Home Car Stories One Owner 1977 PONTIAC Can Am- Roger & Kim
1977 PONTIAC Can Am- Roger & Kim PDF Print E-mail
Written by Double Dragon
Friday, 22 July 2016 08:43

1977 PONTIAC Can Am- Roger & Kim


Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

77 pontiac can am front fender logo

Roger and his wife Kim are seen below posing with their 1977 Can Am at the GTO Nationals in 2016. Roger was so excited when Jim Wangers signed the sun visor on the Can Am that he had to look at his identity badge to remember his own name when Jim asked him who to inscribe the message to!

77 pontiac can am roger and kim gto nats 2016

Jim Wangers is a very popular figure at conventions known as 'The Godfather of the Pontiac GTO' because of his fervent involvement in promoting Pontiac Performance. Jim as advertising man initiated countless Pontiac ad campaigns and tie-ins. Jim expanded the scope of his involvement with Pontiac by dedicating his personal life to Pontiac. His 'off time' was spent deeply involved in official and non official drag racing, and product development.

Jim Wanger's inscriptions to fans always tell the truth. You won't find platitudes in the messages to fans. Jim is not just shooting the breeze when he refers to the Can Am with affection. This car was a Jim Wangers concept car that was intended to channel the glory days of the old GTO Judge and maintain Pontiac's image through the grim days of the mid 1970s.

77 pontiac can am roger jim wangers visor inscribed

Jim Wangers favourite GTOs are the early tri power cars, 1969 Carousel Red Judges and the 1970 GTO. His actions back this up. When Jim winnowed down his collection of cars he kept his 1969 Carousel Judge and his 1969 Grand Prix.

Jim liked the 1969 Carousel Judge so much that when he was running his own car customizing company in the 1970s he pitched a reboot of a Carousel Red Judge concept car to Pontiac Motor Division. This car would fill a gap in the Pontiac lineup which no longer offered a red hot 'packaged' intermediate muscle car.

77 pontiac can am roger front

Pontiac had dropped the Judge after 1971 and most promotion of the GTO concept had dried up by 1973. Pontiac even stole the slick front nose intended for the 1973 GTO and gave it to the Euro themed Grand Am. To add to the insult Pontiac used up all of their Super Duty 455 engines for the Trans Am leaving the 1973 GTO without that coveted engine option. GTO was neglected and barely advertised and then moved from the 'A body' LeMans platform to the compact 1974 Ventura body and finally killed off after at the end of the model year.

Pontiac focused all musclecar promotion on the Trans Am. Despite the bleak wasteland of 1970s musclecar offerings the performance guys didn't go away. Some of them were older now with families and unable to justify purchasing a Pontiac Trans Am with it's small back seat, low stance and minuscule trunk. Jim Wangers believed a revival of The Judge was the answer.

77 pontiac can am roger d side

Pontiac did retain vestiges of the old GTO mystique during the 1970s with an appearance option named LeMans GT. GT was a 'budget muscle' concept that originated with the GT-37 and then carried on as a little known sideline option. LeMans GT came standard with a 3 speed Hurst floor shifter, dual exhaust, stripes, and Rally II wheels but only a 350 2 barrel engine. Unlike other pseudo muscle cars such as the Duster Twister which capped engine size at 318 Pontiac let it all hang out on the option list. It was easy for guys to simply order a bigger engine and get a facsimile of the old GTO once more. But there was no longer a wild and complete performance package available for the guy who always wanted a GTO.

77 pontiac can am roger driver side

The musclecar insurance rates, oil crisis and emission control related horsepower drop came in one big concentrated attack that left domestic musclecar nameplates attached to cars with spoilers, stripes and low compression 2 barrel small engines. Most musclecar nameplates were simply retired by the mid 1970s,

General Motors had meanwhile embarked upon a craze to mimic the European performance sedan market. The Cutlass Salon existed side by side with the watered down 442, while the Chevelle platform offered the Laguna which replaced the SS model outright. Pontiac tried the Euro routine with the Grand Am which was based on the LeMans platform.

77 pontiac can am roger rear quarter view

While pseudo European coupes were being promoted very little remained of the musclecar market. Aside from the Corvette, Trans Am and Duster 360 no one offered a fast musclecar anymore. Jim Wangers wanted to blow everyone away with a scorching eye blazing Carousel Red LeMans using the name The Judge sporting integral rear duck spoiler, shaker hood scoop, full gauge package and top tier Trans Am driveline.

Pontiac Motor Division bought Jim's concept but watered down the full on eyeball assaulting Carousel Red paint job in favor of Cameo White with the bright orange presence diminished to the accent stripes. They didn't want to invoke The Judge name but did choose a name that fit the Pontiac tradition. The name Can Am is derived from the Canadian- American racing series just as LeMans, Grand Prix and other Pontiac names reference famous competition courses.

77 pontiac can am roger top view

The letter below from Pontiac public relations is in reply to Roger's query about the Can Am production in late summer, 1977. Roger had heard his Can Am was fairly rare and wanted to know more. This letter serves as a nice summary of the Can Am package. The letter was written at the time the car was released ensuring that the information is still fresh and current according to Pontiac employees of the era.

77 pontiac can am PMD public relations summary

To create the features listed above for a Can Am, Cameo White 1977 Pontiac LeMans sport coupes with Grand Am dashes were shipped to Jim Wanger's car modification company Motortown Corp. Motortown added stripes, blacked out lower body panels, rear spoiler and cut a hole in the hood to accommodate the 1976 style Trans Am shaker hood scoop.

77 pontiac can am roger window louver

The basic LeMans Sport Coupe was a 2 door hardtop that came with the louvered rear windows. Opera windows and window louvers were the rage in the mid 1970s and of the two, the louvered windows seem to work best.

77 pontiac can am roger inner window louver

Pontiac was proud to be able to maintain the 1976 455 engine performance levels with the W72 option 400 engine. This was an era where each year the performance of an engine dropped and here Pontiac was getting the same numbers from a smaller engine. Pontiac showcased this engine with chrome valve covers from the factory. Because of noise bylaws the rear of the shaker is sealed but it was elementary for most Pontiac owners to open the flapper up. Note the fresh air ducting hose feeding the air cleaner below the shaker.

77 pontiac can am 400 TA engine

The last years of the GTO saw the end of chrome dress up kits on factory performance engines so this return to Pontiac tradition of chrome valve covers signals Pontiac's confidence in this engine. The pride in this engine is also reflected in the fact that the Can Am shaker tells us this is a T/A 6.6.

77 pontiac can am roger hood scoop

As mentioned in the Pontiac letter reprinted above most Can Ams have a scoop which reads T/A 6.6 which indicates that the Pontiac 400 engine resides under the hood. An estimated 42 Can Ams built with the Oldsmobile 403 engine have scoops that say 6.6 Litre.

77 pontiac can am roger hood scoop TA

Unlike the Trans Am no effort was made to create the illusion of dual exhaust on the Can Am. Corvettes and Trans Ams of this era had "two into one back into two" style exhaust. Everything is routed through a single catalytic converter. In the case of Can Am a single exhaust exits out from the passenger rear bumper area.

Although the Can Am is a musclecar, it has much improved handling compared to the 1960s originators. The radial tuned suspension with front and rear sway bars provide a firm smooth ride on the GR 70 15 inch tires mounted on Rally II wheels. The Can Am also stops well with standard power front disc brakes.

77 pontiac can am roger interior

The Can Am performance theme continues inside with full instrumentation. The Rally Gauge package in the Can Am results from substitution of the LeMans dash with the dashboard from the Grand Prix. This turned out to be a problem because every Can Am built was perceived to have 'stolen' a Grand Prix sale.

77 pontiac can am roger rear spoiler

When the Can Am rear spoiler molding broke, this halted production of Can Am. The spoiler became a convenient excuse to cancel the program. The Grand Prix was a big volume selling car and management at Pontiac resented Can Ams impinging upon the Grand Prix production flow by siphoning away Grand Prix dashboards.

It's too bad the Can Am was killed off because it had great potential to exceed initial sales projections of 2,500. Supposedly there were orders in excess of 5,000 taken before the program was shut down. As stated in the PMD letter above it seems only 1,377 Can Ams were built before the spoiler mold broke. There is some discrepancy about this number but Can Am experts agree that the initial run of 2,500 was never attained.

Orders for 5,000 cars is believable because where else could you get a new intermediate musclecar? Guys who wanted a GTO could now get a pretty decent package just like the old days. One such guy was a 19 year old kid named Roger. In winter of 1977 Roger was working for Searle Pontiac Cadillac Inc in Missoula, Montana. See a story about this dealership filed under Montana DEALERSHIPS on this website.

Roger's dad was a long time service manager and got Roger working on the lube rack. Roger's family history is replete with Pontiac muscle due to his father's career at Pontiac dealerships. Roger was making do driving an old 1962 GMC but he wanted a Pontiac musclecar.

Through the service department Roger became acquainted with a customer who owned a GTO that was original and well cared for. By the late 1970s nice musclecars were starting to dry up. Many GTOs had blown engines or were cut up and hot rodded, heavily thrashed or wrapped around poles.

After finally admitting defeat in his efforts to convince the customer to sell him the GTO Roger wasn't sure what his next move was. Then a fortuitous event occurred. Roger was sent to clean up the dealership showroom.

Roger stumbled upon a brochure for a new mid year special car named the Pontiac Can Am. This was the answer to his search! Roger didn't have to scour the earth for a decent used GTO. The Can Am made it possible to buy a brand new musclecar in the GTO tradition.

Roger discovered the brochure in February, 1977 which was just shortly after the Can Am debuted in the January, 1977 International Auto Show at Detroit, Michigan. By March, 1977 Roger had his order in for a brand new Can Am. He shot 50 bucks to one of the salesmen and then ordered our his car according to his particular tastes.

77 pontiac can am order form roger

The biggest option on his car is the WW3 Can Am option which cost a whopping $1,214.00. Working in the dealership meant that it was cheaper to install a radio from inventory instead of paying the factory to install one which inspired Roger to order his car with 'radio delete'. The same rationale guided him in not ordering floor mats from the factory.

77 pontiac can am roger door panel

Roger had witnessed the hassles involved for the dealership when cars with white door panels came through for prep. Factory workers with greasy hands left indelible marks on white door panels. The dealership was forced to remove door panels and have them repainted. Roger chose red door panels and white seats for his Can Am to avoid this syndrome.

77 pontiac can am roger remote r view mirror

Note the factory remote outside rear view mirror control in the driver's door. The dual racing rear view mirrors on the Can Am had been a very popular Pontiac option on the LeMans for several years.

77 pontiac can am roger rear defrost

Roger anticipated cold winters and ordered the optional rear window defroster. He didn't need A/C so that was left off the order form.

77 pontiac can am roger console

Roger's Can Am has custom front seatbelts, tilt wheel, console, tachometer, Custom Sport steering wheel, Safe-T-Track differential and Super Lift rear airshocks. The factory air shocks died after a few decades and now an aftermarket air shock valve accompanies the factory original hidden behind the fuel filler door/ license frame.

77 pontiac can am roger super lift air shock valve

Roger also ordered door edge guards, front and rear bumper guards, inside hood release, lamp group and Soft Ray tinted glass all round. The door edge guards are still with the car as seen below.

77 pontiac can am roger door edge guards

Below is a shot of the optional tachometer which replaced the clock in the the pod to the left of the 100 MPH speedometer. Note the unusual ventilation control to the left of the tachometer. If A/C was not ordered as in this case then the outlet hole was used to mount this vent slider control.

77 pontiac can am roger tachometer

A small clock was mounted above the console when the tachometer option was ordered. Note the 8 track player that Roger installed at the dealership. It still works today.

77 pontiac can am roger 8 track console

Note the Pontiac trademark 'Grab Bar' above the glove box. The blank plate to the right with Pontiac crest is where an air conditioning vent would be installed in an A/C car.

77 pontiac can am grab bar over glove box

In April, 1977 a car magazine caught Roger's attention with a story all about the Can Am. This fueled his growing excitement about his new Can Am but still there was no word from the factory about his car. Roger had a purchase number to track his car but didn't get the VIN number until May. The door sticker on the car is dated May, 1977 which indicates that his car was built around this time period.

Roger just assumed that there was a backlog in the orders because Motortown Corp was also dealing with the Ford Mustang Cobra II modifications during the early part of 1977. It wasn't until years later that the Can Am community became aware of the story of the broken mold used to make the rear spoilers on the Can Ams.

Finally in early June, 1977 Roger read a teletype that provided tracking information for his car. Roger's Can Am was being shipped by railway to Belgrade, Montana where it would be transferred to a truck carrier for delivery to Missoula.

Roger was working in back of the dealership in the service department when the carrier pulled up in front of Searles Pontiac Cadillac. One of the guys casually went back to inform Roger,

"Your car is here."

Roger sprinted to the front of the dealership and saw his car on top of the carrier. The driver of the carrier had a bit of a problem because the car blocking Roger's Can Am had a dead battery. Roger climbed up the girders along the sides of the carrier like a monkey and got the process of boosting the battery of the other car underway. Once that car was unloaded Roger was able to drive his new Can Am right off the carrier. It was a very exciting moment for him!

As soon as the dealership was closed for the day Roger embarked on unofficial after hours prep. He put the Can Am up on the lift and undercoated and rustproofed it so thoroughly that his car never rusted out despite several years of use in winter. Roger recalls the rustproofing gushing out of holes because he used so much. He saved the car but also nearly lost his job. When news of Roger's midnight prep activities reached Jim Searles he was ready to can Roger. Luckily for Roger he had enlisted in the air force and was due to begin service soon. Jim Searles was an ex air force man and let Roger's shenanigans pass.

The dealership's woes from Roger's Can Am were not over yet! The original sales order that Roger signed turned out to be a lower price than the final retail price assigned to the Can Am. A tough old salesman tried to force the issue but had to back down to Roger's dad who pulled a lot of weight in the dealership. Roger got the car for the original price he signed for which was $5,800.00. The dealership had to eat the 1,200 bucks difference between the new $7,000.00 MSRP and the original sales order.

We can safely speculate that when Roger joined the air force there was a collective sigh of relief down at Searles Pontiac Cadillac! Roger's Can Am if it could talk would not have been relieved. it was shod with snow tires and pressed into severe weather service for the next 3 years when Roger was stationed in snowy North Dakota.

77 pontiac can am roger pass side

The Can Am provided reliable daily driver status and some fun factor, too. Roger himself was surprised when he beat a Trans Am packing a 455 on a popular racing spot named Higgins Avenue in Missoula. The Trans Am guy was shocked and Roger asked when was the last time the T/A was tuned up. The guy had never heard of spark plugs let alone changed them so we know that back in the day a new Can Am could smoke an out of tune 455 T/A! The race was over around 60-70 MPH so we don't know if the Trans Am's smaller frontal area and bigger cubes could have overtaken the Can Am at higher speeds.

There are no road tests from the era that provide performance specs for a Can Am as they were normally equipped. The test car that provided the data in magazine testing only had 180 HP and was hampered by a long legged highway axle. The production cars packed 200 HP and 3.08:1 ratios (unless a 403 Olds engine was installed). Although the 400 with 200 HP was a step above the normal Pontiac 400 with 180 HP, this was still a low compression engine held back by EGR and a single exhaust catalytic converter. It was not a screamer out of the gate but as Roger discovered with the T/A 455 encounter this car was not out of the running when put to the task against the commonly encountered street cars of the era.

77 pontiac can am roger passenger door

The Can Am made the move with Roger to Spokane, Washington and after surviving many close calls the moment of truth came finally in 1981 when the side of the car was T boned by a drunk. The passenger door was crunched. The striping on the Can Am presented a bit of an issue when it was ready for paint. The passenger mirror was saved but the door stripe had to be reproduced. Dishman's Auto Body in Spokane, Washington had a great painter there who was able to paint a door stripe to perfectly match the factory decal stripe coming off the hood. Other than this incident the car is still an original paint car.

By the time 1987 came up Roger's Can Am was mostly sitting unused. Roger got interested in the new Chevrolet Camaro and was diverted away from his Can Am for awhile. Roger's father, Elmer took it upon himself to keep the Can Am alive by bringing it to car shows. He re upholstered the driver and passenger seat and rechromed the rear bumper. Exhaust gasses had discolored the chrome on the right rear passenger area of the bumper.

The usual problems with Pontiac engines cropped up around 98,000 miles. As a service manager Elmer had seen countless blown engines due to the Achilles Heel of Pontiac engines which is the nylon timing gear. In the case of the Can Am there was no catastrophic failure but it seems apparent timing was out of whack likely from wear to the timing gear. The valves were burnt and rings were bad.

When the engine was out for rebuild the TH400 was rebuilt, too. There had always been a bit of hesitation in the transmission right from new. A tear down revealed that it had a bad pump right from the get go. It's a testament to the invincible nature of the TH400 that it lasted so long despite a faulty pump. There was never a frame off or rebuild of the car.

Little things were dealt with along the way. The keys were locked in the car several times and the jimmying process necessitated new driver door weatherstripping and new door trim. Things were addressed as they cropped up. As a consequence the paint and interior remain mostly original. Dash, carpets, door panels, headliner and rear package tray have never been touched. The original pedals show minimal wear despite absence of chrome protective edges.

77 pontiac can am roger pedals

Roger is pleased about the existence of show car restored Can Ams and survivor originals out there which allows him some latitude in how he dealt with his car. Maintenance can sometimes introduce solutions that are not factory correct. For instance when the rear springs were replaced removal indicated that the original springs were imbalanced. One was longer than the other. The culprit was traced to a leaking air shock. The factory air shocks were replaced and a new line was run. So there are now 2 valves for air shocks in rear of the car. The aftermarket one is not factory correct but the car sits up properly again and handles well.

77 pontiac can am roger 400 pass side

When the engine was repainted Roger opted for the earlier style of Pontiac engine blue rather than the correct baby blue used in 1977. Just an aesthetic decision. When the factory exhaust finally gave up the ghost a few years ago Roger retained the original exhaust manifolds but had a true dual exhaust system installed on the car. The factory made do with a single exhaust system.

But Roger also maintained factory appearance when possible. For example when freshening up his original wheels he kept as much of the original parts as possible and was able to re use his caps and rings. Roger was always gentle with the trim rings when changing tires. He never used a mallet on them. A new set of lug nuts was used. Roger also managed to find white letter tires of the correct size for the car. The Can Am originally came with General brand tires and now has Goodyears but it still has the factory stance.

Roger's dad Elmer and his mother Dolores took the car to countless car shows until Elmer reached age 80 and started to slow down. Roger and his wife Kim took over show duty with the Can Am in 2013 and are greatly enjoying the attention this rare car gets.

Although Roger's Can Am runs a bit stronger than factory it is basically correct looking to a casual observer. He runs a 3.23:1 axle and probably makes 250 HP from slight overbore, bumped compression and true duals. It's a good handling car that runs about 3,000 RPM at 65 MPH making it usable on the highway as well as quick off the line. With original paint and almost all the original striping and interior the car is a nice survivor that attracts a lot of interest.

77 pontiac can am roger rear

Last Updated ( Saturday, 30 July 2016 19:32 )