- Credit: barrett-jackson.com

1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am (TTA): The Revival of American Muscle Cars

The 1980s was a dark time for American car companies with with emission regulations stifling muscle cars. This forgotten Bird helped turn the tide.

After the fuel crisis of the 1970s America really started cracking down on fuel consumption and saving the environment with strict regulations for car companies to follow. This meant that all the fire breathing muscle cars were being choked on power and on the verge of extinction. Towards the end of of the 80's however, GM decided that they had had enough of this and decided to change this with 2 cars. The first one was the pretty well known and extremely limited Buick GNX that is highly sought after. The other car that they had is one I don't really hear people talk about all that much and if you haven't figured it out by the title already, I'm talking about the 1989 Turbo Trans Am.

The third generation Trans Am was made for the 1982 model year, the same year as the third generation Camaro. Both cars ended up using the same lousy engines because GM had decided that Pontiac was no longer allowed to make engines. The Trans Am and Camaro were both disappointing lumps of metal with some of the V8 models only getting a lazy 170hp in 1988. That just shows you how lousy muscle cars actually were in the 1980s. In 1989 however, Pontiac was celebrating the 20th Anniversary of their beloved Trans Am/Firebird and planned on making something special for and boy did the succeed.

They started off using the Firebird GTA as their base. From there they went looking for an engine to use. Since GM wouldn't allow Pontiac to make a new engine they went digging around in GM's parts bin and picked the 3.8 Liter turbocharged engine that was used in the GNX two years prior. Interestingly enough, they had to put FWD heads on the engine to make it fit into the narrower shape of the Trans Am and this allowed a better flow, but only had four bolts instead 5 so blowing a head gasket was more likely to happen with increased boost pressure which is the first thing people do to turbocharged cars. They also used the same TH200-4R automatic transmission used in the GNX as the only transmission option. The end result was a Firebird that made "250 horsepower". This was because GM didn't want any car to be more powerful than the Corvette. When Car and Driver tested the car, they said 250hp, was "exceedingly modest" after running a 4.6 second 0-60 and a 13.4 second 1/4 mile at 101 mph. In reality the Turbo Trans had close to 300hp. It is also worth noting that it was faster, more fuel efficient, and more reliable than Lamborghinis and Ferraris in 1989.

1989 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird GTA - Credit: Firebird Gallery

1989 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird GTA - Credit: Firebird Gallery

The 1989 TTA was also tested by Motor Trend. In their top speed test they got the car up to 162mph (260kph) before hitting the engine redline and the automatic transmission. Even with this the car was still the fastest American car for 1989. Prototype Automotive Services (PAS) was involved in the process of making the TTA and made one with a six-speed manual transmission and did a top speed run with it. The end result was a Trans Am that reportedly hit 181mph (291kph). Please keep in mind this was probably an experimental TTA and is unlikely to still be around or it was swapped back to the TH200-4R.

There were only 1,555 of these special Trans Ams made with 5 of them being test cars. There are supposedly 3 convertibles all built by ASC but only 2 are on record and only 40 hardtops were made. The rest were T-Tops. Three of these birds were randomly selected to pace the 1989 Indy 500. Also out of the 1,555 units made, at least 1,550 are white. This is because there were 5 test cars were pulled off the assembly line without regard to color because they were supposed to be for pre-production use. These five cars are the only TTAs that aren't necessarily white. Two are in the hands of Private owners so we know of two non white 89 TTAs that are still out there and one is actually known to be red.

This car is often overshadowed by the 1987 Buick GNX when people talk about the muscle cars of the late 80s and I'm not quite sure why. There were more Turbo Trans Ams made than the GNX, and it was an all-round better performer than the GNX as well. Maybe it's because the 3rd gen Firebird was mediocre at best in general apart from the TTA and it just looked like another white mediocre 3rd gen Trans Am GTA if you didn't know what you were truly looking at. Maybe it's the fact that the Grand National had been GM's experimental muscle car since 1982 and perfected in 1987. No matter what the case is, the 1989 Trans Am Turbo isn't given the praise it deserves. It was GM's best sports car from the 80s and definitely a true American muscle car.

What do think about the 1989 Trans Am Turbo? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to join Lost In Transmission for more articles on these cool often forgotten cars like this one.

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Comments (9)

  • The last great style of Trans Am’s

      2 years ago
  • The pace cars with the GN engines were some of the few non pontiac powered firebirds I like

      2 years ago
  • this is right up your alley.

      2 years ago
  • The "Rodney Dangerfield" of Trans Ams, one of Pontiac's best kept secrets. Certainly not by intention. This is a great car. Lots of ultra low milage examples around.

      1 year ago
  • There was also a turbo V-8 prior to that. A girlfriend of mine had a black and gold one classic

      2 years ago
    • I know there was a Turbocharged Trans Am before this but to me there was something special about the 1989 TTA because it came at a time when Muscle cars didn’t really exist.

        2 years ago