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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. 1974Rockford

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.

The Esprit was in reality a trim version of the basic Firebird. As our fearless leader has noted, the second generation redesign of the Camaro and Firebird, along with some other models, was a significant departure from the hunky and blocky muscle cars of the '60s. It had far more of a sleek and understated European look to it, something it shared with the much-maligned Vega. While today we tend to associate that generation with mullet hair-don'ts, at the time I think they were meant to appeal more to the up and coming leisure-suit-and-martini crowd rather than the t-shirt-and-beer set.

1975Rockford  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 1976Rockford 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.

1977fb-esprit-5 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 1978Rockford 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

 

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I love the 74 (in the first photo), with the sloped front and the smaller, non-wrap around rear window.
As usual with GM cars...as it got older, it got uglier with more tacky add-ons.

Nice article Anthony, and I agree with many of your points about these Firebirds. I was a tad surprised that you didn't mention the most famous Firebird of all which was built from this (body) series, "BANONE" from "Smokey and the Bandit."

However, I lived with these cars from when they were new, and I found them to be poorly designed and even more poorly built. I owned a 1974 Camaro LT (Which later became the Berlinetta, I believe), and it was essentially the same car.

The way the A-pillar meets the door frame several inches back from the fender always bothered me--it looked way out of place and ruined the continuity of the body lines. No rear side glass looked like a cost-cutting measure and created a large blind spot. And there was way too much overhang, especially in the front.

A friend of mine had one of these also, and some strange red gooey substance leaked from the headliner down the plastic quarter trim on the driver's side back seat area. The doors were too heavy and too long, and the soft arm rests broke while trying to pull the behemoths closed on almost every car. When you shut them with the windows rolled down, the glass rattled in its sashless frame.

I welcomed this car's redesign. I thought they tightened up the styling properly, even made it look less heavy and lower.

Please don't take this as criticisms of your car, I just didn't care for this generation of Firebird and Camaro.

Respectfully, ~Chuck

I have to admit - whenever I hear someone who lived through new cars in the '70s describe some of the problems they dealt with, it absolutely amazes me that we didn't just give up on the concept of the automobile entirely and go back to a horse-driven transportation model. I mean, I get that quality wasn't exactly "job #1" in Detroit at the time, but how did anyone - anyone at all? - think these results were a good idea?

It's amazing and baffling.

I absolutely loved the stying of the early 1970's Camaro and Firebird and agree that the european inspired design has some timeless features. Quite honestly, these cars still have an appealing look to me (unlike the 3rd gen). At the time , GM wasn't known for quality control and many of these rusted rather quickly and the later smog equipped engines hampered much of the power. My next door neighbor has a green Berlinetta which looked fantastic but was a basketcase of problems within a few years. (also typical the heavy doors always sagged and needed frequent replacement of the brass pins/bushings) Not one of GM's finest moments...

However,one could do wonders with these cars with classic car plates and a GM sourced LS series engine.

David, I think part of it was that nobody really knew any better. If you were a car owner, you expected short vehicle life, you expected problems, and you expected it to be maintenance-heavy - points replacement, constant carb retuning, etc.

Things definitely got worse in the 1970s with emissions systems (Chrysler's Lean Burn was apparently one of the worst) but I think these things didn't really get thrown into context until the Japanese raised the bar dramatically on quality.

Chris (Hafner) is right, IMO. I've come to think that build quality wasn't spectacular even before the '70s -- every time I research a car I find that at the time most of them had problems, often serious ones, that today we would find unthinkable. I mean, even the Cord, which now command hundreds of thousands of dollars, would often just slip out of gear -- and it was a high-end car. They had trouble in the '70s with some new technologies, but I don't think they were, overall, a lot worse than they had been. But then the Japanese gave us something to compare them to that were actually better.

From MattC: "also typical the heavy doors always sagged and needed frequent replacement of the brass pins/bushings"

My Vegas (Egad!) had this problem, and those doors were about as small as anything GM was building at the time. I think the sag was caused by GM's cost-cutting measure of welding the hinges on rather than bolting them on as they had done in previous years, and as the competition still did (and still does).

Yes, the early 70s cars had the challenges of smog controls and heavy bumpers. But as Ford advertised in the 1970s and 1980s, "Quality Is Job One" indicated that at least they were thinking about making good cars, whether they achieved that goal or not.

@The Car Guy: You are right about the doors. I think it was more pronounced on these because of the size/weight of the doors. Ironically, I have a 2001 Sonoma that still has welded hinges and brass pins. (sometimes GM doesn't learn).

Alot of the problmes with these cars can really be fixed with a new crate motor or even a junkyard LS series engine. The bones of the car are still rather simple and reliable. Some modern tweaks can really enhance these vehicles.

Ah yes, the doors squeak-unked this brings back fond memories of this beautiful girl I knew that had a black firebird with the golden bird decal on the hood - actually very similar to my old matchbox car that I just came across when pulling them out for my son to play with. If you lived through this era there is no doubt you have fond memories of the "muscle cars" of the 70s/early 80s. It is too bad they can't come out with a modern day version of that same old style while keeping the attitude.

Oh man, are you kiddin me? I was a HUGE fan of the Rockford series when it was on, even though I was in grade school at the time. I loved the car, and of course James Garner was just so damn cool, I so wanted to be like him. My biggest beef with the show was that every so often they'd use different year cars in the same show - one minute he'd be driving a 76, then they'd cut to a 75 or 74 in the next scene, as if we wouldn't notice (especially if it was involved in a chase, which was quite often). His TV-father Rocky even looked like an older version of Garner so you could really believe they were really father and son, although I read somewhere in reality, Noah Beery was really only 14-15 years older than Garner was.

Anyway, excellent read on one of my still-all-time favorite TV shows.

I agree with most everything written here... great styling, excellent handling and reasonable performance but dismal quality. My first new car was a '77 Camaro and while I always lusted after the first gen and even the earlier 2nd gen models ('70-'73) because of their cleaner designs, by the time I was financially able to buy one it was terrible. It looked good but I should write an article here describing all the maladies I suffered with this car. I purchased it new in New York and soon moved to LA where I got to take the tour of the Van Nuys plant where it was assembled. Then I discovered why the car was made so poorly. Oh well, live and learn... anywhere here is a pic just before I sold it in 1989.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1977_Chevrolet_Camaro_Type_LT_HIP.jpg

The problems with 1970s Detroit iron had multiple causes:

-- Engineering from 40 years ago is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, about four decades less sophisticated than what we have today, and if we judge the results through modern eyes, of course it comes up a bit short.

-- People didn't drive as much as we do today. Warranties used to be 12-months or 12,000 miles, because 12,000 miles was about what most people who weren't traveling salesmen drove in a year. Reaching 100,000 on the clock was something of an accomplishment.

-- Postwar cars were overbuilt and relatively unsophisticated, but that meant they were also so lightly-stressed as to be impressively robust in normal use. 1970s designs were trying to simultaneously be lighter (for fuel economy reasons, hanks to OPEC) and tougher (to meet new crash standards) and more complex (first-gen smog controls, power-sucking factory a/c), and consequently had thinner margins for error.

-- Those first-generation smog controls were underdeveloped and made engines far less efficient.

-- The microprocessors of the day weren't quite powerful enough to make ambitious systems like "Lean Burn" work as intended.

-- Detroit was so dominant for so long (ours was the only industrial economy left intact after WW2!) that a certain complacency set in. If you got some of the engineering and design wrong, or the build quality wasn't all there, well, it's not like the customers had any real alternatives anyway. As a result, build quality and attention to engineering detail had been on sort of a glide-slope of decline for quite some time, and it finally hit a tipping point in the 1970s.

-- Just as all that was happening, the Big Three were facing effective competitive threats (from the Germans and Japanese) for the first time in **decades,** and most of the people in charge of them had no clue how to respond.

-- There really was a "malaise" of sorts, a sort of pervasive sense in conventional wisdom that we were in decline as a nation and a civilization, and the future was more likely to be "Soylent Green" and "Planet of the Apes" than "2001." It was pretty easy to be cynical. If the cars were getting crappier and crappier, well, that was only because *life itself* was getting crappier and crappier.

I also have to say that I don't remember the Firebird being thought of as the "weak sister" to the Camaro back then--if anything, it seemed the other way around. While I was dreaming of Panteras and Avantis and Porsches, most of my high school classmates aspired to a Trans Am with flaming chicken hood decal.

GM not only gave "The Rockford Files" Pontiacs, but also a wide variety of GMCs.

James Garner's taste for high octane gave us American International Racers (AIR), the AMC S/C Ramblers for Baja 500 and even the Grabber Oldsmobile 442 (future CarLust post? Hint, hint)!!!

http://www.hotrod.com/featuredvehicles/hrdp_1103_grabber_oldsmobile_442/index.html


There's a solution for the heavy doors: fiberglass panels. ^^

Cookie is right about the Firebird's popularity over the Camaro in the late 70s. If equipped properly, it could out-power and out-handle a Corvette. It also didn't help that when the Z-28 was re-released in the late 70s, it was more luxury-oriented than the Trans Am and, just like the Corvette, the biggest engine available at the time was the generic Chevy 350ci small-block.

It also helped that the Firebird had great PR.


Pontiac Division didn't really have a choice when it came to making their version of a Mustang-fighter. The bigwigs scrapped John Z. DeLorean's ideas and Banshee prototypes (they still exist, thankfully), being left with the Camaro to re-skin. Thankfully, those first-gen Firebirds came equipped with a wonderful plethora of engines, from the exotic OHC-6, to the 400ci (equipped with Ram Air!!!), which was naturally bigger and more powerful than any of the current Camaro engine line-up. Thank DeLorean for convincing the bigwigs to let Pontiac slip in that engine!

"Weak sister" my ass...

Wow what a coincidence! I just saw a 77-78 Esprit parked on the street today! It was in pretty good shape too! Haven't seen one of those in ages. Surprised someone was OK with just parking it on the street.

My faves are the 74 and the 77-78.

So, it's called a J-Turn? Wow. In high school we practiced our "Rockford turns" in wide open parking lots in a '74 Capri (mine) and an early '70s Honda Civic (my friend's). We got pretty good at them, too. Then another friend got a Trans Am. Boy howdy, that thing was made for Rockford turns. Those were the days.

I actually came close to buying a 1977 Esprit with 36,000 original miles in 2001 that had been owned by an older lady who had bought it new. It was silver with red interior. At the time the dealership wanted $5000.00 for it. I would have bought it if the bank allowed for loans on cars that old (I was a college student at the time). I ended up buying a 1987 Porsche 944 for the same money which I could get a loan for instead which was fun to drive, but a money pit.

The funny thing about the Rockford Firebirds changing every year is they reused a lot of driving footage from previous shows not necessarily from the same season. There were quite a few episodes where his 1977 or 1978 Firebird would turn into a 1974 or 1975 model for one scene and revert back to the later model. It did happen with the 1975 and 1976 seasons, although they were less noticeable since the grill treatments were at least similar. For the 1974 season it appeared as if they purchased some base model Firebirds as well. I know there is at least one episode where he starts out in an Esprit with "rallye" wheels and Esprit script and he arrives in a non-Esprit with hubcaps.

While it was good that they used their own paint to keep the cars consistent, it really did not make too much sense when it was apparent they were updating the cars with each new model year. I guess the writers hoped that the viewer was paying more attention to the story line rather than his car.

I tried to buy a Firebird as a teen but in Houston Texas the insurance for a sports car cost more per month than the payment on the car itself so I had to settle for a 71 Ford Torino GT (Petty Blue).

I always chalked up the changing-year Esprits to Jim's driving habits. He cracked it up so many times, I assumed his body man was just updating the front end for him. :)

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