, paired with a Borg- Warner four-speed manual transmission, and it came with the traditional V-8 rumble that was music to any enthusiast’s ears. Yet as with any good GM vehicle, there were options. Another V-8 was available: RPO LU5, a 5-liter engine that was topped with Rochester “Cross-Fire Fuel Injection.” This throttle-body induction system was first seen on the 1982 Corvette, and it was a fill-in for the day when true electronic fuel injection would hit the production line. Output was rated at 165 horsepower at 4,200 rpm and 240 pounds-feet of torque at a relatively high 2,400 revs, and the engine cost $899 if ordered without the Y84 Recaro Trans Am package. Ordering the LU5 meant the manual transmission was out, replaced by the Turbo HydraMatic 200C three-speed automatic. This engine, when paired with the auto box, narrowly avoided paying the fuel-guzzler tax; when fitted with a manual transmission, the fuel mileage sank the T/A into unwanted territory. Even so, with the LU5 and an automatic, the Trans Am barely got 18 miles per gallon, and it wasn’t available in California.

The Banks Turbo installation in the 1982 Trans Am is neat and professional. The twin Rayjay E-flow turbos that flank a Chevrolet 5.7-liter look like they belong there. Herb Adams massaged the suspension to handle the expected speed.

The engine wasn’t the only nod to performance that Pontiac made with the third-generation Firebird—the suspension was no slouch, either. As mentioned earlier, a front MacPherson strut system in the front and coil springs and a torque tube arrangement in the rear modernized the greasy bits. More aggression was available in the WS6 option, which in years prior had given the F-body razorsharp responses.

On the 1982 Firebirds this package used slightly softer rear springs, which gave the car a more realworld- friendly ride. But don’t think the Trans Am had been converted into a boulevard cruiser; the hot shoes at Motor Trend flogged a Trans Am equipped with the LU5 engine and WS6 suspension to a 0–60 time of 8.89 seconds. On a skid pad, the car would generate a lateral g-force of 0.83, more than enough to spill coffee.

The interior enjoyed a full freshening to match the exterior. In 1977 Pontiac created a “concept studio,” led by John Shettler, to investigate themes for the interior in the third-generation F-body. The design philosophy for the newest Firebird was a high-tech look, much like the exterior. Nontraditional sources of inspiration included the Concorde supersonic transport and Lear business jet airplanes, whose instrument panels used long hoods to shield reflections off the windshields, an element that was carried over to the Pontiac.

A strong horizontal line was evident throughout the interior, and geometric shapes were unmistakable. The aircraft theme was everywhere, including the use of real and faux Torx fasteners. The Trans Am even had an option (Y84) that put genuine Recaro seats in the front. Officially listed as the “Recaro Trans Am” option, it was full of goodies that created a comfortable car that turned heads.

It wasn’t an option for the meek—or the poor. Costing $2,486 to $2,968, the option gave the two thousand customers who wrote the big check a black Trans Am with gold accents, Recaro seats with Parella cloth, T-tops, and the WS6 suspension, including four-wheel disc brakes. The word “Recaro” was on the exterior door handles.

Both the motoring press and the public were thrilled with the new Firebird line. American automobiles in the early 1980s were collectively a boring lot, yet here was Pontiac working overtime to instill real verve into a production vehicle. Total sales of the entire Firebird line in 1982 were 116,364 units, and the breakdown per model was 41,683 for the base Firebird, 21,719 for the S/E, and 52,962 for the Trans Am. The F-body outsold everything else in the 1982 Pontiac lineup.

Pontiac designer John Schinella sketched the initial rendering of the famous red lights inset on the nose of KITT on a napkin during a meeting with Harker Wade, a production executive with Glen Larson Productions, the company behind Knight Rider.

It’s Who You Know

Once again, show business found the Trans Am. Instead of the silver screen, it was now the boob tube. Harker Wade, a production executive with Glen Larson Productions, approached Eric Dahlquist of Vista Group, an automotive placement firm that acts as a go-between with vehicle manufacturers and magazines, studios, and production companies. One Sunday in the spring of 1981, Wade walked up to Dahlquist at the church they both attended and told him that he was involved in a television pilot about a crime fighter and his talking automobile. He said that they were thinking about using a Datsun 300ZX, but Glen Larson wasn’t really sold on it. Wasn’t Pontiac coming out with a new Trans Am?

At this point, Dahlquist gave Wade a picture of the new 1982 Firebird, and the production executive liked what he saw. Harker showed it to Glen Larson, who responded positively. Meanwhile, Dahlquist sent a memo to Jim Graham, marketing director at Pontiac, outlining the properties of the car and the scenario of the show. Dahlquist remembers Graham getting back to him, saying, “I don’t think we’ll be interested in this; it sounds like My Mother the Car. It’s not really the demographics or the image that we want for the Trans Am; it’s not that kind of car. I think we’ll pass.”

Dahlquist thought it was too good of a story idea to drop, so he approached Pontiac general manager Bill Hoglund. Hoglund listened to Dahlquist, then told him, “If you can find a way to get this done, if somebody comes to me and says, ‘Here’s what we’ve got, boss, we need your okay,’ I’ll okay it. But I’m not going to undermine Jim Graham.”

So Dahlquist approached John Schinella and filled him in on the project. Dahlquist remembers, “John was wildly excited about the whole idea, so we got him together with Harker Wade at our converted house/office in Burbank.” Vista Group co-owner Chuck Koch attended the meeting and remembers sitting in the front room as Wade was telling Schinella, “I want it to have this kind of a feel, kind of a red light in the front.” Schinella grabbed a napkin and started to sketch on it, and after about five minutes he showed it to Harker, who took one look at it and said, “That’s it—do it.”

And you thought today’s cars have too many buttons? This replica of the KITT car looks like a control panel at NASA’s launch center. Actor William Daniels supplied the voice for the self-driving crime fighter but declined on-screen credit.

In the contract between Universal and Pontiac, the automaker was to provide four Trans Ams. Two were beauty cars, and two were for stunt work. But a problem arose: all of the initial vehicles were spoken for by dealers. It took some persuading to get all of the affected parties—the Van Nuys plant, vehicle transportation, dealers—to go along with giving the studio the first four examples of the newest, hottest Pontiac. Chuck Koch remembers the first four Trans Am production vehicles being driven off the line as the plant manager said, “I didn’t see you do this.” The vehicles went directly to the studio, where the production staff began modifying the cars to fit Schinella’s drawing. The studio staff designed the interior with Schinella supervising.

Within a short period after filming started, the two stunt cars were in a bad way, held together with bailing wire and gaffer’s tape. Universal went back to Pontiac asking for more cars, but the automaker told the studio that the original four cars were all it would get. As fate would have it, Chuck Koch got wind of a train derailment between the Van Nuys plant and the Arizona border, and two train cars full of Trans Ams landed on their sides. Koch recalls, “A lot of cars were damaged, and they were going to be shipped back to the Van Nuys plant to be reconditioned if possible. After talking with all sorts of Pontiac people, I got permission for Harker Wade and myself to look at them when they got back to the coast.

This was not the kind of thing Pontiac wanted to get out. Harker walked past the row of vehicles, determining which cars could be repaired enough to use on the show, and he ended up with a dozen.” These Trans Ams ended up being used for the show’s entire four-year run. The rest is history—sales history. Pontiac sold 52,960 T/As in 1982, a significant improvement from the prior year.

Knight Rider’s popularity caught Universal Studios by surprise, and at the end of the first season, famed auto customizer George Barris built some replicas for the auto-show circuit. Pontiac had its hands full supplying black Trans Ams to David Hasselhoff wannabes. Again, the Trans Am was the car to have, thanks to Tinseltown.

[David Newhardt’s “Pontiac Firebird: 50 Years” is available on the Motorbooks website or on Amazon.]