Celebrating the Ashes: My Top 3 Pontiac Firebirds of All-Time

The Great Recession, as many historians and news organizations are already agreeing it will be called, has had a vast impact on American society. And while many of the effects of this economic downturn are still unknown, one thing's for certain: More than any business sector, it has arguably been the auto industry that has been affected by the changes in consumer sentiment and spending habits that occurred at the end of the last decade.

This sea change was marked by the phasing out of a wave of classic U.S. brands, each of which had popular offerings and held its place in American car history. Still, personally speaking, it was the collapse of Pontiac that was perhaps most striking. Of all the brands – Mercury, Hummer, Saturn, Oldsmobile – Pontiac that had been the one focused on pushing excellence in sports cars, and had perhaps done the best of any of these brands to win over the hearts of die-hard car lovers.

But, while hard to accept, Pontiac is gone, and its famed Firebird model isn't likely to rise from the ashes. Rather, this muscle car seems like it's hit the end of the line, another casualty in an age when engine power, style and horsepower are trumped by "good gas mileage."

Still, the Firebird leaves a legacy. From 1967 to 2010, the Firebird was an identifiable model, arguably the signature model for Pontiac, both for its stylish name and signature look.

To celebrate this classic model and its untimely passing, here are my three favorites from one of the best lines of all-time:

1. 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 – The inaugural 1967 Firebirds shared a lot with the Camaro – a basic structure, front fenders and simulated vents, but Pontiac built its own engines. So, it's best to think of these parts as the loan that would eventually help the Firebird come into its own: By 1968, the car was coming with a standard 400ci V-8 engine with 330 hp and a host of exclusive engine options.

As a result, How Stuff Works says that by this model year the Firebird boasted "a hotter cam, stronger valve springs and exclusive use of functional hood scoops." A 1968 issue of Car and Drive Magazine best illustrates how ahead of the curve this Firebird was.

In side-by-side testing, the Firebird 400 rated higher than the 1968 Barracuda, Camaro, Mustang, Cougar and Javelin in engine categories like starting, response, smoothness and noise. It also received top marks in steering, cornering ability, driver controls and directional stability to secure the magazine's highest overall rating of 118.

2. 1973-74 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD-455 – Like the 2010s, the early '70s were a time when performance was being phased out by most manufacturers. But, with every trend, there can be an equally powerfully countertrend (think Burger King offering bigger burgers and thicker fries in a time of a wide-ranging health debate). And in 1973, Pontiac followed this path, by introducing the second-generation Firebirds, which were aiming to capture a market share that was watching in horror as the muscle melted off its favorite automobiles.

This was the year Pontiac began offering a "Super Duty" version of the Firebird with a 455ci V-8, which could get more than 300 hp and hit quarter-mile times of around 13 seconds. These changes helped the 1973 Firebird achieve record sales and earn its place for preserving a line that was being threatened by the times.

3. 1998-2002 Pontiac Firebird Formula and Trans Am – Flash forward to the fourth-generation Firebird and many car fans were thinking that the redesigns offered by the company in the early '90s couldn't be beat for style and performance. However, in 1998, Pontiac introduced a all-new aluminum LS1 engine that offered 320 hp with its optional Ram Air WS-6 package.

This performance, together with the style of the models – smooth lines, T-top access to the open air and beveled hoods, helped make it a fan favorite, and according to many, the last true Firebirds.