1978 Pontiac Trans Am – Thunder Chicken Gets New Wings
The 1978 Pontiac Trans Am evokes strong emotions for some. Every young man whose formative years were spent growing up in the 1970s and 80s is likely to have vivid memories of Pontiac’s 2nd generation Firebird/TransAm. It was the sound of the 6.6L engine revving, and the venerable flaming thunder chicken emblazoned across the hood from fender to fender that made the Pontiac so appealing. Officer Frank Poncherello raced a Firebird/TransAm in the popular TV show “CHiPs”; private investigator Jim Rockford drove a Firebird in another popular ‘70s show “The Rockford Files.” The Firebird/TransAm that tattooed its self into America’s pop culture-consciousness without a doubt, is Bo “Bandit” Darville racing Sheriff Buford T. Justus in “Smokey and the Bandit.” Indeed, the Firebird/TransAm is a cultural automotive icon to kids from those decades.
What about kids today? The second generation ‘bird is older than they are, and in their eyes must be a legend or a forgotten relic. Austin Neubauer, the hero in this story, owns and races his own legendary 1978 Pontiac TransAm, and he is only 23-years-old to boot. He could have gone with another popular import vehicle that a typical 20-something year old may drive, but not Austin, this proud Texas native took a far different approach. He was only 14-years old when he came into possession of his car. It wasn’t even a diamond in the rough, it was just rough…60-grit rough. However; that was not a deterrent, his father Kenny owned a humble automotive shop in Burleson, Texas aptly named Neubauer Automotive. Austin’s entire vehicle right down to the PPG Martinique Blue was all done in-house there.
Over the course of the next five years, father and son (and Austin’s fiance Kelsie) worked his 1978 Pontiac TransAm until it became the gem that young Neubauer had envisioned. The heart and soul under the hood is 5.7L LS1 taken from a 2002 Pontiac backed by a 6-speed T56 transmission. The chassis remains OE with some suspension goodies added for handling. Up front, a set of RideTech control arms and 13-inch Corvette brakes add handling and stopping prowess while the 17X9 snowflake wheels add ‘Bandit era correctness. The rear has been mini tubbed to accommodate the 17X12-inch wheels with meaty Michelin Pilot Sport tires. C6 Corvette 4-link rear suspension has been added as well as a Detroit Locker pumpkin housing 3:73 gears. Inside, a custom instrument cluster with AutoMeter Cobalt gauges spice up the controls along with an NRG quick release steering wheel. Arizen race seats, a roll bar, and four-point harness keep Austin and passengers firmly in place, and if that is not enough the Vintage Air system keeps them cool in the Texas heat.
Austin was recently spotted making the rounds on the AutoCross track during the Goodguys Lone Star Nationals at Texas Motor Speedway. The Pontiac was worked so hard that a power steering hose blew off during one of his runs. No, problem, no worries. Father and son took a few minutes scrounging the necessary parts, performed the repairs in the pits and were back in action.
These second-gen F-bodies of the late 70s have long been spurned by hot rodders who remember gas rationing, OPEC, catalytic converters, smog pumps and choked horsepower. The young guys in their teens and twenties don’t remember those times. They see these F-bodies as affordable, blank canvas hot rods. They’re doing magnificent things with them, and this TransAm is a prime example. The Bandit and “Frog” Sally Fields would be proud.