The 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit
Posted on December 17, 2008
The year was 1977. Burt Reynolds was the hottest actor in Hollywood, General Motors still produced the Pontiac Firebird and bushy moustaches were still cool – a perfect recipe for a little macho motoring movie magic known as Smokey and the Bandit.
Essentially a chase flick, SATB sees _Reynolds_’s Bo “Bandit” Darville and his trucker chum Cletus “Snowman” Snow (late country music star Jerry Reed) accept a job bootlegging 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia in just 28 hours. Snowman transports the beer, then illegal east of the Mississippi River in his truck, a 1973 Kenworth W900A short-frame semi and the Bandit strives to deflect the attention of any police officers in a “blocker” car, the 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.
Naturally the Pontiac Trans Am ends up attracting a fair bit of interest, especially when the Bandit picks up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field) and is soon pursued by her jilted fiancé, Junior and his father, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (a fantastic Jackie Gleason) leading to a super-charged chase movie crammed with screeching tires, some incredible stunts and utter car carnage.
And emerging from all the racing spectacle is the Pontiac Trans Am – the film’s true star (sorry Burt!) The idea for seating the rebellious Bandit in the purring performance car belonged to Hal Needham, then better known as an industry stuntman and embarking on his directorial debut. Clocking a magazine photograph of one with “gold stripes and T-tops” he vowed that this was the one and only car for the Bandit and promptly put in a call to Pontiac.
“[I] told them my plan and, of course they’d never heard of me,” he remembers, “so they said, “Well, what do you need?” I said “Well, I’d like to have some Trans Ams for Burt and I need three LeManses for the sheriff.” After some negotiating, they gave me three Trans Ams and two LeManses.” Result.
And these three Trans Ams were in for a rough ride, most notably the famous jump over a collapsed bridge. This particularly demanding sequence was the only one that called for a little under the hood modifications as Needham recalls: “They weren’t modified, except the one for the bridge jump.
“We were using a dirt road and the stuntman only had a short distance to get up to speed,” he reveals. “We tried running the car stock with an automatic and it wouldn’t get it done; it wouldn’t go fast enough. Well, I had a NASCAR race team, so I just called my shop and said, “Send me up a 750 hp engine and a stick trans.” Those are the only modifications we did, aside from safety equipment.”
Onset the cars were soon showing the wear and tear of a crunching shoot and by the end there was very little of them that was still working well. “We beat the crap out of those cars,” admits Needham, who continued to trash cars with Burt Reynolds in 1980 sequel Smokey and the Bandit II and a year later in The Cannonball Run. “In the last shot, the Trans Am wouldn’t even run. We had to push it in with another car so it would coast to the spot where Burt had to get out.”
It may have been a sad ending for the trio of cars, but the movie was a massive box office success (only Star Wars grossed more that year) and sparked a new wave of interest in the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. In 1976, the year prior to SATB, it sold only 46,701 units. Fast forward a year and sales had soared to 68,745 and carried on climbing reaching 93,341 in 1978 and 117,108 in 1979. It was a genuine phenomenon.
“After that movie came out, you couldn’t buy a black Trans Am,” adds Needham. “You had to wait six months. Their sales chart rose like the Empire State Building.” This was all without any promotional tie-ins or star endorsements (“I didn’t do any advertising and they wanted me to,” says Reynolds who ruefully reflects: “Thinking back on it now, it wouldn’t hurt if I did.”) This was simply the pulling power of the big screen action and it’s still got a hold on people decades later.
To celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary, muscle car spare parts shop, Year One Muscle Cars and Reynolds collaborated on a special project restoring 2nd generation Trans Ams in the spirit of the movie. Available across three options, ban one to three, the 1977 and 1878 Trans Ams were fitted with CB radios, much like the one used by the Bandit and other new modifications. Still sold on the Year One website, the Burt Reynolds Edition Trans Am starts at $129,900.
Now that’s a legacy.