While gearheads often refer to the 1970s as the “malaise era” in vehicle performance, the decade did reveal some glimpses of where engine technology was heading in the future. Take Pontiac for instance, and its experimentation with a turbocharged V8 engine that was available in the 1980 and 1981 Trans Am and Firebird Formula.
In some ways, that turbo 301ci motor and its modest 210(ish) horsepower foreshadowed General Motors’ later forced induction engines that powered some tire-shredding performance cars like the 2009 Corvette ZR1 and 2022 Cadillac Blackwings.
Oh, and it’s absolutely worth mentioning that around the same time that the Turbo Trans Am was being developed, the folks over at Buick were turbocharging the venerable 3.8L V6 that would eventually propel the legendary Buick Grand National. That particular engine would cross paths with the Trans Am later on as well, but we’ll get to that in a sec…
GM’s Turbocharged History
Let’s be clear, the Turbo Trans Am wasn’t GM’s first foray into turbochargers and forced induction. Nope, Chevy developed a turbocharged version of the Corvair’s air-cooled six way back in 1962. It initially made 150 horsepower but edged up to 180 hp as the technology evolved.
Across the hall, Oldsmobile stuffed a turbocharged 215 cubic inch V8 into its 1962 Jetfire, calling it the “Turbo Rocket.” That engine was good for 215 horsepower and had a clever water-methanol injection system to mitigate spark knock and detonation issues stemming from the engine’s relatively high compression.
Due to a confluence of issues, neither of these engines lasted very long in production. For instance, Oldsmobile’s water-methanol reservoir often ran dry from inattentive owners, hindering engine performance. The Corvair? Well, it had its share of other, non turbo-related troubles.
Besides, gas was cheap at the time and, much like Pontiac discovered with its Sprint 6, many folks simply just preferred the rumble and power of a big-cube V8.
Enter the 1970s: Gas Shortages & Emissions Controls
Fast forward a few years and every auto manufacturer was soon tasked with making their cars run cleaner and more efficiently. As the 1970s rolled on, Pontiac engineers felt turbocharging was a solution, and outfitted the new 301 cubic inch version of the venerable Pontiac V8 with a turbo generating about 9 PSI of boost.
In the GM test lab, turbocharging solved both the emissions and fuel efficiency issues. Yet in real world applications, the technology was still a few years away from large-scale adoption. The main issue was perhaps that, thanks to the higher compression from the turbo boost, these engines typically had to run premium unleaded fuel—which could be difficult to come by at the time.
Running lower octane gasoline meant that ignition knock/detonation was a common issue and the engine’s electronic ignition controller was often forced to retard the spark timing, resulting in poor performance.
But for Pontiac, probably the biggest reason the turbo 301 only lasted two years was cost-cutting at GM. The era of engine-sharing had arrived, and a lot of the General’s brand-specific engines went away—including the Pontiac V8 and its 301 turbo variant.
The 1980 & 1981 Turbo Trans Am
We digress. This article is about Pontiac’s mighty Turbo T/A.
By the late 1970s, emissions restrictions meant the Pontiac 400/455 and the Oldsmobile-sourced 403 V8s were gone, leaving the Trans Am without a suitable high-performance powerplant.
While the naturally aspirated 301 was the base engine, Pontiac engineers hoped the optional turbo 301 would satisfy those who wanted a bit more oomph. The turboed engine made about 210 horsepower, which was pretty good for the era, and the notion of a turbocharged engine was exotic enough to potentially attract buyers. Even saddled with the mandatory three-speed automatic, publications at the time were getting quarter-mile runs in the 17s, which put the Turbo Trans Am near the head of the pack of cars in its class.
But after the “Bandit Bump” of 1978 and 1979, sales for the 1980 and 1981 Firebird/Trans Am were down across the board, likely due to buyers waiting to see the upcoming third-gen refresh in 1982.
The Turbo Trans Am’s Legacy
The 1970s transformed a lot of traditional thinking about automobile design and engineering, so you can look at the Turbo Trans Am as an evolutionary link between the 1960s musclecar heyday and nascent automotive tech like computer-controlled ignition systems.
While the original Turbo Trans Am is now largely a footnote in GM’s history books, its R&D efforts undoubtedly paved the way for many of the turbocharged and supercharged engines that came later. A simple glance across the LS engine family tree will tell you how forced induction has proliferated across General Motors’ several divisions.
And remember, this wasn’t the last hurrah for a turbocharged Trans Am.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t quickly talk about the turbocharged version of the 1989 Pontiac Trans Am GTA. This special edition of the top-tier GTA featured a version of that aforementioned turboed Buick 3.8L. Far more potent than the original TTA, the new Turbo Trans Am could easily rip-off 13s in the quarter mile and had a 150+ mph top speed. At the time, it was regarded as one of the fastest cars GM had ever made.
After both the Grand National and the Turbo Trans Am GTA, it was easy for General Motors to see the potential of forced induction in performance applications, setting the stage for the supercharged and turbocharged LS/LT engines to arrive soon.
Don’t know the difference between turbocharging and supercharging? Read This.
Dat Hood Tho…
Before we close, we should absolutely mention the Turbo T/A’s hood, because it’s both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time.
While other turbocharged cars made-do with a traditional boost gauge, Pontiac decided to put incremental boost lights under the bulge in the Turbo Trans Am’s hood—a nice homage to the hood-mounted tachometers of Pontiac’s storied past.
As turbo boost built in the 301, the lights would illuminate, one-by-one. It’s awesome in a delightfully 1980s sort of way. Check it out in action below: