[Full Disclosure: The General, as well as some sort of higher power apparently didn’t want anyone to buy this car, as at least two of the previous owners were murdered. Off to a fantastic start, then...]
Let me tell a quick story, and you can tell me if it’s what you expect from a 3rd gen F-body. A young kid in the Midwest saves up his pennies and one day buys his dream car; a cocaine white 1987 Pontiac Trans Am GTA. The kid goes off to fight in the Middle East, but he never returns home to his car, and it sits, presumably on blocks in a detached carport, as these cars usually do. One day an older guy comes by and it catches his eye. He’s already had a few F-Bodies and Fieros, and knowing a badass ride when he sees it, snaps it up and takes it back home to his trailer home in a part of town which peaked during the early Eisenhower administration and has been in decline ever since. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a chance to enjoy it either, as his life is cruelly cut short, and his brother takes possession of the car under the saddest of circumstances. The brother has legal fees to pay, and his deteriorating health means he can’t get into his low-slung American Ferrari anymore, so he puts it up for sale. And as a cherry on top of the miserable life this car has endured, its gorgeous gold basketweaves are unceremoniously removed. (and probably sold for Sandusky, Ohio’s finest drugs)
Aaaaaand that’s where I come in.
We’ve all heard the stories of F-Body Camaros and Firebirds. Windows are smashed, bricks put on accelerators, stickers of Calvin peeing on various things festoon the windows, dead cows are placed on roofs, and at least one Confederate flag seemed to come as standard equipment. So why on God’s green Earth would a 20-something architecture student living in the old-money East side suburbs of Cleveland drive an hour and a half, to a trailer park next to an amusement park to buy one, with only 3 grainy, vertical Craigslist photos and a description of “runs good” to go on?
Exterior - 9/10
Look at it. Look at the vents, the sharp creases, the Coke-bottle profile. Look at how the headlights resolve themselves into that pointed nose, which runs vertically all the way down the front bumper. Look at the cast aluminum, 40-spoke gold basketweaves. Barring it’s steroidal cousin the GNX, is there a single more sinister looking car to emerge from the 1980's? Sure it’s the second worst color they came in, and it’s had its fair share of bumps and bruises, but you still get the thought that Pontiac once employed a division of scaring small children and the elderly, and the GTA was their magnum opus.
Interior - 8/10
In two words? Unapologetically Plasticky. Hey, it was the 80's, that stuff was high tech! No?... Alright, fine... The GTA was intended to be a sort of luxury model of its time; something to stick it to the Sharknose 6-Series and the evergreen Porsche 928. (don’t laugh) As a result, it has more 80's toys than a Brooklyn vintage store. Dials, counters, map lights, big chunky buttons, rocker switches, and orange lights... My god the orange lights! I don’t know what 2/3rds of the buttons do, but just having them there makes the experience so much more fun. The gauges are beautifully simple and easy to read, and the seats are both more comfortable and more supportive than quite a few modern ones.
Acceleration - 5/10
The GTA came with the legendary 350 Chevy; a testament to American engineering and blue-collar muscle. It’s one of those engines where just three little digits tells everything you need to know, and it has graced just about every GM muscle car in some form. Apart from a set of aluminum heads, it was transplanted directly from the C4 Corvette, and it was well and truly the crown jewel of the car which was the pride and joy of Pontiac when it was released in 1987.
It also came with the 305, which is a truck engine. Guess which one I have.
Alright... so it’s actually not as bad as it sounds. During the first year of production, yes the 350 did edge out the 305 on power... 10HP to be exact. Either way, the GTA and its contemporaries were among the first wave of performance cars to emerge from post-malaise era Detroit. It goes without saying that it’s not a fast car by today’s standards; 0-60 in 7ish seconds puts it on par with my previous car, a 1993 Sentra SE-R. None of the really matters though when it’s a beautiful day and I’ve got the T-tops off though. This is one of the rare cars that is legitimately fun to drive slowly, and if you don’t agree, simply send your complaints to Summit Racing, because I hear they may have a few aftermarket SBC parts...
Braking - 4/10
It has brakes. They work alright.
Ride - 5/10
I mentioned earlier that my last car was a first-gen SE-R. I didn’t mention that I sold it for $1 because all of it was broken. So compared to that, the GTA rides pretty damn nice. It shakes and rattles like anything built under the reign of Roger Smith, but you still get an ever-so-slight whiff of old GM’s landyacht expertise every now and then.
Handling - 7/10
I didn’t buy this car for the handling. I didn’t lust over it as a kid because of it’s unparalleled racing pedigree, and I had no plans on turning it into a racecar. I was fully prepared for the handling to be more Bullitt than Le Mans, and for an 80'smuscle car, that’s perfectly acceptable in my book.
But probably the biggest surprise in buying the GTA is that it’s not... that... bad. It corners flat, and with a new set of BFG rubber at the corners, thinking about it as a 928 competitor doesn’t actually seem that ridiculous. GTAs received the WS6 handling package, which included bigger sway bars and heavy-duty struts, and suggested that just maybe, some underpaid engineer in the bowels of old GM may have slipped through the cracks and actually known what they were doing. That being said, the steering is a bit over-boosted, and on Cleveland’s 2 twisty roads, I won’t lie and say it’s anywhere near as pure an experience as the SE-R. (Assuming the SE-R was running that day, of course.)
Gearbox - 5/10
Aside from the farm-equipment engine, this is the other reason why I got it for $2500. When the manuals demand a $5000 premium though, I’ll get by just fine with a slushbox. I’ve always found something strangely endearing about clunky old 4-speed autos, but “endearing” isn’t quite enough to stop me from looking into T56 swaps.
Toys - 8/10
Swiveling map light, cassette holder, pop-up headlights, mirrored T-tops (with leather carrying case!), overdrive, self-closing rear hatch, retractable antenna, power locks (in 1987!), a pop-out flashlight in the roof console, cigarette pack holder, 5-Band Graphic Equalizer, and two little dials on the roof to mark appointments because Ronald Reagan is president and you don’t have a cell phone for that.
Audio - 6/10
It sounds... purposeful. Given the engine’s workhorse applications, It sounds like a workhorse. It’s not bad, and there’s about a million ways to make it sound better. That’s all to come...
Sadly I haven’t got a chance to judge the other kind of audio, because that fancy radio doesn’t work and I just can’t seem to find my cassette collection anywhere.
Value - 10/10
From a purely objective standpoint, Hagerty values fair to good condition GTAs from around $5000 to $7500. So yes, buying a decent one for $2500 is indeed an exceptionally good value.
But subjectively, it’s a bit more special than that. For a relatively low entry price, I’ve got something with charisma that no modern car can match. I’ve got something I can truly be proud of; that I can show off to friends on the weekends and still comfortably drive to work every day. Replacement parts are both plentiful and dirt cheap, my insurance rates don’t get crushed, and as crass as it may be to say about my brand new (to me) car, values on them are continually climbing.
Total - 67/100
So returning to the question I posed earlier – Why did I buy a GTA? Quite simply, because I’ve always wanted one. That’s a bit of a dangerous prospect, and I have firsthand experience with dream cars not quite living up to the weight of my expectations. Frankly I don’t think I would’ve cared if it had a diesel 4-banger so long as it had those gold wheels, but thankfully for me, it’s actually turned out to be quite a nice car. (I’m under the impression that it’s karmic retribution for driving that damn Sentra for 2 years...) Ownership of it has already been an adventure, and I’m glad to be able to give it the same love and appreciation that the seller’s brother did before his life was taken.
If there’s one thing I learned this summer, it’s that 3rd gen F-bodies deserve a second chance.