Car of the Week: 1978 Pontiac Trans Am

By Brian Earnest

Gary Miller decided to give himself a do-over when it came to buying a new Trans Am. And for the past 40 years, the Manitowoc, Wis., resident has been trying to make amends with himself for his first foray into T/A. ownership.

“I fell in love with the Trans Ams when I first saw them at the ‘star car’ races up in Shawano [Wis.], and I said, “One day we’re going to get one,’” Miller recalls. “So eventually I had bought a ’77. I wanted T-tops, but you could not get T-tops in anything except a black one, and I had a black ’74 Lemans. I didn’t want another black car, so I got my silver (’77) Trans Am. I picked it up in April. I remember it was raining … by the time I got home to the farm there were 6 inches of snow on the ground.

“[Later] I was back out on the side roads, I went up on a little one-lane bridge, and she started fishtailing and I was in the ditch; $2,200 worth of damage, five days old! I wrecked my brand new Trans Am.”

Miller took the Pontiac in to get fixed, and before it was done he found out that “I could get T-tops on a new one in any color I wanted for ’78, and they had come out with this new Martinique Blue. I fell I love with the color, and I told my wife we’re going to trade it in, and we’re going to get this color.”

Things have gone a little better for Miller with his second T/A. He has coddled and babied it since the day it came home four decades and 25,000 miles ago. The beautiful blue coupe still looks new inside and out. It has never really been Miller’s daily transportation; it’s been more of a weekend toy and Sunday afternoon cruiser right from the beginning.

“I got the T-tops, the four-speed I wanted, the bigger engine I wanted. And right away I started storing it every winter,” he says. “I planned right away that I was never driving it in winter. After I had a family and my boys came along, there was no room in the car for us and our suitcases, so it sat longer and longer and I didn’t put many miles on it. Then it came to a point where, hey, it would be cool if I could keep it below 500 miles a year. Some years I drove it 800 miles, some years I drove it 5. But I did drive it… I just turned 25,000 miles on it Sunday.

“My plan is as we get older on Sundays we’re going [out] for breakfast… plan some more road trips where we can just get out and enjoy it more and more. For a while, yeah [I was obsessed about it]. I thought, ‘I don’t want to put any miles on it.’ Now, I don’t really care.”

 

BANDIT IN BLUE

It’s safe to say that Miller has treated his T/A a little more gently than “The Bandit” who put the late ‘70s Trans Ams permanently on the map. Bo Darville tried his best to separate the rims from the rubber on his black ’77 Pontiac. Some fancy stunt driving and memorable chase scenes that showed off the T/A’s capabilities sold untold thousands of the cars for Pontiac the next few years.

Miller had no such high-speed shenanigans in mind when he got his second Trans Am safely home. “I ordered this one in January, hoping that I wouldn’t get it until later in April, when the snow was gone. I bought it from a little garage in St. Nazianz [Wis.],” he says. “It was just a little small garage, but they sold cars and I bought both my Trans Ams from them … I picked it up, parked it in the garage and it sat in there for another month before I out it out again.”

Miller’s car was one of 93,341 Trans Ams built by Pontiac for 1978, making the top end T/As far by far the most popular members of the Firebird family. The T/As, as always, were available only as coupes that year and carried a base factory price of $5,799. The base Firebird, Formula Firebird and Esprit rounded out the lineup.

One year after a radical redesign in 1977, Pontiac didn’t need to mess with a good thing for ’78, so it didn’t. The appearance of the Firebird and Trans Am was similar to 1977, with rectangular quad headlamps and a dark grille. Wide three-row taillamps had backup lights at the inner ends, close to the license plate. Taillamp ribs filled most of the back panel.

Small changes were seen, including a couple of new engine options, redesigned seats and an expanded list of extra-cost items with some midyear additions.

The base engine was the 3.8-liter V-6 with three-speed shift. Formulas had a new 305-cid (5.0-liter) V-8, while the Trans Am included a 400-cid (6.6-liter) four-barrel V-8 rated at 200 hp. A new optional 6.6-liter V-8 was added to the menu and bumped the hp rating to 220 and cost just $75 bucks extra! The 320 lbs.-ft. of torque on the optional 6.6 were pretty respectable and a sky-high number for the time. Taken together, the hotter 6.6 V-8 and the optional WS6 Handling Package, which featured stiffer rear springs, a beefier rear stabilizer bar, improved shocks and bushings, and a new steering box, made the Trans Am probably the best performer on the American car market that year.

Car and Driver road tested a 1978 Trans Am with the 400-cid/200-nhp V-8 and Turbo-Hydra-Matic transmission and concluded it was “very sophisticated and impeccably well mannered.” The car was fitted with non-stock 2.56:1 gears to produce a 130-mph top speed. It did 0 to 110 mph in 34.8 seconds. A better representation of stock Trans Am performance was found in the spring 1978 issue of Road Test magazine. Editors put a Trans Am with the W72 “T/A 6.6-liter” V-8 and a four-speed manual gearbox through its paces. The testers recorded a 7.2 second 0-to-60 performance and a 15.2-second quarter mile at 93 mph.

Firebirds had Endura bumpers, small hubcaps and bucket seats were standard. Esprits added wheel covers, sport mirrors, bright hood and wheel opening moldings and custom pedal trim. Esprit buyers were offered a new “Red Bird” package that was similar to the Sky Bird option, except in red. The blue Sky Bird option also returned. Formulas again had black-out trim and large “Formula” graphics on the lower doors. Trans Am included a front air dam, black grille, rear spoiler, sport mirrors, rear wheel air deflectors, Rally II wheels, a “shaker” hood and air cleaner and rally instrument panel with tachometer. Automatic transmission was standard on Formulas and Trans Ams, but the Formula could have a four-speed manual at no extra cost.

Buccaneer Red, a favorite color to many Firebird fans, was strangely discontinued for ’78. Buyers would have to be content with a pallet that included the new Martinique Blue, Mayan Red,Cameo White, Platinum, Starlight Black , Martinique Blue, Chesterfield Brown, and Solar Gold, which was chosen as the new Special Edition color.

“I ordered mine the way I wanted it. I got the T-tops, WS6 handling package, the ‘Bird [decal], the bigger engine, the four-speed, and that was it,” Miller says. “I got the custom interior with the cloth that’s nice and soft; no power windows or door locks, nothing like that. I actually ordered it without a radio, but I did get the antenna in the windshield because there is a place in town that had some nice radios and CB units, and I had them install it. So it’s period correct, it’s just not a GM. I got a 40-channel CB unit, 8-track tape player, FM stereo, and I had them put a power antenna in he back. If you had a power antenna from Pontiac, they would put in on the front quarter panel. Mine’s in the back. It’s period correct, just not standard from Pontiac.”

With so few miles on the car, it’s no surprise Miller has had few maintenance issues over the years. The car blew its original heater core once at a show, and it’s burned through a few starters. “Years ago somebody dinged the right rear quarter panel,” he says. “They put just a little crease in it, so I had that fixed and repainted. That’s the only thing that has ever been touched on this car. All the seals are original. The exhaust is all original except the mufflers. I even had the original tires on it until about five years ago, and they actually were still pretty good when I took them off.”

 

CHECK OUT THE ODOMETER!

Miller admits he gets plenty of reactions when other car guys find out there are only 25,000 clicks on the T/A’s clock. It’s not a car that was typically spared from the road by the original buyers. Miller knows his approach has been different than most, and he doesn’t expect everybody to understand.

“Not driving it does not bother me. As long as I know it’s there and it’s drivable, it does not bother me, yet!” he says. “But I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘Boy, if I had that car, I’d have to get it out. How come you don’t drive it more?’ If you would have smashed a brand new Trans Am after five days of owning it, you would not feel that way [laughs]. That might be the main reason.”

Miller insists he is eventually going to rack up some serious miles behind the wheel of his coveted Poncho — maybe head down for a beer in Texarkana or a Diablo sandwich and Dr. Pepper on the way to Atlanta. Wherever he goes, he knows he will run into plenty of other T/A fans who share a common admiration for his favorite car. “Oh, everybody always knows the Smokey and the Bandit Car,” he says. “And everybody knows the ‘chicken’. They don’t call it the ‘bird,’ they call it the ‘chicken.’ I know some guys didn’t want the bird on the hood, but a car like this is not the same if you don’t have the decal [laughs].

‘These were about the last of the muscle cars. Unfortunately, after ’79 they started downsizing the engines and they just ruined them after that, but everybody remembers these cars.”

 

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