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Living The Dream Part II

I know, I know….it’s been way too long. So, where were we….?

Oh yeah, we were all bailing out of my ’81 Turbo Trans Am like a bad Chinese fire drill tearing up the hill to literally press our noses to the exterior showroom glass. How could I forget?

That car was so beautiful and the Russet Brown finish was really highlighted by the gold GTA accents. I never got to see it any closer, as it was dealer swapped at some point in the next week for a new 1987 Bonneville S/E. So much for legendary beginnings….

The Turbo T/A soldiered on into my senior year in college with only minor protestations, but time was really catching up with it and into the fall of 1987 it was visiting the repair shops too often again. During my holiday break that year my parents broached the topic of possibly retiring the T/A in favor of something newer to drive. Alas, they were up front about not having the funds for a GTA but offered other interesting alternatives. They even gave into letting me keep the ’81 and just parking it…. That sounded like a workable deal to me. So my Dad said “have you seen a Ford Mustang lately?” I know, I know: fighting words to an F-Body lover. But a new car is a new car sometimes, right? With a warranty.

I told him I wouldn’t mind looking at one, and the search began. But the GTA haunted me constantly, and the framed ad hanging in my dorm room did nothing to ease the pain either. LOL

It didn’t take long to find a suitable Mustang, as Ford was really pushing the newly-restyled Mustang GT but I had other ideas. For some reason, even though I was driving one of the flashiest pony cars in recent history I had started to embrace the idea of “low profile”. I know, I know… ME? But it’s true. The Mustang LX was the one that really stood out to me: all the go-fast goodies and none of the aero add-ons. And, lo and behold our Ford dealer in town had one in the same color combo as my Turbo Trans Am. Can you say KARMA?

The test drive hooked me in like 5 seconds… I had never been in a car that ran like that, ever. It was all a guy could do just to keep the rear end from coming around under anything more than piddling acceleration. We went back to the dealership and started negotiations…. and my Dad is one serious negotiator. To make a long story short, it got down to $100 difference and neither my Pop nor the dealership owner would budge. I interjected “I’ll pay the $100 myself” and my Dad was like “oh Hell no you’re not paying a damn dime”. And after hearing the famous spiel about not buying a car any cheaper anywhere else, we left and headed south from Batesville.

Fruitless stops in Searcy and Cabot, Arkansas brought us to Jacksonville and what was then called Long Ford. After talking to the salesman for a bit we discerned that they did in fact have a couple of Mustangs on the lot: a 4-cylinder convertible and a white GT 5.0. I drove the white car for a short jaunt there (with accompanying salesman….booooo) and we headed back to the lot. My Dad asked my opinion and I told him that I loved the car but I didn’t like the white color. My T/A was Black and I kinda wanted any car that I got to be the same color. We were getting ready to leave when lo and behold they did discover that they did have a black GT on the back lot and it had come in that very morning. I went back there to investigate and they were right: a Black/Silver GT 5.0 sitting by the body shop. Still had the plastic on the seats and steering wheel…. and a sunroof! I was hooked and we went back to start negotiating…or actually I went back to sit with my tail between my legs while my Dad did all the talking. Anyway, we were hearing basically a different variation on the same story when my Dad just stopped and got up, thanked the folks for their time, and made for the door telling them that he was going to buy a car on that day somewhere but he guessed it wouldn’t be there. He got to the dealership’s main door before they stopped him. The sales manager said “Mr. Rider….if you’re gonna buy a car today, then you’re gonna buy it here.” Long story short: the car stickered for $15,515. We paid $13,700….which was $200 less than the LX 5.0 that I mooned over in Batesville.

And Dad did indeed take it back to our local dealer the very next day…and the manager would not come out to look at it. LOL

Senior in college, new FAST car, got the world by the tail….let me tell you. On the drive home I was feeling pretty darn spiffy if I must say. The first GTA that passed me on the other side of the four-lane didn’t faze me much; after all, I was driving a brand new 5.0 MUSTANG GT! So, take that, Pontiac!

The second GTA that went by me that day fazed me a little bit more, I must say. Hey, I’m human, right? Still, I was OK…OK…OK. Maybe a stop for a cold drink would take my mind off what I wasn’t driving…

You know where this is going, right? Guess God was rubbing it in a little on December 28, 1987….

No more than five miles after merging back onto the highway, GTA #3 comes easing by me at @ 65 mph. And it was Black….and had all the gold trimmings my Dad talked about….and was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen. And I wasn’t driving it….talk about your heart coming up in your throat, man! Plus, to top it all off….the punk driving it had to be looking through the top opening of the steering wheel to even see; no way could he see the hood at all. Why, that little snot nose so-and-so; THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME!!!!

Back to the Future - Searching for the Next GTA

Around Thanksgiving time, I once again had the opportunity to visit Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. Unlike my first trip in 1985, I did not arrive on a GM corporate jet in the company of veteran executives and whisked away by chauffeurs to the local Holidome, where we immediately indulged in some corporate bonding courtesy of the hotel’s very liberal Happy Hour policy. No, this time I drove myself along with a couple of Boy Scouts to an area at the north edge of the base where we pitched our own tents at midnight for a weekend campout. Though, I don’t do much winter camping any longer, I wanted to get back to WPAFB and see the SR-71 Blackbird that inspired the original GTA. Moreover, in the back of my mind, I secretly wanted to pretend that GM finally realized they made a mistake, and decided to resurrect the Pontiac brand with an all-new GTA, and it was my job to come up with some ideas.

If you followed the automotive press this past summer then you already know that the SR-71 has been cited as being the influence for at least two custom cars. Ironically, both were Ford products. I guess the Ford folks know a good idea when they see one; even if it was previously applied successfully by General Motors. In July, Carroll Shelby joined forces with Jack Roush to create a one-of-a-kind SR-71 Mustang Blackbird. After being on display at a few venues, the vehicle was auctioned off for the benefit of EAA Young Eagles, a youth aviation organization for $375,000.

SR 71 Mustang Image



Knowing they were onto something, Ford designers and engineers came back in November at the SEMA show with an SR-71 Taurus Police Interceptor. With this vehicle, Ford took the additional step of actually using ‘stealth’ design tricks to disguise the true identity of the vehicle so it could more easily sneak up on the bad guys. Well, maybe it didn’t have all the diversionary tricks of James Bond’s Aston Martin, but it certainly stays true to the covert nature of the SR-71 airplane.

SR 71 Police Interceptor Image



As most amateur auto historians know, aviation inspired automobile concepts are nothing new – Cadillac tailfins were said to have been based on the rear of the P38 Lightening; all three GM Motorama Firebirds looked like they were ready to take off from the nearest runway; and more recently, we learned that Saabs was born of jets.

You may recall from my previous article, I did not visit WPAFB in 1985 with the express intent of finding a concept theme for the GTA. It just … sort of … happened. This time, I was purposely trolling for ideas as I the meandered through the expansive exhibit halls at WPAFB.

As I took in the magnificent collections, I kept asking myself, “Which of these aircraft would best epitomize a new GTA ?

Would it be one of the more conventional fighters like the F-18 ? One could easily imagine a new GTA with this theme – styled with maximum aerodynamic efficiency in mind and built for ultimate performance and handling (and firepower !).

F-18 Hornet Image



Perhaps it would be one of the stealth fighters like the F-117A or the F-22A. The complex design surfaces on a GTA would certainly draw attention to the exterior styling. Instead of avoiding police attention, this type of car would probably end up attracting it in droves.

Stealths Image



Maybe the old NASA X-15A would hold a key? After all, this legendary rocket-engined winged aircraft was the considered the original Muscle Plane. On second thought, with its unmatched straight line acceleration, the X-15A would probably be more of a GTO concept.

X-15A Image



If one wanted to make a wild appearance statement, imagine a GTA resembling the XB-70 “Valkyrie” bomber: A long lean body with a V12 engine and SIX exhausts ports coming out the middle of the rear fascia. Neat idea, but the overall styling was too over-the-top.

XB-70 Valkyrie 2 Image



Alas, nothing on the floor of the museum was catching my eye. But wait a second ! What’s that raptor-like aircraft suspended from the ceiling above the F-22A ? A quick trip to a nearby information kiosk yielded the following description

 

The Boeing Bird of Prey is a technology demonstrator used to test "low-observable" stealth techniques and new methods of aircraft design and construction using single-piece composites, "virtual reality" computerized design and assembly, and disposable tooling. The secret project ran from 1992 to 1999, and the aircraft first flew in the fall of 1996.

 

The Boeing Bird of Prey demonstrates advanced stealth concepts, notably its "gapless" control surfaces that blend smoothly into the wings to reduce radar visibility, and an engine intake completely shielded from the front. The Bird of Prey, however, used some "off the shelf" technology to reduce costs and speed production.

Birds of Prey Image



That was it! Use a Boeing prototype concept to form the basis for the new GTA. In fact, I even gave it a nickname: The Pontiac Firebird of Prey. More irony here: Ford CEO, Alan Mulally is an ex-Boeing executive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of 2011 Ford concept cars claiming to have been inspired by the Boeing Bird of Prey.

In addition to the Boeing Bird of Prey’s smaller size and unique styling cues, a couple of its non-product features also caught my attention: it was used to validate new methods of design and construction and also used some ‘off the shelf’ technology to reduce costs and speed production. That’s exactly what a new GTA should be: an affordable package of innovative as well as existing goodies that push the envelope of vehicle styling, engineering, performance and roadability. Gee, it sounds a lot like the old Pontiac Mission Statement from the Division’s mini resurrection in 1981.

The major criticism I have of today’s popular muscle cars (Camaro, Mustang, Challenger) is that they’re too big and heavy. Yes, they look great, but with a 500-750 lb diet, they’d look and perform even better. From a styling standpoint, a new GTA should be about 4/5 the size of these cars, and it SHOULD NOT have a retro design theme. In my opinion, a new GTA should have bold never-seen-before exterior and interior styling. The Boeing Bird of Prey look almost suggests mid or rear engine !!!

The 1987 GTA was originally envisioned with a version of the Buick 3.8L V6 turbo. Unfortunately, cost and expediency reasons resulted in the 5.7L V8 being added to the program in its place. This time, I imagine a small displacement V6 with on-demand high output capability achieved through electric turbo or supercharging.

In other words, the goal with be to have two cars in one: Good performance and fuel economy with low emissions for city driving, and snap-your-neck-back after-burner capability for the open road. I’m thinking ahead to the new CAFÉ rules, and perhaps avoiding any penalty for Gas-Guzzlers since the GTA’s high performance capability would be totally discretionary. Possibly, a logical argument could be made NOT to have the boosted version of the GTA included as part of the MPG calculations.

On the inside, the new GTA should have all the latest driver comforts and connectivity capabilities that (will) exist. Rather than develop all these independently, perhaps a joint venture with Apple, Microsoft, Motorola or Research in Motion would be advised. In fact, make it easy to for all of them to integrate their devices with plug-and-play capability. Think about having applications to reconfigure and customize your gage clusters and comfort controls.

OK, those are some of my thoughts for a new GTA. What are your ideas ? Let’s hear from you either at the GTA Source Page Forum or on the Facebook Page. Don’t worry about disagreeing with some of the ideas I’ve thrown out there. The creative process depends on healthy and vigorous debate. The time to change and improve things is before the tooling is cut.

Living The Dream, Volume 1

While Lou’s recent blog entry here on The Source Page has been about the origins and beginnings of the GTA, I suppose my first “Living The Dream” entry should be about how the GTA came to be so important to me, personally. I mean…. I didn’t design them, I didn’t come up with the plan for the car, but they have been a huge part of my life. Where to begin?

The early ‘80s…. Ah, the memories. I got my license when I was 16 and in 1982 got a 1954 Mercury Monterey 4-door sedan to drive and call my very own. And it was a cool car, really, it was. Nobody else in school had one like it and let’s face it….wasn’t that the be-all, end-all in those days? Even if it did have a Kraco stereo in the dash and an OTASCO lawn battery in the trunk to run it. As Jeff Foxworthy used to say….”we’ve got TUNES”…. I still have that car BTW, but I won’t show it to you out of respect to you, the reader.

I graduated to a semi-modern car when I started using my mom’s 1978 Lincoln Mark V in tandem with the Merc. It would run pretty fast with that 460ci V8, you could ensure easy exit from any rock concert by simply angling those incredibly long front fenders out into a line of traffic, and it was cool to a degree to actually experience what it was like to helm the Titanic on the open seas… err, road. I still have that car too, but again…. you won’t be seeing it.

The first cool car I remember looking at new was a red 1982 Corvette. Big honking Cross-Fire-Injection 350 V8, red leather, Eagle GT tires…. and a $20K price tag. GASP! $20K…. for a car….for real? Alas, a fellow whose sister was in my class got it for HS graduation… and at last info their family still owned it. Two cars down was the real apple of my eye, a brand-spanking-new, loud and proud 1982 Camaro Z28 Indy Pace Car. This little beauty was only $14K…. or maybe it was $16K…. it didn’t really matter; might as well have been $1,000,000. But I loved those cars then and would have one in a heartbeat today if the opportunity arose. Loud, flashy, and looking bullet-fast for the day.

The 1982 Trans Am was to me then, in a word…. a horrible mistake. Wait, that was three words. Sorry. I was like “how in the HELL did we get from Smokey and the Bandit…. to this?” There was just no style, no sizzle; “aero” was a new automotive concept on the horizon for US cars in those days. And I didn’t get it at all. A Trans Am was supposed to look ballsy, not like it was trying to slip through a crowd and not be seen.

No, thank you, I’ll pass. BTW, where’d that Camaro Z28 go?

First Trans Am was a cousin’s 1981 Turbo T/A. Still vividly remember the first time I saw it in December of ‘83; my parents told me there was no way they could afford the afore-mentioned Z28.… but they could afford this car. Talk about taking your breath away: black paint, one-year red trim and decals, red S/E striping, alloy Turbo-Flow rims. Man, I had died and gone to heaven….

It worked out that I had the choice between that car and a 1984 (IIRC) Chrysler K-car Turbo convertible. Even with the ‘81 Trans Am being on its third model year, I still think I made the better choice even today. LOL

College came in the Fall of ‘84 and was going…. and by 1986 and into the spring of ‘87, the Turbo T/A was showing its age. New turbocharger, ECM, partial paint work…. really starting to cost some $$$ just to keep it on the road. The local Goodyear Auto Service Center didn’t look forward to my visits. My parents traveled for a living then and one weekend at home over my college Christmas break in early ‘87 my Dad caught me in the house and asked if I had seen the newest Trans Ams. While aware of the success of the 1985 restyle, I admitted that I had not, and he proceeded to tell me about one he had recently seen at a Pontiac/GMC dealer showroom in Louisiana while having his work truck worked on. A maroon one that had gold trim “just twinkling all over it”…. hmm.

As I recall, this was just about the time that the famous Black GTA magazine ad started showing up in the enthusiast press. OMG! Talk about taking your breath away in a single gasp. Still have my original framed piece that hung in my dorm room back then; that thing has seen a lot of wishing and praying both, oftentimes together! Anyway….

My actual first glimpse of a GTA took place on Interstate 40 on a weekend trip back home in a driving rainstorm in early ‘87. I say “glimpse” because it was across a median as wide as a couple of football fields in a torrential downpour at 65 mph. A white GTA in the fast lane blew opposite me in seconds…. knowing now what I do about those original Gatorbacks, I’m impressed whomever was driving had the guts to drive that fast in the rain. So much for initial first impressions….

While I guess Arkansas wasn’t a big selling ground for GTAs, we did have lots of IROCs running around Russellville. They loved trying to provoke an old Turbo 4.9 T/A too, believe me. The local Pontiac dealership there in those days was called Rye Motors, an older family owned Pontiac lot. I knew them pretty well because I’d “graduated” to them from the Goodyear place after they tired of trying to help me keep the ‘81 rolling. Apparently the GY fellows didn’t care for old cars with searing hot turbo accessories under hood that had virtually no usable service space….who figured? The folks at Rye had no problems with that whatsoever; their prices proved that pretty quickly.

During the requisite college cruising in those days there was a downtown jewelry store that had huge, mirrored storefronts that we used to cruise by and look at ourselves in. I was that vain at one time I’ll admit; it helped me gauge my cars cleanliness! LOL It also happened to be right across the street from Rye Motors.

Cue to some cruising right before Spring Break 1987. We’re at the “storefront” looking at how good we look yet again, when a chance glance across the street cause this guy’s heart to stop beating immediately. Suddenly, looking good ourselves didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as what was sitting across the street bathed in strategically placed spotlights; on the showroom floor at Rye was a real, live, honest-to-God 1987 GTA….

And it was Dark Brown Metallic. I’d not see another one for over 10 years….

Lou W's View From Detroit: Then...and Now Volume 1

Hi Friends,

By automotive industry standards, the GTA could easily be passed off as a simple, but well-executed line-extension of the Trans Am nameplate. After all, its entire production run was under 40,000 units, and that was over six model years. Moreover, except for a chance to pace the Indianapolis 500, there was barely enough GTA news created in the mainstream media to warrant a lowly business school case study.

Conventional wisdom deems that cars with such minor sales numbers and scant public attention usually don’t make much of an emotional connection with their owners and aspirants. Yet, in this internet age, the GTA has become a contrarian to this logic. To paraphrase the late writer, Elizabeth Bowen: "Everything about it was minor, but the passion it inspired".

Though this column (or blog, if you will), I hope to nourish the bond between you and your GTA by taking you behind the scenes to expand on ‘the story behind the story’. My musings will be part nostalgia, part analysis, part prognostication, and as appropriate, part editorial commentary. In short, I’ll use my 28 year association with the automotive industry to give you the View From Detroit: Then…and Now.

As with any new writing venture, allow me a moment to acknowledge my appreciation for several important people. To start, a big thank-you to Frankie Rider for shepherding The GTA Source Page, for over ten years now, and allowing me to become a part of it. Next, I want thank YOU, the owners and enthusiasts, for laying down your hard-earned money and devoting your valuable time to keep the GTA flame burning all these years.

Also, let me introduce you to the Pontiac ‘F Car team that brought you the original GTA: Product Planning Manager: Dave Spence, Executive Engineers: Jim Lyons and Tom Goad, Chief Designers: John Schinella, Jack Folden, and Bill Scott, Product and Marketing aces: Janis McFaul, Roger Sears, Mark Alfes, Mick Pallardy and Sam Slaughter, Pontiac’s crack Public Relations staff headed by Bill O’Neill and featuring Jill Witzenburg (her husband, Gary is a terrific automotive writer); some very patient copywriters and account managers at the former advertising agency of D’Arcy, McManus & Masius, and finally, all the guys (yes, they were mostly guys) at the former Van Nuys, California Assembly Plant.

Since the GTA retrospective articles appeared in High Performance Pontiac magazine three years ago, the question I’m most often asked is whether the story is true that the United States Air Force SR-71 Blackbird inspired the original GTA. Well, yes; it’s 100% true. You can’t make up stuff like that.

Those of us at Pontiac in the mid-1980’s knew that there was a market opportunity for a flagship Trans Am that was positioned away from the IROC-Z, closer in appeal to intenders of the Nissan 300ZX Turbo, Toyota Supra, and Porsche 944. Now, that didn’t mean we wanted to ‘Euro-fy’ or ‘Asia-fy’ the Trans Am. That would have been a disaster. For one thing, both Pontiac and Firebird possessed a bold American heritage. The idea was to present a fresh appearance and competitive hardware package to a segment of buyers that had not previously considered a Trans Am.

We understood that repositioning was a tall order since base ‘F’ Car mechanicals were not considered to be cutting edge from a technical standpoint (e.g., solid rear axle, cast iron OHV V8, etc.) Our exterior graphics theme tended to flamboyance with wide stripes, two-tones and screaming chickens. Mind you, for many of our traditional buyers, this was just fine. The new buyers we were targeting, however, tended toward something less ostentatious on their sheetmetal and something more ostentatious under it.

It was a classic marketing dilemma: Chevrolet had owned the domestic sporty car segment since the 3rd Generation ‘F’ Car was introduced in 1982, and Ford, too was beginning to pour more resources into its venerable Mustang GT. Forced to share the Chevy’s underpinnings, Firebird / Trans Am was going to have a rough go of it if we stayed and tried to fight it out with Camaro / Z28 / IROC-Z. And with Chevrolet’s big budget sponsorship of the International Race of Champions as well as the iconic ‘Heartbeat of America’ advertising campaign, the best thing for Pontiac (and General Motors) was to get out its way and try something different.

Working in automotive marketing gives one access to volumes of consumer research for the purpose of decision-making. It was easy then, and easier today, to become overwhelmed – the old ‘analysis paralysis’. The trick was to balance such data-driven deductive reasoning with one’s personal gut sense or intuition. In other words, getting one’s left brain and right brain to work in the correct sequence. I thought I had become pretty good at it when I worked for Pontiac, only to realize I had a lot more to learn when I decided to leave GM to start my own business, but that’s another story.

What proved to be the defining inspiration for an uplevel Trans Am presented itself on the afternoon of January 17, 1985 in a warplane exhibit hanger at Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. Certainly, I’d read about and seen pictures of the SR-71 Blackbird for many years, but had never seen one in person. Talk about taking your breath away – and the darn thing wasn’t even flying. Simultaneously lean and muscular, the flat-black SR-71 wings and fuselage were nearly void of extraneous graphics. As I recall, it had only some white lettering and red striping detail; probably for safety and air refueling purposes. The sleek silhouette of the plane emphasizing those two monster jet engines spoke volumes for its mission to be the fastest and highest flying aircraft in the military fleet: Form and Function were integrated into a true aesthetic and technological masterpiece. Most importantly, the Blackbird’s visual presence carried an unmistakably American high performance character – NOT Japanese and NOT German. Instantly, I knew that the uplevel Trans Am should be the terra firma version of the SR-71.

Upon returning to the motel that evening, my mind went into creative overdrive thinking of the appearance and performance attributes for the new model: flat black monochromatic paint, clean upscale exterior ornamentation, special sport seating, chromed alloy wheels, high performance engine, highly tuned suspension, revised tail lamp graphics to emulate after-burners, and like the SR-71 – virtually hand-built to demonstrate the best quality and reliability GM could put on the road. I remember being so geeked that I watched Elvis Presley reruns all night long as I drafted and revised notes, lists and sketches....

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