Few cars have ever had more to celebrate than the 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am. It marked the twentieth anniversary of the Trans Am brand; it was chosen as the pace car for the Indy 500; it had the quickest zero-to-sixty time of any American production car; and it was the last production car to use the notoriously fast Buick 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine. The Turbo Trans Am didn’t have a smooth ride, but if you wanted to haul butt, it was the car to have. As Car and Driver magazine said, “The 20th Anniversary Tans Am is a muscle car from the traditional mold.”
Turbo Trans Am – Brainchild of Bill Owen
Senior manufacturing engineer Bill Owen and his team were facing disaster. Pontiac management had big expectations for Owen’s team to come up with a super Trans Am celebration package for the brand’s upcoming twentieth anniversary, but every time the team submitted a proposal, it came back marked “insufficient funds”–there was not enough money in the budget. Originally, Owen wanted an all-aluminum V8 engine for the Trans Am special edition, but those plans, along with many others, never materialized.
Stuck with a tiny budget, Owen battled corporate politics and red tape to pull off a miracle. The Trans Am already was a pretty potent vehicle and it seemingly would not be easy to gain some performance without spending a large amount of money. But, one of the great things about working for General Motors is the potential of borrowing another division’s high output engine technology. Someone on Owen’s team remembered the quick turbocharged Buicks made in the early eighties that were now unsuitable for the new front-wheel drive Buicks in 1988. If Pontiac could “borrow” the Buick engine technology and somehow make it fit in the Trans Am engine bay, the Twentieth Anniversary Trans Am might turn out to be a killer performer without spending too much money.
Twentieth Anniversary Trans Am Engine
After commandeering a 3.8-liter, fuel-injected turbo V6 from a Buick Grand National and a few Buick spare parts, Bill Owen and his team went to work. They mounted cylinder heads from a front-wheel drive version of the 3.8 engine to clear the Trans Am strut towers and to provide better exhaust gas flow. The new heads had evenly spaced intake ports, reshaped combustion chambers and relocated exhaust ports for improved gas flow to the exhaust-driven turbo, and increased combustion chamber efficiency. Different pistons were used to maintain the combustion chamber volume and the compression ratio. With a cross-drilled crankshaft, short-runner equal-length stainless steel headers and a recalibrated engine control module, the engine was ready for the high-pressure work, the turbo.
An AiResearch T3 turbo with a maximum boost of 16.5 psi was fitted to the engine and an intercooler was mounted behind the radiator. To allow the boost pressure to build quicker, the turbo system included an enlarged ECM-controlled wastegate. The Buick engine’s undesirable twitching movement was cured by adding flex couplings between the headers and the exhaust pipes.
Many enthusiasts were a bit surprised that, with a turbocharger having a maximum boost of over sixteen psi, the Turbo Trans Am engine was rated at only 245 horsepower. A detailed analysis did not reveal any logical reason for such a low horsepower rating leading fans to believe that the Turbo Trans Am horsepower ratings might be underestimated. Many sources pointed to a rumored glass-ceiling imposed by General Motors prohibiting any horsepower ratings from exceeding that of the Corvette. A quick check revealed that, sure enough, the top 1989 Corvette engine was rated at 245 horsepower. Leaked reports indicated that the Trans Am turbo engine had exceeded 300 horsepower on GM’s engine dyno and regularly hit 240 horsepower at the wheels in unmodified customer Turbo Trans Ams. The engine rating was, indeed, underrated.
Turbo Trans Am Chassis
All Anniversary Turbo Trans Ams began as GTA model Trans Ams and had monochromatic white paint, reminiscent of the very first Trans Am, with a camel interior. Twentieth Anniversary badging identified each special Turbo Trans Am as did the sixteen-inch gold Diamond-Spoke aluminum wheels and stainless-steel exhaust splitters fitted to a 2.5-inch exhaust system. Pontiac looked to automotive supplier PAS located in Van Nuys, California, near the Pontiac assembly plant to do the conversion work to change a Trans Am GTA into a Turbo Trans Am. [PAS is variously referred to in many different sources as Production Automotive Services, Prototype Automotive Services, or Performance Automotive Services. To be consistent, we will use PAS.]
All Trans Am GTA models selected for Turbo Trans Am conversion were equipped with WS6 Level III Performance suspensions. PAS built the turbo engines and shipped them to the Pontiac Van Nuys assembly plant to be installed. Following engine installation, the Turbo Trans Ams were shipped back to PAS for final assembly, testing and quality control. Final assembly by PAS included the addition of the 1LE brake packages engineered for Trans Am race cars which included 12-inch Caprice police rotors with smaller four-inch bolt patterns and heavy-duty PBR aluminum twin-piston Corvette calipers with semi-metallic pads in the front brakes. Rear brakes were 11.7-inch discs with Corvette-spec PBR calipers. All Turbo Trans Ams had 8.0 x 16-inch cast aluminum wheels shod with Goodyear Eagle ZR50, P245/50ZR-16 tires.
Twentieth Anniversary Turbo Production
According to PAS, 1,555 Turbo Trans Ams were built, the vast majority having both available options of T-Tops and leather seats. Production details are as follows:
- 4 Pilot production cars with T-Tops and cloth interior
- 1 Pilot car with hardtop (no T-Tops) and leather interior
- 1,324 Production cars with T-Tops and leather interiors
- 187 Production cars with T-Tops and cloth interiors
- 24 Production cars with hardtop and leather interiors
- 15 Production cars with hardtop and cloth interior
Turbo Trans Am interiors all had boost gauges inside the tachometers and Delco ETR AM/FM cassette players with graphic equalizers and redundant steering wheel controls. The price of the Turbo Trans Am was not for the faint of wallet. With the turbo engine and all of the chassis improvements, the cost of a Turbo Trans Am was about $9,000 more than a V8-powered GTA.
As reported in the June 1989 issue of Car and Driver magazine, the Pontiac Turbo Trans Am had a zero-to-sixty miles per hour time of 4.6 seconds and ran the standing quarter mile in 13.4 seconds with a terminal speed of 101 mph. The 3.8-liter turbocharged Buicks were electronically limited to a top speed of 124 mph to accommodate their suspension limitations. The Turbo Trans Ams were not electronically limited and had a top speed of 153 mph. Car and Driver was impressed by the Trans Am’s performance noting “…that the turbocharged Trans Am is the quickest 0-to-60 sprinter available in any U.S. production car showroom – at any price.” A not-so-subtle reminder that the Turbo Trans Am was quicker than the Corvette.
The magazine was not so kind to the ride quality of the Turbo Trans Am’s suspension saying that the suspension worked well on smooth roads, but “…loses its manners when the road gets rough.” They quickly noted similar deficiencies in muscle cars of the sixties and seventies, and concluded that the 20th Anniversary Trans Am had “traditional” muscle car manners.
First Pontiac Trans Am
Pontiac introduced option WS4-Trans Am Convenience and Sports Package about halfway through the 1969 model year. The Trans Am option package included the 400 cubic inch, 335 horsepower, L74 Ram Air IV V8 linked to a Muncie M20 wide-ratio four-speed manual transmission. All had white exteriors with twin blue racing stripes and gray interiors with bucket seats. F70-14 Firestone Wide Oval tires mounted on 14 x 7 Rally II wheels provided the handling. Special trim included a Formula steering wheel, dual horns, pushbutton radio and pedal trim.
The small production run of 697 original Trans Ams, including eight convertibles, is attributed to the midyear release, the relatively high price ($1,000 to $1,200) of the WS4 option package, and consumer knowledge that an all-new redesigned F-body would be available for the 1970 model year.
Indy 500 Pace Car
The Turbo Trans Am was chosen as the official pace car for the 73rd running of the Indy 500 on May 28,1989. Many different brands have been selected as pace cars since the 500 began in 1911 and the Turbo Trans Am was the fourth Pontiac, joining the 1985 Pontiac Indy Fiero, the 1980 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo, and the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville as Indy 500 Pace Car celebrities.
Some manufacturers found it necessary to modify the engines or suspensions of their pace cars, but the 1989 Turbo Trans Am Pace Car was exactly like the production replicas except for the deletion of air conditioning and the addition of race strobe lighting, two-way radios and other safety equipment. Three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser did the pace car driving honors. One of the pace cars is traditionally presented to the race winner and in 1989 Emerson Fittipaldi had the pleasure of accepting the keys to a Turbo Trans Am pace car. We’re sure Emmo was happy with the pace car, but he was probably a lot happier with being the first Indy winner to take home a purse of over one million dollars ($1,001,600 to be exact).
As muscle cars inexorably faded into the fog of history and the automotive world segued into the malaise era, Pontiac closed out the 1980s with one of the greatest performers of the decade. Sure, the Turbo Trans Am was a little rough around the edges–its ride could be harsh, and the body would creak and rattle–but its brutal acceleration brought back the hair-raising thrills of Pontiac’s original muscle car, the GTO. The Turbo Trans Am was a one-hit wonder proving that Pontiac still had the right stuff to put smiles on driver’s faces and to honor the muscle car era the best possible way–in a cloud of tire smoke!
- HEMMINGS https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/f-em-all-1989-pontiac-trans-am
- HOT ROD https://www.hotrod.com/articles/hppp-0610-1989-pontiac-trans-am/
- HORSEPOWER MEMORIES https://horsepowermemories.com/2021/09/19/1989-pontiac-firebird-20th-anniversary-turbo-trans-am/
- MOTOR TREND https://www.motortrend.com/features/huge-find-first-1969-pontiac-firebird-trans-ever-made/
- DEAN’S GARAGE https://www.deansgarage.com/2016/gentlemen-ligh-your-tires/
- DRIVING LINE https://www.drivingline.com/articles/history-of-the-turbocharged-buick-38l-v6-gms-mightiest-80s-muscle-car-motor/
- WIKIPEDIA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1989_Indianapolis_500
- WIKIPEDIA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indianapolis_500_pace_cars
- MOTOR TREND https://www.motortrend.com/news/hppp-1208-1st-annual-1989-pontiac-trans-am-turbo-meet/
- AUTOMOBILE CATALOG https://www.automobile-catalog.com/make/pontiac/firebird_3gen/firebird_3_trans_am/1989.html
Bruce Troxell Bio
“There’s no shortage today of enthusiast automotive writers and bloggers. Bruce Troxell, however, is unique. He writes with an understanding of what truly makes cars and car people tick. Bruce is a storyteller, not just a writer. Once you start reading his lead, you can’t stop.” Martyn Schorr – Editor, CarGuyChronicles.com
Bruce Troxell is a professional freelance writer who has been contributing articles on automotive and aviation topics to a variety of websites and print publications since 2009. Following careers as an engineer with a major automobile manufacturer and as a lawyer in private practice, Bruce discovered the joys of writing and has never looked back. He brings a unique perspective and an engaging conversational style to all his writings.
Bruce is a creative automotive storyteller always looking for the stories of the people behind the automobiles. His expertise in storytelling has been recognized by the Automotive Heritage Foundation in their annual journalism competition. In 2020, his story The Day Corvette Became a World Class Sports Car was awarded a Silver medal in the Best Heritage Motorsports Story category. In 2018, his blog Cars We Love came home with a Bronze Medal in the Best Blog or Column category.
An avid sports car fan since he saw his first professional race at Watkins Glen, New York, Bruce’s car interests have blossomed to include vintage cars, hot rods, and custom cars. He has participated in numerous vintage car rallies and is a concours veteran.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he and his wife Cindy now live in bucolic central Virginia with Max, a prescient stray cat who wandered into their lives several years ago and decided to stay.