1970-1981 Pontiac Firebird Esprit
You may not ever have heard of this car, but many of you over a certain age probably already know of it. The Firebird, arguably, rarely gets quite the attention that the Chevrolet division's sister car, the Camaro, does but it has a nice lineage and it produced quite a few memorable cars--even though a lot of them appear here at Car Lust rather than in the big muscle car magazines and web sites.
I always preferred the Firebird to the Camaro myself, for whatever reason, and the second generation has always been my favorite, especially the later '70s. Again, for whatever reason, the first generation's styling never quite did it for me; it just looks to me like something that was thrown together quickly to get something into the pony car market (this is all apart from the performance which was generally stellar). The second generation's styling just seems to have been well thought out with clean lines, good proportions all around, and manages to seem elegant, powerful, and sporty all at the same time. They look good from any angle. Although I adore my Mustang II the Firebirds from that time remain my absolute favorite car.
Now, as to this car's notoriety, fans of NBC's The Rockford Files (1974-1980) will recognize it as the car driven by Jim Rockford played by James Garner. I don't recall watching the show that often, but I remember the car. Oddly, all these years I'd remembered it as a Camaro, too, which shows how much I really paid attention back then. Recently, however, PBS has been doing a show called Pioneers of Television and the latest segment was on crime dramas which featured The Rockford Files, and it prompted me to finally put pen to paper fingers to keyboard and extoll the virtues of yet another brilliant, if underappreciated, 1970s car.
Like other models, the Firebird came in several trim and performance levels depending on the market niche each was appealing to: apart from the base, there was the Esprit, Formula, and Trans Am versions, largely upgrading the power and handling options for each step up although emphasizing different features for each, the latter two being the high-performance models.
The Esprit was geared to this more upscale and also older group, more for the 40-and-up managers rather than the 20-something gearheads who traditionally bought muscle cars. The interior was more upscale and refined than the standard and the exterior had touches of chrome here and there along with special lighting in the trunk and custom colors for the seat belts. Many of the performance looks--hood scoops and spoilers and what not--weren't available on the Esprit (at least not initially), again making it far more subtle and understated than the higher-performance versions.
Pontiac offered a number of engine options throughout the '70s, including the vaunted 400 and 455s--neither of which could be had on the Esprit. Instead, Esprit buyers had to make do with small-block V-8s: Pontiac's 301 and 350, and Chevy's 305. While not barn-burners, they provided pretty good oomph while still going easy on the gas mileage. On the other hand, this also forced the producers of the show to be, as we will see, '"creative" in their depiction of Rockford's "Esprit". In sum, the Esprit was, to coin a phrase, the Thinking Man's Firebird.
James Garner had made his TV acting name more in Westerns up to that point, having starred in the wildly successful Maverick in the late 1950s. On the other hand, Garner was equally famous for his role in the 1966 film Grand Prix. The film, popular in its time, has attained cult status for its superb and realistic race footage and the use of actual F1 drivers. Garner was into racing, but wasn't much of a driver before the film. By all accounts, he learned the craft exceptionally well and did most or all of his own driving, earning acceptance from the real drivers. Garner went on to be involved in various racing contexts, but made his name largely through offroad racing. By the time of Rockford he was an accomplished race and stunt driver in his own right.
The choice of the Esprit as Rockford's car was deliberate for a number of reasons, some of which Garner had input into. The series was unique for the genre up to that point in that Rockford was very much a flawed "hero." He lived in a trailer on the beach, wasn't exactly a hard-bitten PI in the form of Phillip Marlowe, and he certainly wasn't wealthy, not to mention being an ex-con; very much in the vein of the 1970s anti-hero which gained popularity at the time. As a 40-something, Rockford would have been attracted to the Esprit for its relatively upscale appearance and creature comforts, while having enough power and handling prowess to get him out of whatever scrapes he got himself into. As an accomplished driver himself, Garner preferred the exceptional handling of the Firebird/Camaros. In fact, Garner did nearly all of the stunt driving himself, not because he was the star and wanted to, but because he was one of the better stunt drivers at the time.
In fact, a standard stunt maneuver has become associated with the series. The J-turn, where a car in reverse does a 180 and ends up traveling in the same direction but pointing forwards, has since been nicknamed "the Rockford" and is a staple of the genre. See the video at the bottom for an example.
As for the cars, the first season a real Esprit was used. Some modifications were made to the car, notably using the show's own paint. The producers wanted to maintain a consistent color through each season and the vicissitudes of the automotive market often dictated subtle changes in colors from year to year. So they mixed up their own paint and used it throughout the series. Interestingly, they changed cars each season to reflect the new models which you can see in the series of photographs presented here which I've placed in chronological order. After the first season, however, they stopped using actual Esprits and turned to the Formula version of the Firebird due to its enhanced power and handling characteristics. So, each season they would buy a bunch of Formulas and rework them to make them look like regular Esprits.
Observant viewers would have caught the model year changes, especially the 1977 change to four square headlights and the new "beaked" look of the grille area. The producers tried to maintain the fiction that Rockford was still driving the same car throughout the series, but this would have fallen completely flat in 1979 when the front fascia went through a major change; rumor also hath it that Garner didn't like the look of the redesign. Instead, they purchased a few '78s and used those (in addition to some others they got from GM) for the remainder of the show's run.
The program ended in 1980 and after 1981 GM switched the Camaro and Firebird to a new body design and dropped the various flavors of Firebirds to the base model, S/E and Trans Am version. I was never really taken with the new design and haven't caught the fever since; it always kind of struck me as being more of a "boy racer" look rather than the more elegant grand touring look of the second generation.
Esprits aren't that easy to find these days, since they were more of a niche market than the other versions which made them not very numerous to begin with and a lot of people didn't bother to take care of them since they weren't really viewed as the Firebird to have, despite its evident popularity because of the TV show.
A similar model, the Camaro's Berlinetta version, is also a personal favorite (that's actually what I was thinking Rockford drove), though I haven't really been able to work up enough data to do a post on it. Both, I think, sum up much of what was good about the 1970s in terms of car design: very nice styling, decent performance, and a comfortable driving experience for those who regularly drive their cars into swimming pools as well as to and from the office each day.
Credits: All of the photos come from either the Internet Movie Cars Database or Jim Suva's blog who happens to own a '77 Esprit which was used in the PBS series (be sure to check his blog as it provides a wealth of information on the Esprit generally and his own car). Pete Dunton also did a good writeup on the Esprit and Suva's car at Old Car Memories, which is well worth perusing regularly. Below is a classic J-turn/Rockford maneuver in, of all things, a limousine.
--Anthony J. Cagle