A Bandit to Remember

Burt Reynolds was a class act in anyone’s book. While this talented actor and pop culture icon is gone, I can’t help thinking back to some of his greatest roles. One of those classics would be, of course, the Bandit. Reynold’s role in Smokey and the Bandit skyrocketed his career to superstardom, but he wasn’t the only one. The film also boosted the popularity of another star in the movie – the 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am LE.

Director Hal Needham had a few ideas for the Bandit’s car, but once he saw the ’77 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, the decision was final. The rumor says Hal saw the car in an advertisement and knew on the spot that he had to have it for his movie. After pursuing more information on the car he grabbed Pontiac’s brochure among other reference photos. With a treasure trove of documents both Needham and Reynolds reached out to Pontiac and asked if they could have the car for the movie. Pontiac declined to lend them that specific car but instead built five other examples for them to use. Hal reached back to Pontiac. He felt so strongly about the car that he often referred to it as one of the movie’s stars characters. This is not an understatement as the car had just about as much on-screen time as the leading characters, including Burt himself.

It would be hard to fathom the Bandit behind the wheel of anything other than a black and gold Pontiac, but had it not been for a photograph in a brochure, the late Burt Reynolds may have been eastbound and down in a Chevrolet Corvette or a Dodge Charger.

Smokey and the Bandit turned the 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am into a very popular car, but unbeknownst to many, the cars actually used in the movie were 1976 models with the 1977 front ends attached. Pontiac hadn’t actually started production of the 1977 model yet (even the car Needham saw in the advertisement was the ’76 model fitted with the new 1977 front end).

Pontiac had some problems with the production of the car. While it looked great in the brochure, they really didn’t have any production models to use for the movie’s timeframe. It would have taken months to produce, or some really quick thinking.

Enter special project engineer John Callies from the Van Nuys plant in California. The Pontiac executives figured they could take the previous year’s production model and send them all the parts including the nose, hood, bumper, wheels, headlights and more to convert the ’76 into the ’77 LE.

Three of the stunt cars from the film were literally destroyed by the end of the movie. The remaining car, used for the last scene, literally had to be pushed from behind by another car during the scene because it could no longer run after the beating it took. This last car has a bit of history.

According to the Pontiac historical society, the 1977 front end was removed following the photo shoot and the 1976 pieces were reinstalled. The car bounced around GM’s warehouses until early 1977, when it was sold to a California Pontiac dealer for around $7,400 ($31,895.39 adjusted for inflation).

Despite its provenance, the car wasn’t uncovered as the inspiration for the Bandit Trans Am until after the new millennium.  At some point, the car made a trip across the country and landed at a dealer in Virginia, where it was purchased by a mother and son.

The pair had been searching for one of the original Trans Ams from the movie. After learning that none of the movie cars had survived filming, they decided to purchase this example. The rarity of the 455 V8, 4-speed, and T-tops appealed to them, as did the car’s original condition and 45,000-mile odometer reading.

The car was still sporting the “snowflake” 1977 LE wheels and other items, but they were clueless of the car’s history until they combed through the documentation from the PHS.

Realizing what they had bought, they contacted Rick Deiters of Trans Am Specialties in Miami to house the car and perform some restoration work, including a repaint and re-installation of a 1977 front-end.

After the restoration work was completed, the shop received a call from the Burt Reynolds Institute asking if they could display the car for a film festival in Key West. Reynolds saw the car at the festival and signed a 1977 brochure but didn’t know the significance of the car at the time.

After the festival, Reynolds had his agent reach out to the Deiters to inquire if there was any connection to the car and the photo in the brochure. Deiters confirmed that it was, in fact, the same car from the brochure. Reynolds, ecstatic about the discovery, asked if the car could come to his estate in Jupiter, Florida.

Before passing away, Reynolds made a video where he verified that the car was the inspiration for Bandit’s Trans Am. In case you’re wondering, the car is currently insured for $1.5 million and definitely won’t be jumping the Mulberry Bridge anytime soon.

Nearly 41 years after its release, Smokey and the Bandit is still a spectacular fable of automotive fantasy. The portrayal of a smooth-talking southern trucker blasting across Dixieland on an escapade to deliver illegal booze is essential viewing for any gearhead.

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