Home Car Stories One Owner 1977 PONTIAC Trans Am- Zelda
1977 PONTIAC Trans Am- Zelda PDF Print E-mail
Written by Double Dragon
Saturday, 29 December 2012 21:24

1977 PONTIAC Trans Am- Zelda


Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

77 trans am zelda logo

For the sharp eyed readers who read the personalized license plate on this Trans Am and are wondering who 'Zelda' is: she is the owner of this Trans Am.

Those same eagle eyed readers may have noticed that Zelda's Trans Am lacks a bird sticker on the hood. This car was intentionally ordered with hood 'Firebird' sticker delete. The Firebird image which is derived from First Nations legend lost its mystique to some degree when the image was inflated to cover the entire hood. This opened the car up to some ridicule. Around this time someone first coined the derogatory nickname by which it is now universally known: 'The Screaming Chicken'.

It's all in good fun, though. Pontiac faithful have adopted that put down in good humour. Pontiac people have their fair share of quirky nicknames and are a pretty tolerant bunch. The GTO is nicknamed 'The Goat' which caused GM upper management fits in the late 1960s. Guys with their finger on the pulse of the street couldn't convince GM head honchos that the 'Goat' nickname was used with fondness on the part of the GTO owners who are dedicated to their cars. The Trans Am also has a loyal following.

77 trans am zelda front

It was Zelda's husband Ted who special ordered the Trans Am without the hood decal. The 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was a birthday present for Zelda and he ordered it according to her tastes. This was not an uncommon order at the time. Many people wanted the Trans Am hardware but felt the giant bird was too much.

Ted ordered the Trans Am from John Hine Pontiac in San Diego, California. See a story about John Hine Pontiac in the DEALERSHIPS section filed under CALIFORNIA/ SAN DIEGO Area. Zelda's birthday on Oct 26th when the Trans Am arrived was one to remember. It's pretty hard to top getting a brand new car on your birthday! There was also a lot to like about the new look on the 1977 Trans Am.

The 1977 Firebird had just been restyled to great effect. The basic body shell originated late in the 1970 model year as the 1970 1/2 Firebird. That great new body style was altered first in 1974 to accommodate 5 MPH bumpers and again in 1975 when the fastback rear C pillars had the rear window sliced into them for greater rearward visibility. The 1977 redo used square quad headlights in a one piece 'beaked' front end that integrated the protruding 5 MPH bumper with clean design.

1977 also marked a return to tweaked smaller Pontiac performance engines. Pontiac had held fast with twitchy 400 engines for the GTO relying on the famous Ram Air IV to hold everyone at bay during the 1970 model year. Giants roamed the streets that year when the 'Big Three' cranked out mega cube performance engines. Pontiac had a 455 for 1970 but it was not specifically tailored for performance. It wasn't until compression was already lowered that Pontiac put together a true performance mega cube engine with the 1971 455 H.O.

The Trans Am received a Super Duty version of the 455 in limited numbers during 1973 and 1974. After that the 455 returned to its quieter 1970 persona once again. When GM full size cars were downsized GM cancelled the biggest engines. 400 was as big as it got at GM in 1977. Pontiac supplied a 180 HP 400 for the Trans Am which was a carryover from the prior year. Where Pontiac amazed car testers was with the W72 option. This Pontiac 400 with 220 HP actually retained 1976 level 455 performance. Just like they did in the giant killer Ram Air IV, Pontiac used engineering tricks to achieve performance in the absence of cubes. Magazine writers were ecstatic to see improvement during this time of almost universal yearly power losses. High Altitude and California bound Trans Ams like Zelda's were equipped with the Olds 403.

All Trans Ams continued the tradition of spoilers and spats and plenty of graphics which made the car just about as visible as the old GTO Judge option package was back in 1969 when the first run of cars were all painted a screaming orange color named Carousel Red.

77 trans am zelda dashboard

Trans Ams also continued with the full gauge package set into the 'engine turned' dash applique complimented by the 'Formula' thick steering wheel. These modest interior changes transform the feel of the car dramatically from the regular Firebirds which received simulated wood applique and thin rim standard Pontiac steering wheels. Aside from retaining the 'engine turned' dashboard which traces back to the GTO, the Trans Am also incorporates the old GTO style 'grab bar' on the dash above the glove box.

Pontiac not only creates a racy fee they had the practical aspect of the driving experience nailed, too. Note the easily readable tachometer with the redline right at the top of the dial for easy monitoring. To the right of the Tachometer right at the top of the dash in the center is a small pod with 2 gauges: temperature and oil. By glancing down a Trans Am driver can see his revs, temperature and oil status. This was intentional and well thought out on Pontiac's part.

77 trans am zelda tachometer

Zelda's Trans Am is a California dealership car which meant it could not be ordered with the 4 speed or either of the Pontiac 400s. Although it would have been nice to get the Pontiac W72, California cars received the excellent Oldsmobile built 403- 4 barrel engine with 185 HP. The option load on Zelda's T/A is pretty impressive: power steering and brakes, power windows, air conditioning and a state of the art for the times AM/FM stereo.

Topping out over $9,000.00 when it arrived in September, this was a very expensive car in mid 1970s dollars. Inflation was really taking hold by this time and each year car buyers were hit with substantial increases in price. This Trans Am was not only an excellent handling car with extroverted looks and decent power it was very comfortable while doing so. The Trans Am one piece high back bucket seats are very comfortable. The console actually provides some utilitarian purpose with a good storage compartment that is easily reached by the driver.

77 trans am zelda driver seat

When the new body for the Firebird/ Camaro was introduced for the 1970 model year it was noted that GM saved a bundle of money by eliminating the front vent windows and the rear quarter windows. The feat was accomplished by putting long doors in the new F bodies and using a huge piece of glass with no frame. Complaints about poor fit and wind leaks and scratches on the glass appeared right from day one. By the late 1970s the popularity of the Trans Am exacerbated the problem. Trans Am factories spewed out massive numbers of the cars. Trying to keep up with demand caused quality control to slip. Zelda was fortunate with her car. The door and glass fit pretty well right from the start. Note the handy storage bins molded into the base of the door.

77 trans am zelda drivers door panel.

Zelda loved her new Trans Am but her work environment prevented her from using it as a commuter car. Zelda's job in cancer research meant that attacks from animal rights activists were a regular occurrence. The activists vandalized employee cars as part of their campaign against animal experimentation. As a result the T/A didn't rack up too many miles. Despite being a pleasure use car, the Southern California sun took its toll and it was showing some wear by 1988. The T/A had seen over a decade of light use by now but the UV rays in California are relentless.

The deteriorated paint spurred Zelda to get a new car from the John Hines lot in San Diego. An unplanned purchase resulted when Zelda found a non Pontiac vehicle that enticed her sitting on the Hines lot. She drove home in a five speed manual Mazda RX-7 convertible. After 2 1/2 years of barely driving the RX-7, it was time to make a choice. Either drive the RX-7 or get the T/A back on the road. The RX-7 was sold back to John Hines and the money went towards a restoration of the T/A. By 1991 the Trans Am was back in pristine shape with a new paint job.

Zelda's Trans Am currently shows 212,547 miles. The original speedometer shown below has been 'around the dial' twice now! Note the plaque in the middle of the dash that informs the driver that this car has Radial Tuned Suspension. Domestic car builders had finally gotten the hang of making their cars work with Radial tires and they were proud of the fact.

77 trans am zelda speedometer

The pedals are in pretty good shape despite such high mileage. The car was properly cared for and things were fixed and restored as needed along the way.

77 trans am zelda pedals

Despite the mileage, the Oldsmobile 403 engine has never given any problems or required any work. Oldsmobile engines are famous for care in assembly and use of high quality parts (particularly the bearings) and for extensive pre- installation testing of engines. It is common to encounter a battered and beat Oldsmobile Delta 88 or a Cutlass Supreme that is rusted right out but the engine will still run whisper smooth. The Oldsmobile 403 in Zelda's Trans Am is there in order to pass emission standards in California or high altitude Trans Ams but the side benefit has been 35 years of trouble free driving.

The engine shell game which was already common for California cars soon affected other 1977 General Motors cars. GM outraged customers when they began shuffling engine lineups in order to get engines into cars at Oldsmobile where engine supplies were low. The poorly thought out solution was to simply dump Chevy 350 engines in place of the Rocket 350s. The concept was nothing new. The practice of installing a 'one size fits all' engine traces back to the 1960s when many divisions used the Chevy 250 engine for base models. But the sanctity of the division specific V8 engine had never been severely impinged upon prior to 1977. Cutlass and Delta 88 owners sued GM because they were buying Oldsmobile for the Rocket 350 reputation. GM began printing a disclaimer that the engine in any GM was a 'corporate engine' that could be built in any random plant.

The upside for people like Zelda was that owners who received an Oldsmobile big block engine in their Pontiac quickly discovered how nice these engines are. Zelda's Olds 403 has plenty of torque and is extremely reliable. Pontiac faithful weren't ecstatic about the Olds transplant at first but over the long term it has to be admitted that the engine is faultless.

The real rabid fans ordered the 4 speed 'T/A 6.6' to ensure that the highly tweaked Pontiac 400 made it into their cars. The corporate engine policy eventually succeeded in angering Pontiac people when Firebirds received the Chevy 305, but that is getting way ahead of our story. In the picture below you can spot the trademark Oldsmobile oil filler neck poking up between the A/C pump and the alternator. Instead of trying to pour the oil into a valve cap, Oldsmobile engines incorporate a long filler neck at the front of the engine which makes oil top up a snap. It's a nice touch and represents the extra care Oldsmobile took with every detail.

77 trans am zelda 403 olds engine

The Olds 403 delivered good economy. The 1979 EPA rating for this engine combination (403-4 barrel, 3 speed auto and catalyst) was 14 MPG overall. Zelda was routinely clocking 13 to 14 City MPG and 17-18 Hwy MPG despite 'slam you in the seat' ample torque and an impressive top speed. Zelda's T/A managed a true 132 MPH across the Measured Mile at El Mirage dry lake bed.

El Mirage is out in the Mohave Desert, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles and 12 miles west of the old Route 66 town of Victorville, California. Each year Land Speed Racing is hosted by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) for certain days starting in May and ending in November. Vehicles are inspected before being allowed to race, so we know that Zelda's T/A was in good shape. Most of the entries in this race rank according to points and top speed, but the SCTA allows guests to race for "Time Only" in cars limited to 125 MPH. The cars cover 1.3 miles in total, so it doesn't offer as much distance to get up to speed as the Bonneville Salt Flats location. Top speed is limited to some extent due to the dirt surface which creates more tire resistance than the hard surface at Bonneville.

77 trans am zelda rally II and goodyear eagle

Part of the top speed advantage of the late 1970s era 403 Trans Am traces to a numerically lower rear end of 2.41:1 combined with the use of 15 inch wheels on the Trans Am option. Wide tires on this wheel created a larger total tire diameter than many cars built at this time which often still relied on 14 inch rims. Zelda's T/A rolls on correct size 225/70R15 tires which have a decent sized sidewall which retains correct factory tire diameter. Often people will put low profile modern tires on an older car which looks as if there are rubber bands fitted around the outside of the wheel rim. This looks wrong on the car and also reduces the diameter of the tire which messes with speedometer calibration and top speed. TexasTransAms.com has a nifty calculator which takes tire diameter (in this case 85.44 inches), axle ratio and RPM to calculate speed. According to the calculator at 4,500 RPM this combination should be capable of 135.9 MPH taking into account a 10% drive train loss.

In contrast to the tough Oldsmobile 403 that never needed an overhaul, Zelda's 1977 T/A has eaten up three transmissions. The problem traces back to the 1975 model year introduction of the catalytic converter on GM cars. The sturdy and reliable TH400 automatic traditionally bolted into automatic Trans Ams didn't allow enough room under the car to fit the catalytic converter. Pontiac was forced to substitute the smaller and weaker TH350 on Trans Ams from this point forwards. The same problem happened over at Chevrolet with the Corvette which also had to downgrade to a TH350. Larger cars might have been able to retain the TH400 and catalytic converter but GM downsized the full size and then the intermediate sized cars soon after the catalytic converter appeared. The TH400 soldiered on in trucks and vans.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy reduced the appeal of the TH400 to the corporation. It was larger and heavier than other transmissions. At this point every ounce counted. Versions of the excellent indestructible TH400 carried on into the overdrive and electronic era but most cars were fitted with smaller weaker transmissions.

In the late 1970s it wasn't necessary to abuse a GM car to blow up the transmission. Yes, the smaller transmission made the catalytic converters fit and the shaved some weight helped GM meet Federal standards but unfortunately people had to drive these cars. The transmissions were not up for regular driving and failed constantly when first released. The lightweight TH200 was one of the more notorious of the new lighter, smaller automatic transmissions GM introduced after the catalytic converter appeared in production.

Zelda kept her Trans Am all original including the catalytic converter. She has just learned to live with the fact that the TH350 is going to fail again at some point in the future. An average of 70,000 miles each time actually gives her more years of service than the average 13,000 mile failure rate for the TH200 when it was new and installed in bigger cars in the late 1970s.

Zelda's Trans Am still sees regular use as well as appearing in car shows. The T/A has turned out to be a birthday present that lasted a long time.

77 trans am zelda rear

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 July 2016 22:35 )