MotorCities National Heritage Area
Vintage_Car_Side_Mirror-cropped.jpg

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of the Robert Tate Collection
Published 4.29.2020

1971 Pontiac Firebird General Motors Archives1971 Pontiac Firebird (General Motors Archives)

The early 1970s Pontiac Firebird models were great looking automotive designs. They were designed under the direction and influence of Bill Mitchell (July 2, 1912 - September 12, 1988), who was head of design at General Motors from 1958 to 1977.

1970s Pontiac Firebird General Motors Archives RESIZED1970s Pontiac Firebird (General Motors Archives)

Some automotive historians over the years referred to the early Firebird models as a rolling sculpture design. The Firebird styling was influenced by the Cirrus show car, which was admired by many GM design staff members at the time. One of the Firebird’s main features was its nostril design front grille, which was different, and well-liked by consumers.

In 1971, the Pontiac’s advertising slogan was “Pure Pontiac!” That was truly fitting for the newly designed Firebird models.

1971 Pontiac Firebird advertising illustration Robert Tate Collection1971 Pontiac Firebird advertising illustration (Robert Tate Collection)

The Pontiac Firebird models had their origins as the F-car in 1966 before they were introduced to the public. Two great GM designers directly involved with the program were Jack Humbert, who oversaw Pontiac exterior design, and the talented Bill Porter, involved with Pontiac styling since 1959. Thomas E. Bonshall, the author of “Pontiac: They Built Excitement,” said: “With its fluid shape, uncluttered lines, absence of rear quarter windows and full wheel cut-outs, the 1970 Firebird was remarkable for simplicity and elegant excitement.”

1971 Pontiac Firebirds brochure Robert Tate Collection RESIZED1971 Pontiac Firebirds brochure (Robert Tate Collection)

Many automotive historians consider the early 1970s Firebird models among the best designs in GM’s history, myself included. The Firebird’s interior was developed by John Schettler, who designed Pontiac interiors at the time. It featured high bucket front and rear seating for the driver and passengers and was admired by many consumers.

1972 Pontiac Firebird illustration Robert Tate Collection1972 Pontiac Firebird illustration (Robert Tate Collection)

During its first three years of production, the Firebird models were under constant review at Pontiac. The design staff would sometimes look at Chevrolet to see how things were going with their styling, but the Pontiac studio would always make the Firebird designs even more exciting for their consumers.

1973 Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am magazine ad Robert Tate Collection1973 Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am magazine ad (Robert Tate Collection)

Porter, the head of the Pontiac design studio, had a conversation with Bill Collins and Jim Wagoner of marketing to come up with ideas for the Firebird campaign. During the years 1970-72, Pontiac offered the Firebird Esprit model, along with the popular Formula 400s and Trans Ams. The base price for a Firebird model was $2,875. The Formula 400 had a great looking hood with two dummy air scoops and featured the 400-cubic inch V-8 engine. In 1972, a new honeycomb grille matching the honeycomb wheel covers were enjoyed by many automotive consumers. The wheel covers looked different, which really made the Firebird models stand-out. New vinyl interior upholstery was also available on the new Firebird models for 1972, which was also the last year for the Trans Am stripes; however the stripes would reappear on the 1984 Trans Am models.

Pontiac Firebird interiorPontiac Firebird interior

Since Pontiac always had a good reputation for performance and handling, the Pontiac marketing team knew that the 1970s Firebird models would become a great success story for GM. The Firebirds were only manufactured as coupes and were notable for having no side glass other than the door window, along with a very sleek fastback roofline with a full width backlight. The 1970-71 Firebird Trans Am sport coupe was a popular model among younger drivers. Due to engineering problems that delayed the introduction of the newly designed 1970 Pontiac Firebird models, they arrived in showrooms across America on February 26, 1970. A total of 48,739 units were manufactured.

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am logoPontiac Firebird Trans Am logo

In conclusion, the early Firebird models were a great success story for the GM styling team, and today these cars remain in demand for collectors around the world.

Bibliography

Bonshall, Thomas E. “Pontiac, They Built Excitement.” Stony Run Press, 1991.

Bonshall, Thomas E. “Pontiac The Complete History 1926-1986.” Bookman Publishing, 1985.

Kowalke, Ron. “Standard Guide to American Muscle Cars 1960-1995.” Krause Publications, 1996.