Arguably the most iconic Pontiac Firebird in history

Launched on the big screen in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit revolves around two bootleggers as they attempt to illegally transport 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta. The film was a sleeper hit, and following a poor initial performance, it went on to gross $126.7 million in North America, versus a budget of only $4.3 million. It was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1977 after Star Wars. On top of Burt Reynold’s top-notch acting, Smokey and the Bandit is also famous for the Pontiac Trans Am that the actor drove throughout the film. Here’s everything you should know about one of the most iconic movie cars ever.

WHAT CAR WAS USED IN SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT?

Director Hal Needham convinced Pontiac to feature the Pontiac Trans Am in the movie. The Trans Am was a high-performance package for the Firebird, Pontiac’s take on the Chevrolet Camaro. But while the cars shown in the movie look like 1977-model-year Trans Ams, they were actually 1976 models. The 1977 model wasn’t out yet when filming began, so General Motors provided 1976 cars with front clips from the soon-to-be-released 1977 update. The differences between the two are major. The 1977 features rectangular quad headlamps instead of only two round lights, a unique slanted and V-shaped nose, and a center-mounted hood scoop.

THE 6.6-LITER DECAL WAS THERE TO MAKE THE CAR SEEM MORE POWERFUL TO VIEWERS

Everything You Should Know About The The Trans Am From Smokey And The Bandit
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As a publicity stunt, the Trans Ams used in the movie had different decals on the hood scoop. The sticker read "T/A 6.6," which was a reminder of the engine’s 6.6-liter displacement. This small modification was made to remind viewers of Trans Am models from 1969, which had in excess of 300 horsepower. Although 1977 models also featured 6.6-liter engines, they were rated at only 200 horses. The change was somewhat strange as most automakers were using cubic-inch numerals to advertise engines. Of course, it’s difficult to asses whether these small decals did something to change buyer perception about the Trans Am, but it’s an interesting part of the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am’s history.

HOW MANY TRANS AMs WERE USED IN SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT?

Everything You Should Know About The The Trans Am From Smokey And The Bandit
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Pontiac gave Needham a total of four cars, three to use in the movie, and one as a promotional vehicle to drive around and advertise Smokey and the Bandit following its release. The three movie cars were destroyed during various stunts, so the promo car is the only surviving Trans Am connected to this film. In addition to the four Trans Ams, Needham also received two Pontiac LeMans models to serve as patrol cars in the movie.

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT HELPED PONTIAC SELL TRANS AMS LIKE CRAZY

Everything You Should Know About The The Trans Am From Smokey And The Bandit
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Producer Hal Needham intended Smokey and the Bandit to be one of the best product placement films of all time. And he succeeded as far as the Pontiac Trans Am is concerned. Sales of the coupe exploded after the film hit the silver screen and set unprecedented records for both Pontiac and the Firebird nameplate. The Trans Am was already pretty popular in the mid-1970s, with sales hitting 68,745 units in 1977. But 1978 returned sales of 93,351 examples, a jump of around 25,000 cars. Sales jumped even higher in 1979 when Pontiac moved 117,108 Trans Ams. Sales almost doubled in two years, which is a very big deal given that the Trans Ams 1978 facelift was rather minor save for the front fascia. During this time, the Firebird also surpassed sales figures of the Chevrolet Camaro.

TRANS AM SALES WERE SO GOOD ONCE THE MOVIE DEBUT, PONTIAC DELAYED THE THIRD-GEN FIREBIRD

The movie had an even bigger impact on the Trans Am. Because sales were so high, Pontiac decided to delay the third-generation model. The redesign was originally planned for 1980, but 1978 and 1979 became record years for GM’s division, so the new model was pushed back. In 1978, Pontiac delivered 93,351 Trans Ams and 93,944 regular Firebirds for a grand total of 187,295 cars. 1979 was equally successful for the brand, joining 1978 to create Pontiac’s best sales years ever. The third-generation Firebird was introduced in 1982, a full two years later than planned. And it was worth it for the brand, as the nameplate sales decided following the redesign.

THE ENGINE NOISE IN THE MOVIE IS ACTUALLY FROM A 1955 CHEVROLET CUSTOM

Regular film-goers might not pay much attention to the car’s engine sound, but gearheads will quickly notice that something is off. That’s because the Trans Am in Smokey and the Bandit didn’t sound like a Trans Am. The sound came from a 1955 Chevrolet Custom, the same car that was used in Two-Lane Blacktop and American Graffiti, films launched in 1971 and 1973, respectively. So why did they go with sound effects instead of the Trans Am’s actually exhaust noise? Well, they simply considered that the Trans Am didn’t sound intimidating enough. Of course, we could argue that Needham could have used the engine note of a Pontiac GTO from the golden muscle car, but the 1955 Custom recordings were probably readily available, and he just didn’t need the hassle.

THE PONTIAC TRANS AM ALMOST WASN’T USED IN THE MOVIE

The Pontiac Trans Am seems like a natural choice for Smokey and the Bandit, but the car was only a few inches close to not being used in the movie. That’s because Pontiac almost canceled the Firebird in the early 1970s. The muscle car market reached a peak in the late 1960s, as the car was becoming larger, more powerful, and more aggressive by looks. However, the U.S. government introduced new emission controls in 1972, and automakers had to step back. Many nameplates lost their performance credentials, and some of them, like the Ford Mustang, were redesigned without a V-8 engine. Some weren’t that lucky and were discontinued altogether. A strike at General Motors in 1972 limited the production of the Trans Am to less than 1,300 units that year, and Pontiac almost canceled the nameplate. Chevy almost did the same with its counterpart, the Camaro. Luckily, both cars survived, and the Trans Am became famous only five years later.

QUICK SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT TRANS AM Q&A

What Year Was the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am?

The Trans Am used in the movie was a 1976 model with the front end of a 1977 car.

How Many Cars Were Wrecked in Smokey and the Bandit?

The production team wrecked three for the four cars it received from Pontiac. Two cars were reportedly badly damaged in early stunts in the film, while a third car was completely destroyed during the famous bridge jump scene.

What Happened to the Smokey and the Bandit Car?

The whereabouts of the remaining Smokey and the Bandit car, the one that was used to promote the movie, remained a mystery for years. The unrestored car reportedly showed up on eBay back in 2015, but no one wanted to buy it. The owner restored it and sold it at the Scottsdale 2016 auction by Barrett-Jackson. Burt Reynolds himself drove the car on stage to the song "East Bound and Down" and signed it.

Who Owns the Original Smokey and the Bandit Car?

The remaining Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am is currently owned by Florida car collector John Staluppi. He paid $550,000 for it, likely a record for any Pontiac Firebird.

Ciprian Florea
Senior Editor and Supercar Expert - ciprian@topspeed.com
Ciprian's passion for everything with four wheels (and more) started back when he was just a little boy, and the Lamborghini Countach was still the coolest car poster you could hang on your wall. Ciprian's career as a journalist began long before earning a Bachelor's degree, but it was only after graduating that his love for cars became a profession.  Read More
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