Car of the Week: 1969 Pontiac Trans Am

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The world’s first Trans Am has ‘double documentation’

Car of the Week 2020
 This 1969 Pontiac is the first Trans Am ever built.

This 1969 Pontiac is the first Trans Am ever built.

Story and photos by John Gunnell

Kevin Beal of Spotford, N.H., is the owner of the very first Pontiac Firebird production car to get the Trans Am package. This particular car is a bit out of the ordinary owing to its early build, so let’s first look at what the 1969 Trans Am represented before getting into the unique details behind the first example.

The 1969 Pontiac Trans Am

The Trans Am — a true Pontiac muscle machine — started out as a sports-racing car. It was planned as a competitor in the sedan class of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans-American Cup series. Indeed, a shortened version of the name of that racing series was used for the car, and Pontiac paid the SCCA a $5 per car royalty for its use.

The racing version was originally planned to be powered by an ultra-high-performance, low-compression 303-cid small-block V-8. The engine was designed specifically to “fit” the displacement limits of the Trans-American Cup racing class. Only 25 of these engines were built, and they were sold to competitors as a replacement to the 400-cid big-block V-8s originally fitted at the factory.

 Pontiac was happy to add to the stable in 1969 as show in this advertisement.

Pontiac was happy to add to the stable in 1969 as show in this advertisement.

The base 400 HO engine (which Pontiac engineers called the Ram Air III V-8) was used in 634 of the Trans Ams. The Ram Air III cars included just eight convertibles. Of the 634 cars, 114 had a manual gear box (including four of the convertibles). Fifty-five other cars (all coupes) came with an optional Ram Air IV engine, which cost $390 extra. Of these, nine cars had Turbo Hydra-Matic transmissions and the others had the base three-speed or optional four-speed manual transmissions.

The Trans Am package for base Firebirds was given the option code WS4 and included the Ram Air III engine, a three-speed heavy-duty floor shifter, functional hood scoops, heavy-duty running gear, special interior and exterior trim, a rear deck lid airfoil, full-length body stripes and front fender air extractors.

 The Trans Am was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show.

The Trans Am was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show.

All 1969 Trans Ams, excluding one all-silver prototype, were Cameo White with blue stripes. The silver prototype was fitted with the 303-cid V-8 that underwent extensive testing by Motor Trend in its October 1969 issue. With their 303-cid V-8, Motor Trend reviewers claimed to have dusted a 396 Camaro, Hemi GTX and a “batch of Sting Rays.”

“There can be only one first time you go into a sweeper at an even 100 and come out at 120 and the ’Vette behind is now much further (sic) behind,” wrote the Motor Trend editors. “It’s as stable at two miles a minute as most cars are at one, yet it does not ride rough-as-a-cob, jarring eye teeth at low speeds. This car has no right to do what it does, or go like it goes....” They recorded a standing quarter-mile time of 16.37 seconds at 93.5 mph and a 0-60-mph time of 8.83 seconds for their 303-cid-powered Trans Am; 100 mph was reached at a bit over the 18-second mark.

Base Trans Ams that folks bought off their local Pontiac dealer had the Ram Air III with 335 hp at 5000 rpm and 430 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3400 rpm. Ram Air IV-optioned cars had 345 hp at 5400 rpm and 430 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3700 rpm.

The 400-cid-powered Trans Ams were found to be better suited for drag racing than road racing. They could do the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 101 mph. Prices for the WS4 Trans Am option varied by body style and transmission, but were around $725. That put the Trans Am sport coupe’s window sticker at around $3,556. The convertibles were base-priced at about $3,770.

Base Trans Ams came with standard steel disc wheels. Some had their stripes running over the rear spoiler; some below it. A rare option is the Code 293 special custom interior with gold leather seat bolsters.

An Early T/A

What makes Kevin Beal’s car so interesting is that it was built very early in the model year. In fact, the production of this vehicle was so early in the Trans Am run that the option code and pricing for the mid-year-introduced Trans Am had not even been finalized at the time the car was built. Because of this, the car’s original invoice was incorrect and it was later re-invoiced to point out that the car was a Trans Am.

 The invoice for the first Trans Am; the car required two, the second correcting the very early invoice.

The invoice for the first Trans Am; the car required two, the second correcting the very early invoice.

Jim Mattison of Pontiac Historic Services (www.phs-online.com) researched this car for Beal and verified it as the first production Trans Am. He said the car was produced at the Van Nuys Assembly Plant in Van Nuys, Calif., on April 29, 1969. The car carries VIN 223379L118850.

“The production of this vehicle was so early that the option code and pricing for the Trans Am had not been finalized,” Mattison said. “Not until this vehicle was sold as an out-of-services company car on July 20, 1970, did the Trans Am option #322 appear on the updated invoice to Front Pontiac Sales, Inc., in Perrysburg, Ohio, for delivery to the first retail customer.”

 The updated invoice issued by Pontiac in 1970.

The updated invoice issued by Pontiac in 1970.

All 1969 Trans Am were built at one of two assembly plants: Van Nuys or Norwood, Ohio.

“The first 1969 Trans Am built at the Norwood Assembly Plant was VIN 223379N101553, produced on May 29, 1969, a full month after the production of the Van Nuys car,” reported Mattison.

The documents that Mattison referenced in his certification letter were duplicates of the car’s original and replacement invoices. So even though there is only one “first Trans Am,” there are two separate invoices for the car. So it goes in the mysterious world of muscle machines.

Today, top examples of the 1969 Pontiac Trans Am coupe generally sell for $75,000 to $125,000, depending on the options and condition. As the first Trans Am, the value of Beal’s car ranks with the eight convertibles — priceless.

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