We might shake our heads in disbelief now, but if you go back through the archives here at Unique Cars and Parts and read reviews of the day, you would realise the Firebird 400 was not met with the usual reverence reserved for American muscle.
The problem for the Firebird was that the Mustang, much like today’s iPhone, had been setting the benchmark for many years. In the quest to dismount the steed from the podium of new car sales, Detroit had bombarded the American public with such imitation Mustangs as the Cougar, the Barracuda and the Camaro. The problem for Pontiac was that their new iteration promised to be just another variation on what had, by then, become a tedious theme.
That the Firebird was a last-minute conversion of the Camaro, begun by Pontiac engineers and stylists in mid-'66, further added to the rather blasé reception it initially received. Having been handed the basic General Motors "F-body" employed for the Camaro, the Pontiac people had no choice but to utilize the sheet metal designed for Chevrolet Division's product.
Time was so critical that Pontiac were forced to stick with the Camaro's interior fittings, right down to the door handles and instrument bezels. New sheet metal could be used on the hood, grille and tail light panel, but that was all.
This meant that the Firebird's identity as a Pontiac product would have to be established in a new and wholly original way. So the men who then managed the Pontiac Division of General Motors had to make a last-ditch effort to inject some energy and excitement into what appeared to be a lame-duck Chevy offspring.
There was extra incentive behind Pontiac's desire to make the Firebird into something special. Rumour has it that, even before Ford’s release of the Mustang, the Pontiac chiefs had been asking GM HQ to let them develop a sports car. We don’t know whether the Pontiac pitch fell short, or the GM chiefs lacked the courage. Whatever the case, a sports Pontiac was only realised long after the Mustang had demonstrated what a “hero” car could do for an entire showroom range.
By 1966 the success of the Mustang was well established – and GM wanted a piece of the action. Chev had the Camaro, and Pontiac was brought into the picture as a sort of backstop for Chevrolet. The Pontiac designers took the F-body, Chevy legacy and all, and raised a little hell, in the Pontiac tradition. Pontiac's first decision was to market the Firebird (nee Panther, and at one point named the Banshee, until somebody discovered Banshee meant "bird of death") as five basic cars with five basic drive trains.
Firebird Model Lineup
The Firebird Six was the bottom-of-the-line model, equipped with a single-carb edition of Pontiac's overhead-cam engine. This was followed, cost wise, by the sportier Firebird Sprint, which was fitted with a four-barrel, 215-horsepower ohc six, and the floor-mounted 3-speed manual (4-speed or 2-speed automatic optional). Next came the tame-but-torquey Firebird 326, with its proved, obedient V8, and its more powerful counterpart, the 326 HO (High Output), which featured a 4-barrel carb, dual exhausts and a racy stripe, down the side.
Its rated horsepower was low enough to keep insurance costs at bay, an important consideration given the Firebird was aimed specifically at the youth market. At the top of the five-car line-up was the Firebird 400, powered by the gutsy 400 cu. in. GTO engine, with either a floor-mounted 4-speed or 3-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission options.
All of these cars were marketed with the new Firestone Wide Oval tires as standard equipment. The tire selection was important, as the Firestone’s not only to increased performance, but also enhanced the appearance of the car. Pontiac's stylists were displeased at the contrast of the Camaro's bulging body lines with its skinny, standard-equipment tires, and opted for the wider-profile Firestones.
To further enliven the Firebird's appearance, the Chevrolet springs were altered to make the Firebird sit substantially lower than the Camaro. In addition, all of the Firebird models, except the single-carb six, had traction arms to keep the wobbly Chevy single-spring suspension in place. Big, finned brake drums, front and rear, were delivered on all of the lines except the 400, which was marketed exclusively with Delco-Moraine front discs.
On the tarmac, it became obvious that the Pontiac engineers had managed to give the Firebird a personality of its own, although in profile it was barely distinguishable from a Camaro. The traditional Pontiac split grille was integrated into a bold front-end treatment that featured a sharp-edged snout and a bumper that doubled as the outer perimeter of the grille. This entire unit was five inches longer than the Camaro nose, and accounted for most of the Firebird's extra length. Approximately two more inches were added to the back.
Those who drove the Firebird would invariably comment on the solidity of the Firebird's suspension, and the tight, integrated feel of the car, even at speeds approaching the ton. On a purely subjective basis, take 5 road reviews and set an average, and you will find most believed the Firebird to be more stiffly sprung than the Cougars, Camaros and Barracudas. Taking an example of today, drive a Lexus IS250 Luxury, then and IS250 Sport, and you will immediately feel the difference. The sport is not to everyone’s liking – but those that want their car to transmit to their backside exactly what the road conditions are wouldn’t have it any other way. we've driven, but the oveTall drivving impression was essentially the same as that found in the other cars of this class.
At the heart of the Firebird 400 was the 389 V8, an engine that had single-handedly provided Pontiac with a performance image. A corporation edict in 1966 limited GM's cars to four carburetor throats – and enthusiasts no doubt would have liked to have been serenaded by the yowling sound generated by six throats opening at once, with its ensuing jolt of vicious acceleration, but the 400 still had adequate suds to all but track enthusiasts.
The first run of Firebirds used a Muncie gearbox which featured a neat Hurst-substitute linkage from GM. This linkage was called into service because the Firebird's development period was so brief that the famous Hurst shifter couldn't be adapted in time. They made it into the ’68 models.
Power was transmitted through a 3.90 rear axle ratio, which was the perfect setup for a quick getaway at the lights – although there was a downside, it being too tight a gear for normal driving. The body was well insulated and the noise was limited to the usual pleasant mechanical roar and hearty rumble from the American V8 exhaust systems of the time, but the high gearing meant the engine was ticking over at a rather high 3150 rpm while cruising at 60 mph. Not an ideal setup for long country drives, nor for good economy.
In order to bring the weight distribution to tolerable levels (53/47 %) , Pontiac engineers moved the Firebird’s engine back several inches from the position occupied by the Camaro's 327-350 engines.
Thankfully this did not result in an outsized transmission bulge on the front floor, leaving plenty of room for both driver and front-seat passenger, though rear-seat foot room was admittedly limited (though still far more capacious than most European cars claiming to be “four-seaters”. The one drawback in placing the engine so far rearward was the fact that the distributor was tucked up against the firewall, making maintenance the sole province of double-jointed mechanics.
To the Firebird’s credit, most road testers noted that the car was rather docile, and unless you unleashed the potential, the car masked the great bulk of the engine up front. The understeer, which was inevitable, was less than many contemporary American sports cars, and most importantly was completely within the realm of controllability. More important, though, the awesome rear axle tramp that was evident in the first iterations of the Camaro test had been (almost) eliminated.
So what set the Firebird apart?
Well, like a dog big in the bollock department, the Pontiac had an edge over all of its rivals. It was an aura of excitement about the car, and its boldness, a car happy to wear its underpants on the outside – or maybe no pants at all. No other muscle car of the time had the audacity to plant an optional tachometer in a waterproof pod out on the hood; only Pontiac made high-performance Firestone’s standard throughout the line; only Pontiac offered two kinds of styled custom wheels for the Firebird at a ridiculously low cost; and only Pontiac took the time to develop a truly contemporary six-cylinder engine for this kind of automobile.
It was Pontiac’s willingness to modify the dull, gutless tradition of the world's automakers for making so-called "new" cars out of old components, that made Pontiac General Motors' the most visible division of the late ‘60’s. Other automakers accused Pontiac of achieving a performance image through over-blown advertising claims and shameless sales pitches, but the fact remained that Pontiacs did have a flair the others didn't have, and Pontiacs (much to the chagrin of many) went bloody fast.
In terms of interior appointments, visibility and instrumentation the Firebird was still a Camaro. Pontiac had to content itself with adding a couple of rings of bright-work around the two main instrument circles and the random placement of a few Navajo-inspired emblems (dubbed the "Hamtramck Crow" by Pontiac insiders). An optional instrument cluster was available for the dashboard (the Camaro's optional instrumentation package was mounted just above the console). The seats were wholly a Camaro legacy, and fell somewhat short of the optimum. Side support was below par and the padding, springing, etc., were not adequate to prevent aches and pains on long hauls.
The Camaro's mediocre forward visibility was virtually unchanged, thanks to the low windshield and high dash cowling, which gave the driver a vantage only slightly wider than a pillbox gunport. To make matters worse, the wipers missed a large portion of glass in the right and left corners of the windshield, making wet and snowy weather a major headache. But these were minor issues, when you consider the Pontiac engineering team had managed to create so much personality in a car that was outwardly a Chevy product.