If you think about iconic sports cars, two examples usually come to mind — the Pontiac Trans Am and the Pontiac Firebird. These two muscle machines may have come from the same manufacturer, but they’re actually quite different.
That being said, they’re similar enough that the names are often used interchangeably. That might not seem like a big deal to a layperson, but it’s a great way to embarrass yourself in front of Pontiac enthusiasts.
So, how can you discern the difference between the Firebird and Trans Am?
It Started with the Firebird
The Pontiac Firebird first rolled off the assembly lines in 1967. These first-gen Firebirds were built on a Camaro platform, but they had entirely different parts, so it was easier to tell the two muscle cars apart. Various incarnations of the Firebird have appeared throughout the intervening decades, covering four generations between 1967 and 2002.
First-generation Firebirds came with two engine options — a 3.8-litre V-6 engine or a 6.6-litre V-8. This generation only lasted until 1969.
1970 brought a new generation of the Firebird, which lasted until 1981. It featured four engine and transmission options, including two manual and two automatic.
Third-generation Firebirds were available between 1982 and 1992, switching from coupe and sedan options to a three-door hatchback. There were still four engine options and three different transmissions to choose from.
The final generation of the Firebird premiered in 1993 and ran until Pontiac stopped production in 2002. You might not be able to buy a new model anymore, but there are still plenty of Firebirds out there for the taking if adding one of these iconic sports cars to your collection is one of your dreams.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
When you start getting down to the nitty-gritty of the debate, Trans Ams and Firebirds are technically incarnations of the same car. Every Trans Am ever made is a Pontiac Firebird, but not every Firebird comes with the features that make it a Trans Am. Each generation of the Firebird came with a Trans Am option, starting with the first-gen Trans Am that rolled off the assembly line in 1969.
Early Trans Ams were an add-on for the 1969 Firebird. For an additional $725, you could enjoy all the benefits of the Trans Am performance and appearance package. That might seem like pocket change today, but that extra would cost upward of $4,416 in today’s economy if you account for inflation. Despite its popularity today, there wasn’t much marketing done to promote the Trans Am. It started with a whimper rather than a bang.
The second-gen Trans Am lost a little bit of power, switching from a 6.6-litre and 7.5-litre V-8 until finally settling on a 4.9-litre V-8 by the time the brand made the transition to the third generation. Third-gen Trans Ams were all about the look, with all sorts of sleek exterior adjustments to appeal to the decade’s high-tech aesthetic.
One Last Hurrah
While Pontiac gave up on the Firebird and Trans Am in 2002 — and GM gave up on Pontiac eight years later — there are still fans of both the brand and models. In 2021, a group worked to revive the iconic Trans Am Firebird by building it themselves. The “Bandit Edition” 2021 Trans Am Firebird is a custom-built car, sitting on the frame of a Chevy Camaro, much like the original Firebirds did back in the 1960s.
The company is planning to make a limited run of these custom models, 77 to be precise, in honour of the 1977 special edition that made an appearance in the iconic Burt Reynolds movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” The custom vehicle was even endorsed by Reynolds himself before his death in 2018.
Telling the Difference at a Glance
Telling the difference between a Firebird and a Trans Am isn’t always easy at first glance, especially since every single Trans Am started life as a Firebird. The Trans Am is the one you’ll usually see in movies and television shows. In addition to “Smokey and the Bandit,” the original K.I.T.T from the television show “Knight Rider” was also a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird.
On older Trans Ams, the only way to tell the difference between the two cars — other than the trunk decals — was to look under the hood. The Trans Am offered different engine styles than the Firebird. You might also find them equipped with lower body panels, making them appear closer to the ground than they actually are. They would also sometimes come equipped with a taller fin, but that may also depend on the personal preference of the individual who purchased the Trans Am new.
Newer Trans Ams featured a lot of bodywork that made them distinctive from their Firebird cousins. However, the brand has been off the market for so long, you may find classic Firebirds with Trans Am-style body kits on them for sale on various marketplaces.
When in doubt, the best thing you can do is ask the driver. Compliment them on their choice of muscle car and ask what model it is. That way, you’ll never have to worry about calling a Trans Am a Firebird and embarrassing yourself in front of your friends.
An Enduring Legacy
We may never see another Trans Am or Firebird roll off the assembly line, especially with GM waving good-bye to Pontiac in 2010, but the love for this iconic sports car endures. You can easily find both Firebirds and Trans Ams for sale at various price points, from ones needing a complete restoration to models that were meticulously maintained. If you want to own a part of American muscle car history, you can’t go wrong with either one.
It’s up to you to be able to tell them apart, but remember, they’re all Firebirds. Some are just better at being Firebirds than others.