In the Fall of 1967, designer Gene Winfield and designer/artist Harry Bradley approached Pontiac with a proposal they called the
"Firebird Can Am". Gene Winfield was actually a consultant under contract for the plastic model company AMT, and therefore had
advance notice as to what the 1969 Firebirds would look like long before they were introduced to the public. Since the Pontiac
Special Projects Group were still involved in refining the suspension for the 1968/1969 Firebird, and had gained tremendous
experience on the race track racing their SCCA 1968 Firebird, the Winfield/Bradley drawings were the first designs to seriously be
considered by Pontiac as a possible look for their new "ultimate Firebird".
The most obvious part of the Winfield/Bradley design that would eventually end up on the production 1969 Trans Am were the hood
scoops, rear wing, and side air extractors. The Winfield/Bradley rear wing would take on a few different looks, courtesy of the
Pontiac Styling Department, before a full-width floating style was adopted, but the design for the hood scoops and side scoops came
through nearly intact. One thing that did not appeal to Pontiac was the proposed color of the Winfield/Bradley design. In its original
art form, this "Firebird Can Am" was a greenish color with gold accents. A visually striking (and functional) styling cue are the brake
cooling scoops mounted in place of the parking lights. The front grilles on the production 1969 Firebird would have an "egg crate"
look, and the Winfield/Bradley design brought that egg crate pattern down into the parking light openings. As we shall see in the next
segment on the first Trans Am prototype, the Pontiac Special Projects Group and the Styling Department created a prototype that
looked very similar to these sketches.
|The First 1969 Trans Am Prototype
The first Trans Am prototype was built by the Pontiac Special Projects Group in late 1968. The prototype adopted many of the styling
cues from the Winfield/Bradley design sketches discussed previously, and included the brake cooling ducts in place of the parking
lights. Note how the Special Projects Group decided to mount a couple parking lights (which appear to have been taken off a trailer)
under the front bumper. The side air extractors are almost a direct copy from the 1967 Winfield/Bradley sketches. As we can see in
the photo of the back end of the car (lower right), the team had opted for a pair of closely spaced racing stripes, and the "400" trunk lid
emblem was still in place from the Firebird 400 model, which this car was built upon. The hood on this prototype was fiberglass, and
the hood scoop openings themselves, as well as the side air extractors scoops, had a sharper edge to them over what would
eventually see production. The Styling Department would later clean up these items and give them a more rounded look, and they
also took care of a problem with the fiberglass rear wing having an "overslam" condition, where the wingtips would nick the quarter
panels when the lid was slammed down (they cured this problem by specifying a specific gap between the quarter panel and wingtip,
and added foam gaskets to the underside of each tip). Interesting to note that this prototype had closely spaced twin stripes on the
rear panel, trunk lid, wing, and roof.
|Photographed in the Pontiac Engineering Garage, the new prototype Trans Am appeared to be a fully functional. At this time however, the name "Trans
Am" does not appear anywhere on the vehicle. Contrary to popular belief, Herb Adams and Bill Collins, the creators of the Trans Am, always wanted
stripes on the car. Every time the car went to the Styling Department for approval, the stripes were removed, but Adams and Collins would put them
back on. The Styling Department finally came up with a compromise of widely spaced twin blue stripes over the car.
|The addition of brake cooling scoops in
place of the parking lights made for a
very aggressive looking front end, but
these scoops were never used.
|The Second 1969 Trans Am Prototype
Getting closer to the planned introduction date of March 1969, the Trans Am paint scheme was still not finalized. But Pontiac was
anxious to get the Trans Am out in the public eye. One of the first media outlets to test the car was Hot Rod Magazine (March 1969).
This issue probably hit the newsstands in February 1969, and given the typical 1 to 2 month lead time required for magazine editors
back then, we can assume Hot Rod obtained this car in late 1968, long before the finalized version of the Trans Am would be seen by
the general public. This is considered the 2nd version of the 1st Trans Am Prototype (shown above, photographed in the Pontiac
Engineering Garage), and like the first prototype, it was painted Palladium Silver and used a fiberglass hood. This appeared to be the
version that the Styling Department wanted, devoid of all stripes, and it was all business. The side air extractors had now been
finalized, being slightly more rounded verses the sharper-edged versions as seen on the 1st prototype, and the hood scoops are
larger, with a more rounded look. The steel hood was still not ready, so here again we see a one-piece fiberglass hood. There were
no removable hood scoop inserts for the fiberglass version. Notice how this changes the overall look of the hood (photo below, left).
Some items on this prototype would not make it to the next phase of styling, such as the die-cast "Firebird" script on the front fenders
(production Trans Am's would just have "Trans Am" decals), the "400" trunk emblem would be removed, a front spoiler was added,
and a "Pontiac" script emblem would be added to the grille.
Reaction to the first Trans Am, even though it was not yet a production model, was mixed.
While the press loved the way the car handled, they generally criticized all the newly restyled
1969 Firebirds. From the "busy" front end design, the low entry angle on the newly
redesigned gas tank filler neck, the new 1969 headrests, they even criticized rear seat (and
front seat) legroom. They also encountered a situation where the trunk lid would not stay up
due to the weight of the rear spoiler, an obvious oversight on the part of the Special Projects
Group (oddly enough, another magazine published a photo of this same Palladium Silver
prototype, and the trunk lid was wide open). The editors also noticed the quality of the
assembly of this Trans Am. Door gaps, perfectly aligned front end pieces, this was obviously
a hand built prototype. They had doubts that a production 1969 Firebird would be this
"perfect" (and they were right). This Palladium Silver Trans Am also carried the new Ram Air
IV engine. While the color and a few other small details would change before the Trans Am
package would be finalized, Pontiac felt that this version of the 1969 Trans Am was close
enough to their production version to allow the press to run it through its paces.
|Interesting to note that Herb Adams, the father of the Trans Am, insisted on stripes for the new Trans Am, but every time the Styling Department
worked on correcting scoops, spoilers, etc, they would remove the stripes. Adams took it upon himself to add stripes back on the car whenever he
could, and eventually, the Styling Department allowed two blue racing stripes.
|The Pre-Production 1969 Trans Am
Pontiac only created one magazine advertisement for the 1969 Trans Am, a 2-page spread that was featured briefly in some
automotive enthusiast magazines in late 1969. Lack of advertising was one reason the 1969 Trans Am sold so poorly. Meanwhile, the
1969 Trans Am's counterpart, the successful 1969 GTO Judge, had several different magazine ads, a TV commercial with a catchy
theme song sung by Paul Revere & The Raiders, and marketing genius Jim Wangers made sure that Judges were passed out to as
many media outlets as he could find. The Judge was a hot seller, the Trans Am was not. Another one of the reasons the 1969 Trans
Am sold so poorly was that it was a $1200 option on top of the already pricey 1969 Firebird, while the Judge was just a couple
hundred dollars more than a 1969 GTO. The hefty price tag for the 1969 Trans Am option was not a flagrant markup, it was a
necessity to allow Pontiac to recoup the high costs required to produce each car. The Trans Am's unique steel hood and special front
fenders required new tooling. The rear wing, side scoops, and front spoiler also added to the overall cost. And perhaps the most
troublesome (from a production line standpoint) was the extra time and effort required to mask off and paint the full length twin blue
racing stripes. All of these special parts and processes didn't exactly make the Trans Am an easy car to produce.
Unfortunately, the one advertisement for the 1969 Trans Am that Pontiac created has caused a great deal of confusion in the Pontiac
collector community. Pontiac chose a pre-production version of the 1969 Trans Am that contained styling cues that would never see
production. And to make matters worse, this one pre-production car was released to Road Test Magazine and Sports Car Graphic
(among others) for road tests, further leading to the confusion today about styling and trim pieces.
|This Trans Am appeared in an issue of Sports Car Graphic, and is easily
identified as a pre-production model by the addition of stripes over the
wing and the 400 emblem on the trunk lid. Both of these items were
removed by the Styling Department before the Trans Am went into
production. Also note that all the photos of pre-production cars (like this
one) are always wearing Michigan manufacturer license tags, identified
by the "M" in the third character of the plate.
The pre-production Trans Am in this 2-page ad used red "Trans Am" decals on the rear wing and front fenders, along with red
"Ram Air" decals on the hood. Before going to production, the Styling Department chose blue Trans Am decals for the rear wing
and fenders, omitted the Ram Air hood decals, and they eliminated the die-cast Firebird script from the front fenders. In the interior
photo, the steering wheel used on this pre-production model was quite different from what would eventually become known as the
"Formula" wheel. This pre-production steering wheel was all Pontiac had at the time of the photo shoot, and the final version of the
Formula steering wheel wasn't ready until after the Trans Am went into full production. Another item that was missing from the
pre-production cars (and photos) was a front spoiler. All 1969 Trans Am's were equipped with a front spoiler, attached to the lower
front baffle pan. The front spoiler was a last minute addition by the Special Projects Group after they determined the rear wing
provided so much downforce that it actually caused a "nose-high" attitude at higher speeds. The addition of a front spoiler allowed
the car to have a more level stance at speed, therefore making it more aerodynamic. Finally, the pre-production Trans Am used in
this ad had stripes painted over the rear wing, and production Trans Am's did not have any stripes painted on the rear wing. The
factory Firebird assembly manual, given to all production plants, contained a special section for the 1969 Trans Am. On those
pages, dated February 24th 1969 (a month before the first Trans Am's would be produced) are detailed drawings used to identify
the Trans Am's special parts. In these factory drawings it is very clear that the stripes were not to be painted over the rear spoiler.
This decision was probably made in order to eliminate potential stripe alignment issues from the top of the wing to the trunk lid. The
spoiler pedestals (under the wing) were the only "blue" parts of the spoiler. Unfortunately, because of this one ad, and a couple
road test photos of the pre-production cars, many 1969 Trans Am's today have been repainted incorrectly. This confusion actually
dates back to the late 1970's, at a time when new Trans Am sales (1976-1979) had soared to record levels, and automotive writers
began to print retrospective articles on the history of the Trans Am. Information on the 1969 Trans Am was somewhat vague at that
time, and because of their rarity, finding an original example to photograph was next to impossible. So many magazine writers
would often pull old publicity photos from their file cabinets, which of course showed the pre-production model! Over the years,
these old magazine articles were referenced by more contemporary magazine writers, compounding the mistake and causing
confusion. I've found examples in old magazines where authors state they were "unsure" of whether the stripes went over or under
the rear spoiler (because they had photos of both versions), and they were even confused as to whether all 1969 Trans Am's were
painted white (the Carousel Red "prototype" fiasco can be read about in the next segment). There were even stories of 1969 Trans
Am's being released with a Ram Air V engines because one such car was tested by a major automotive magazine back in 1969 (no
factory RAV cars were ever built). All of these claims are myths, and all of these mistakes can be traced back to photos of
pre-production 1969 Trans Am's that Pontiac passed out to the press. Unfortunately, some of these same pre-production photos
continue to be used to this day.
|This is an official GM photo of the 1969 Trans Am taken after the
car was in production. Note the standard issue 1969 Michigan
license plates (not manufacturer plates), and we see the standard
production features, such as the blue Trans Am fender decals, no
Firebird script on the front fenders, absence of Ram Air decals on
the hood, and the inclusion of the Pontiac script in the grille.
|This photo was taken at the automotive press debut for the 1969 Trans Am
and 1969 GTO Judge in December 1968. This was a pre-production car,
appearing several months before the 1969 Trans Am would be produced.
Here we see the "Firebird" script on the front fender, and no "Pontiac" script in
the grille. It is unknown as to how many pre-production Trans Am's were built,
but for promotional purposes, a good estimate would be two or three.
|This photo is from the February 1969 Chicago Auto Show, the first
public showing of the 1969 Trans Am. All the styling components
have been finalized. The 1969 Trans Am was now only weeks away
from full production. As you can see, the "Firebird" script on the front
fenders has been replaced by Trans Am decals (real Trans Am
fenders do not have any holes punched for a Firebird emblem), the
hood scoops do not have any "Ram Air" decals, a "Pontiac" script
appears in the grille, and the rear wing is free of stripes.
1967 Winfield/Bradley sketches
Brake cooling ducts were later rejected.
|Copyright 2011 MusclecarFilms. All rights reserved.
|PART 2 : The Origins Of The 1969 Trans Am Design
- By Mike Noun