High Water Marks: 1973 Pontiac SD-455 Trans-Am

As a guy who reviews new cars, I am often asked which cars are my favorite cars. Almost all of them are old cars – which could be nostalgia but maybe (I like to think) because they just had something new cars don’t.

Like this one, for instance.

The 1973 SD-455 Trans-Am.

This car was in my opinion the apogee of muscle cardom. It was also the last real muscle car, not only because it was built at a time when almost all other high-powered American cars had already disappeared but because it was the last really powerful American two-plus two coupe built without catalytic converters or significant emissions controls of any kind and no air bags, traction control, ABS or other electronic impedimenta. It was a raw and surly car that had little tolerance for inexperience or stupidity. Like all real muscle cars, it was more than a little dangerous. Car: The Definitive Vi... DK Best Price: $6.92 Buy New $27.95 (as of 10:05 EST - Details)

Powerful cars have been built since then, including some with more than twice the power -but they are Safe Spaces compared with a car like the SD-455 Trans-Am. If you got the manual, you had to leg-press that heavy clutch without hydraulic assist. If you broke traction on the 1-2 upshift and didn’t know how to keep it straight, there was no TCS to bail you out.

The brakes – discs up front, drums in the back and exactly the same as came on ordinary Firebirds with six cylinder engines or lightweight V8s like the 350 two-barrel – made you think ahead.

AC was available – but only with the optional automatic.

It was a serious car.

2019 Collector Car Pri... Best Price: $11.49 Buy New $14.79 (as of 08:50 EST - Details) It was also the last real attempt by a major American car company – or at least, one of its divisions – to jam a thumb in Uncle’s eye. The SD-455 engine was not a run-of-the-mill 455 V8 engine. It was a very special engine. A race engine, detuned for production but largely hand built. It had a different block and heads and pretty much everything else that mattered – including provisions for dry sump oiling – but it had the same displacement as Pontiac’s mass-produced 455 V8, found in Bonnevilles and Catalinas. That one was “certified” by Uncle.

The SD-455 was not.

They slipped it into the mix, hoping Uncle would not notice. And for awhile, just long enough to get a few into circulation – he didn’t. About 1,296 of these very special engines made it into 1973 (and 1974) Trans-Ams and a handful of Formula Firebirds, which were the only Formula Firebirds built with the Trans-Am’s shaker hood scoop (but without the TA’s fender vents and front spoiler; you could get the rear spoiler as optional equipment).

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