When a dealer friend of mine recently purchased a 1980 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo Indy 500 Pace Car Edition (quite the mouthful), I was perplexed. For the money, there’s certainly better muscle cars out there — and I’ve always personally favored the Smokey and the Bandit style Trans Am that was made from 1977 to 1978. Even though I told him it was a silly purchase, which is quite an insult considering my car history, my friend remained unabashed — and he insisted I drive it.
The Trans Am Turbo was one of the last dying breaths of the muscle car era, as insurance and emission regulations — along with a fuel crisis — completely wiped the muscle car from the face of the earth. Some may think these are more valuable because of their rarity — but the pace car edition is not very rare. The Trans Am I drove has probably never seen the state of Indiana, let alone been on a famous track — which is the case for the vast majority of the 5,700 built to replicate the actual pace car from the race. Since everybody thought these would be collectible, many were enshrined in man-caves alongside Coke bottle collections — so it’s actually rare to see a surviving non-pace car edition Turbo Trans Am from this era.
The fastest year of the Trans Am was 1972, with its 455-cu-in. engine sending the giant Fisher body to 60 in a little over 5 seconds — and by 1978, the smaller 400 V8 managed a respectable 6.6 seconds. This 1980 model, despite its Turbo power, wheezed its way to 60 in a pathetic 9 seconds. The engine itself was apparently an experiment by a student who took a beefed up 301-cu-in. V8 and crudely fixed a Turbo in a very confusing-looking way — resulting in only 210 horsepower. Surprisingly, this isn’t the least powerful Indy 500 pace car ever made, as in the ensuing years, cars like the Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais and the Chrysler Lebaron Turbo also had the honor of barely getting up to speed in time to set the pace lap at Indy.
So on paper, the Trans Am really isn’t that impressive — but when you close the hood and take in all of the weirdness of this car, it’s hard to not like it. The formerly fake air intake on the Trans Am now actually functional — but not to bring in fresh air. Rather, the hood scoop itself became the host of a strange turbo gauge, which consists of three lights that illuminated based on how much turbo power was being used. It looks like something that belongs in a Cold-War era nuclear silo — and even though it clashes with the look of this otherwise classic-looking muscle car, I love the creativity.
Watching the lights change as you stomp the accelerator is pretty fun, which was needed to make up for its otherwise lackluster performance. The pace car edition also came standard with 4-wheel disc brakes and a handling package, which does make this Firebird feel less like a turkey. I also love how they integrated the Phoenix graphic to match the offset hood for the cluster — as well as into the overall styling.
So after experiencing this Turbo Trans Am, I guess I can understand why someone would want to own a car like this. It’s way more interesting than the sea of 1960s Mustangs and Chevys that dominate the normal muscle car show scene, and it’s a very good-looking car that’s also fun to cruise around in. Just don’t expect to win a drag race against any other muscle car — or even a Prius for that matter.