This story was original published over a decade ago. Today seemed like a good time to share it again...
Smokey and the Bandit SE Texas Style
By Greg Riley
August 17, 2007
Okay, admit it. In the summer of 1977 there was nothing cooler than Burt Reynolds and the Trans Am. I recently heard that Year One was offering a limited number of restored “Burt Reynolds Edition” Trans-Ams just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the movie.
My close friends know that I have love hate relationship going with Camaros and Firebirds. I’ve owned multiple first, second and third generation cars. I also had a brief weekend affair with a modified ’94 six-speed fourth generation car. Sort of a ships passing in the night thing. But I digress….I’ve always given the Z’s and Trans-Ams high marks in the fun to drive quotient, but I’ve also had several scary experiences with inadequate brakes, annoying rattles, and over-heavy doors that drop on the hinges.
This relationship started with a 1976 SD-455, 4-Speed, Trans-Am SE. Translation, the real black and gold bad ass that the ’77 movie car pretended to be. Funny thing is that I never even drove the damn thing.
During my fledgling auto-maniacal years, my close friend and mentor was Don. At that time he worked as a mechanic mainly to support his own automotive insanity. Don didn’t really like working on the Aspens and Volare’s at the local Mopar store. No, his real passion was good old American muscle cars. After a time it only became natural that other hot-rodders sought out Don to work on their rides.
One day during my Junior year of high school I showed up at Don’s and the ultimate teenage fantasy was sitting in the driveway. It seems that a young man we’ll call “C” had recently received the Trans-Am as a present from his parents. C’s parents owned an establishment known simply as The Foxy Lady.
The Trans-Am had serious street cred due to the movie, but the big Pancho had been smothered by mid-70’s emission Regs. Don’s mission (should he choose accept it), was to wake this baby up and keep it emissions legal…..mostly.
In quick succession headers were installed, and turbo muffler after of the cat, an aluminum intake was fitted, and 780 cfm holley carb topped it all off. Oh yeah, he made the infamous shaker scoop functional. You can’t install all of that hardware with out taking it on a test drive to dial everything. Several test drives. Actually, lots, and lots of test drives
The first time we took it out Don, was driving, Art was riding shotgun (C’s close friend,) and I was sitting in the backseat on top of C’s dirty laundry and batting bag. I don’t know about the other guys, but I wasn’t buckled up. Couldn’t have if my life depended on it sitting on top of all that dirty laundry and baseball equipment.
Don drove us toward a little traveled road that led to oil fields, and rice farms. On the way over he tickles the secondaries a couple of time, but never really stands on it. We finally slow to a stop under a full moon with an unbroken ribbon of road in front of us. He builds the Rev’s up slightly, comes off the clutch and puts it to the wood. Holy smoke, what’s all that smoke! He quickly power-shifted to second, even more smoke! Third….finally it began to hook up. Do you remember the opening of Star Trek when they go to warp speed? The stars sort of blur with tails of light and then disappear. That’s the way it felt in the back seat, on top of the laundry, in that black and gold bad ass. Don starts to slow her down, and is playing it cool. I think we were all a little transformed by the experience. We head home, but nobody is talking much.
The next day at school I try and tell my friends, but no-one pays much attention. After school I’m back at Don’s and he’s grinning ear to ear. It seems that he tweaked it some more today and we gotta go on another test drive. Ah hell!
This time it’s obvious from the start that the ride is going to be much wilder. Up Phelan Boulevard we go, winding her out from every light, and finally reaching a stretch with no stop lights, we achieve about double the legal speed limit it not much more time that it takes me to write this. Finally we reach the same road as the night before.
Don makes the same sort of start, only this time he plans to see what she can do on the top end. Very quickly we’ve buried the factory 85 m.p.h. speedo, and the needle has swung around its arc to where about 140 would be. “Uh, Don isn’t there a stop sign up ahead?” At that same instant Don sees it and is on the brakes. Now is really, really on the brakes. We’re almost on top of the four-way stop, Don standing on the brakes with both feet, and we still ain’t stoppin’! Bloom….we blow through the stop sign at 95+ with all four corners boiling brake smoke and we’re still just barely slowing down. Agonizingly slowly we begin to slow down. We finally roll to a stop rotors, and drums red hot and smoking. Both of us are ashen, amazed to be alive, and full of adrenaline. Don looks at me, and says, “Uh, maybe I need to work on the brakes. C could get killed.” Keep in mind that car is almost new and we could have been the ones killed. In ‘79 when Pontiac introduced the four wheel brake option we all nodded knowingly.
A couple of days pass, and I’m back at Don’s again. Only this time I have my school buddy Wayne with me. I gotta have a witness to this! Wayne is in awe of the car just like me. Don starts her up and the big Pancho warbles to life and settles into rumbling idle. Its obvious that Wayne is dying for a ride, but Don gotta string the kids along for a while.
Finally, he says the magic words, “wanna go for a ride?” For just a split second the wee small voice in my head is questioning the wisdom of this, but when Don gooses the big 455 I can’t hear it any more.
We begin the same course as before. Only this time when we do the drag race start I notice that he gets off of it well before the stop sign. I’m thinking this is going to be okay. Don says something to the effect that we should test the handling. Now the small voice is shouting at me, but the Pontiac shouts louder.
Old Dowlen Road is in the process of becoming a wide boulevard with sweeping turns, and wide lanes. Everything starts out okay. We’re pulling a few G’s here and there, but nothing really radical. I’m not sure exactly what was said, but Don decided we could test the handling much better from higher speeds. We are screaming through a wide sweeper when the road abruptly narrows, the lanes change, and we bounce onto old pavement. We’re only moving at about 95 when this happens. I forgot to mention that there is a traffic light ahead with a line of cars on the intersecting road waiting for the green….and ours just turned yellow.
No doubt with memories of the stop sign from before, Don does the only prudent thing. He downshifts to third, and shoved the accelerator through the floor. High speed? Warp speed? Rapid acceleration? No, the planet just slowed down. It is as if we’ve just been shot from a gun as we squirt through on the orange. Burt and Sally eat your heart out!
This was the first truly fast car I was ever exposed to and the first F-body GM too. Every time I see one of these cars my pulse quickens like Pavlov’s dog when he heard the bell. As much as I love these cars every one I’ve ever owned has had a scary or annoying habit. I can’t wait for the new retro-Camaro, and I’m sure to own one sooner or later. If they do a black and gold Firebird version, I’m doomed!