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The Nostalgist's Choice

Bringing Back Time

Story Jon Robinson / Images Al Rogers - September 13, 2012 10:00 AM

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The 1970 Pontiac Firebird had a new body for the new decade.

Coming straight down the road, the new Firebird’s front treatment had a stronger family resemblance to its big sister — the beefy, reputable GTO. For the next decade, the ’70 body served the Firebird well as a platform for luxury and performance upgrades and took its ultimate form as the Trans Am.

In 1971, Pontiac blessed the Trans Am with the 455 cubic inch V-8. Nearly 40 years later, Lingenfelter Performance Engineering looked upon the ’71 Trans Am the way a sculptor looks upon a model and built the time machine to take us back to 1971, but with modern luxury and technology. The Lingenfelter T/A is a muscular, custom-built, 655-horsepower performance vehicle that evokes memories of the ’71 Trans Am.

“I have gasoline in my blood, and so do all the people who work with me,” Ken Lingenfelter says.

Lingenfelter’s personal car collection is legendary in the Detroit area, and the assortment runs the gamut — classic muscle cars, exotic sports cars, and the rarest Corvettes. From the moment Ken proposed the L T/A, the whole LPE team’s hearts were in it. He bought this museum-quality ’71 Trans Am specifically to model for the L T/A project. The car is a 55,000-mile original with Lucerne Blue paint, and the interior has been restored to original specs with correct white vinyl upholstery and loop carpeting.

Back in 1964, John DeLorean had assigned the division design team to come up with a Pontiac answer to the Corvette. The team conceived the XP-798 mockup and a running pair of XP-833s — a coupe and a roadster. The XP-798 had been named the Banshee, and after it had completed its life as a show car, Pontiac chassis engineer Bill Collins rescued the “Banshee” nameplates and applied them to the XP-833s. When General Motors’ decision makers shot down the Banshee, Pontiac’s leadership campaigned to get in on the new F-body. At first, the Chevrolet F-body car was called the Panther, and Pontiac wanted to call theirs the Banshee. The Panther became the Camaro. Someone at Pontiac learned that a Banshee was essentially the Grim Reaper in Irish folklore, so Pontiac renamed their F-body the Firebird.

DeLorean insisted that the Firebird would not be a Camaro with Pontiac emblems tacked onto it, so the ’67 Firebird shared nothing under the skin with a Camaro. Through its first several years, Pontiac did not conceive or market the Firebird’s various permutations as different models of the same car, but rather, they were indeed different cars from each other. The base Firebird carried Pontiac’s advanced overhead-cam, inline six, and moving up to the Sprint, the six became a 215hp, four-barrel performer. The Firebird 326 carried the base 326ci Tempest V-8 with two-barrel carburetion and 250 horsepower, and it became the 326-H.O. when the carburetor grew to four barrels and a bump in compression took the engine to 285 horsepower. At the top of the heap was the Firebird 400, and with Ram Air intake, the unit was capable of 360 horsepower.

The new 1970 body was the platform for a new arrangement of cars at the top end. The Formula 400 was identifiable at a distance because the twin hood scoops escort the car down the road at the leading edge of the hood. The Formula 400 carried the 400ci V-8, and, in four-barrel form, the unit pumped out 265 horsepower. Pontiac’s ad men said the Formula 400 was “built for drivers,” and they said the new Trans Am was “our ultimate.”

In 1971, the “ultimate” carried an oddity under the hood. The Trans Am engine grew from 400ci to 455ci, but the horsepower did not grow. The Trans Am 400 had been capable of 335 horsepower in 1970, but in 1971, the 455 was rated at the same 335 horsepower. In big 1970 Bonnevilles, the Pontiac 455 had 10.75:1 compression had knocked out 370 horsepower. Pontiac had lowered the 455 compression ratio to 8.4:1 in 1971 — thus, 355 horsepower.

Back in 1967, the Firebird 400 had a throttle-stop for the express purpose of making sure the Firebird did not outperform the GTO. Dealership service departments and the public at-large quickly learned to remove the throttle stops. Certainly, some of the same thinking may have been at work in 1971.

The Trans Am may have been the “ultimate” Firebird, but it was not the ultimate Pontiac. That honor stayed with the GTO as long as the Trans Am equaled but did not exceed the GTO. The auto insurance industry was pressuring the car companies to tone down the horsepower war, and even the GTO 455-H.O. dropped to 335 horsepower in 1971.

The 1971 Trans Am is still quick, lithe, and ready, and 335 horsepower is a lot of engine in a 3,600-pound car. The Trans Am’s look visually communicates the power-to-weight ratio, and it definitely spoke to Ken Lingenfelter when it was time to create the L T/A.

“We chose the ’71 Trans Am for its overall, pure muscle image,” Lingenfelter says. “I like this car for its heritage, color, and nostalgia. The design team studied the car closely to develop the L T/A’s hood, interior, wheels, side scoops, and spoiler. Our company has a lot of heritage with General Motors products — Corvettes, Camaros, and Firebirds. We became masters at turbocharging and supercharging Corvettes.

“When GM brought back the Camaro for 2010, it was great for us, and we were chomping at the bit to get started. We were really looking forward to doing a Firebird because we had once built Lingenfelter Firebirds in conjunction with Hurst and GM. When Pontiac went away, we were pretty disappointed because we thought it would continue the heritage we’d had.

“After some thought and talking with some people, we decided to do one of our own. The goal was to build a show car for SEMA and just have some fun with it. We hired a company that does a lot of projects for GM and basically had them build the functioning concept car for us. The goal was to bring back the days of the old Super Duty cars.”

The car companies may have considered these cars ephemeral when new, but 40 years later, this one has come back to life and played a part in a new creation. In Russian lore, a bird rises from fire and represents eternal life. His name was Zhar-Ptitsa — the Firebird. Pontiac may be gone, but the Firebird has come back to life as the L T/A.

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