The Last Pontiac V8

  • June 2, 2023

GM’s Pontiac division ceased to be some 13 years ago. Because by that time, it had become a marketing facade for other GM vehicles, re-selling Chevys and Buicks that were largely the same under their skins. Even the very last-gasp attempt to give Pontiac something not just different but unique to Pontiac failed. That being the Solstice roadster, which was also a Saturn Sky roadster.

Neither Saturn nor Pontiac exist anymore.

Things might have been different for Pontiac if GM had not put the kibosh on the last Pontiac V8, which was uniquely Pontiac and so different from everything else.

This was the 301 V8 (4.9 liters, in the anodyne metric-speak that began to take over engine displacement etymology in the late 1970s) which was also produced in smaller displacements that few remember. It was the 301, though, that people who still remember Pontiac remember – probably because it powered the last Pontiac Trans-Ams, which were made in 1980 and 1981.

Pontiac continued to sell Trans-Ams after that – and all the way through 2002 – but they were all Chevy-engined and so facades of Pontiac. This is not to say the ’82-2002 Trans-Ams were bad cars because their Chevy Camaro Z28 analogs certainly weren’t. But what they were not was Pontiacs, in any meaningful sense – because they were no longer powered by Pontiac engines.

That might have been different.

It was supposed to have been different.

The 301 V8 was meant to be Pontiac’s new V8 – not its last one. It was designed to be much lighter and more fuel-efficient than the V8 it replaced, that had been around since the mid-1950s. The last of those – all 400s – had been installed in a relative handful of 1979 Trans-Ams, all of them with manual transmissions only. Today, these 1979 Trans-Ams are among the most collectible Trans-Ams and draw top dollar.

The 1980 Trans-Am offered a turbocharged version of the 301 – which became the Trans-Am’s top-dog engine that year. It was the first time since the ’60s that any American car company offered a turbocharged V8 – and it was offered then for the same reason that so many cars today come standard with turbocharged engines. It was a way for Pontiac to be able to continue offering what buyers wanted – power – while at the same time complying with federal regs pertaining to gas mileage and exhaust emissions (in those days, these were actual pollutants rather than the inert gas that was slyly branded an “emission” during the Obama years, so as to perpetuate the fiction that further regs were necessary).

It made 200 horsepower.

In 2023, that doesn’t sound like much – especially from a turbocharged V8. Modern turbocharged fours often make at least that much – and quite a few make more. But 43 years ago, 200 horsepower – from anything – was a lot of power, relative to the power offered by other V8s of the era.

The 1980 Camaro Z28 still came standard with a 350 cubic-inch V8 that offered 190 horsepower. However, it was quicker than its Trans-Am sibling, in part because the Z28’s 350 could still be be paired with a manual transmission while the 1980 Trans-Am’s 301 turbo was automatic-only. Also, the 301 turbo had a turbo that was originally meant for a four cylinder engine that didn’t produce much boost and the whole set-up had to work with a carburetor, which rarely works well with a turbo.

But if one looked, one could see the potential.

One can see the actuality – over at Buick (which yet survives, unlike Pontiac) where something similar was going on, except with a 231 cubic inch (3.8 liter) V6. Just like Pontiac, Buick was under pressure to find a replacement for displacement – in order to comply with federal regs.

And – like Pontiac – resorted to pressure.

A turbo was added to boost the power of the little V6, which eventually produced big power – approaching 300 horsepower by the late 1980s, in the Regal Grand National GNX, which was one the quickest cars available at the time (and is hugely collectible today).

But there were teething pains in between – and for the same reasons. But Buick was allowed by GM to persevere and given time, was able to massage the 231 V6 into one of the most successful and well-regarded engines GM ever offered.

Imagine what the 301 V8 might have become. With a proper turbo and fuel injection and electronic controls, it could have been one of the most powerful V8s of the ’80s. Imagine what it might have done for the 1982 Trans-Am, which was “all-new” that year but retained the off-center turbo-bulge hood scoop that made its debut in 1980. The ’82 TA had the same turbo-bulge because it was supposed to have come with the same turbocharged 301 that powered the 1980-1981 Trans-Am.

Instead, it got the same 305 cubic inch Chevy V8 that powered the 1982 Chevy Camaro Z28 – which made it a facade of what it no longer was. And – once again – the 1982 Trans-Am was not a bad car, because the 1982 Z28 was a good car. But it was no longer a Pontiac and while it did sell well for awhile, after awhile it began not to. Neither did what remained of the “Pontiac” lineup, which by the ’90s had become the same lineup, with different styling, that one found at Chevy (and Buick).

This was a problem for what was left of “Pontiac” because why shop for a Chevy or a Buick at a “Pontiac” dealership?

“Pontiac” stopped selling facades of the Trans-Am in 2002 and by 2010, GM stopped trying to sell “Pontiac,” which closed up shop (along with Oldsmobile, whose slow-motion demise had tracked similarly). Buick, however, survived and is still around, today.

Probably because GM didn’t kill it.

. . .

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