1977 Pontiac Trans Am SE
Like Smokey and the Bandit, the movie that made it famous, the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am is easy to dismiss as a buffoonish, overblown mockery of a once-great art form. Certainly both the movie and the muscle car are obvious, gauche, and deeply imbued with the cheesiness characteristic of the 1970s. Personally, I think that is at the root of their appeal.
Last year I wrote a series of posts on Poseur Muscle Cars, honoring such punchless extroverts as the Ford Mustang II, Chevy Monte Carlo SS, Dodge Magnum XE, Ford Gran Torino, and Spirit-based AMC AMX. The '77 Trans Am would seem like an obvious candidate for Poseur Muscle Car (dis)honor--after all, as the Trans Am's horsepower ratings sagged in the mid-1970s, the body kits and graphics kept getting flashier and gaudier to compensate.
The difference? The Trans Am was the real thing--the car most of those poseur muscle cars wanted to be when they grew up. Compared to its contemporaries, the Trans Am was still a potent car. Relatively speaking, it still brought the thunder.
A 1977 Trans Am SE like the one featured in Bandit sported 400 cubic inches, or 6.6 liters, of meaty V-8. It looked fantastic--sharp in the right places and flared and muscular in the others. That shape, draped in glossy black paint and gold regalia, was a complete knockout. The gold engine-turned dashboard wasn't subtle, but it was gorgeous.
To the casual onlooker, the '77 Trans Am SE looked like the perfect muscle car combination. With a beefy engine, flared fenders, sport seats, and of course the iconic screaming chicken decal on the hood ... well, the '77 T/A looked like a worthy successor to the legendary 1973 Trans Am SD-455 as master of all muscle cars.
There was one rub, but it was a big one. Those 400 cubic inches generated only 180 horsepower--about half of the estimated 310-370 net horsepower the illustrious SD-455 produced. With about the same horsepower on tap as a 1995 Toyota Avalon, the '77 Trans Am offered similar acceleration numbers as well--0-60 in around 8.5 seconds.
A brightly plumaged muscle car that accelerated like a feeble mid-1990s Toyota family sedan doesn't sound like a particularly compelling muscle car, but the '77 Trans Am has two mitigating factors working in its favor.
The first is context. The late 1970s were a dark time for performance. Pollution regulations, fuel shortages, and spiraling insurance costs had combined to nearly kill performance cars during that dark decade--only a few renegade pickup trucks remained to fly the flag of unfettered, unregulated performance.
The list of real American performance car son the market was down to two--the Corvette and the Trans Am. In the context of this era, when a sub-10-second 0-60 time was considered an accomplishment, even this somnolent version of the Trans Am was one of the hottest American cars available. Unlike the Poseur Muscle Cars mentioned above, it backed up its bravado with some brawn.
The second mitigating factor was handling. You wouldn't expect a 1970s muscle car with a massive V-8 mounted way out front to handle particularly well. You would be wrong. To quote from a contemporary Car and Driver test of a big-engined T/A:
"Handling is (the) ace in a hole. Detroit has never offered a better car for snaking down a country road at speed, and that character remains almost intact ... fast, sensitive steering gives the car keen reflexes ... the fact is, you couldn't choose a more capable machine for getting out of trouble."
I'm not claiming a 1977 Trans-Am 400 is the equal of a modern Lotus Elise in the twisties; but in a late-1970s world populated by elephantine Chevrolet Impalas, Plymouth Gran Furys, and Lincoln Marks, Trans Am was a vicious predator.
So, what about the movie? I recently rewatched Smokey and the Bandit and found it astonishingly good. Perhaps this is testimony to the power of low expectations. I came in expecting awful acting and slapstick comedy--what I got was a real movie with genuinely likable characters, surprisingly snappy dialogue, and an endearingly subversive worldview. There was even a quiet, dialogue-driven scene between Reynolds and Fields that very nicely illustrated the cultural divide between the North and South.
Sure, there was a little silliness, especially towards the end, and the movie is in no particular danger of being named to any American Film Institute lists. But unlike its sequels, or The Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit was a real movie that didn't make me feel like I was losing brain cells by the minute.
I was struck by the picture of the South painted by Smokey and the Bandit, and how clearly it foreshadowed The Dukes of Hazzard. This idealized version of the South is a lush world of green forest, burbling streams, picturesque two-lane blacktop, an intricate network of dirt and gravel roads, and more opportunities to jump your car than you can shake a collapsed crossmember at.
This mythical South is populated by coolly cheerful heroes, engaged in genial and victimless law-breaking. These laconic heroes are opposed by corrupt but bumbling authorities and aided by decent regular citizens eager to help turn the tables on the authorities. Even setting aside the fantastic vehicular scenery--ubiquitous muscle cars and full-size, big-block police cruisers--it's an incredibly compelling world. Dukes calls its heroes "two modern-day Robin Hoods," and that's really what's going on here.
It's easy to bash Bandit and Dukes for their unrealistic excesses, but these are really tall tales and myths--modern Southern fables, where Burt Reynolds and Sally Field stand in for Robin Hood and Maid Marian, where Reynolds and a heroic black Trans Am replace Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Reynolds was supposedly the star of Bandit, but I found two characters even more compelling than the Bandit. The first is the Trans Am itself, which steals the show with its inexorable power and implacable cool. The second is the late Jerry Reed, whose completely believable and lovable portrayal of the truck driver Cleetus "Snowman" Snow upstages the other human actors. His good humor, manic laughter, and thick accent ("we're 28 minutes ahead of sched-you!") made him the most believable and by far the most fun of the characters.
"Put that hammer down and give it hell!" --Jerry Reed
Amen and RIP, Snowman.
Bandit was the second-largest-grossing movie of 1977 behind only Star Wars; it captured the public's imagination, and it helped make the '77 Trans Am an object of automotive lust for an entire generation. I feel for the '77 T/A owner who saw Bandit in theaters, though. After watching Reynolds fishtail, powerslide, billow tire smoke, and rocket through rural Georgia in his modified Trans Am, it would be intensely frustrating to walk out of the movie to a visually identical car with only 180 horsepower.
In recent years, the surge of interest in classic muscle cars has caught up to these late 1970s Trans Ams, particularly the Bandit cars. And thanks to the magic of aftermarket performance parts, crate engines, and resto-modding, these cars are getting new life with performance components that give them the performance to match their looks.
Noted restomod enabler Year One partnered with Burt Reynolds to produce modernized '77 Trans Ams in three levels of tune--the most potent of which offers 650 horsepower from an 8.8-liter, 540-cube V-8. For those keeping score at home, that's 3.6 times as much horsepower as was available in 1977. Thankfully, it comes with modern suspension and brakes to keep all of those horses under control. I'd be interested if Year One could also put Sally Field in the passenger seat, Smokey on my tail, and Iceman on the other end of my CB radio.
The four photos of the immaculate '77 Trans Am come from All Muscle Cars.com; I spotted the Smokey & the Bandit movie poster in an XBox forum, and the restomod picture comes from Year One's Bandit page. The video below shows some of the Trans Am's best scenes from the movie. I love watching Jerry Reed exclaim, "Ho ho ho!" as he lays eyes on the Trans Am for the first time.