1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am: America’s First Muscle Car With a Turbocharged V8

1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am 9 photos
Photo: Pontiac
Pontiac Turbo Trans AmPontiac Turbo Trans Am Black and Gold Special EditionPontiac Turbo Trans Am Black and Gold Special EditionPontiac Turbo Trans Am Black and Gold Special Edition1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am Indy Pace Car Edition1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am Indy Pace Car Edition1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am Engine
While the definition of a muscle car varies depending on the era, most enthusiasts agree that an affordable American-made two-door coupe with a powerful V8 and rear-wheel drive makes the cut. This is the case with the Turbo Trans Am, one of the most capable thrill machines with these characteristics available in 1980.
Since March 1969, enthusiasts who wanted the most muscular Firebird available could buy the Trans Am. Initially marketed as a performance and appearance package, it became a separate model a year later, once the second generation of the famed pony car was introduced.

During the 1970s, the Trans Am earned its place among the most iconic muscle cars ever built, thanks to the 400 and 455 cubic-inch (6.6 and 7.5-liter) V8s it was equipped with. In 1979, the last of these great large-displacement engines still available was the 220-hp 400, but due to evolving emissions restrictions, it too would be discontinued by the end of the year.

This meant that for the 1980 model year, a mediocre yet emissions-compliant 155-hp 301-ci (4.9-liter) was the most powerful V8 Pontiac had to offer, a huge drop from the 300+ hp eight-cylinders available a decade earlier.

The now-defunct GM division needed a miracle to keep selling their aging performance model. With no funds or time to develop a completely new powerplant, they decided to give the lazy 301 the forced induction treatment, allegedly inspired by a student’s garage project.

Pontiac Turbo Trans Am
Photo: Pontiac
The engine received a 9-psi (0.62 bar) Garrett TBO-305 turbo. It force-fed air through a modified Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor and was controlled by an electronic unit borrowed from Buick’s turbocharged 231-ci (3.8-liter) V6. Engineers also reinforced the block, added forged pistons, heavy-duty head gaskets, a bespoke single plane intake, turbo-specific exhaust manifolds, and a high-pressure oil pump. To cope with the boost, the compression ratio was reduced from 8.1:1 to 7.6:1 and an electronic spark controller (ESC) with a knock sensor was fitted to retard timing in case detonation was detected.

The first turbocharged V8 developed by Pontiac was capable of delivering 210 hp (157 kW) and 345 lb-ft (468 Nm) of torque. This was a noticeable improvement over the naturally aspired version that was now the standard option for the Firebird or the newest addition to the engine line-up, the Chevy 305 small block.

With this crazy engine under a hood that gained a unique scoop on the driver's side, the Turbo Trans Am could reach 60 mph (97 kph) from a standstill in 9.05 seconds and could run the quarter-mile (402 m) in 17.02 seconds. Although these were great figures for the 1980 market, they weren’t quite on par with the discontinued, 400-powered model which led to poor sales.

1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am Indy Pace Car Edition
Photo: Pontiac
But this wasn’t all the new turbocharged unit’s fault. The car could only be had with a three-speed automatic and a 3.08 rear axle ratio, whereas its predecessor was available with a four-speed manual, a factory Hurst shifter, and a 3.23 rear axle ratio in 1979.

Pontiac tried their best to convince customers that the new Trans Am was worth it. The starting price was just $350 higher than the standard model and it was available with one of the coolest boost gauges ever created. Unlike the analog gauges we are all accustomed to, this one stood inside the hood scoop and featured three orange lights marked "Normal", "Medium", and "High" next to a Turbocharged label. Furthermore, the Turbo was used as a pace car for that year’s Indy 500 race, leading to a limited-production T-top Indy Pace Car edition. The company even went as far as replacing Bo "The Bandit" Darville’s 400 Trans Am with a Turbo in the 1980 sequel “Smokey and the Bandit II”.

Unfortunately, these efforts weren’t enough, and the sales of the whole Firebird lineup fell by 50% compared to 1979. Production of the Turbo Trans Am continued for another year but with 10 fewer horses thanks to an electronic carburetor and no major improvements, sales figures plummeted even further.

Pontiac Turbo Trans Am Black and Gold Special Edition
Photo: Pontiac
Many argue that the engine was a year or two away from morphing into a truly legendary powerplant. An electronic fuel injection system and an intercooled turbo setup would have worked wonders for its output. But, with the introduction of the third-generation Firebird and its Chevy-sourced units, further, development was ceased.

Although the Firebird Turbo Trans Am never managed to outshine its iconic predecessors, it made its way into the history books as the first muscle car powered by a turbocharged V8.

Today, the car is finally getting the respect it deserves with prices for one in perfect condition skyrocketing over the $30,000 mark. You may think that an Indy Pace Car Edition is the rarest you can get but since these sold like hotcakes, it’s actually harder to find a standard model. The most sought-after variant is the Black and Gold Special Edition that you can marvel at in the video below posted on YouTube by RamblinAround.

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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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