Rare Bird: 1988 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA Notchback

By Nathan Avots-Smith

There’s an upside to writing about muscle and pony cars: just when you think it’s all been seen and said, another special edition that you’d forgotten about, or never even heard of, comes out of the woodwork. Here’s one such little-known variant, the one-year-only 1988 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA notchback. There were somewhere between 649 (per this ad) and 718 (according to the more authoritative-sounding gtanotchback.com) of these unusual coupes built, so odds are you’ve never seen one—I’m pretty sure I haven’t—but for just $9,500 this example, listed on craigslist in Howell, Michigan, could be yours! Thanks to Pat L. for this special find. (Archived ad here.)

Image: gtanotchback.com

It’s always a pet peeve of mine when a seller relies only on pictures taken from the confines of a garage, but it’s even more of a bummer in this case because it denies us a good look at the car’s most unique feature. So, here’s a photo of a similar car to give you an idea. As you might guess, the notchbacks all started life as regular hatchback Trans Am GTAs, then swapped in a fiberglass decklid made in Auburn Hills, Michigan, by Auto-Fab, Inc. It still opens as a hatch, so the transformation is solely visual (with a little less space in back for bulky objects, I suppose).

The other unique feature of the notchback coupe was the rear seat design with integral head restraints, which was not shared with any other ’88 Firebird. Why Pontiac would go to the trouble of designing and manufacturing a distinct design for these seats, especially in a car in which they were unlikely to see much actual use, is beyond me, but these are the kinds of little variations that keep muscle car fans eagle-eyed.

This ‘Bird is sporting a high-ish 126,000-mile figure on the odometer, and those miles have been racked up on the original Chevrolet-sourced 350-cubic inch (or 5.7 liters, as it was becoming fashionable to say by the late ’80s) tuned port injection V8. The seller claims that only 50 notchbacks featured this engine and its standard automatic; I’m a little skeptical, since the 350 was the standard GTA powerplant, with a 305 mated to a five speed stick optional, but the seller also claims to have documentation from Pontiac Historical Services, so maybe they’re right. More to the point, the car is described as needing “some cleaning and a little TLC,” and because the car wasn’t moved out of its garage home for pictures, I’m concerned that the TLC is a prerequisite to driving it, which makes the $9,500 pricetag seem a little stiff, rarity or no. Still, it’s a unique piece of Pontiac history; what do you say, muscle car maniacs? Is this one of the special editions worth getting excited about?

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Comments

  1. AMXSTEVE

    I don’t care for the look. There’s a reason they made so few and i think it ruins the lines of the car.

    15+
    • Sherman

      Exactly amxsteve

      2+
    • Nova Scotian

      Dare I say…If you squint real hard,…the rear almost has a modern Challenger look to it? 👀

      1+
      • rbtempe

        When I first saw the thumbnail pic that’s exactly what I thought it was.

        0
  2. Geebee

    So often, these things that are done to make a car more unique, also make it less attractive. I understand the reasoning in the cars that were made into convertibles; I’m not so sure what the reasoning was here.

    8+
    • Charlie

      They made the notchback so it didn’t look like the camaro

      0
    • grant

      Gotta agree with you both. I’ve always thought these were ugly as sin. $9500 is insane for this.

      1+
  3. Todd Fitch Todd Fitch Staff

    Thanks for the nice write-up, Nathan. I’ve never heard of these. I would have thought it was all aftermarket but the factory connection is interesting, and should help boost the value for folks who like something unique. It sounds like engineering and logistical shortcomings equaled even fewer of these being built than anticipated… Good news for those who own one!

    3+
  4. edh

    I really admire the way the deck lid lines up with the tops of the rear quarter panels. Good work GM, same as today.

    6+
    • The Walrus

      You could almost fit the original piece between the body and the fiberglass monstrosity, er um ‘styling enhancement’.

      0
      • Nathan Avots-Smith Staff

        Quality control issues with the fiberglass were a big reason this option was discontinued so quickly. It was not unheard of for these cars to return to dealers for multiple “adjustments” of panel fit and finish.

        1+
    • PonchoIndian

      The trunk is open…These have an electric motor that pulls the trunk like down the rest of the way, this one obviously doesn’t work so that is why it doesn’t line up. This isn’t a fitment issue.

      0
      • The Walrus

        I see what you are saying on the car for sale, but I was talking about the gap on the white car that runs down the back of the c-pillar and across the top of the quarter panel. That is absolutely a fitament issue.

        0
  5. JW

    I’m a Pontiac guy and never heard or seen one. Like the one displayed on this page better than the white & gold one for sale. Pontiac may have done this to see if competing with the popular Mustang notchback would be worth ramping up production for another year which must have never happened.

    0
  6. Doug Potts

    Our local GM dealer had a solid white GTA notchback on the lot. Man I drooled over that car because I thought it was beautiful. Of course they also had SS454’s, GTP Grand Prix’s, the Olds 88 touring sedans and all kinds of high performance GM cars.

    3+
  7. Jay

    Rear head restraints were probably a safety precaution to keep those in the back from hitting their heads on the fiberglass bulkhead in the event of a collision. Not an issue in the glass-back cars.

    1+
  8. Josh

    While these weren’t exactly common I’m kind of awestruck by the reaction here. It’s not as if they were unknown. The notchback was meant to avoid having the Turbo T/A (and to a lesser extent the GN/GNX) totally cannibalize GTA sales. They were featured in the car magazines of the time.

    1+
    • PonchoIndian

      These were a year before the Turbo T/A, so they weren’t built for that reason.

      2+
  9. The Walrus

    I don’t remember seeing any of these contraptions back then… subjectively, it’s super ugly. Objectively, with fit and finish like that, who needs wind seals! IMO, this is a case where rarity does absolutely nothing to increase desirability. I’d be surprised if this car, even a nice one, is capable of bringing a premium over a standard issue example of comparable condition.

    1+
  10. dirtyharry

    This makes the notchback look good. I actually them. I had an 87 TA and one of my complaints was no trunk/storage, that someone couldn’t see into.

    3+
    • Greg NJ2SC

      I have 2 87 trans ams (305/5speed and a 350/auto) and they both came from the factory with a shade that pulls over the trunk compartment. My dad bought the 305 one new, so i know he didnt add it unless it was an option.

      0
  11. jaymes

    nice rear vision

    0
  12. Poncho pusher

    Ive seen a few in person there actually pretty cool lookin there kinda like the grand prix 2+2 areo coupe……not as designed for nascar but a lets see how it goes i think prob played into the one yr run also…..i think there way better lookin then the normal hatch i hate that big ugly hatch window….it looks like the desginers got to the back and was like ummmm what now…..make a big ugly window way bigger then the vette n slap on it…..dont work to me……my dads neighbors prob 15ish yrs ago had a dolled up camaro with a notch hatch on it disappeared one day dunno what ever happened to it but id love to have on just like the aero coupe prixs…..just for the low production number aspect true wouldnt really go with my 50s n 60s ponchos but still the rarity……and alot of people arent aware they even made a aero coupe monte and prix around the same time frame…..just some of the little nitch market stuff during the 80s i guess……10k is to much 5k-6500 if its in really nice shape is about it…..

    1+
  13. Steve

    Hi guys,

    This is my car you are talking about. The notchback was supposed to be a style of TA but they had so much trouble with them fitting and production trouble from the supplier they discontinued it. FYI my hatch fits perfectly, I was working on the trunk pull down motor when I took that pic. Normally it lines up great. This car is actually a 1 of 50 car. They only made 50 with the 5.7 L engine. I think I’m going to keep it for now. I’ve had lots of TAs and still have a couple but never one this rare.

    3+
  14. Murray S.

    Already sold

    0
  15. 62 Nova

    Ugly Ugly Ugly Ugly Ugly. Can’t imagine my 88 camaro with that deck lid. This is a Pontiac that will never see a high price at auction.

    0
  16. Nick G.

    I like the notchbacks but even if I didn’t, I’d be more concerned about the questionable paint job. The front end and sides of the car are white with gold stripes and then, somehow, ends with a gold rear end (spoiler, back of deck lid and around the rear of the quarters). None of the pics show how the paint job “transitions” to this and the paint seems to be peeling about the Pontiac indention on the rear bumper. It’s just weird.

    0
  17. Poncho pusher

    I think the notch back looks better then the ugly glass hatch these and the camaros had at the same time i thought the wrap over glass was uglier then sin on the 78 vettes and then they made a bigger uglier one for these they look better with out it just like the convertables over the hatch cars the trunk look is more appealing then a big glass bubble….to me it looks like they got to the rear and was lost so they over sized the back glass from a vette and tossed on it cause it was all they could come up with…..

    0
  18. GR

    The notchback was also listed as an option for 89. No clue if any were built but I know I wanted one at the time. I used to see a charcoal grey GTA in my neighborhood and I personally liked it because it stood out from the hordes of other Trans Ams.

    0
  19. Ron Wheeler

    Most of you are wrong about why it was made in only 1988. You can blame the promotion people . The word got out to late and the dealers who just found out said no thanks. 624 were made with a few going to Canada. I own one and it is sitting in my garage right now. It sure does corner good, maybe the very heavy deck helps. Do not try and find deck struts, you will find zero. They were made longer and attached different because of the weight. I found a slide on lock that I have attached to a strut to keep the lid up. Coming down on me once was enough. Very comfortable TA with all the power needed. It was to go on the market and why the rear seat was made with the head rest. Mine is White just like the picture. HD suspension and wide tires were standard.

    2+
  20. Martin Reid

    One of these just sold on Ebay for $4500. Pretty much the same condition.

    0
  21. rough diamond

    I love the styling on this GTA notchback. I see great lines. Those rear seat headrests are something else. Wonder if that was GM thinking outside the box or something the conversion company Auto-Fab furnished.

    0
  22. Tyler

    I absolutely hate 3rd gen F bodies, & while this is the first time I have heard of these, I gotta admit, I like the look of the notchback. It makes the car look much more refined. I wish GM had kept it in house, & actually built the car with a back window & rear deck lid covering a real trunk, instead of the hatchback. Yep, this is about the only thing that could make me want a 3rd gen.

    Does anybody know, were these ever offered as an over the counter or aftermarket part?

    0
  23. Phil DiLernia

    The rear seat design was used on the 1989 TTA …

    0
  24. Ron Wheeler

    All of us have a car we really like. The Notch Back was a add on if you wanted one. The The Glass Back was there if you wanted it. The dealer would make the change. What a dull world this would be in the auto section if we liked the same car. What I posted about my Hatch Back was taken from an owner in Canada who liked it very much and a Pontiac dealership who told me about the delay getting the word to the West Coast. Not a fan of White, but I did not have a choice. Mine was found put away by a auto dealer. It is one darn nice comfortable car to sit in and drive. Being behind it on the road, it looks like a Italian car. A Marzorati of that peroid. This is why the add on change was made..With the F.I. and dual ignition it is a fast car for a 1988. Still has it’s original ex. and sounds real deep. This is all from me, ask what you wish.

    0
  25. Derek Hughes

    Hawks Motorsport sells a version of this notchback brand new.

    0
  26. EJB

    Can’t say I’m a fan of the look but I doo like the “oddball” stuff that pops up.

    0
  27. mars2878

    from wiki:
    The optional convertible model also carried over, and now optional on the GTA was a new “notchback” hatch: rather than the large, glass hatchback that had been common to the Third Generation Firebird, the optional notchback consisted of a fiberglass trunk lid with a small, flat, vertical glass window. The notchback also incorporated redesigned rear seatbacks with integral headrests. The notchback became popular with onlookers, who often assumed the notchback-equipped GTA was a Ferrari, thereby encouraging some owners of the type to dub their GTA the “Ferrari Back.” Many Trans Am owners were unaware that the $800 notchback option was even available, and for those who were, the vehicle typically had to be ordered from the factory, on a six-month waiting list, as the notchback was retrofitted to the vehicle. In rare instances, a dealership would get a notchback-equipped GTA on their lot. Another reason for the relative obscurity of the notchback is that the sales information was not very well disseminated to Pontiac salespeople, so many of them had no idea it was available as an option. As attractive as the notchback was, GTA owners were constantly plagued with structural and cosmetic issues with the design. The fiberglass would blister, causing surface bubbles resembling a bad case of acne. The Pontiac repair solutions were simply to sand the notchback down and repaint it, but the problem would always return, and GTA owners could expect multiple trips in order to achieve a final repair of the problem, or to have a new notchback installed. The notchback was intended to carry over and be standard-issue on the 1989 20th Anniversary GTA, but the plan never materialized; the aforementioned quality control issues apparently caused GM not to carry it over to the next year..

    0
  28. mars2878

    from GTAnotchback.com
    Another noticeable difference between the 1988 Trans AM GTA and the 1988 Trans AM GTA equipped with the optional Notchback package was the rear seats. The 1988 Trans AM GTA Notchback featured rear seats with an integrated headrest – which are the same rear seats the 1989 Turbo Trans AM GTA used – while the non-Notchback equipped 1988 Trans AM GTAs used standard rear seats.
    Besides these 3 distinct, aforementioned, items the GTA Notchback was the same as the “standard” GTA. Any optional items that was available on the GTA (e.g., digital instrument cluster, sub-woofer, T-Tops, 5.0L with 5-speed transmission, etc.) was also available on the GTA Notchback.
    Auto-Fab, Inc. of Auburn Hills, MI manufactured the fiberglass decklids for the GTA Notchbacks. According to sources at Pontiac, the fiberglass decklid had numerous fitment issues from the start, as well as quality issues, that was never really resolved during the period the Notchback was available.
    According to Pontiac, the optional Notchback package on the 1988 Trans AM GTA was only available for the 1988 model year with a total of 718 being produced. A Pontiac Car Distribution Bulletin stated that no 1989 Trans AM GTAs would be made available with the optional Notchback package and that the Notchback option was effectively canceled on August 30, 1988. However, Pontiac records show that some 1989 Trans AM GTAs with the optional Notchback package were produced. For further information on the 1989 Trans AM GTA with the optional Notchback package, please see the following page: http://www.gtanotchback.com/1989-gta-notchback.html

    0

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