Today is the 38th anniversary of the debut of the Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am, an American-built muscle car inspired by the Trans-American Sedan Championship Series. In 1966, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) sanctioned the Trans-Am Series to promote auto racing and showcase high-performance cars with V8 engines, super chargers, and optimized exhaust systems. During its early years, the racing circuit helped popularize muscle cars such as the Chevy Camaro and the Ford Mustang, the vehicle from which the term "pony car" is derived. To keep up with its American rivals, Pontiac needed to develop a vehicle that could compete both on the track and in the dealer's showroom. With help from a young car designer named John DeLorean, Pontiac sales had grown 27% between 1962 and 1968. But would the pony car that Pontiac unveiled on March 8, 1969 run out of gas or put the pedal to the floor?
Pontiac first muscled its way into the pony car market in mid-1967. Just five months after Chevrolet introduced the Camaro, Pontiac launched the Firebird with a choice of two six-cylinder engines and four eight-cylinder engines. Enhancements during model year 1968 were relatively minor, but the introduction of the 340-bhp Ram Air II and 400 HO (high output) engines hinted at things to come. In 1969, the Pontiac Firebird underwent a major front-end to rear-end restyling. Sales stalled, however, when buyers rejected the new-look vehicles and their modest gains in power. In March 1969, Pontiac responded by releasing a DeLorean-designed Firebird with a new $725 (USD) option: the Trans Am Performance and Appearance Package. Although the Pontiac Trans Am was no faster than similarly-equipped Firebirds, the racing-inspired vehicle helped define the muscle car concept and capture the youth market.
The 1969 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am came standard with a 400-cu in, Ram Air III, HO engine that was rated at 335 bhp at 5000 rpm and 430 lb-ft at 3400 rpm. The only engine option was the Ram Air IV, an improved HO engine with a rating of 345 bhp at 5400 rpm and 430 lb-ft at 3700 rpm. The Trans Am's hood featured functional air intakes which could be closed by the driver, and fender scoops that were designed to vent the engine bay. A 60-in rear foil (spoiler) was mounted on the trunk. Painted polar white, the 1969 Trans Am was decorated with blue racing stripes and decals. At first, sales were anything but red-hot. In 1969, only 689 Trans Am hardtop coupes and 8 Trans Am convertibles were built. Over time, however, the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am joined the Chevy Corvette as the only American-made muscle cars to remain in continuous production since their inception.