Back in 1971, the Billboard #1 hit for the year was "Joy To The World" by Three Dog Night. For Trans Am fans this song certainly summed up their general mood when it came to the 1971 Trans Am - it was all joy. The Trans Am was back again for a third model year and its second year with the same body style. Pontiac kept the Trans Am colors the same as the previous year - blue and white exterior schemes. However the Polar White exterior color of the previous year was replaced with the return of the 1969 Trans Am's Cameo White which had a large blue stripe with a black border spanning the entire top part of the car (the same stripe used on the previous year's Polar White Trans Am).
Lucerne Blue was carried over as the Trans Am's second available color, and along with it the body length white stripe (with a black boarder) was again standard. And both color Trans Ams had their respective bird decals located right in front of the big stripe and above the front twin grilles in the center of the top of the front Endura nose piece.
When it came to styling, nothing had changed from 1970. The dimension were also exactly the same - the 1971 Trans Am had a length of 191.6 inches, wheelbase of 108.1 inches, a width of 73.4 inches, and a height of 50.4 inches.
For 1971, Pontiac was still pigeonholing the Trans Am as a special edition car with just two available exterior colors. The approach was shortsighted but it made sense since Pontiac saw the Firebird Formula (which was available with many different colors and options) as its bread and butter Firebird performance model. And the figures proved this, 7,802 Formula Firebirds were produced for 1971 versus the production total of just 2,116 Trans Ams. The Formula outsold the Trans Am almost 4 to 1. However there was a big warning sign here - Trans Am sales were 34% less than the previous year. And Trans Am sales would then take a massive dive for 1972 to only 1,286 units. The drop in 1972 was partly due to a nasty United Auto Workers (UAW) strike and partly due to the Trans Am entering into another year with only two color schemes. For 1973 Pontiac would get the picture and offer the Trans Am in three colors along with a big hood bird decal option and sales would shoot up to 4,772. After that sales would increase each year for the remainder of the decade. However sales for the 1971 and 1972 Trans Am were in the danger zone. With muscle cars sales across the board diving by 1971, and other auto manufacturers phasing these performance cars out due to declining sales, Pontiac could have very easily given the Trans Am the ax. Fortunately Pontiac bucked this trend and didn't give up on the Trans Am.
As good as the engine choices for 1970 with the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV 400 CID V8s were, overall things were much better for 1971. On the surface this didn't seem the case since new federal fuel standards for the 1972 model year mandated the use of unleaded fuel. This meant the drop in compression ratios for the engines in all new cars available in the U.S., in order to run on the lower octane unleaded fuel. GM decided to waste no time and took the plunge one year early by mandating the engines in all its divisions be unleaded fuel compliant for 1971. This meant all the GM divisions had lower compression ratios than the 1970 model year. For Pontiac this meant the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV could not return for 1971. This may have seemed like a massive handicap, however not for Pontiac. Instead of releasing a declawed 400 CID V8 version of the previous year's Ram Air motors or even a mild mannered 455 CID V8, Pontiac doubled down by offering one of the best muscle car motors it ever produced. The result was the (LS5) 455 (CID) HO V8 - it may have only had an 8.4:1 compression ratio but it had enough power to easily match the legendary Ram Air IV 400 V8 in performance by propelling the heavy 3,600-lb Trans Am in about 13.9 to 14.1 seconds in the 1/4 mile run with a trap speed of over 100 mph. And unlike 1970 where only 88 buyers partook in the best Trans Am motor, Pontiac instead made the 455 HO standard on every Trans Am. So it's puzzling with such a great motor why (with even just two colors) only 2,116 were produced for 1971.
The key to the 455 HO's success were the #197 round-port exhaust heads with big valves and screw-in rocker arm studs. Also included with the 455 HO was a free-flow aluminum intake manifold. The 455 HO had a set of free-flow Ram Air exhaust manifolds and the high-performance 1969-1970 Ram Air III (400 CID V8) camshaft. And to top all this off was a free-flow Rochester quadrajet 4-bbl carburetor which had a flow rate just slightly above 800 cfm. The standard flow rate for all the other 1971 Pontiac V8 equipped quadrajets was 750 cfm. The reason why the 455 HO had a higher flow rate was Pontiac removed the outer booster rings inside the primary barrels. Unfortunately the lack of the outer boaster rings did hurt the fuel efficiency of the carburetor during normal throttle levels, so this was a one year only phenomenon. Also worth noting unlike the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV 400 V8s from the previous year Trans Am which had chrome valve covers, the 455 HO made due with more pedestrian painted valve covers. However this didn't bother some of the Trans Am owners who added the chrome valve covers anyway. The 455 HO was painted in a new Pontiac engine color called Light Blue (the previous year engines were painted in Light Blue Metallic). The 455 HO's official horsepower rating was 335 gross horsepower and 480 lb-ft of gross torque. Just as GM converted to low compression engines one year early it also converted to the new universal standard of rating horsepower in "net" (which was more stringent) versus "gross". So Pontiac also officially listed the 455 HO at 310 net horsepower and 410 lb-ft of net torque. These gross and net horsepower figures were the same ones given to the 455 HO found in the 1971 Pontiac GTO, GTO Judge, Tempest T-37, and Firebird Formula. With this being said the ratings were all for show, since the real gross and net horsepower ratings were higher than Pontiac's advertised figures. The real proof was that a 310 net horsepower engine in a (1970s vintage) 3,600 lb car wasn't going to break into the high-13 second 1/4 mile range, however the 455 HO Trans Am did. And this is why the 455 HO even though it was a low compression high-performance motor is still one of the best motors Pontiac produced. And just like in 1970, the 1971 Trans Am's shaker hood scoop had a metal flap on the backside that opened up when the accelerator pedal approached the floor to allow cool air into the air cleaner assembly and carburetor.
The base price of the Trans Am for 1971 increased to $4,595 which was no small chunk of change back in 1971. The 1969 Trans Am had only been $3,770, so in just two years the Trans Am's price was up an astounding 20%. That's a lot of inflation over just two years. And to add insult to injury Pontiac according to its Pure Pontiac! The 1971 Performance Cars sales brochure (which was printed just prior to the 1971 model year) brought back the outdated heavy-duty 3-speed manual transmission as standard on the 1971 Trans Am after offering the 4-speed manual as standard for the 1970 Trans Am. This was one area where Pontiac was utterly clueless. Buyers who were dropping $4,595 for a new Trans Am didn't want a base level 3-speed manual transmission. It would be like a luxury automaker today offering a high-end luxury car with vinyl seats. After-all it was 1971 and not 1961, buyers who shifted their gears manually not only wanted but demanded a 4-speed manual on a high dollar muscle car by 1971. However here's where it gets interesting, in the 1971 Firebird sales brochure Pontiac lists the 4-speed manual as the standard Trans Am transmission. As previously mentioned with total Trans Am sales recorded as 2,116 and production figures showing 885 were equipped with 4-speeds and 1,231 were equipped with the optional 3-speed automatic transmission - Pontiac actually got cold feet. So Pontiac was smart enough to drop the 3-speed manual before production hence not one 1971 Trans Am was equipped with a 3-speed manual transmission. If the optional center console was not ordered with the 4-speed, no big deal, the Hurst shifter was just mounted on the floor with a rubber boot and metal outer plate. If the automatic was ordered and the center console was not ordered the automatic shifter was mounted on the steering column. When the center console was ordered both the automatic and manual transmission shifters resided in the middle of the center console where they belonged.
The Trans Am was standard with dual exhausts with a single chrome exhaust tip on each of the two pipes. Also the Trans am was standard with a 3.42 rear axle ratio for both the manual and automatic transmissions. However if a buyer opted for air conditioning with the automatic transmission the ratio dropped to a 3.08, but if the manual transmission was ordered with air conditioning the rear axle ratio stayed at 3.42. The manual transmission when air conditioning was not ordered, could be optioned with the 3.73 rear for better off-the-line performance. No matter what ratio was ordered, all 1971 Trans Ams had 10 bolt rear axles with a mandatory Safe-T Track rear differential. Unfortunately the heavy duty 12 bolt rear that was standard on the 1970 Trans Am was no longer available.
Power assisted front disk/rear drum brakes were also standard. According to the Firebird sales brochure the front springs on the Trans Am were taken from the Firebird Formula while the rear springs were even firmer than the Formula's. The Trans Am's front anti-roll bar was 1 1/4 inches thick while the anti-roll bar in the rear was 7/8s of an inch. The Trans Am also had a set of heavy duty shocks. And 15 x 7 inch Rally II wheels with trim rings were standard while new 15 x 7 inch Honeycomb polycast wheels were optional. The Rally II wheels were sharp but the Honeycomb wheels were some of the best looking wheels to be seen on a muscle car from this era. The Honeycomb wheel design was the brainchild of famed Pontiac designer, Bill Porter, and was originally intended to be made of lightweight aluminum. However due to the high cost of materials and other associated production costs, Pontiac compromised and made these wheels with a steel structure with polycast molding which was injected and shaped on the outside of the wheel. This allowed for the wheel to have a unique design and produced for a reasonable price but since it was made out of steel it was much heavier than if they had been made out of aluminum. And for those restoring these wheels, it can be a complicated task since the polycast molding is not easy to repair or replace - but it can be done if the right procedures are followed along with the use of the correct materials. Both the Rally II and Honeycomb wheels were standard with performance oriented F60-15 tires with white raised lettering. For 1971, the Trans Am was as good as it got in terms of handling, by American car standards only the 1971 Corvette could rival the Trans Am's handling capabilities.
Compared to the previous year, not much had changed in the interior with the exception of the seats which no longer had separate head rests for 1971. The new high-back bucket seat design would be the standard for the Trans Am for many years. There may have been two color choices for the exterior however the interior had seven different color choices - for the standard vinyl seating, seven colors were available: Blue, Ivory, Saddle, Sienna, Jade, Sandalwood, and Black. If a buyer wanted the more upscale cloth and vinyl combination seating, Sandalwood and Black were the only two colors available. Also worth noting, the very stylish 14 inch Formula steering wheel carried over unchanged as the standard Trans Am steering wheel. The large and very decorative engine turning aluminum dash trim piece was back again. The only change in the dash layout was the chrome gauge surrounds for 1971 were dropped and now only the black rubber gauge surrounds remained.
The 1971 Trans Am was a continuation of the 1970 Trans Am, but it was also the beginning of a trend of the "Pontiac didn't get the memo the muscle car era was over" Trans Ams. These were the low-compression large displacement performance-oriented Trans Ams of the 1970s that defied all the odds and delivered exactly what the performance buyer wanted. Is it any small wonder 1970s Trans Ams have in recent years skyrocketed in value? While most performance cars were becoming extinct dinosaurs by 1971, the Trans Am was celebrating the beginning of a decade where it would be performance king. Don't make any bones about it, in 1971 the Trans Am was only getting started. The best was yet to come.
Written contents in this article - © 2012 Pete Dunton - All Rights Reserved