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Car of the Week: 1981 Pontiac Trans Am

When Greg Cockerill decided to look for a second-generation Trans Am, he had only three requirements. It needed to be affordable, rust-free, and have a Pontiac-built V-8.
Car of the Week 2020
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Photos by Greg Cockerill

When Greg Cockerill decided to look for a second-generation Trans Am, I had only three requirements. It needed to be affordable, rust-free, and have a Pontiac-built V-8. Cockerill, an engineer at GM Powertrain, started his career at Pontiac Motor Division. So, it was important that a vintage Pontiac have the in-house engine, rather than one of the various other GM divisional engines offered in these cars.

The Rochester Hills, MI resident muses, “I have long been a fan of the late '70s Firebirds, having grown up with shows like The Rockford Files and movies like Smokey and the Bandit. And when I met my wife, she had a new ’79 Trans Am. So I guess it was only a matter of time until I got my own.

I wasn’t looking for a hot rod, so I decided to focus on 1981 models with the normally-aspirated 301 Pontiac engine. These had the same great styling as the sales record-setting ’79 model, but are more affordable because of the reduced performance of the smaller engines. A turbo version of the 301 was offered, but I wanted something simple and reliable.”

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The 1981 model was a transitional car. It was the last of a twelve year run of second-generation Firebirds. It would also be the last available with a Pontiac-built V8, as the division ceased all V8 production in early March of 1981. (In an omen of the future, the remainder of the model year’s production would use only the lower-powered Chevrolet 305.) But it was also the first year of across-the-board computer control for emissions, including diagnostic codes and the infamous “Check Engine” light.

During the fall of 2014, in the sleepy little town of Charlotte Mich., Greg discovered a 1981 Trans Am barn-find that had been in storage for at least a decade. After some close inspection, it was determined that it met at least two of his purchase requirements: It was rust-free, and it was equipped with its original 301 Pontiac V-8. Under all the dust, an unexpected bonus was its original code 84 Dark Charcoal paint, a flawless black vinyl interior, and a mere 42,000 miles on the odometer. It was also extremely well-equipped with options.

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Best of all, it was totally unmolested. No aftermarket radio, no speakers in the doors, no chrome dress-up parts underhood. The engine’s computer system and all emission equipment were intact, right down to the catalytic converter. Even the AC system still had a whisper of a charge of R12. The only disappointment was aftermarket wheels, an issue that was quickly resolved when the seller revealed that the original body-color Rally II wheels had been carefully stored in the attic and would be included with the car! A deal was struck, and the Pontiac was trailered the 120 miles to its new home. It would later be discovered that this was the first time it left Charlotte in over 30 years.

Once the car was in-hand, Cockerill began the detective work of tracing its history. The starting point for this journey in automotive genealogy was to acquire the factory invoice from Jim Mattison at Pontiac Historic Services (PHS). The invoice was a bombshell of information, as it revealed the Trans Am had been a GM company car before being retailed at Davis Pontiac-GMC in Charlotte, with 5,469 miles on the odometer. The original build sheet, found under the rear seat, determined that the Norwood-built Firebird rolled off the line on the last day of February in 1981 (a mere week before the last Pontiac V8 was built). It was then delivered to Pontiac Motor Division, in Pontiac Mich., where it served as company car until September of that year. In an odd twist of fate, this was during the very same time Cockerill worked at Pontiac Motors, so it was quite likely he had seen the car and perhaps even known the manager that it was assigned to.

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GM killed the Pontiac brand in 2010, but in 2014 the former Davis Pontiac-GMC was actively operating as an independent used car dealer in their original building. It turned out they had an attic full of records, including the sales transaction card for the ’81 Trans Am. From this, Cockerill learned the name and address of the first retail owner, the price paid, and that his trade-in was a red 1977 Corvette!

In a stroke of luck, that first owner still lived at the same address as when he bought the car 33 years earlier. He and his wife remembered the Trans Am well, and even provided Cockerill some photos of it, from when it was first purchased. They had enjoyed the car, but sold it the following year, when they learned they were expecting a child. This brief ownership would include the only winter season in which the car would see some level of service.

The first owners pointed Cockerill to the second owner, another local man. He was an over-the-road trucker who, ostensibly, purchased the car as a surprise gift for his wife. However, he was the one that handled its care and feeding. He remembered buying it in the summer of 1982 for the balance on the bank note and recalled the odometer was “around 11,000” at the time. The Trans Am led a pampered life, and never saw rain or snow. The second owner’s wife died unexpectedly in 1987, and in 1988 he sold the car.

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The third owner was another local Charlotte resident. Like the prior owner, number three enjoyed the car during fair weather, and kept it protected from the harsh Michigan winters. But by 1993, he used the car so infrequently that he transferred ownership to his stepson. The stepson was a busy man with a young family, and had little time and money to spend on the Trans Am. So, after several years of limited use, he put it into storage. That’s where it was, when rescued by Cockerill in 2014.

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Since acquiring the car, Cockerill has performed extensive detailing and some minor repairs. Although reproduction parts are abundant, Cockerill prefers to use only original new-old-stock (NOS) parts when replacements are needed. “I sleep better at night, knowing it has authentic parts,” he claims, grinning broadly. He adds, “It’s not perfect, but it’s a helluva nice survivor. There’s not many left that weren’t beat-up, abused, or just plain worn-out. We have a lot of fun with it. It’s not really fast, but nothing from that era was. It’s more about the image, the look. It gets a surprising amount of attention, from all ages. Seems like everyone had one, or knew someone that did.”

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