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....