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1977 Pontiac Trans Am SE

77transam1 Sally Field: "Does this thing move?"
Burt Reynolds: "Oh, yeah."

---

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.

77transam2A 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.

77transam3 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.

77transam4So, 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.

77transam5 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.

77transam6In 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.

--Chris H.

Comments

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...ah, i remember building a model of this very car back in nineteen seventy-nine: at seven years old i believe that was the first time i became lucid of a high-performance car as distinct from everything else on the road, and for the next decade the camaro/trans am remained iconic of what a fast car was supposed to look like in my mind...

...i have to grin at the john player special livery aped on the pontiac, so very emblematic of seventies zeitgeist, so very tacky to our eyes now but oh-so-elegant at the time...gold-trimmed black remained a dignified color scheme for quite some time, in fact i don't think i began perceiving it as gauche before the late eighties...

"They done good, didn't they, Fred" was one of Jerry Reed Hubbard's best lines in the movie. I dated his daughter, Lottie, once, and she was a dream. The original, tattered BAN ONE was at their house, but I never saw it.

"Smokey And The Bandit" stuck a cord, in my opinion, because it let all of us believe (For 90 minutes anyway) that the then-55 MPH national speed limit did not exist. We got to thumb our noses at Authority for once and get away with it. The movie also launched the CB radio craze, and most of us talked like truckers while we drove.

I have lived in the South all my life, and we used to smuggle Coors beer from the West just like they did, although less than 400 cases at a time. As far as presenting true Southern redneck flavor, please check out Top Gear's Season 9, Episode 3 show, where they travel from Miami to New Orleans. A more true depiction of some people I know has never been presented. You'll love Big Stig.

There are two versions of "Smokey And The Bandit"; the original and the watered-down network version. "You scum-buzzards" replaced more colorful metaphors, and I'm not sure which version is funnier. Bloopers abound; watch as Sheriff Buford T. Justice has open, then shut, then has open again his door before "Mr. Bonzai" rips it off. Hal Needham was never known for continuity.

This is a light movie, but is everlasting... seriously, I've seen it well over 50 times. I know a guy that even got BAN ONE as his license plate on one of these. It's also a rare connection between fantasy and reality... and that may be why the two go together and last so well.

I'm still smiling from the YouTube movie clip. I never grow tired of watching the rear end of that Trans Am break loose and the smoking tires . . . and can attest first-hand that those cars did both very well. A good friend owned one of these, albeit white, with the 400 cu. in. that sure SEEMED to put out a lot more than 180 hp, probably because my vehicle at the time was a 4-banger Capri. Mash the gas pedal and listen to the tires scream. And they did handle nicely. When I "borrowed" my friend's Trans Am without him in the passenger seat, I practiced "Rockford Files" reverse turnarounds, front end sliding around the rear, in the high school parking lot. Left a lot of black marks there. What a great car.

Bravo! This is probably my favorite car from back then. I don't care, apart from the screaming chicken, this looks to my eyes as the nicest looking Trans Am there ever was. It just seems to hit the perfect combination of brawn and agility. It looks like it's moving even when it's sitting still. At the time I was too young to be fully aware of the performance drop everything had taken, so it didn't bother me. I just loved the way it looked and the movie made it even better. A college roomie finally bought one and I rode in it a couple of times and loved it then, too. I love my Mustang II, but the Trans Am is still my favorite car from then. That and the Berlinetta (whatever that name means) I just love love love.

I tried to buy an orange one when I was 15.... then a Javelin, then an AMC matador, then a 66 Charger, then a 69 FuryIII, and eventually I found my 68 Charger. :P What's funny was the insurance was INSANE on the transam, but not really much on the charger. That was the main reason I didn't get it, if I remember correctly.

Actually, the unsung star of this movie was not the car. It was The Beer, actual banned east-of-the-Mississippi Coors. Coors was evil west coast union-busting stuff. You'd get beaten up by teamsters for drinking a coors. Coors was evil, and banned, and like all things banned, all the more tempting to those who could not have it.

this car borders on being a guilt pleasure, except that it is so cool. i loved smokey and the bandit - watching it was an inspirational high point in my early years - right along with "GumBall Rally" one of the other greats (i've not seen it for years so i can only state that i was as enthusiastic about gumball as i was about smokey).

obscure shout out to designers everywhere... with the Trans Am i have to make reference to Robert Venturi, "ducks" and "decorated sheds", just cause someone has to, and if it's not going to be ..m.. then i'll take the bait. this car is vegas baby, vegas... and i'm guessing that big Bob Venturi would love these wheels too as much as any other decorated shed on the vegas strip.

...you know, as much as it represented performance to my burgeoning schoolboy perceptions at the time, i can't give it a free pass now: genuine muscle cars, icons of clumsy barebones iron which just don't give a damn because they pack power where it counts, those i respect in their own way, but this?..it's too fabulous for its own good; it says poseur in a way that i can't get past...

...i watched smokey and the bandit back around nineteen eighty and it didn't really do it for me then, so i guess i carry no fond affection to forgive the conspicuous tart - it's the automotive equivalent of a handlebar moustache...

what I got was a real movie with genuinely likable characters, surprisingly snappy dialogue, and an endearingly subversive worldview.

Bah!! Nice writing, fantastic car (like that stripper with the tattoos).

The funny thing is the the Year One Company is now producing muscle-fied (I know you are not ready for this) Burt Reynolds Edition (BRE) Trans Ams. For those folks who couldn't afford one when it was new, you can now buy a new/old gold chicken. We know have the technology to build it, make it faster (LS7) and handle twice as good as the original. The down side is the cost, about 100K.

...m...: "gold-trimmed black remained a dignified color scheme for quite some time"

You're absolutely right on the John Player color scheme - besides the Trans Am, there was the Cosworth Vega and the Black Knight El Camino.

Personally, I still think gold-trimmed black is stylish and ripe for a comeback.

Rob the SVX Guy: "I tried to buy an orange one when I was 15"

Yep, and I meant to mention that there were colors *other* than black and gold available. The light blue one is pretty nice - a former co-worker of mine was looking for a nice Bluebird for his wife. I wonder if he ever found one ...

John Bono: "Coors was evil, and banned, and like all things banned, all the more tempting to those who could not have it. "

I thought that was one of the funniest things about this movie. I'm used to thinking for Coors as a mediocre beer that tastes like every other American pilsner out there. Forbidden fruit truly is the sweetest.

V8Dan: "The funny thing is the the Year One Company is now producing muscle-fied (I know you are not ready for this) Burt Reynolds Edition (BRE) Trans Ams."

I actually am ready for it - I wrote about it and put a photo of the Year One Band 3 in the post.

That's probably the best looking Firebird Trans-Am since 1967-68. It's too damn bad emmisions robbed most of the best cars of their much need horsepower and torque. Unless the vehicle's been modified, there's no way in hell the vehicle would be able to perform all the wild manoeuvres performed on Smokey and the Bandit. Awesome movie!

Smokey & the Bandit defines what SPEED's 'Drive-In Theater' was all about. Movies that have cars as stars like the little '55 in 'Two lane Blacktop', Eleanor in the original 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and all the other unforgetable hot rods that turned us into the gearheads that we are today.

There's a mint T/A in the town where I work-canary yellow, absolutely gorgeous! The lady who owns it takes excellent care of it. I can't wait for summer when she cruises around town in it.

The late '70's T/A in my opinion was the last of the muscle cars. The EPA de-nutted it, but anyone with a couple bucks and a good wrench can easily fix that. Afterall, isn't that what Pontiac had in mind for it all along? Smooth body lines, sexy curves and that aggressive pointy bird's eye/beak headlight arrangement almost make it too stylish for a muscle car. The overall look, speed and performance is what defines it as a bonafide hunk of American Muscle in many of our minds, though.

The first Black & Gold Trans Am was a Super Duty-powered show car in '74. It was popular, and a production version followed in '76 in the form of the 50th Anniversary (of Pontiac) Limited Edition Trans Am. The (non-SD) 455 was available as an option. I used to drive by the ASC facility where they were converted on my way to work each day.

The cars were quite expensive (for a Firebird) and presumably highly profitable. With muscle cars dying like flies, these became the last ones you could buy, weak as they were in '77.

In '77 the Black & Gold became a regular production option as the Special Edition. The 455 was gone for '76. The 180 hp engine was the base motor, but the W72 200 hp engine was optional and, driving through a 4-speed and 3.42 standard gears, would break into the 14s in the quarter - about the same as a '64 GTO. Pontiac, the inventor of the musclecar, did their darndest to keep it around and were rewarded by selling a ton of them.

In '78 The Black & Gold SE was joined by a Gold on Gold SE. Similar engine options, but the W72 got a 20 hp boost to 220. Late in the year the famous WS6 package was introduced, including 4-wheel discs, which was a big deal at the time. These cars would do an honest 140, and could actually stop from that speed, a rare achievement for a classic musclecar.

Pontiac 400 production was shut down at the end of '78, but about 10,000 W72 engines were set aside for '79 production. '79 brought the new sloped nose and cleaner rear end. Aside from the rare W72s, which were only available with 4-speeds, the only engine choices were the 185 hp 403 Olds with automatic, or a pitiful 301 Pontiac with 4-speed or auto. The econo and emissions buzzards were circling, just like today.

I was lucky enough to buy a '79 Black & Gold SE with the W72, 4-speed, and WS6 package new. It was just about the last one available in the Detroit area and I had to pay full sticker, just over $10k. My friends were all astounded that anyone would pay that much for a Firebird, but I thought it was going to be the last factory-production big-block 4-speed musclecar, and I wanted one. So it proved.

The car ran in the 14s more than once at Milan Dragway, dead stock, and humbled a bunch of current Corvettes on Telegraph. It might not seem like much today, but at the time it was just about the baddest new car you could buy this side of a Ferrari. I had a great time with it, and if I had the funds I'd buy a Year One version in a heartbeat.

The world has moved on, but the buzzards are circling again, so, just like 30 years ago, I decided I'd better get one of "the last ones" before they were gone and bought an '09 Z06. :)

Yes, I'm a girl, but whatever. Ever since I was 12 and first laid eyes on a 1982 Trans Am, I've known it was the car for me. Smokey and the Bandit is my all-time favourite movie. I just love that scene right near the beginning when Bandit outruns the first cop and hides around by that little house thing, then just turns and grins at the camera, makes me laugh every time. I live in New Zealand, and Trans Ams are extremely scarce which is a problem for me, but while I'm saving up I'm just running round the country to every Hot Rod and Americana show that I can. To the many, many people in New Zealand and the world who laugh at me for loving a car that's not Japanese or lighter than one tonne, just you wait. My Trans Am, when I finally get one, will have more character and personality in one wheel than anything you can throw at me. Long live Trans Ams!

I happened to be a lucky one.
I owned a 77 Bandit edition, 4 speed B&W trans w/ a hurststick, with chrome vavle covers,short Ttops which made it a TA model, not a 6.6 liter. I see a lot of blue in all the engine pics i've seen. Also the lateral birds are too large to be factory. The spare tire had a well in the trunk.

Mine had a gold grill, (not black) gold interior, and gold diamond AL wheels. Pwr locks and windows.

At one time, it was the fastest factory car in Birmingham, AL.
I raced it a lot, and only the Corvettes with a stick could beat me. I even beat an iroc Z28 with an after market
cam after I missed 3rd! That big 400 took it like a champ, and the big block didn't know there was a 3rd gear when I slamed it into 4th!
REDLINE, dump clutch!SLAM!SLAM!SLAM! WINNER! speed between 90 and 130, depending on the cops.


Go away other model ta's......GT'sssssssss, Camaros and rice burners
(except for the early TA 90's 6 speeds with those corvette motors)
The damn thing would SCREAM!
Terry

This brought back some fond memories. I worked as an usher at a UA theater in SW Little Rock, Arkansas the summer Smokey and the Bandit was released. I saw the entire thing and enough bits and pieces of the movie often enough to memorize all the dialogue. I remember lines out the door for weekend showings. The Trans Am was the height car lust for a 17 year old.

"Pontiac, the inventor of the musclecar."

...methinks you're not giving the rocket 88 its due respect...

...i contemplated buying a new trans am at the turn of the century, it being the only t-top on the market at the time, but alas, i couldn't order the model i wanted without leather...

I recently acquired a 1977 TA that I call the “White Bandit” with the L-78/W 72 package. It is a beautiful white with red and black graphics. True, the official horsepower rating is only 200 HP, but the real power of this engine is revealed in the torque rating of 330 ft/lbs. Torque is what gets the rear wheels spinnin' and 330 ft/lbs is plenty to bake the tires. Add a set of headers and a hot manifold/carb and you've got an easy 50 extra ponies without any major mods. When first laid the hammer down in the White Bandit, I thought I had blown the tranny because the car wasn't moving. Then I noticed the smoke pouring from the rear wheel wells, and then the car caught traction and just leaped forward. Wow what a rush. Love live American Muscle.

The Trans-Am is one of my favorite all time cars. It's sad to hear that Pontiac is being folded by GM.

The whole Coors angle wasn't completely brought about by the company's stance in trying to bust their union (in fact, I'm not even sure if that had happened by 1977, although it may have.) Coors was constrained in that they did not (and still don't) pasteurize their beer, and they only had the one brewery in Golden, Colorado. Un-pasteurized beer goes bad quickly, unless you ship it refrigerated, and thus they only distributed it in 10 or so states surrounding Colorado.

A friend of mine had one of these in college. His dad had bought it for him and we drove it to Augusta for the Masters. Loads of fun. We met a couple on the CB(remember those?) and they bought us drinks as we followed the tournament.

James Dean in that Mercury '49
Junior Johnson runnin' thru the woods of Caroline
Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am
All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch

When I was a kid we all wanted the black and gold raleigh burner bmx and when we saw this film with such a great looking black and gold muscle car we thought it must be what all adults dreamed of owning. Now at 31 I still dream of driving this car (and occasionally still check ebay for my black and gold raleigh burner).

This car is still the god of all other cars, except for the Camaro in its prime.

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