The 1989 Pontiac Firebird 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Am takes center stage in this edition of Muscle Car Milestones. To commemorate two decades of its fabled muscle car, Pontiac created the 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Am. This limited edition performer would take a winning formula started by the Buick Grand National and take it to greater heights. Let’s see what make the 1989 Pontiac Firebird 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Am a muscle car milestone.
A walkaround of the Turbo Trans Am reveals a monochrome white paint job reminiscent of the very first Trans Am. To make the Turbo Trans Am unmistakable, 20th anniversary badging adorns the car’s nose, sail panels, front fenders, and rear taillamp center panels. Goodyear ZR50 radial tires mounted on lightweight 16-inch gold Diamond-Spoke aluminum wheels keep this coupe firmly planted to the road. Out back, a pair of stainless exhaust splitters are fitted to a 2.5-inch exhaust system.
Inside the cockpit, drivers are treated to articulating power bucket seats with adjustments for lumbar support and the backwing. Take control of this special edition coupe by wrapping your hands around the leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated radio controls. Analog instrumentation, including a boost gauge integrated into the tachometer, are indicators this is no ordinary Trans Am. A Delco radio with cassette and graphic equalizer await your music collection. Pontiac included every option on the Turbo Trans Am, with the exception of removable T-tops and perforated Ventura leather seating, which were optional.
The Turbo Trans Am was brainchild of Buick engineer Bill Owen. Beset with a tiny budget, Bill battled corporate politics and red tape to bring the Turbo Trans Am to fruition. The car receives the distinction of being the only Trans Am to ever receive a V6 powerplant. In fact, Pontiac commandeered the Buick 3.8-liter SFI fuel injected V6 turbo from the fabled Grand National in order to power this special edition coupe. However, in order to shoehorn the engine under the hood of the Trans Am, several modifications were necessary. Heads from the front wheel drive version of the 3.8-liter were used in order for the engine to fit between the strut towers. Different pistons were also used in order to uphold combustion chamber volume. Other modifications include a cross-drilled crankshaft, special stainless steel headers, and a recalibrated engine control module. This engine is exclusively coupled to a four-speed Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission. A Garrett turbocharger provides a maximum boost of 16.5 psi.
Pontiac rated the Turbo Trans Am ’s 3.8-liter at 250 horsepower and 340 lb.-ft. of torque. However, it’s been said this horsepower rating is somewhat fudged. Word on the street is the power rating is actually closer to 300 horsepower. So, why would Pontiac downplay the capabilities of the Turbo Trans Am? Possibly, because somewhere within GM, there is an unwritten edict that no car could be more powerful than the Chevrolet Corvette.
Car and Driver put the Turbo Trans Am to the test for their June 1989 edition. The Turbo Trans Am clocked a 0-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds and sprinted the quarter mile in 13.4 seconds at 101 mph. Generally, Car and Driver seemed pretty smitten with the Turbo Trans Am. The magazine praised the coupe’s quickness by declaring “Achieving such stunning times doesn’t require high-rpm clutch drops or other test-track trickery. Just pop the automatic transmission into Drive, hold it with the brake while you raise the engine speed to 2100 rpm, release the brake, and floor the throttle. The turbo Trans Am instantly shoots forward like a runaway rocket sled.” However, the magazine’s infatuation with the car’s ride and build quality are another story by stating “every bump summons another in a seemingly endless repertoire of creaks, groans, squeaks, and rattles.”
Car and Driver also named the Turbo Trans Am as one of its 13 Quickest Cars of the 1980s. From 0-to-60 mph, the Turbo Trans Am tied with the 1986 Porsche 911 Turbo with an earlier mentioned time of 4.6 seconds. Car and Driver also proclaimed “That means, as we go to press, that the turbocharged Trans Am is the quickest 0-to-60 sprinter available in any U.S. production-car showroom – at any price.” So yes, the Turbo Trans Am was faster from 0-to-60 and in the quarter mile than the Corvette.
The Turbo Trans Am was chosen to pace the 73rd running of the Indianapolis 500. The only alterations made to the car were the installation of strobe lighting, two-way radios, and safety equipment. Three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser was also the first pace car driver to lead the pack with in-car racing cameras to show the action from track level.
Pontiac produced approximately 1,500 versions of the Turbo Trans Am with pricing around $31,000. That lofty figure was right up there with the Vette. That cost also rivaled a similarly V8-equipped Trans Am by roughly $9,000. In today’s dollars, that figure comes to about $68,000. Guess that’s the price you pay for exclusivity.
And just like that, it was gone. Pontiac closed out the 1980s with one of its greatest performers of the decade. The Malaise Era was coming to a close and the Turbo Trans Am helped bring Pontiac back to the forefront of performance. The Turbo Trans Am may have been a one-hit wonder, but it proved that Pontiac could still build a performer that could take on just about anyone.