Given that you can now get a 797-hp sedan, today is arguably a second heyday for muscle cars. And thanks to modern engineering, the four-cylinder models can blitz past their classic predecessors. But not every model survived the march of time. One of the most prominent examples is the Bandit’s and the Hoff’s chariot of choice: the Pontiac Trans Am. Luckily, Jay Leno recently took a 1979 example for a spin to relive some of those memories.
The 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was a muscle-car turning point
The mid-to-late 70s were a dark period for muscle car performance. Large-capacity V8s were on their way out, and emissions regulations were strangling the few that remained, Hot Rod reports. And remember, this is before turbocharged engines really hit the mainstream.
As such, the 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was one of the last gasps of the traditional muscle-car formula. And not just because the 1977-1979 cars featured the ‘screaming chicken’ styling made famous by Smokey and the Bandit, Car and Driver reports.
In 1981 Pontiac revealed an updated Trans Am with a turbocharged 210-hp 4.9-liter V8, Automobile reports. But in 1979, the most powerful engine was the W72 400, a 6.6-liter V8 with 220 hp and 325 lb-ft. Though at least it was only available with the 4-speed manual, rather than a power-sapping automatic.
Still, things weren’t all doom and gloom for the 1979 Trans Am. For one, it was named the “best-handling American car” at the time by Car and Driver. And that’s due to some of the other options packages available back then.
Starting in 1978, Pontiac offered the Firebird Trans Am with the WS6 Special Performance Package, Hagerty reports. This added an upgraded rear sway bar, wider wheels, and a quicker steering rack, Hagerty reports. And in 1979, it came with 4-wheel disc brakes, the first Firebird to offer the option.
A 1979 Pontiac Trans Am “is still a fast car,” Jay Leno says
The 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Jay Leno recently drove has all of those goodies. Plus, as it’s a 2nd-gen Trans Am, it has a shaker hood scoop, Hagerty reports. It doesn’t have Bandit black-and-gold livery or A/C, but it does have a T-top roof and an aftermarket CB radio. And because it’s a museum car—specifically, from Rhode Island’s Audrain Auto Museum—it’s in great condition.
This 1979 car isn’t the only Trans Am Jay Leno’s gotten to drive. He drove a 2002 model as the pace car in that year’s Daytona 500. In fact, because it was the last year of Pontiac Trans Am production, he got to drive a number of them back-to-back. And in his own words, the 2002 model was the fastest.
Still, per Jay Leno, although the contemporary Camaros had more powerful engines, the Trans Ams handled better. And while the V8 ‘only’ has 220 hp, it has plenty of torque, which gives it good low-end pulling power. Plus, a 0-60 mph time in the low-7-second range isn’t terrible, Autoweek reports. And it’s comfortable enough to “drive to Vegas or drive to San Francisco…all day long,” Jay Leno says.
You’ll have to pay the Bandit tax to get one
While the Smokey and the Bandit films did wonders for Pontiac Trans Am sales, it’s also helped residual values. Though admittedly, Burt Reynolds’ personal Bandit replica selling for $317,500 back in 2019 is a one-off, Hagerty reports.
Still, while late-70s Trans Ams aren’t as expensive as some other muscle cars, they’re some of the most valuable. Examples often trade in the $30,000-$40,000 range on Bring a Trailer.
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