Indy 500 Pace Car: 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am

When I think of the Pontiac Trans Am, my mind usually goes to the late ’70s, somewhat underpowered versions with screaming chickens on their hoods. There is a certain movie from 1977 that has helped to reinforce that image and in a big way considering: A – The movie was really popular and B – Pontiac sold a you-know-what-kind-of load of Trans Ams as a result of said movie. And it’s a bit unfortunate that the movie car is the one image that keeps recurring in my memory every time I think of a Trans Am as they came in a much broader variety of models/specifications.¬† And here’s a completely different Trans Am specimen, one that has escaped my attention, a 1989 Indy 500 pace car Trans Am. It is located in Terre Haute, Indiana and available here on eBay for a current bid of $18,200, four bids tendered so far and no reserve.

The Trans Am first appeared on the Pontiac Firebird in 1969 and kept recurring through the ’70s and right up to the Firebird’s demise in 2002. In 1989, a 20th-Anniversary Trans Am was planned by Pontiac and built on a Firebird equipped with the GTA (Gran Turismo Americano) package. The GTA package specified WS6 suspension with recalibrated springs, 16″ gold finished wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, specific badging and a 5.0 or 5.7-liter V8 engine. What really differentiated the 20th-Anniversary edition Trans Am from lesser Trans Am’s was the unique 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine. Good for 250 net HP, the engines were built by an outside firm in California and then shipped to GM’s Van Nuys assembly plant. It is basically the same motor as deployed in the Buick Grand National two years prior though it has had modifications performed that put it in the realm of the GNX equipped Grand National engine. Hemmings Muscle Machines author Jeff Koch claimed in a 2017 article, based on the engine’s specific internals, that the 250 net HP rating was arbitrarily low. Whatever the case, power to the rear wheels is courtesy of a GM 200-4R, four-speed automatic transmission. The 20th-Anniversary Trans Am was selected as the Indianapolis 500 pace car for 1989 and there were slightly more than 1,500 produced. This 20th-Anniversary car is the only Trans Am or Firebird for that matter, that utilized this turbo V6 engine and 1989 was the sole year of its deployment. This example has only experienced 16,500 miles but the seller is mum regarding its operation. There is no reason, however, to suspect that it’s not a spot-on runner.

Actually, the listing is light in all manner of detail so the very few photographic images are all that is available to make determinations regarding this Pontiac’s general condition. That said, no observable problems have been spied. The body is straight, ground effects are still in effect, and the finish appears to be strong too. Nothing seems to be out of place.

As with the exterior, so goes the interior; it is saddle tan with a typical boxy, squared-off dashboard (all the rage in the ’80s) finished in black plastic. Upholstery, carpet, and console look as one would expect a 16K mile car to look. The fact that this Trans-Am is now 31 years old, it is apparent that it has been stored properly – no evidence of water or sun damage. Check out that steering wheel; there are enough buttons on that thing to switch yourself silly. I always get a kick out of the tiger-pit back seat in these Gen 3 F-bodies. But I have to tell you, after attending a new car show this past weekend, this Trans-Am’s modern counterpart, the 2020 Camaro, looks even tighter than what you see here!

This is a rare car and I imagine a fast one too with predictable, solid road manners. I like the button-downed appearance of this Trans Am compared to earlier versions – it has a refined, understated appearance about it (though I could lose the Indy lettering on the doors). Speaking of that, I’m not sure if the Indy 500 tie-in, per se, helps with its value but the way this bird is equipped, coupled with its low production numbers, should prove to be a boon for its value. I have a good gear-head friend, who operates his own shop, and he’s mostly down the road with Chevies and Mopars. He tells me that he’s looking for a reasonable Pontiac so he can join the local Pontiac club. Ironically, he’s their head wrench but doesn’t possess the necessary ticket for club entry. This Trans-Am could be it!

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  1. elrod

    Make no mistake – these birds really scoot! Easily the high water mark of this gen F car.

  2. JOHN Member

    Pontiac’s rating was purposely low on the HP, the GM brass didn’t want numbers higher than the Corvette. Actual net HP was slightly over 300 on the TTA. The cylinder heads flowed better than the stock GN, they used the Gran Prix 3800 heads to allow the engine clear the firewall. Bigger turbo, bigger and more efficient intercooler also bumped it up over the base GN engine. I think I may have to find one… I miss my GN, but these are too cool, except for the steering wheel!

  3. Bakyrdhero Bakyrdhero Member

    That steering wheel is the stuff of legends to those of us that were kids when this was new!

  4. TimS Member

    I love these cars and have wanted one since I knew what they were. Nice example. “Serious inquiries only”? Then type a serious description, Seller.

  5. JoeNYWF64

    Would this gen firebird(or camaro) with a transplanted CURRENT camaro non turbo V6 & the same 4 speed automatic be faster?
    It has 335 hp but less than 300 ft lbs of torque, i believe.

  6. John Oliveri

    Buick powered Trans Am, 6 cylinder, Nah

  7. Troy s

    I remember these screamers, and was glad that engine returned in something…anything, after GM pulled the plug on the g-body Turbo Buick. Seemed like a waste not to use it. Wierd sounding engines to say the least at the drag strip but plenty quick. My favorite Trans Am is still a ’71 455 H/0, fairly rare also, but blue with a white scoop and no bird on the hood.

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