Then and now, Pontiac’s second-generation Firebird occupied a strange spot in the car world. Mind you, we’re not talking about the spatted, stickered, and spoilered Trans Am; its place known and secure. After the summer of 1977 and Hal Needham’s good-ol’-boy Smokey and the Bandit saga, America suddenly remembered that the Trans Am was the closest thing this country still had to a muscle car, and in between the fuel crises, that shot T/A sales up 35 percent year-to-year.
No, we mean the non-T/A chunk of Pontiac’s F-body lineup, consisting of Firebird, Esprit, and Formula. An Esprit (pronounced uh-SPREE, not EE-sprit—French for “spirit”) may have been pretty, and may have shared DNA with the beefier Trans Am, but it wasn’t a showy peacock of a car, a corner-carving terror, or tire-smoking recalcitrant. There was no secret life beneath that long nose or behind that new-for-1977 split-grille beak. Nor did it have the bones of something with greater potential, or the raw material for a hot-rodder to mess around with. (Why would Jim Rockford, arguably the world’s most famous Esprit pilot, drive a car that drew attention to itself?) A Firebird Esprit was simply, in the parlance of the day, “a nice car.” Looked a little sporty, felt a little plush. But in a division that had the Ventura, Grands Prix, Le Mans, Grands Am, Bonneville, and Catalina, all of which offered two-door versions and any of which could fill the division’s personal-luxury-car quota… what sense did the Firebird Esprit make?
Consider: Pontiac painted itself as the “excitement” division of GM, and while the Trans Am (and even the Formula) may have bullseyed the target, the Esprit… well, how do you define excitement? Esprit was “The Firebird with luxury,” according to the 1978 brochure, although with a shape like that you could be easily convinced that any Firebird was infused with sporting moves. Esprit’s luxury touches included (mostly) bright and body-colored trim: all-vinyl buckets; added interior grab handles on the doors and dash; added sound deadening; rear ash trays; color-keyed “luxury cushion steering wheel” and outer door-handle inserts; brightwork on the pedals; body-colored sport mirrors with left-hand remote; bright moldings on the roof, windowsills, hood, rocker panels and wheel openings; and deluxe wheel covers. That’s $304 more than a base Firebird cost. Do rear ash trays, chrome trim, and grab handles excite you?
It’s unclear whether the buying public at large was convinced either. In 1978, a year when Pontiac sold 187,000 Firebirds (a solid 20-percent gain year-to-year across the whole Firebird line, with base, Esprit, Formula and Trans Am models all benefitting from a sales boost), nearly half were Trans Ams. Had Pontiac convinced another 300 buyers out of Esprits and Formulas and into a T/A, the numbers would have been half Trans Am, and half everything else combined.
Today, four-and-a-half decades on, Trans Ams are getting all of the attention. The chasm between Esprit and Trans Am seems even greater, both on the secondary market and at auctions nationwide. Trans Ams are seemingly everywhere. Where are you going to find an Esprit (besides, perhaps, in pieces under a restored T/A)? The Esprit is considerably more rare than the performance variant, but certainly not price-guide valued up there with the far more common Trans Ams. Yet consider: For every five Trans Ams in ’78, Pontiac built just two Esprits.
Trans Ams got Shaker scoops and 400 cubes, but the Firebird Esprit’s top engine was this Canada-built 350-cube small-block Chevy. With the four-barrel carburetor on board, it was rated at 170 horsepower. Air conditioning was an option.
Bob Lane of Yorba Linda, California, didn’t have to go searching for his ’78 Firebird Esprit because it found him —all the way back in 1979. Bob was commuting round-trip more than 40 miles to USC and home again in the late 1970s, en route to his law degree, and discovered that his econo-car ride had a terrible habit of melting its engine at regular intervals.
“My dad was a directional driller in the oil fields around Los Angeles, and a co-worker on the rig in Culver City, California, had purchased this Firebird Esprit new in Ohio in June of ’78. After he brought it to California, he decided to sell it,” Bob says. His dad knew young Bob needed a better ride, and this Esprit was it. Visions of banzai missions for cases of Coors Light danced in Bob’s young head, and when presented with the very Esprit you see here, he was elated. “My previous car was manual, with no air conditioning and plenty of mechanical issues. This Firebird was perfect for me — 6,500 miles on the odometer and only a small dent on the B-pillar from when it was hit with a baseball.”
As with any American car of the era, Firebirds could be optioned to the hilt, and this one was loaded to its wingtips. A Van Nuys-built car that was sold new in Ohio (something of a mystery, since the Lordstown plant that also built F-bodies was right there in the state), it was built with air conditioning, automatic transmission, and the top Esprit engine, a 170-net-horsepower, four-barrel Chevy 350 — an engine that was called out as a Chevy engine on the Monroney, and a considerable step-up from the standard two-barrel 3.8-liter Buick V-6. Those three options alone added $1,111 to the bottom line