From the January 1979 issue of Car and Driver.
Past [then–associate editor Mike] Knepper’s idea. “Why don’t you try getting Trans Am to drive while you’re in Europe?” he asked. Immediately, that sounded like a great idea. Pick up at Frankfurt-Main airport, take to Austria, then Stuttgart, then Paris, then return. “Great!” said the GM of Overseas Public Relations, so we called a travel agent and made our budget Apex reservation, Detroit–Frankfurt. When it was too late to replace, GMO called back and said, “Hey great, you can pick up the car in Antwerp!” So the deal was reached. We borrowed a Porsche 928 for our first trip, then flew from Stuttgart to Brussels to take our Trans Am.
We spent a wonderful afternoon with the irresistible Tony Lapine, Porsche’s chief designer and sage at their thriving Weissach facility. Then, regretfully, leaving him to race through the 40-minute traffic jam that interrupted ‘twixt us and Flughafen Stuttgart, where Sabena would take us to beautiful Brussels and our waiting Firebird.
Belgium is not a pleasant place to be, especially when it’s cold and foggy. Belgium isn’t very big either, and the small country’s high density of industrial factories means you’re never far from a smokestack or a desperate village that depends on the local coal mines for survival. As a result, the Belgian on the street looks like one of HG Wells’ Morlocks.
In Brussels, customs officials waved at us without checking our luggage but nevertheless managed to convey the feeling that they recognized us as unwanted aliens, perhaps smugglers. On the sidewalk, I manned my luggage while JLK Davis went to find a Trans Am. I was watching a Belgian taxi driver jockey for position in front of the terminal, enjoying the near misses that occur regularly, when a white Trans Am complete with screaming chicken stickers and Chris Craft exhaust notes rolls out of the mouth of the parking lot, my wife in a helmet.
The Pontiac Trans Am was one of the last—but certainly the best—of the goofy ’60s cars. It is big for what should be done, very small for who and what should be carried. It still looks sexy, and Pontiac’s enthusiastic engineers seem to have found the secret to eternal youth and are applying it to this decidedly well-worn package, because the Trans Am still packs a punch, visually and dynamically, and it just never comes down to it. through force like when I saw our shiny white cars pass Fiats, Renaults, and Citroëns in front of the Brussels airport.
When the customs officers looked at our luggage with suspicion, Trans Am was really hostile to that. Pop decklid. “Twit! You think you’re going to get some luggage in here!” The specifications of this car say that it offers 6.6 cubic feet of luggage accommodation. This is true, but only if you are hauling loose sand. You can take quite a lot of clothes there, but only if you leave your suitcase at home. We managed to fit one duffel bag in the trunk, but the other four had to be stacked in the back seat. Hah! “Chair,” they call it, with great irony. It may look like a seat, but it is not a place to sit.
It’s disappointing to get inside and find an automatic transmission selector lever instead of a four-speed manual, but otherwise it’s a predictable Pontiac—a bit of home for two Americans who have been away from Big PX for 10 days. And after 10 days in various Fiats, Porsches, and Citroëns, I unknowingly reached for seat adjustments and was suddenly transported back to another fact of American life: non-adjustable seats (unless you count the front and rear). Maybe Nash ruined it for all the next-generation American car buyers. . . Cars from Kenosha came with reclining seats, not for driving but for sleeping, and this apparently made reclining seats a bad name forever in America’s stilted heart. So there it was America’s ultimate road machine, shooting upright for want of the simple product features that had been in German cars for 30 years, and standard equipment on even the meanest Japanese imports. Front seat not necessarily badbut unfortunately the driver and passengers must adapt their bodies to the seats, not the other way around.
After one night at the Holiday Inn airport (another taste of home), we headed off to Paris. Inside the Trans Am looking out, it doesn’t look big or appropriate. In fact, on European roads it is as comfortable as any mid-sized European car. The nose is long, but the visibility is good. One knows where the four corners are, and the cutting and pushing European traffic—much more aggressive and challenging than anything American drivers are accustomed to—is managed with no more difficulty than one knows in a Porsche 928. It attracts far more attention than the Porsche 928, and this is always a potential danger, because continental Europeans must be the greatest peddlers in the whole world and there is always the danger that one of them will just roll his Citroën Dyane into your lap in an attempt to get a better look. .
As is our custom, we ignored the advice of the lady at the Holiday Inn and just followed the auto route that seemed the most logical to get to Paris. After a heavy morning traffic jam and a few quick loops around the airport trying to find our way out of the Brussels metro area, we suddenly blundered to the end of our auto route and the start of a vaguely marked detour. These are the kinds of things that usually lead to surly morning tantrums and answers, but before we could start interrupting each other, the Wellington Monument appeared out of the fog and we realized we deviation has brought us to the edge of the battlefield of Waterloo. We slowed the Firebird to look around and peer into the darkness as one heroic monument after another appeared on either side of the road and little hidden signs led to places I had read about since I was a child. Surely, stumbling upon the scene of Napoleon’s last great battle in this way, incidentally, has to be more thrilling than any planned tour bus arrival ever was. Even the mist works to enhance the effect.
Back on the autoroute, we see the gas gauge moving steadily toward empty. We’ve left Brussels with a quarter tank, and a massive 400 men drinking it at an incredible rate. We drove to the next service area and, oops, noticed the “Unleaded Fuel Only” stickers scattered all over the various flat surfaces that couldn’t be missed. What to do? We called the GM in Antwerp and asked their advice. No one knows. One thing is certain, Belgian and French gas stations are not equipped with unleaded pumps. Finally, someone in the factory service department said to put it at premium. This is what the station attendant told us for twenty minutes as we took our places at his gas station. I had my doubts, but the official General Motors voice on the phone said, “Fill it with super,” so we filled it with super, 1060 Belgian francs worth, 62.4 liters of stuff. That’s almost $40 in what we used to call “real money”.
Now fully aware of how much it costs Car and Driver to keep me roaring along the auto route in the Energy Crisis, thinking about the Belgian homes that may have heated up this winter with the petroleum I was using, I got back on the highway and let it slowly climb to 90 mph—typical Renault / Speed roam Simca in this section. (This newfound caution is also based, in part, on my fear that all that expensive premium gas will melt the catalyst and send us into the flames like the Fokker Triplane.) As we cross the border into France, the sun rises and the countryside opens up. somehow be friendlier. France’s national speed limit is roughly 80 mph, so we’re not faking it too much, and it felt great to let the Trans Am go at design speed without keeping one ear glued to the CB and the other to the radar detectors. In Europe, one could turn on the stereo and quickly jump to Bach, or Waylon Jennings. Very civilized.
In this mode, another by-product of American culture interrupts our daydreams—rattles and squeaks. American cars, even expensive ones, crackle and squeak. The new work developed computers from GM and Ford are better at this, but still not up to import levels. It’s maddening to walk around happily, enjoying the fine French weather in a nice car on smooth roads, only to be faintly distracted by the constant thuds and resonances.
Our arrival in Paris went smoothly. People in Citroën vans wavy—most of them potentially suicidal—shouted from both sides and tried to drag the Trans Am around every intersection. The school kids couldn’t take their eyes off him, even the American feeder like guy sticking his face in the window and telling us, “This car is a pervert!” We were given a well-deserved salute from the bouncer at the Crillon and found ourselves parked in the middle of two BMW coupes, a Ferrari 400 automatic, a Cadillac, and a number of other serious high-roller units. Pontiac somehow seemed at home in the company, partly, I suspect, because birds were rare there. Here, the endless screaming chicken parades and all the post-GTO self-caricatures get a little shallow, but there it’s the exotic stuff, and locals tend to get a bit enthralled by it all.
I guess, that’s what actually happened in the final analysis. So much fun to be seen on the Pontiac Firebird at European Festivals, but the actual driving fun is only about average, and a visit to a gas station at 35 or 40 simoleons per tank very quickly takes away most of the remaining fun from the adventure. However, it does make one thing very clear to us. The most effective way to accelerate the nation’s transition to smaller cars is to allow gasoline to rise to the free market price of its supply and demand. An American can still rationalize buying something that gets twelve miles per gallon when he or she is paying less than 70 cents for each of those gallons. Driving a Trans Am and paying European prices for gasoline would make a small car believer out of a number of skeptical Americans.