Home » The Weirdest Version Of The Pontiac Firebird Started Life As A Ferrari-Beating Supercar: Holy Grails

The Weirdest Version Of The Pontiac Firebird Started Life As A Ferrari-Beating Supercar: Holy Grails

Holy Grail Tojan F Body Ts Copy (1)
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The Pontiac Firebird is one of those classic performance cars that can transcend generations of car fans. Enthusiasts young and old love themselves a good Firebird thanks in part to their performance and numerous appearances in popular media. Many iterations of the Firebird are popular and beloved, but there’s one that, until recently, many have forgotten. The Pontiac Tojan was an 800-horsepower supercar that beat Ferrari at its own game. It did go into production, too, but with only a quarter of that horsepower. The production Pontiac Tojan is perhaps the weirdest version of the Firebird, and somewhere between 130 and 150 of them exist today.

Pontiac was one of the General Motors brands that met a sad end. Recently, Motor1 published an article detailing Bob Lutz’s fight to save GM’s storied brands during the Great Recession and the government bailout. The article illuminates some shocking details about what was going through the mind of an automotive legend at the time.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Lutz said he worked hard to keep Pontiac alive. Pontiac had been burning money for years and selling uninspired products, but it seemed like the brand was turning a corner. The Solstice and the G8 were great cars and Pontiac was gaining interest with young buyers, but it was too late. Perhaps it was a futile effort. Despite how much Lutz championed Pontiac, it had fallen a long way from its motto of “We Build Excitement.” Two of its best modern cars weren’t even real Pontiacs, but rebadged Holdens.

This story takes us to the years preceding Pontiac’s downfall. Pontiac in the 1980s was selling itself as an exciting brand and it did have an enticing lineup. The Firebird became a futuristic, wind-tunnel-shaped wedge and you could even buy a Pontiac mid-engine sports car with the Fiero. Fans of GM’s famous Quad 4 and the 3800 Series V6 got to see those engines in Pontiacs and the brand experimented with fresh technology.

Pontiac Firebird 1985 Pictures 1
Whelan Pontiac-Buick

Perhaps the ultimate Pontiac of the 1980s was one built by a coachbuilder with Pontiac’s blessing. The Pontiac Tojan looks like no other Firebird you’ve ever seen.

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A New Firebird For A New Era

The third-generation Pontiac Firebird came at a transformative time for the American automotive industry. America started getting serious about vehicle emissions in the 1960s and the infamous 1973 oil crisis sent America reeling. Suddenly, the gas guzzlers that America loved so much were bad news. Downsizing, emissions controls, and fuel economy measures were shifted into higher gears. America now wanted to clean up its skies and stretch the dollar at the pump. This meant the cars had to change, too.

Pontiac Firebird 1982 Pictures 1
Pontiac

General Motors decided it was time for the third-generation of its F-Body platform to undergo a major overhaul. The cars riding on the new F-Body would be lighter, slicker, and would have the option of a four-cylinder engine for the first time.

As Hemmings writes, planning for the third-generation F-Body began in 1975, and performance and fuel economy were at the top of the list of attributes. Irvin Rybicki, who took over from William Mitchell, took a look at some designers’ models of the Camaro and Firebird. Reportedly, he thought the models looked good, but wanted to make sure the production cars had just one window on the side to give the vehicles a two-seat sports car sort of look.

Pontiac Firebird 1983 Photos 2
Pontiac

As Hemmings explains, design work resumed in January 1978 under Bill Porter at Pontiac’s studio. The team worked from a starting point penned by Roger Hughet in 1976. Hughet’s vision showed a wedge, a steeply raked windshield, and a single-piece wraparound rear window. As development continued, the design evolved into a shape that Chevrolet would be able to use for the Camaro. The two cars would end up sharing roofs, hatches, doors, and glass, setting themselves apart with quarter panels, fenders, hoods, and fascia. The Firebird and Camaro would have stunning looks for their day with a 62-degree windshield rake and a curved rear window that was difficult to manufacture back then.

The wedge shape wasn’t just a design for the times, either. The new body was shoved into a wind tunnel and out of the other end, the Trans Am gained a drag coefficient of just 0.323. It was also found that dropping the nose an inch closer to the ground gave the Trans Am a nice round coefficient of drag of 0.3. That’s not bad! To put that into perspective, a 20-year newer Smart Roadster had about the same drag coefficient. Unfortunately, as Hemmings writes, the designers of the F-Body weren’t allowed to drop the nose that low due to regulations.

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10 Of The Greatest Wheel Designs
Pontiac

Still, the new Firebird and Camaro weren’t just new bodies. Under the slick body was a shortened 101-inch wheelbase. The engineers also made the new F-Body a full unitized construction without subframes to get in the way. The suspension was also brought into the modern day with MacPherson struts up front and coils bringing up the rear. This was notable as previous F-Body vehicles rode on front front A-arms and rear leaf springs.

Reportedly, this had the effect of sharpening handling. But also, the engineers’ improvements meant that the vehicle wasn’t loaded down with rubber bushings to soften the ride. Instead, they were able to achieve the same result by upping stiffness and minimizing deflections at suspension mounting points. All of this work meant that, unlike the last car, you didn’t have to wait for the vehicle to respond to you turning the steering wheel. The engineers also found a way to shave 500 pounds off of the Firebird and Camaro while doing all of this.

Pictures Pontiac Firebird 1983 2
Pontiac

Things got funky under the hood, too. The base engine became the LQ9 four-cylinder, more affectionately known as the Iron Duke. It made all of 90 ravenous horses that took about 20 seconds to accelerate your pony car to 60 mph leisurely. Of course, the Iron Duke was more about saving you dough at the pump rather than being faster than a garbage truck.

At launch, the entry V8 in the Trans Am was a computer-assisted carbureted 305 cubic inch V8 that made 145 HP. Optional was Cross-Fire Injection, which tossed the carburetor in the trash and netted you a 165 HP. The third-generation F-Body made its debut in 1981 for the 1982 model year, or right at the tail end of the infamous Malaise Era. So, buyers got V8s of decent size, but they made less power than you could get from a four-cylinder today.

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eBay Seller

Later, buyers would be able to get a 350 cubic inch V8 that, when found in the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA, delivered 250 horses. The Turbo Trans Am, which had a boosted 3.8-liter V6, also put out 250 HP. If you really had the need for speed, Street Legal Performance modified Firebird Formulas into the SLP Firehawk, which punched 350 HP from its 350 cubic inch V8.

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However, the ultimate third-generation Firebird was created from a collaboration with Pontiac and a coachbuilder.

The Tojan

P Tojan
Knudsen Automotive

Let’s go back to the start of the third-generation Pontiac Firebird. Pontiac wanted to lean into its positioning as GM’s performance brand. Pontiac was selling itself as the brand that sold thrills and excitement, so it wanted a car befitting of that image.

The answer would come from Russell Knudsen. While not a huge name in automotive history, Knudsen built a name for himself by building neoclassic luxury cars out of his Knudsen Automotive shop. Formed in 1978, Knudsen Automotive turned the cars of the late Malaise Era into ostentatious machines. Knudsen also turned work trucks into super luxurious and striking rides. In 2006, this is what the successor of Knudsen Automotive, Rage Exotic Vehicles, had to say about Knudsen:

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Knudsen Automotive via eBay

Founder, Russell A. Knudsen, has a distinguished history as a producer of world-class, hand-made luxury motor vehicles that are recognized around the world. Headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska for the past 28 years, Knudsen’s automotive operations has become known for maintaining the ultra-rigorous standards of high quality and design flair unsurpassed. Because of his ability to assemble teams of the best designers and craftsmen, Knudsen’s vehicles have retained a loyal cult-following of enthusiasts and collectors. A line of limousines built by Knudsen, named the “Baroque”, was inspired in a style reminiscent of an Excalibur or Stutz.

Knudsen’s work has been showcased at specialty shows all around the United States and he has attracted an impressive list of former customers. His vehicles have made appearances on television and in film, such as TV’s “Miami Vice”, “Alien Nation”, and movies such as “Collision Course” starring Jay Leno, Pat Morita and produced by Dino DeLorenzo.

Knudsen’s coachwork caught the attention of Pontiac and the two hit it off. Knudsen wanted to build a car that exemplified the excesses of the 1980s and Pontiac wanted a fast car. Knudsen and Pontiac entered into an agreement where Pontiac shipped 305 V8, WS6 suspension-equipped Firebirds to Knudsen in Omaha, Nebraska. There, Knudsen would craft the Firebirds into something even better.

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Whelan Pontiac-Buick

Knudsen and designer Harry Bentley Bradley got to work redesigning the Firebird. Bradley also isn’t a huge name, but you may have seen his work in the modern version of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile as well as Hot Wheels diecast cars. Together, they gave the Firebird a svelte, supercar look. They would end up changing the bumpers, fenders, hood, quarter panels, and hatch, creating a new design out of fiberglass and attached on top of the car’s steel body. As Hagerty writes, Knudsen and Bradley didn’t even work in the same building. Instead, they made changes to the Tojan’s sketches and mailed them to each other.

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By 1984, the men had the design nailed down. Now, they just needed to build a prototype to show off their work. They could have just stuck with the vehicles Pontiac sent them, but they decided that the prototype had to be over-the-top. Knudsen didn’t just want a car that looked super, but went as fast as it looked. For that, he found the famed engine tuner Gale Banks.

1987 Pontiac Tojan 17a961bd 6e78
Knudesen Automotive via Bring a Trailer

Banks, madman that he is, supplied Knudsen with a marine twin-turbo V8 for the prototype. As the story goes, this engine made 900 HP with high-test fuel and was good for 800 HP on pump gas. It was never made official, but the Tojan prototype with this engine was said to hit a top speed of 206 mph. For those of you keeping count, that means this Pontiac surpassed 200 mph three years earlier than the Ferrari F40. Oh, and the Pontiac even hit a higher top speed.

The Grail

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Gateway Classic Cars

After drumming up interest with the prototype, the Pontiac Tojan went on sale in 1985. Knudsen’s shop in Omaha souped up the cars and they were sold through Pontiac dealerships with the automaker’s blessing. The options list was reportedly vast and included the absurd Banks-tuned 800 HP twin-turbo small-block V8. The idea here was that you could make your Tojan exactly how you wanted it to be.

Depending on who you ask, Knudsen applied the Tojan treatment to between 136 and 150 Pontiac Firebirds between 1985 and approximately 1990. Hagerty notes that while buyers had the option to get the supercar-killer engine, the vast majority of buyers stuck with the base 305 V8 or the 350 V8. This meant an output about as spicy as 205 HP depending on configuration. Apparently, there were optional superchargers and turbochargers and at least one customer optioned their build with a supercharger.

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Gateway Classic Cars

Sadly, that means none of the production Tojans are Ferrari-slaying supercars, but they’re still perhaps the coolest third-generation Firebirds. In addition to the funky body and the option to get crazy engines, Tojan buyers had their choice of a giant Lamborghini-like wing, digital instrumentation, Recaro seats, Gotti wheels and Compomotive wheels, and off-menu custom modifications. While these cars had Pontiac’s blessing and were sold through Pontiac dealerships, they were still constructed by a coachbuilder, so you could order what you really wanted.

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The closest thing we have to a review is this short video by the YouTube channel Carfection, which got to drive the prototype in 2019. The car is still around today, but an engine rebuild has removed the Banks tuning bits, so it’s not making 800 horses anymore:

It’s unknown why nobody opted to get the monster engine, but I have to wonder if the price has something to do with it. Prices for new Tojans started at $21,995, but they often sold for between $36,000 to $62,000 in 1980s dollars. To put those numbers into perspective, a new Trans Am would have set you back $11,983 in 1985. A $36,000 Tojan in 1985 is the equivalent of $106,577 today while $62,000 was a whopping $183,550. The lowly Trans Am would be $35,475 today, comparatively.

Even if you didn’t get the big engine, you still got a decent bit of kit. Tojans came standard with the WS6 package, which netted you quicker steering and a sporty suspension. Reportedly, Knudsen further beefed up the suspension for the expected upgrades in power. A limited-slip differential helped lay the power down and disc brakes on all wheels stopped the action. The standard transmission was a four-speed auto.

1987 Pontiac Tojan D0d86e7a E787
Bring a Trailer Seller
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Mecum Auctions

The Pontiac Tojan doesn’t appear to be a vehicle in high demand with collectors. One sold on Bring a Trailer for $20,000 in January. I found another that’s up for auction on eBay right now. A day is left in the auction and bidding has reached only $2,275.

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So, this is the rare, weirdest form of third-generation Pontiac Firebird that you can get, and it won’t even cost you an arm and a leg. It’s a shame nobody opted for the 800 HP engine, because one of those might have been one of the craziest cars to ever roll off of a Pontiac showroom floor. The good news is that the aftermarket for these Firebirds remains strong. One of these Pontiac Tojans is just waiting for a new owner to come around and give them the high-horsepower treatment they deserve.

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eBay Seller

Hat tip to Taco Shackleford for the recommendation!

Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com or drop it down in the comments!

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BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
6 days ago

One of these sat on the street near New Holland PA for years. I thought the front was interesting looking, but the sail panel design sucked. The first thing I’d do if I bought one is remove the Toejam sticker.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
12 days ago

I thought Knudsen was from Moorhead, Minnesota? At any rate, it’s not what I’d call Harry Bradley’s best work, either. It’s hard not to look fat when you’re putting it all on top of the stock sheetmetal. Make my ‘80s tuner Trans Am a Mecham Macho T/A Quien es el mas macho? Yo – yo soy el mas macho.

Loren
Loren
13 days ago

Harry Bradley was very-well-known among car people in the sixties and seventies due to frequent work such as re-styles and original designs shown in car magazines such as Hot Rod. Much of it was great stuff, neither this nor the Weinermobile are designs I knew he did nor would I call them his best effort. Funny/tragic what you get remembered for.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
13 days ago

Classic GM. “We built a world beating supercar!” then you look inside and it has a 4 speed automatic.

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