1979 Pontiac Grand Am - Starlight Survivor
Few drivers were ever fortunate enough to have owned a new Pontiac during their teenage years, and only a minute number can say they still have that car in their possession. Bellevue, Nebraska, resident Joe Fuccio is proud to be in that minority. At the young age of 18, the now 46-year-old Information Technology Specialist purchased a new '79 Grand Am that he drove sparingly and gave the utmost care to over the years. Today it's a 16,000-mile pristine original.
Joe's story starts out like many others-he comes from a family with a strong interest in Pontiacs. "My dad, Sebastiano, bought his first Pontiac, a Bonneville Brougham Safari wagon, new from McKenzie Pontiac in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1967. He then purchased a new '76 Catalina Safari wagon, powered by a 455, from another local area Pontiac dealer, and a few others in later years," says Joe. "My two sisters have owned Pontiacs, too. We're just a Pontiac family at heart."
When Joe reached the driving age, it was only logical that he own a Pontiac, and the first vehicle he called his own was a Sunstorm Yellow '75 Firebird Esprit with a white Cordova top and Morrokide interior. "I purchased the car in 1977 when I turned 16 and drove it for about a year until my younger sister turned 16. My dad then talked me into giving it to her and I started looking for a replacement. I found a '68 Firebird 400 with a four-speed that was in primer and needed paint, but my dad felt that a well-used car wasn't practical, so I started looking for something new," he says.
Just 17 at the time, dealers wouldn't even begin talking to Joe about purchasing a new car without his father present. "He and I went to McKenzie Pontiac to see what was on the showroom floor," Joe recollects. "I really had my heart set on a Trans Am with a Hurst-shifted four-speed manual transmission, but my dad thought a larger car would be better. Trying to please him, we looked at mid-sized models, but I really wasn't happy with the offerings."
A Bit Of Grand Am History
General Motors downsized its mid-sized vehicles for 1978, and the Grand Am-once cancelled after 1975, was revived. Like the original, it, too, was based on the A-body (LeMans) platform, available in 2-door coupe or 4-door sedan styling, and aimed at a specific buying group. This time, however, its standard-equipment content was drastically reduced, making base model Grand Ams more attractive to budget-minded enthusiasts.
The Grand Am's standard powerplant in 1978 was the 140hp 301ci two-barrel engine, and an automatic was the only transmission choice. A large number of performance options, including a four-barrel carburetor, did, however, allow it to remain competitive with similar models from other divisions, including Oldsmobile's Cutlass 442 and Buick's Century Sport Coupe.
An assortment of new features greeted Grand Am buyers for 1979. According to vintage Pontiac sales literature, the list included brushed-aluminum instrument panel trim, blacked-out grille and taillight treatments, a revised suspension package that boasted of higher rate front and rear springs and shock absorbers, a 32mm front sway bar with urethane end-link grommets, and a redesigned 22mm rear sway bar.
Buick's 231ci V-6 with two-barrel carburetor became the standard powerplant, and a floor-shifted three-speed manual was the standard gearbox. A floor-shifted four-speed manual and three-speed automatic were available behind the 231ci at extra cost, and Chevrolet's 305ci four-barrel small-block, backed by an automatic, was optional in high altitude counties and in California. Pontiac's 301-available with a two-barrel carburetor and an automatic transmission, or four-barrel with either an automatic or four-speed manual-was the optional 49-state V-8.
The Purchase
"While at the dealership, salesman Bill Upton pulled out a unique catalog that included only the Grand Prix and Grand Am," says Joe. "It presented them at a low angle, showing off their lowered stance. Both looked very sporty, and standing next to each were professional racers Richard Petty and Geoff Bodine-Bodine raced a Grand Am in NASCAR's Grand National series. It was with this catalog that I hit the jackpot. When I found I could get the 301 engine with a Hurst-shifted four-speed manual transmission, I decided on a Grand Am right there."
Though Joe had considered ordering his Grand Am in Carmine Red, he ultimately decided upon Starlight Black with Burnished Gold lower accents-a scheme similar to the widely popular Special Edition Trans Am on the road at that time. Wanting to maximize the Grand Am's performance persona, he added such extra-cost options as an N31 Custom Sport steering wheel, U21 Rally Gauges with tachometer, G80 limited slip differential, N66 14x7-inch Rally IV wheels, and the L37 301ci four-barrel engine and MM4 four-speed manual.
"We placed the order in late December 1978, and agreed on a price of $6,400. After a few anxious weeks, the car arrived and I took delivery of it on February 25, 1979, which, coincidently, was my 18th birthday," he recalls. "I was so happy, but as my dad and I left the dealership, I noticed that the car seemed sluggish and it took a lot of throttle to get it going. We didn't get more than a few blocks before I realized that something was seriously wrong. So I turned around and headed straight for the dealership's service area."
He continues, "It only took a few minutes for the mechanics to diagnose the problem, and they couldn't believe what they found. The shifter linkages were installed upside down at the factory, and the transmission was actually in second gear when the shifter was in first. The repair took about five minutes, and when I released the clutch while pulling out of the service garage, I left rubber marks on the garage floor! It's always seemed to have enough power after that."
The Power Plant
During its development in the mid '70s, the 301ci engine was treated to a number of weight-reducing modifications aimed at improving economy that shed roughly 150 pounds over a comparable 350ci. With its 4-inch bore and 3-inch stroke, the four-barrel-equipped 301 still churned out 150 hp at 4,000 rpm, and 240 lb-ft of torque at 1,600 rpm in 1979, however.
No. 01 cylinder head castings common to all 301 applications contain 1.72/1.50-inch valves, and a combustion chamber volume of 72cc, producing the 8.1:1 compression ratio. Residing atop the cylinder heads is a low-rise cast-iron single-plane intake manifold (No. 10000518) with runners that lack a common dividing wall-a feature Pontiac engineers specifically incorporated into the intake manifold and cylinder heads to further reduce engine weight.
301ci engines backed by the SC-code Saginaw four-speed manual transmission with a first gear ratio of 2.85:1 were coded PWB, and contain a slightly more aggressive single-pattern camshaft (No. 471) with an advertised duration of 274 degrees and gross valve lift of 0.364-inches, when combined with the 1.5:1 ratio stamped-steel rocker arms. Bolted to the cast iron flywheel is a 10.4-inch diameter clutch disc and pressure plate assembly, and the 2BB-coded rear axle in Joe's Grand Am houses a 2.73:1 gear set with a ring gear diameter of 7.5-inches-the only available ratio with the 301 and manual trans.
The Rarity
Joe says that he rarely drove his Grand Am when it was new, and instead drove his dad's Catalina wagon everywhere. "Insurance premiums were really high, so the Grand Am wasn't out of the garage too often. A large number of the miles currently on the odometer were added during a family trip we took to New York in 1980. Otherwise, it came out on good weather days and was driven mostly to shows and in parades."
The Grand Am's rarity became apparent to Joe in the early '80s while attending one of the first Omaha-area Pontiac, GMC, Oakland shows (see coverage in Aug. '07 HPP). Of that day Joe says, "There, I met a fellow named Jim Wangers. I didn't know who he was at the time, but he told me what I had was pretty rare, and that only a few hundred '79 Grand Ams were built with that powertrain combination. He sounded convincing and, from then on, I drove it as little as possible."
Figures provided by Pontiac Historic Services confirm just that-a total of 136,938 A-body vehicles were produced during the 1979 model year, and two-door Grand Ams account for just 4,021 of that total. Only 428 vehicles of the total A-body production received the four-speed manual behind 231 and 301ci engines through June of the model year, and with only a few weeks left of production, we might surmise that less than 500 total four-speeds were installed. There isn't, however, a current known breakdown by specific engine and/or model combinations.
Living With A Grand Am
Joe tells HPP that the Grand Am's racecar styling hooked him from the beginning and is still a big factor in his ongoing love affair with his Pontiac. He adds, "I love the way it feels on the road too. I know it's only a 301 and doesn't run anything like an earlier Ram Air-era Pontiac, but it runs pretty well for what it is, and it's 400 pounds lighter than a similar year Trans Am too, so it's surprisingly nimble."
Though mileage is low for its age, Joe did have to replace a few items over the years. When the original 2-inch exhaust system rotted out, he had a local exhaust shop install an aluminized 2.25-inch pipe from the catalytic converter back. Retaining the factory appearance and routing, he asked that the shop not install a conventional muffler, and instead let the catalytic converter do the muffling. As the catalyst deteriorated over time, Joe removed the converter entirely and a muffler went in its place.
A manual choke was added when problems developed with the original thermostatic-type. And Joe also replaced the original 205/70R14 white-lettered Uniroyal radial tires with a set of larger 235/60R14 Grand Am Radial G/Ts to give his Pontiac a wider footprint.
"I'm still impressed with it every time I get behind the wheel," Joe states. He plans to share his enthusiasm for the Grand Am with his 5-year-old son, Anthony. "The car will be his some day, so I want to get him off on the right foot with it. We're eventually going to pull the engine and transmission, install new gaskets, and then repaint the engine in the correct shade of Corporate Blue," he says. Until then, Joe, a member of the local-area Pontiac Owners Association, plans to continue showing his pride and joy at local events and nearby national-type gatherings, adding less than 500 miles per year. "Otherwise," he says, "we're just going to continue cruising in it to get ice cream, taking it to shows and parades, and enjoying it just like we always have."

Photo Gallery: 1979 Pontiac Grand Am Coupe - High Performance Pontiac

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