1989 PONTIAC Turbo T/A 20th Ann Indy- Jim Wangers Print
Written by Double Dragon
Thursday, 15 November 2012 12:09

1989 PONTIAC Turbo T/A 20th Ann Indy- Jim Wangers


89 turbo ta 20th ann logo jim wangers

Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

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At one point Jim Wangers had a collection of Trans Ams representing each decade. He had Trans Ams from 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. It seems fitting that the man best known for marketing Pontiac performance would collect significant Pontiacs. Jim Wangers is nicknamed the "The Godfather of the GTO" for good reason. In the 1960s his handling of the Pontiac account quickly blossomed from an agency day job to a 24 hour a day seven days a week way of life. Jim's access to the inner sanctum of Pontiac expanded with ever increasing scope during the John DeLorean management period. The irony is that during the 1960s when Jim had access to many of the ultimate iconic cars he didn't succumb to the collecting bug. That came later.

Some of the cars that passed through Jim Wangers hands in the 1960s make collectors break out in a cold sweat. Jim actually owned the history making red 1964 Pontiac GTO Royal Bobcat used as the acceleration test car in the famous Pontiac GTO versus Ferrari GTO cover article for CAR AND DRIVER March 1964. That GTO was a 'ringer' clandestinely fitted with a 421 H.O. Tri-Power that blew away the C&D staffers. See that car in the story about the GTO Nationals in the DESTINATIONS section of this website.

The GTO vs. GTO story was not only a launching pad for the Pontiac GTO but it also delineated CAR AND DRIVER'S new editorial stance. C&D gave notice through that article that they were favorably slanted towards domestic vehicles. The performance statistics attributed to the Pontiac GTO in that article added to the gathering momentum of GTO frenzy. As the GTO went into high gear the sales tornado it left in its wake created the musclecar craze. That red car was instrumental to the start of the entire sixties supercar market.

Following the C&D testing, Jim Wangers bought the red 421 GTO as his personal car. After a year of fun on Detroit's Woodward Avenue (it never lost a street race) Jim dumped it for a new 1965 GTO. That 1964 red GTO test car is a key piece of musclecar history but as Jim states,

"It was just a used car back then."

And that was just one of Jim's cars during the 1960s. Jim always owned at least two hot Pontiacs. Aside from the cars actually titled to him as perks through both his ad agency and Pontiac Motor Division, he enjoyed access to the Royal Pontiac motor pool. Jim went through 43 GTOs none of which he owns now. Like everyone caught up in the expansive 1960s, he was always looking forwards.

Once the dark ages of low performance were upon us, everyone started looking backwards. The collecting bug can bite anyone anytime, but for the musclecar revival it began once looks and performance stopped moving forwards and up in a linear fashion. Buyers started to look at used musclecars. At first, it was a utilitarian move. Used musclecars provided the speed and image which had evaporated out of the new car market.

Performance gear heads scoured used car lots snapping up cheap high compression emissions equipment free musclecars. Buying used started as expediency. The collecting part of it seeped into the guys over time. As the time gap between your used car and current examples widens you find yourself morphing into a historian.

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Jim's Trans Am collection began innocently enough. After years of owning multiple musclecars simultaneously and switching cars constantly, Jim suddenly found himself confronted by the death of the musclecar. Like the rest of the performance fans, he had to adjust his car buying habits. Instead of dumping the 'old' six month car for the latest thrilling new thing Jim had to scavenge through the past for thrills. The new things were no longer thrilling.

Jim found the seat of the pants experience he had become accustomed to enjoying from his daily drivers in a used 1969 Trans Am with the standard Ram Air III. It was a nice car with low miles (it still only had 47,000 when he sold it decades later) but collecting wasn't his primary intention. Jim drives his cars.

The 1969 Trans Am is a pretty rare car with escalating value. As first of the breed combined with low production numbers it has an aura of specialness about it. Although Jim's motive was to get back into a fast car, buying his 1969 T/A marked his transformation from being the guy who had to have the newest and latest to a collector of history. That is how the slippery slope leading to collecting starts. It's always pretty innocent and before you know it, it breeds many rationalizations.

"Well if I have the first year Trans Am, I should get the 10th Anniversary one."

See the story in the ONE OWNER section about Jim's 1979 Trans Am 10th Anniversary which only has 84 miles on it. It wasn't fast enough for him and the looks were too extreme, so it didn't get driven. He kept it, because it was a milestone car that bookended his 1969 Trans Am. Suddenly the guy who bought his cars to drive had a bona fide garage queen in his stable.

Jim was able to look forwards again when Buick released a really savage 1960s style musclecar called the Grand National. The car got really mean with the 1986 intercooled version. Jim bought a 1987 GN which may shock some readers. Jim Wangers is the personification of Pontiac. But even "Mr. GeeTo" had to own the Grand National. That's how good the GNs were.

The Buick V6 turbo 3.8 (231 c.i.) was underrated to keep the peace with the Chevrolet Division. The Chevrolet Corvette had built up an image as top of the mountain performance king at GM. In fact, Jim Wangers had a little something to do with that. His company AMCI ran the comparison test demonstrating that the Corvette was competitive with the exotic European supercars Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. With a hard won image to protect it didn't make sense for GM to have their supercar dethroned by a four seat sedan which is what the Grand National is beneath the sinister black paint job. Corvette supremacy was maintained by underrating the Turbo Buick on spec sheets, but its performance told a thrilling story. The top dog 1987 GNX was capable of breaking into the 13s in the quarter mile and could do 0-60 in less than 5 seconds in completely showroom stock condition.

Jim enjoyed his Grand National then sold it to his nephew who eventually sold it back to him. You can read about it in the ONE FAMILY section of this website. As the 1980s came to a close, Buick announced a new front wheel drive replacement for the G body Regal. Buick Grand National fans were distressed by the news that the new front wheel drive Buick couldn't handle the torque of the turbo. Buick had an amazing turbo and nothing to put it in.

When 1989 rolled around Pontiac was pleased to proclaim that they had kept the Trans Am viable through yet another decade. Pontiac needed to do something extra special for their 20th Anniversary Trans Am. They already had a 5.7 (350) Corvette engine in the top option level Trans Am named the GTA. The GTA also provided top notch suspension, steering and brakes. Taking the GTA as a starting point for the 20th Anniversary T/A an upgrade to the Buick turbo was the only way to improve on the excellent 5.7 that came in the GTA

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The original idea for this swap came from Milt Schornack. Milt was a legendary engine builder from the Royal Pontiac dealership. After branching out on his own, Milt was working on contract with Pontiac engineering while the 20th Anniversary T/A was under discussion. Milt noted that Buick had a bunch of Turbo engines with nowhere to go and suggested the engine swap. The concept was embraced by Bill Owen who set the creation of the ultimate Trans Am into motion.

Milt recalls that the sub frame on the Trans Am needed a notch to get the Buick turbo to fit into the smaller engine bay. That plan was nixed, due to PMD's fear of the government coming down on them for altering anything to do with safety. The alternate solution was to use narrower heads to make the turbo fit the Trans Am engine bay. The Pontiac Bonneville 3800 heads did the trick and added some exhaust flow into the bargain. Pontiac used a new design aluminum intake. Pontiac took the rated level up to 250 HP, but it was truly a 300 HP engine underrated on the spec sheet

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Back in 1989 when the Turbo T/A came out, no Trans Am prior to the Turbo T/A had bettered its performance in showroom condition. The first Trans Am back in 1969 gave HOT ROD magazine a 14.1 quarter mile. The 1970 T/A Ram Air provided a 13.9 at 102 MPH to HOT ROD in Feb, 1970. Even the fabulous 1971 455 H.O. and the 1973-1974 455 Super Duty Trans Ams only equaled or in some cases didn't quite match the performance of the Turbo T/A. For 14 model years from 1975 till 1989 no T/A came even close to what the Turbo T/A put down.

After 1989 a few years passed before a factory Firebird matched the Turbo T/A level of performance again. In the 1990s an official aftermarket conversion called the Firehawk was offered as a PMD Regular Production Option on Firebirds and it broke into the 13s. The fourth gen 1998 Ram Air T/A with an LS1 posted acceleration numbers that dipped into turbo territory despite not being able to match the top speed (due to a limiter) of the Turbo T/A. Some people declare that the Turbo T/A is the fastest Trans Am ever. Period. Without question it matches the very best that any of the top Trans Ams have ever offered.

Turbos take things to the edge which creates critical maintenance intervals. Many turbo owners use Mobil 1 and change it every 1,000 miles. These were not cars that forgave neglected oil changes or low gasoline quality. This sticker attached to the underside of the hood contained some stern warnings about the turbo.

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Pontiac was also ready for customers who didn't check their oil levels and wrapped this paper warning sign around the driver's sun visor. Jim's car still has this original warning in place.

89 turbo ta 20th ann indy jim wangers driver visor

The Turbo T/A was used as the official Indianapolis 500 pace car at the 73rd annual race run on May 28, 1989. The turbo was so good that the 20th Anniversary T/A was capable of lapping the Indy 500 in stock form. Prior pace cars needed modifications to achieve the necessary speeds. Lights and a radio were added, but no performance enhancements were necessary for the Turbo T/A. Below is a picture of the Indy 500 sticker that appears on the doors of the official pace cars and festival cars used at Indy 500. The same stickers were provided with Turbo T/As sent to dealership for application by the owner if s/he so desired.

89 turbo tz 20th ann indy jim wangers pass door

Once we add 'Official Pace Car 73rd Indianapolis 500- May 28, 1989' to the plethora of name badges already loaded onto the Turbo Trans Am it gets a little hairy. Try and keep it all straight: it was a Firebird with the Trans Am option with the GTA option added on top of that. Atop the GTA option Pontiac piled on the 20th Anniversary option with the Turbo tag added to the T/A name. The Indy Pace-car name went along with the package.

To simplify: let's just call it really fast.  Pontiac Motor Division testing said 0-60 took 5.5 seconds and the quarter was a 13.5 second ride. PMD also got it to stop just as quick. 60 to 0 happened in 139 feet. Despite tremendous power, the EPA gave the turbo a pretty decent rating: 16 City and 24 Hwy.

ROAD AND TRACK January 1989 blasted to 60 MPH in 5.3 seconds and finished the quarter mile in 13.9 at 99.5 MPH. Those times were bettered by the June 1989 CAR AND DRIVER issue road test where the Turbo T/A recorded a mind blowing 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and the quarter mile in 13.4 at 101 MPH. Motor Trend and Hot Rod posted low 14s in the quarter this same year. The Turbo T/A was only available with the T200R4 automatic transmission and 3.27:1 axle. With scorching times like that no one raised a fuss about the lack of a manual.

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The Buick Grand Nationals were computer programmed with a speed limit of 124 MPH due to safety concerns regarding the sedan body style and suspension. The sophisticated handling of the Turbo Trans Am allowed GM to dispense with a speed limiter and let that turbo run to the maximum of its capability: over 150 MPH! CAR AND DRIVER saw 153 MPH, while Pontiac factory tests said 161 MPH. With a top end up in the stratosphere, Pontiac put bigger brake rotors onto the 20th Anniversary cars. The Goodyear Eagles were upgraded to 'ZR' speed ratings in 1989, just in time for a car that could travel over 150 MPH which is what the rating was for. Jim Wangers laments the fact that this sleeper car was never promoted heavily by Pontiac,

"No one knew it existed and yet it was the fastest domestic car of 1989. Pontiac had this car and didn't do anything with it."

When it came to the car itself, Jim Wangers was ecstatic. Having the turbo available in his beloved Pontiac brand put all the ducks in line. Here was yet another 'bookend' for his 1969 Trans Am, but unlike the 1979 T/A this was a brutal car Jim could drive. It had sleeper looks and insane performance. The phenomenal performance of the Buick V6 was no longer working through a sedan body. That power was channeled through the lightweight, low slung excellent handling Firebird body.

Jim talked to his friends at Pontiac Motor Division. Only 1,500 Turbo T/As were slated to be built. One of Jim's factory connections got a line on something even rarer. Pontiac was sending Festival Turbo T/As to be used at the Indy 500 race. Pontiac slated slightly over 100 of the cars to be parade cars and Pontiac employee 'go-for' cars. There were 25 VIP cars at the disposal of honored guests attending the Indy. Once the race was over, all the 'Festival' cars were returned to Pontiac and available for purchase by Pontiac employees. Jim's friends were going to nab one of the 25 VIP cars for him.

A computer print-out from the Van Nuys assembly line is available on Scott Kelly's PAS, Inc. website listing all the serial numbers of the cars. Scott's website is a must see for any Turbo Trans Am fans. Scott uses photos to document the development and production of the Turbo T/A through every step of the process to a delivered car. Van Nuys set target dates for assembly of the Festival cars in two batches on Dec 12 and Dec 19, 1988. The total of 152 Indy festival cars were all built with cloth interiors. The cars were finished at PAS Inc and shipped out in April, 1989 directly to the Indy 500. After the race, the cars were gathered up at Pontiac to be sold off.

Jim had no say over which one of the cars he got. The guys managed to grab him a Pontiac promo sales VIP car with 2,500 miles on it. Jim bought it sight unseen. The Indy festival cars are the rarest of the run of Turbo Trans Ams aside from the prototypes and the actual cars used to pace the race.

The Turbo T/A regular dealership run also had very limited scope. At the end of the Van Nuys production April 24, 1989 the Turbo T/A tally exceeded Pontiac's originally quoted projection of 1,500 cars. 1,550 were built plus the 5 prototypes for a grand total of 1,555 which is scant few of these excellent cars. Part of the reason for the Turbo T/A low production is due to the way they were built.

The 20th Anniversary package was farmed out by GM for conversion by a company named PAS Inc. (Prototype Automotive Services). PAS was similar to Jim Wangers' old company, Motortown Corporation or Carroll Shelby's company Shelby American Inc. These aftermarket companies take cars from the assembly line and add parts to create a specialty car like the 1977 Can Am or a Shelby GT350. The factories usually don't have time on the fast moving high volume assembly lines for these projects. PAS made the changes that weren't practical to do on an assembly line. A specialty company such as this has limited space and can only handle several hundred cars at a time which limits the production numbers of a conversion.

The 20th Anniversary project involved more than adding some badges or a boost gauge. The Pontiac Trans Am application required new heads and pistons in the Buick engines. The plumbing, stainless steel headers, turbo and other parts had to be set up for smooth installation on the Van Nuys assembly line. PAS had to build the turbo engines using the supplied Buick engines and parts. Once PAS finished the engines they were shipped to the GM Van Nuys, California assembly line for installation in the 20th Anniversary cars.

Once Van Nuys installed the engines, the assembled cars were sent back to PAS who ran quality control checks on the Turbo T/As before they were pronounced ready for sale. The PAS warehouse where the cars were given a final check-over was located at 770 South Epperson Avenue, Industry City, California. PAS was the place where the buck stopped and hence factory invoices tell us that Industry City, California is the point of final assembly. A truck came and took completed cars to the GM distribution lot where the private sale cars made their way to dealers. The Festival Indy cars were shipped on carriers in caravan with a police escort directly to the Indy 500.

Aside from the limited number of cars a smaller company such as PAS could create, Pontiac wanted to keep the numbers down to retain its exclusivity. Later variants of the Anniversary T/As that were built in-house were usually kept under 2,000 copies as well.

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The Indy festival and VIP cars have a cloth interior which is rare. The majority of the 20th Anniversary cars have leather interiors. The shot below shows no visible pedal wear, although the camel carpeting shows a few marks.

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The dash is pretty basic 1980s techno style with radio controls in the steering wheel. Thankfully the digital gauge fad had passed and the T/A got real dial analogue gauges. Inside each gauge you may be able to see a crosshatched pattern. The entire dash is meant to have a 'techno' look to it. Many cars in this era had this type of 'futuristic' style that now seems mired forever in the 1980s. On the plus side, the dash in this car is very straightforward and simple to read and use.

89 turbo ta 20th ann indy jim wangers dash gauges

After years of speedometers that read higher than a car's potential, the Turbo T/A reverses the trend. The speedometer ends at 140 MPH despite the Turbo's ability to exceed 150 MPH. The passenger side of the car doesn't have a glove box. Instead it features map pockets. Note the 20th Anniversary badges which are unique to the Turbo dashboards.

89 turbo ta 20th ann indy jim wangers map pocket

Aside from its use at Indy and the cloth interior, Jim's car is much the same as the 'regular' 20th Anniversary Turbo T/A Indy Pace Cars. 'Regular' is a funny term to use in connection with a pinnacle performance Pontiac such as this. Jim has driven many fast Pontiacs and he is a bit jaded but even he speaks of this car with awe. He hasn't changed a thing on it, because it was fast enough right out of the box.

The fact he added 13,000 miles to this car despite having a rotation of cars to drive is further testament to the fun factor of the Turbo T/A. The car currently reads 16,000 miles (it came through the Pontiac promo sales program with 2,500 miles on it before Jim bought it) and has new tires and a new battery, otherwise it's all original.

Speaking of all original, when you meet Jim, it's hard to believe he is now 86. He's in just as good shape as his cars. He's still strong and vibrant with a sharp wit. He comes to the office everyday and spends Saturday reading up on all the new developments in the car industry. However, even the legendary Jim Wangers has slowed down a tiny bit. As a result he is thinning out his car collection. Ultimately, he intends to bring his collectible street cars down to two cars: his Carousel Red 1969 Judge and Hurst Gold painted Grand Prix. The Turbo T/A is just one of the cars from his collection for sale. See the FOR SALE section of this website to see other cars Jim is selling.

UPDATE. Jim's 1989 Trans Am sold. Jim owned the car from his late spring purchase, 1989 until 2014 which adds up to 25 years.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 01 May 2014 21:21 )