1969 Pontiac Firebird Ram Air IV – Power and Performance
In 1969, Pontiac introduced the Trans Am, a race-bred version of the Firebird that used the “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” approach by competing in the Trans American Racing Series. However, circumstances related to Pontiac’s involvement in the series lead to the most powerful version, the Ram Air IV, being one of the rarest muscle cars ever produced.
Engine on the 1969 Pontiac Firebird Ram Air IV
The factory rated the Ram Air IV at 345 horsepower, just 10 more hp than the Ram Air III, but a look at the spec sheet tells a different story. Round port heads improved flow while the engine’s unique cam profile provided .520 inch by .520 inch lift with 308 degree by 320 degree duration, a huge jump from the III’s 288 degree by 302 degree duration. Flow was further improved with an aluminum intake manifold, which also shaved 15 pounds off the completed block, giving the engine power throughout the rev range. When Hot Rod magazine tested a Ram Air IV-equipped Trans Am, it did the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds, breaking 100 miles per hour in the process. Introduced in the middle of the 1968 model year, the engine was available in the GTO, Judge, Firebird and Trans Am through 1970. Unlike most contemporary performance engines, it managed to produce power without sacrificing reliability or low-end torque, making it perfect for street use while still being competitive on the track.
The Trans Am Racing Problem
The pinnacle of the Trans Am lineup was to be the new Ram Air V, developed to meet the Trans American Racing Series’ 5-liter, 305-cubic-inch engine homologation requirements. The motor used a shaved 400 block fitted with a radical tunnel port intake to create a short-stroke, 303-cubic-inch engine that redlined at 8,000 RPM. Although it was a spectacular performer, the high-strung engine was too fragile for street use. When the production requirement was dropped, Pontiac halted the planned 250-unit run to cut warranty costs.
An Overlooked Masterpiece
With the company focused on building up buzz for the Ram Air V, its quick removal prevented Pontiac from promoting their new king of performance, the Ram Air IV. What could have been a big seller akin to the first GTO turned into a performance rarity more in line with Chevy’s “Z-code” options. With the general public unaware that an ordering choice would get them the high-power street engine, only 157 Firebird hardtops were ordered, of which 55 were Trans Ams.