Sunday, January 31, 2010

1977 Pontiac LeMans Can Am

In 1977 General Motors was in the midst of rolling out their new “downsized” full size cars, which shed a lot of weight, but maintained the interior dimensions.

However, 1977 was also a record year for the “intermediates” that were not only larger (in exterior dimensions), but in most cases, a great deal heavier than their “full size” counterparts.

During this time, Pontiac introduced a limited edition package available on the LeMans Sport Coupe, the 1977 Pontiac Can Am.

In 1977, decals and tape stripes had replaced the raw, visceral power of the 1960’s musclecars. For example, there was the Mustang Cobra II, but its 302 could only manage 127 horsepower. Dodge had the hot black and gold Warlock truck, but this was before most people thought of a truck as a performance vehicle. Chevy reintroduced the Z/28 after a two-year absence, but its 350 was a shadow of it’s former self. Overall, when you consider the choices that existed for an affordable, American performance car in 1977, Pontiac was a big player.

Its Trans Am was a huge sales success that year, spurred on by the popular movie, “Smokey and the Bandit”. But the Trans Am wasn’t the only performance car they offered that year. So, Pontiac introduced the 1977 Can Am, and was designed from the beginning to be a limited-production performance car, with an anticipated production run of 5000 units. The name for the car came from the Can Am (Canadian-American) racing series.

For the total sum of $1214.43, the Can Am Option Package could be added to a LeMans Sport Coupe with the louvered quarter windows.

The package consisted of the following:
T/A 6.6 400-cid 4-barrel Pontiac V8 (or Olds 403 if sold in California)
Power front disc brakes
TH400 heavy-duty automatic transmission
Power variable-ratio steering
Rally RTS handling package
GR70×15 radial tires
Body-color Rally II wheels
Twin sport mirrors
Cameo White paint with special tri-color striping
Blacked-out moldings, and black lower body-side accent stripe
Grand Prix instrument panel featuring the Rally gauge cluster with in-dash clock

Pontiac built each car slated for conversion with all of the mechanical bits that made the Can Am unique. Due to the limited planned production run of 5000 units, they outsourced the remainder of the work. Jim Wanger’s Motortown Corp. was contracted to fit the cars with the striping and rear spoiler, and modify the hood to make room for the shaker hood assembly. For some reason, every Can Am came with a 1976-style shaker, which had a different shape than the shaker offered on the 1977 Trans Am.

A partial listing of options available on the Can Am included:
Air conditioning
Front seat console with buckets
15×7 Cast aluminum wheels
“Saf-T-Track” rear axle
GR70×15 White letter tires
Custom Sport steering wheel
Soft Ray glass
Color-keyed seat belts
Interior decklid release
Interior hood release
Am/FM/8-track radio
AM/FM/CB radio
Instrument panel tachometer (replaces clock)
Power door locks and windows
Glass or steel power sunroof

A review of the new mid-year Le Mans Sport Coupe option in the May 1977 issue of Motor Trend said, “The Can Am is the ideal car for the person who likes the Firebird Trans Am or Formula but needs extra space. It provides good handling and steering response with a pleasant, firm, but never jarring, ride.” The same article listed a 0-60 performance time of 10 seconds, with a quarter-mile time of 17 seconds at 84 mph. Okay, it’s not a Judge, but considering the time frame, the Cam Am was a screamer, all things being relative. In comparison, a mid-size 1975 Pontiac equipped with the 455 V-8 turned the same 0-60 10-second time.

Unfortunately, Can Am production ended prematurely, when the mold used in manufacturing the unique “duck tail” spoiler was accidentally damaged. It’s interesting to note that the exact same circumstances surrounded the discontinuation of the duck tail spoiler that was produced (in very limited numbers) for the 1972 GTO. There is some controversy over exactly how many Can Ams were produced; depending on the source, the final tally stood at either 1100 or 1377.

For years, it was rumored that seven production Can Ams were painted “Mandarin Orange”. Jim Wangers, who was a primary player in getting Pontiac to go ahead with the Can Am project, recently debunked this myth. In a February 2001 email to fellow Can Am owner Mark Fearer, Jim stated that, “To my knowledge there were never any ‘orange’ Can-Ams officially built by Motortown for Pontiac in 1977…when the car was first presented to Pontiac in 1976 by myself and Motortown, it was painted in Carousel Red and was proposed to be called ‘The Judge’.” This was rejected, and a white paint scheme with similar graphics was proposed instead. Pontiac was still open to a comparison with the GTO in its advertising, though. Magazines featured Can Am ads which used the phrase, “Remember the Goat”.

Pontiac probably could have sold the entire 5000 and more if management had approved fixing the mold. But the Can Am used the same dash as the Grand Prix, which was a highly profitable sales leader in 1977; every Can Am sold pirated sales of the GP! The broken spoiler mold was the last straw, and the project was axed. In theory, Pontiac could have generated more demand for the Can Am, had they authorized the sale of the car in another key market – Canada. For some reason, the Can Am was sold only in the United States; perhaps it was because every Canadian-market LeMans was powered by a Chevrolet engine.

Pontiac Le Mans History

The Pontiac Le Mans started life as a luxury and performance package for the mid-sized Tempest coupe and convertible, and left this world as an economy compact coupe.

It first appeared in 1962, as a high-end package on the Tempest, with carpeting on the floor and door panels and bucket seats. A new V8 engine revved it to 190-hp for a sportier ride.

The Le Mans is perhaps best known for introducing the Pontiac GTO to the world. This too was first sold as package on the upscale Le Mans, boasting a stiffer suspension, dual pipes, Hurst floor shifter, performance tires, and a 389 V8 hitting 260-hp. Though the Le Mans had already been a popular car in the Tempest lineup, the GTO proved the big success, not only ushering in the muscle car era, but boosting Pontiac's industry standing in sales. With a lasting influence on the pony car market, the GTO would disappear after 1974. In the meantime the Le Mans branched out its offerings to a sedan and Safari wagon, along with the coupe and convertible.

Stepping out from under the shadows of the Tempest, the Le Mans became its own stand-alone brand in 1971, when the Tempest was discontinued. It came in a variety of trims that emphasized either luxury or performance, offering up hefty V6 and V8 engines. As the '70s progressed, the Le Mans got even bigger, until the oil embargo forced a detuning of engines. The big block V8s shrunk a bit, as did sales for the Le Mans. In 1982, the mid-size coupe, convertible, and sedan were dropped, its place taken over by the Bonneville.

The Le Mans made a brief return for six years, from 1988-1993 as a compact coupe and sedan. Though not the performance car it once was, with only a 4-cylinder engine that either got 74 or 95-hp, it tried to package its GSE coupe with superficial street racing elements. This new Le Mans boasted great fuel economy, a roomy cabin and trunk, and an overall reliability that made it a favorite with budget-conscious students and first-time buyers.