Home Cars These Cars Made Pontiac The Biggest Muscle Car Force Back In The Day

These Cars Made Pontiac The Biggest Muscle Car Force Back In The Day

Vukasin Herbez March 29, 2023

Many car fans agree that one of the greatest modern tragedies in car history was the demise of Pontiac. The legendary company was established in 1926 and closed down in 2010 after its memorable 85-year-old stint in the automotive world. During that period, Pontiac went from being an ordinary economy brand to one of the hottest brands of the muscle car era. Under the supervision of the legendary John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac created the muscle car era as we know it by introducing the 1964 Tempest GTO.

However, that’s not all. In the late ’50s, Pontiacs started drawing attention with cool styling and powerful engines. For decades, “We Build Excitement” was an appropriate marketing slogan for this brand but then. Eventually, that excitement started to fade. But there was once a time when Pontiac ruled the muscle car scene with several powerful models. Let’s remember the muscle cars that made the brand great as it defined the muscle car era here.

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Pontiac Bonneville

New for 1958, Bonneville was available only as a two-door hard top or convertible emphasizing its performance appeal. Under the hood was a 370 CID V8 engine with 255 HP in its base form. For those who wanted more power, there was the Tri-Power option with 300 HP and the top-of-the-line fuel-injected version with 310 HP. With this engine, the 1958 Bonneville was one of the most powerful GM cars of the day (via Hemmings).

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The Bonneville had moderate success on the market, and Pontiac managed to sell over 12,000 copies. Today, this car is highly sought-after by knowledgeable enthusiasts but has yet to be known by the general automotive public. The performance reputation of the early Bonneville was only the announcement of what was going to happen with the GTO and muscle models.

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Pontiac Catalina 421 “Swiss Cheese”

In the early 1960s, Pontiac realized that racing helps sell cars and that the famous Detroit mantra “Win on Sunday-Sell on Monday” truly worked. In that period, Pontiac was big in NASCAR, but its drag racing reputation in the NHRA championship was slim. Pontiac had a sound basis for a fast Super Stock car in the form of a two-door Catalina, and it had a potent 421 V8 engine, but it needed more. Pontiac needed to add power and subtract weight (via Supercars).

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To do the latter, Pontiac’s engineers manufactured numerous aluminum parts like bumpers, fenders, hoods, and so on, saving 159 pounds from the heavy car. They also drilled holes in the car’s frame to save a few more grams, so the vehicle was nicknamed “Swiss Cheese”. With a high compression 421 V8 engine and 410 HP, these Catalinas were lightning quick.

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Pontiac GTO

Pontiac had much success on drag strips all across America, and little by little the performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool since a new generation of buyers wanted fast cars. They wanted to capitalize on its success, but the company was reluctant to invest in a sports car built from scratch. All their production models were big and heavy vehicles (via Car and Driver).

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The result was the Tempest GTO, as it was called, an option on the Tempest intermediate model. For just $295, buyers would get a high-performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in standard or 348 HP in the famous Tri Power form. Manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals, and dual exhaust were all parts of the package. Since it was light, the Tempest GTO had a convincing performance. In 1964 it was one of the quickest American cars on the market. Even Corvette owners weren’t safe from the Tempest GTOs lurking at stoplights across the country.

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Pontiac Banshee I

In those days, people considered Pontiac a performance brand. And with the newly introduced GTO model, the muscle car and performance market was booming. However, the management of the company had bigger ambitions. So, they soon introduced a fully operational concept called the Banshee XP-833 (via Supercars).

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The Banshee I was the first in a long line of Pontiac concept cars that influenced production models. The first one to emerge in 1964 was extremely advanced, with compact dimensions, a lightweight body, and a powerful engine. Pontiac conceived it as a “Mustang killer,” but GM feared that a sports coupe from Pontiac could affect Corvette sales, so they canceled the project.

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Pontiac Catalina 2+2

In the mid-’60s, the GTO was the car to have since it was at the forefront of the muscle car movement. With its performance, powerful engine, and great Pontiac styling, the GTO was the perfect car for the moment. But it wasn’t the only stellar performance machine coming from Pontiac. In 1965, there was another pure muscle car icon in the form of the Catalina 2+2 (via Hemmings).

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Since the Catalina was a full-size model, it was eligible for engines over 400 CID according to GM rules of the time. This meant that the Catalina 2+2 came with the famous 421 V8. If you wanted, you could get a Tri-Power intake system, the same as the one on the GTO, which boosted your car’s power to 376 HP. Of course, buyers could order limited-slip differentials, heavy-duty steering and brakes, and more, making the Catalina 2+2 very well-appointed but expensive too.

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Pontiac GTO Judge

Muscle cars started as affordable performance machines with lots of power and reasonable prices. However, due to high demand, some models started to get more and more expensive, and soon there was a need for a budget-friendly muscle car aimed at the youth market or young buyers who wanted a fast car but couldn’t pay much. The Plymouth Roadrunner was a perfect example of such a model. It was cheap, fun, and fast. Pontiac wanted a similar car, and in 1969, presented the GTO Judge (via Silodrome).

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The Judge became a legend in its own right, first because it took the name from the popular TV show and second because it was a bright orange muscle car with a big spoiler and funky “The Judge” graphics all over it. The GTO Judge wasn’t slow either, with 366 HP and a four-speed transmission. Available from 1969 to 1971, the Judge always represented a top-of-the-line model, which makes it very desirable today.

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Pontiac Firebird 400

In 1968, Pontiac introduced the new Firebird with a 400 V8 engine with 320 HP. Immediately after the introduction, car fans publicly asked the factory why the new 400 V8 engine in the Firebird is rated at 320 HP. In comparison, the same 400 V8 engine in the GTO made 366 HP (via Hemmings).

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Pontiac didn’t reply, and soon, the answer came from the insiders from the factory. The new Firebird 400 weighed 3300 pounds. So, to make it eligible under the GM 1 hp per 10 pounds rule, Pontiac had to rate the 400 V8 engine at 320 HP. Despite the underrating, the new Firebird 400 was very fast, especially if equipped with an optional Ram Air induction system.

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Pontiac Grand Prix

The Grand Prix was a personal luxury coupe introduced in 1962 in a coupe body style with powerful engines and a long list of options. This model fought the Ford Thunderbird and the Oldsmobile 98 as a so-called gentleman’s express. However, with the restyling of the Grand Prix for the 1969 model year, Pontiac introduced a truly special car. First, there was a cool-looking new design with a long hood, a short rear end, and an exciting, driver-oriented dashboard (via Curb Side Classics).

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The 1969 Grand Prix looked apart from the competitors, and sales immediately jumped. Second, there was a cool trim option called SJ that featured a high-output 428 V8 engine that delivered 390 HP and a host of other performance options. The moniker “SJ” was borrowed from the legendary Duesenberg brand. The SJ emblem was used on the powerful Duesenberg cars back in the day, and Pontiac wanted to get a piece of that legend with the Grand Prix SJ.

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Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

As part of GM, the factory was still under the racing ban. Still, the fans and private teams used many Pontiac products, and the factory wanted to introduce a version for racing. That is how the Firebird Trans Am came to be. To mask its intentions, Pontiac introduced the Firebird Trans Am as a loaded version that featured big-block power from the famous 400 V8 engine equipped with Ram Air III or IV intake system (via Hemmings).

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The difference between those engines was significant since Ram Air IV featured a lot of improved engine internals and components. Still, they were both rated at 366 HP, which was understated. However, this particular version with signature white paint, blue stripes, Rally II wheels, and other equipment proved to be a challenging seller, and only 634 Firebird Trans Ams left the factory. Among those, only eight were convertibles.

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Pontiac Firebird Formula 400

The year 1970 marked the second generation of the Firebird. It debuted as a mid-year introduction boosting new body styles, a couple of new versions, and only one body style of the coupe. Since the convertible was gone and it won’t be returning for over a decade. Pontiac realized that traditional muscle cars like GTO were slowly going out of style. And people were turning towards smaller and more nimble pony cars like the Firebird. Hence, they invested heavily in that lineup (via Supercars).

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The first actual muscle model was the Formula 400, introduced in 1970. The Formula 400 was kind of a middle version between the base Firebird V8 and fire-breathing Trans Am. The Formula had the 400 V8 engine with 330 HP and a twin-scoop hood. That option was functional if the buyer ticked the box for the optional Ram Air induction.

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Pontiac Trans Am 455

The 1971 Firebirds and Trans Ams were practically identical to the 1970 models. They still represent one of the best muscle cars in the rapidly changing market. 1971 proved to be the last true muscle car model year in which buyers could get high-powered and legendary engines. Just a year after in 1972, horsepower ratings started to go down (via Motor Trend).

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But the biggest news for the Firebird/Trans Am lineup was the introduction of the mighty 455 V8. The biggest engine ever to appear in this model. The 455 V8 had 335 HP, but muscle car enthusiasts argue that the number was underrated and conservative since even with higher compression in the Trans Am H.O. version, that 455 V8 had the exact horsepower figure. The actual output was closer to 400 HP with corresponding performance and top speed.

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Pontiac Trans Am 455 SD

By 1974, almost all muscle cars were extinct from the market, and those who were left were robbed of their power and style. However, one model managed to survive and offer as much performance and power as possible, and that model was the ’74 Trans Am Super Duty 455 (via Auto Week).

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The year 1974 marked the first restyling of the whole Firebird range, and with a new front and rear end came the improved interior and details. The SD 455 model was a carry-over from 1973, but in the new package, it featured better suspension and brakes. The standard 455 V8 had only 215 HP, but it developed 290 HP in SD trim, which was fantastic for 1974.

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Pontiac Can Am

Back in the late 1970s, the American performance car segment was just a pale shadow of its former glory. But in 1977, Pontiac introduced the Can Am, a one-year-only model that was the last actual muscle car with big block power and as much power it could produce packed in a unique body style and white color (via Auto Evolution).

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Under the hood scoop from the Firebird Trans Am, there was a hefty 455 engine with 200 HP, more than any other muscle car on the market at the moment. The Can Am package consisted of unique rear window louvers, a rear spoiler, and a long list of special optional extras. The car was introduced early in 1977, and the market responded very well. Pontiac received between 5,000 and 10,000 reservations, but only sold 1377 examples in the end.

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Pontiac Trans Am SE

As mentioned many times before, the late ’70s were sad times for muscle cars. All available models had diminutive horsepower ratings and heavy bodies, which made their performance embarrassingly slow. The Firebird/Trans Am range could not escape this as well. However, Pontiac still managed to produce some memorable cars through its Special Edition models. These dressed up the Trans Am and turned it into a street icon (via Old Car Memories).

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The main model was Trans Am which could be equipped either with a 4.9-liter turbo engine or 400 NA V8. But neither of those powerplants had more than 220 HP during its 1977-1981 production run. However, the main aspect was the design with signature graphics and appearance package. Affectionately called the “Screaming Chicken,” this was a highly stylized flaming bird logo on the hood of the car, which was extraordinarily modern and hip for the standards of the day.

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Pontiac Trans Am 20th Anniversary

In 1989, Pontiac was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its favorite muscle car – the Trans Am. What was a better way than to introduce a very limited run of 1500 cars to commemorate the occasion? But, the anniversary editions have to have a twist and not be just another decal and paint job. Pontiac decided to install Buick’s 3.8-liter turbo V6 from GNX and create the fastest Trans Am of the decade (via Motorious).

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The white commemorative edition could accelerate 0.1 seconds faster from 0 to 60 mph than GNX at 4.6 seconds. The reason was pretty simple, better weight distribution and gearing from the Pontiac gearbox.

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Pontiac Trans Am GTA

Arguably, the Trans Am was the best version of the third-generation Pontiac’s F-body. It was introduced in 1987 and was the top-of-the-range Firebird on offer. The package was available until the 1992 model year and produced in relatively limited numbers. The secret weapons of the GTA were its engine and WS6 handling package. The engine was the 350 V8 with 210 HP in the early models and up to 245 HP in later versions (via GM Authority).

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The rumor was that the engine was the same as in the Corvette since it used the same TPI fuel injection system and displacement but sadly wasn’t the case. Corvette used aluminum heads, while Pontiac used iron cast ones. However, the power and performance were pretty similar. The WS6 package offered unmatched road holding and braking capabilities, consisting of four disc brakes, stiffer suspension, stronger sway bars, special wheels, and performance tires.

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Pontiac Trans AM WS6

By the early 2000s, the Firebird/Camaro combo was outdated with its live rear axle and big weight. While the market wanted more modern and lighter muscle cars. The 2002 model year marked the end of the road for Firebird, and Pontiac decided to go out with a bang. Introducing one of the best, fastest, and most powerful Trans Ams ever made – a menacing WS6 version (via Hagerty).

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The WS6 was a handling package on Trans Am available before. But in the 2002 model year, it represented the best of what Pontiac had to offer. With the venerable 5.7-liter V8 engine with 325 HP, a six-speed manual transmission, and numerous suspension upgrades. The 2002 WS6 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. Proving that Pontiac still knows how to make a brutal and lightning-quick muscle car.

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Pontiac GTO

The first year for the modern GTO was 2004, and the car met universal praise from the buyers and the car press. The design was familiar and moderate, but the GTO had the muscle car form and street presence. Under the hood was LS1 5.7-liter V8 with 350 HP and enough performance to be one of the hottest American cars for 2004. The target sales figure was 18,000, and Pontiac sold almost 14,000, which could be considered a success (via Edmunds).

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The 2005 model year saw the introduction of the 400 HP 6.2-liter engine and even better performance (0 to 60 mph time of just 4.6 seconds), but sales started to decline to 11,000, and for 2006, the final model year, GTO sold in just 14,000 examples.

Pontiac G8
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Pontiac G8

Pontiac thought that a rear-wheel drive sedan would help them fight European competitors. The G8 was a good idea and with Pontiac’s redesign and small-block V8 engines. It was a pretty compelling performance sedan too. The base engine was a solid 3.5-liter V6 with 256 HP. But the real deal was the G8 GXP with a 6.2-liter V8 and 415 HP. Also, the G8 came with high levels of standard equipment as well as a long list of optional extras (via Edmunds).

via: GM
Photo Credit: GM

Unfortunately, the G8 came too late, and the customers just needed more time to be ready to accept the G8 performance sedan. A US-made car that could beat the overpriced European models. After years of anemic models, front-wheel drive economy cars, or minivans of the ’90s, Pontiac lost its performance image. Only a few buyers remembered what it was known for and capable of. So when they finally presented the car which was capable of reclaiming the title of a performance brand, they had run out of time. In two years, Pontiac sold just over 30,000 G8s.

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