The late 1970s were tough times for the Pontiac Trans Am. Ever more stringent safety and emissions standards were making the cars heavier and robbing them of horsepower – not a good combination for a high performance muscle car. Just when Pontiac needed a big idea to promote the Trans Am, in walked representatives from Rastar Pictures, looking for vehicles for their new movie Smokey and the Bandit. They needed a great-looking muscle car for a starring role and a few sedans for police cars. Product placement in movies is always a crapshoot. If the movie turns out to be a dud, the product gains no market traction – but Pontiac took a gamble and struck gold.
Smokey and the Bandit
We don’t know if anyone at Pontiac reviewed the script before agreeing to supply the cars, but it was probably a good thing if they didn’t. The almost nonexistent plot was about a good ol’ boy named Bandit, who makes a deal with a couple of local Atlanta boys to supply them with a truckload of a certain beer that was not normally sold in the east. To get their money, Bandit and his truck-driving crony Cledus had to drive to Texarkana, Texas, the closest place where the beer was sold, from Atlanta and return with the beer within 48 hours.
Being a schemer at heart, Bandit plans to speed his fast Trans Am along the route ahead of Cledus to locate the Smokies (that’s the police – remember, this was in the days of CB radio lingo) forcing the Smokies to chase him, leaving the route clear for Cledus. The cast included Burt Reynolds as the wise-cracking Bandit, Sally Field as his love interest, Jerry Reed as Cledus Snow, and comedy icon Jackie Gleason as the Bandit’s nemesis, Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
One reviewer said of the movie, “It’s just cornball entertainment. Pop some popcorn, turn your brain off for a while, and have a blast watching it.” In other words, it was the perfect movie for young adult males, the exact demographic Pontiac wanted to attract for the Trans Am. Smokey and the Bandit surprised everyone by becoming the second-highest grossing movie of the year, behind only the incredible Star Wars!
Trans Am for 1977
Introduced in 1970, Trans Am sales gradually accounted for a larger and larger percentage of total Firebird sales, but Pontiac was looking for a bigger sales jump for the 1977 model year. The ’77 Trans Am was given an updated front fascia, including four rectangular headlights to accompany detail improvements to the rest of the car. A Special Edition option was offered and could be ordered on the coupe or the T-Top Trans Am. For a cost of $556 for the coupe or $1,141 for the T-Tops, Special Edition buyers got black paint with custom gold decals including the famous firebird hood decal (sometimes referred to as the “screaming chicken”), gold snowflake wheels, gold steering wheel spokes, and gold trim on the instrument panel, console, and the door panels.
The standard Trans Am engine for ’77 was a 400 cu. in. V8 producing 180 horsepower coupled to either a four-speed manual or an automatic transmission. With the optional W72 400 cu. in. engine, the buyer got 200 horsepower thanks to an increased compression ratio, dual exhausts, and a hotter cam. According to Hot Rod magazine, a Trans Am with the 200 horsepower engine could turn the quarter mile in the mid-15 second range at a speed in excess of 90 mph. That doesn’t sound too impressive by today’s standards, but in 1977 few cars could match those figures.
Trans Am sales take off
When Smokey and the Bandit was released in May of 1977, everyone at Pontiac happily watched the sales charts for the Trans Am take a sharp upward turn. Trans Am sales for 1977 increased to 68,745 units, a 47% increase over 1976, and that was just the beginning. Sales hit 93,341 cars in 1978 and peaked at 117,108 Trans Ams in 1979. Trans Am sales as a percentage of total Firebird sales went from 44% in 1977 to 56% in 1979.
For a cost of only three Trans Ams and a few sedans, Pontiac had struck the mother lode.
The Bandit Run
It’s been almost 40 years since Smokey and the Bandit hit the movie theaters, but there is a zealous group of Trans Am enthusiasts and Bandit fans who just won’t quit. To celebrate, they have gotten together every year since 2007 for the Bandit Run. Created by David Hersey and Dave Hall, with the avid support of Restore a Muscle Car LLC, the Bandit Run started out as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the now-classic movie by reenacting the journey from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia. That first year, about 30 Trans Ams started out from Texarkana and were joined along the way by Hot Rod Magazine and Automobile Magazine. By the time the group arrived in Atlanta, they had more than 100 Trans Ams and other cars.
The event has grown in size every year since then and now there are even replicas of Cledus’ truck and Sheriff Justice’s police cars to accompany the caravan. The route changes every year to give participants a chance to see different parts of the country. If you are interested in participating, please see details on the Bandit Run website.
There can’t be anything much more exciting than seeing Cledus’ 18-wheeler heading down the open highway escorted by a sea of black and gold Trans Am Special Editions – unless, of course, your name happens to be Buford T. Justice.
My Classic Garage – https://myclassicgarage.com/marketplace/knowledge_base/1977-pontiac-firebird
Car Lust Blog – http://www.carlustblog.com/2008/12/1977-pontiac-tr.html
Bandit Trans Am History – http://www.firebirdtransamparts.com/bandit/bandithistory.htm
Smokey and the Bandit – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076729
Bandit Run – http://thebanditrun.com/what-is-the-bandit-run/
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontiac_Firebird