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Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Things seem to have worked out pretty well for Rick Mielke. He got to keep both the girl and the car.
At one point back in the late 1970s, though, neither was a sure thing for the Fond du Lac, Wis., resident. His main squeeze, Carol, hadn’t officially become Mrs. Mielke yet, and Rick was seriously considering unloading his beloved 1976 Pontiac Trans Am.
Fortunately, Carol said “I do” to the marriage idea, then said “please don’t” to the idea of selling the T/A. These days, the couple is celebrating 30 years of marriage and still cruising around in the Trans Am, which shows 85,000 miles on the odometer and looks almost as good as the day it was delivered.
“Yeah, there was a time in my life when I was about ready to let ‘er go, because of the gas prices. And I had driven it pretty hard,” Rick chuckled. “And it needed some fixing! My wife kind of talked me out of it. We weren’t even married yet, but she said to hang onto it, and we did, even through two kids.”
“I didn’t tell him he couldn’t [sell it],” Carol added. “I just kept saying, ‘You will regret it.’ I’m glad he hung onto it. I enjoy it, too.”
Does that mean that she actually gets driving privileges, too? “Absolutely! And I don’t even have to ask permission!”
Rick confesses to being a fan of almost any vintage muscle machine — Camaros, Firebirds, Mustangs, Cudas, you name it — but he knew exactly the car he wanted when the era of muscle was in its dying days in the middle 1970s. Actually, it was an easy choice. The Firebird and Trans Am were not only beautiful, stylish cars, they offered the biggest engines still available in cars of their ilk, and they were the closest things left to true muscle machines. “In the ’70s we went through the gas thing and Pontiac was the only one that hung onto the big engines,” Mielke said. “To me, it was the car to buy in 1976. It was, I believe — and I’ve read different things that conflict each other — but it was supposed to be faster than the ’Vette back then. In ’76 it was de-tuned quite a bit from the original SD’s because of the energy [crisis] and this was the last year they put the 455s in it. It was the last go-round.
“My friend and I actually went out together and he bought a silver one, and I bought the black one. We bought them at different places, but we went together.”
Mielke and his buddy were certainly not alone in digging the ’76 T/A’s. With 46,701 built for the model year, they were more than twice as popular as either the base Firebird, Esprit or the Formula — their three siblings in the Pontiac Firebird family.
Of course, the cars were still more than a year away from becoming indelibly etched in American culture — that didn’t happen until the 1977 Trans Am stole the show with Burt Reynolds behind the wheel in Smokey & The Bandit. The ’76s and ’77s were a little different, of course. The 1976s had the traditional single headlight assemblies, and Reynolds’ ride had T-tops and no 455 under the hood. Nonetheless, the Trans Ams of the era were similar enough that the American public seems to identify them all as “Bandit” Pontiacs — something Mielke found out not long after the movie hit.
“Oh, I get it all the time!” he said. “People all stay ‘Hey, it’s the Bandit.” But this was the last of the single-headlight version. They went to the dual rectangular lights after that.
“But a lot of people relate to that car. It gets a lot of attention. They come around at shows and want to take pictures of the hood with the bird.”
The Trans Ams came with a base 400-cid, four-barrel V-8 rated at 185 hp for 1976, but the go-fast crowd had an even better choice with the optional 455-cid, 200-hp L75 option that required the four-speed manual. About 7,100 cars were built with the biggest power plant shaking the hood. Some sources say about 2,590 of those were painted black.
Standard equipment included a close-ratio four-speed M-21 manual transmission, shaker hood scoop and air cleaner, a front air dam, concealed windshield wipers, power steering, Rally gauges with a clock and tachometer, front disc brakes, chrome tailpipe extensions, GR70x15 steel-belted raised white-letter radial tires and a Radial Tuned Suspension.
Mielke’s black T/A could be easily confused with the special Limited Edition T/A that was also available for 1976. The car was built to celebrate Pontiac’s 50th year and featured Starlight Black paint with gold graphics.
With a base price of $4,987, the T/A’s were still a lot of car for the dough in the mid-’70s, and they frankly didn’t have a lot of competition in the U.S. The best Chrysler muscle monsters were long gone, the Ford Mustang had become more of a compact car than performance car, and even the Corvette wasn’t making as many pulses race.
Mielke figured the way he drove his Pontiac the first few years, the car was destined to live fast and die young. When the time came to move on to another car, though, he never really found anything he liked better.
“It was pretty much my first muscle car and I drove it as such. It got driven pretty hard,” he said. “But we parked her every winter. It only saw one winter. It was terrible in the snow, getting stuck in the middle of an intersection because there is no weight in the back.
“Then after about five years and the decision to keep it, it’s been babied pretty much. I don’t light it up too often. It still will, but she’s pampered.”
Mielke decided to have his Trans Am repainted about five years ago. Other than some bearing work on the transmission a while back, it is the only major restoration or repair work ever done to the car.
“I’m real picky about changing oil and maintaining vehicles and waxing them,” he said. “My neighbors think I’m crazy, because I have like five vehicles that I’ve waxed in the past couple weeks. I’m very particular about how I keep it up.
“The engine’s still as it was. It’s got 85,000 [miles] on it. … It hasn’t been rebuilt, but it’s been used. It’s been to Tennessee and New York. We took it on our honeymoon to Niagara Falls.”
Mielke still relishes the chance to take his car out whenever he can in the summer. When the temperature climbs, however, he’s gets to revisit his decision to order a black car with a black interior and no air conditioning.
“I actually ordered it late in the year in August of ’76. It had to be built. I wanted the black, the 455 and the electric windows,” he said. “Back then, you didn’t want the air conditioning because it was too heavy… We were in Knoxville once in the summer and it was 110 degrees and we were in a traffic jam and we had to open the doors because it was so hot. It was like an oven. The black on black is tough. Just keeping it looking right and not swirling the paint is tough.
“But I wanted the black. I had a black ’65 Lemans. I should have learned my lesson, but I still like the way a black car looks when it’s all detailed up.”
Along with the black paint and big engine, Mielke ordered his T/A with a tilt wheel and power windows. “The Honeycombs came with the package,” he said. “It came without a radio, so I put one in it.”
The Mielkes make regular car show appearances in their hot black Pontiac. Rick has got a 1968 Firebird at home that he’s working on, too, but he doesn’t expect that to ever cut much into his seat time in his beloved Trans Am.
“If the weather is nice, and there’s a show, I’m gone,” he said. “Of course, there’s only so far you want to go in a car like that. But it drives good yet. It will cruise along good at 70.
“It will drive as long as my clutch foot works, I guess.”
At this point, the Mielkes can’t imagine parting ways with their T/A. Seller’s regret isn’t something Rick wants any part of.
“I always went to a lot of car shows and that’s what you always hear from people — ‘Oh, I wish I would have kept that car,’ ‘I wish I would have kept this car,’” he concluded.
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