1980 Pontiac Yellowbird: Birds of a Feather

It sure is yellow! And appropriately so, since this is a Pontiac Firebird “Yellowbird,” a one-year-only special model for 1980, obtained by checking off RPO W73.

By this time the 2nd-gen Firebird was ten years old and had been freshened at least three times, acquiring its latest front and rear treatment a year earlier. The pure early versions of this car proved disappointing, sales wise, and both of the F-body cars survived a brush with cancellation in 1974. Good thing they did, because the latter half of the 1970s were a bonanza for Firebird (and Camaro) sales.

With fewer other muscle cars around in what became called “the emissions era,” the F-bodies had a perfect position to themselves as de facto muscle – even if they weren’t as fast as before. Firebird sales were no doubt helped by the famous association with “Smokey and the Bandit” and by the surging popularity of style coupes of all types.

1979 proved to be the Firebird’s best-ever year, with more than 211K sold. With so many flying off the lot, there was a combination for every buyer. Starting in 1977 Pontiac launched a series of “color” specials, the “Yellowbird” being the final iteration. 1980 proved to be a terrible year for car sales across the board and F-body sales tumbled accordingly, so this car – a small subset of Firebird Esprit production – is the rarest of these specials today.

Feathered Friends

The new specials were aimed specifically at Women – by Pontiac’s estimation 30% of Firebird customers by 1976 and more by 1979.

There were color editions of the Trans-Am, too, but it was the quieter Esprit that got the color editions – previewed by a concept “Blue Bird” model in powder blue at the 1976 Chicago Auto show. A hit with showgoers, the idea was turned into the production 1977 “Sky Bird,” the first of three such feathered specials.

The Sky Bird had elaborate pinstripes and a special (very 1970s) bird decal on the B-pillar. It came in Lombard Blue, a color borrowed from the compact Astre and not shared with the other Firebirds, with darker blue accents on the bottom and a blue interior with a dash panel that looked like milled aluminum.

The car used Pontiac’s striking new “snowflake” wheels, color-coded to the car. These predecessors of modern wheels were a design that spring from Bill Porter’s Pontiac studio just like the earlier “honeycomb” Firebird wheels and the overall design of the Firebird itself.

“Snowflakes”

The wheels used on the Sky Bird, and indeed on many 1977 Firebirds, were genuinely new, but Pontiac had been working on them for some time.

Porter and his team had been proposing a cast aluminum wheel – which would not only be stylish but also greatly reduce unsprung weight – since the late 1960s. The accountants, however, believed such a wheel would be too costly for series production. The first attempt, the “honeycombs,” (designed by Porter and Bud Chandler and inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes) ended up being a Poly-cast wheel – a steel wheel encased in plastic.

1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit "Sky Bird"
1977’s “Snowflake” rims on a very worn out Sky Bird.

This design ended up heavier than a standard steel wheel and was also susceptible to curb rash. For 1977, Porter finally managed to convince Pontiac’s management to give it a go. The wheels had a pattern that looked like a stylized snowflake but were never actually called that by the factory.

To get these stylish 15″ “cast aluminum road wheels,” you checked off option YJ8. In 1977 they were available on many different Pontiacs, but were always most closely associated with the Firebird. We take aluminum rims for granted in 2020, but they were cutting edge factory stuff at the time. Porter and his team would follow them up with a turbine-like wheel in 1980 for the Trans-Am Turbo.

The “Snowflake” wheel was popular enough to spawn wider (15″ x 8″) and smaller (14″ five-lug and 13″ four-lug) versions for various models all the way down to the Sunbird, and lasted through 1982.

Meanwhile, in 1977 the Sky Bird proved a moderate success, and returned in 1978 – but was replaced at mid-year by the next version, the “Red Bird” The Red version executed a similar treatment in a deep red scheme – but now a regular Firebird color with gold graphic accents and optional T-tops. The interior was also red – as red as possible really, a love-it-or-hate-it kind of look. Buyers liked it, and the Red Bird continued into 1979.

Yellowbird

In the fall of that year, the Red car gave way to 1980’s Yellow version, which once again used a unique color scheme not available on other Firebirds (or any other Pontiac Models) – two pale shades of yellow that changed in tone with ambient light with darker yellow/gold graphics inherited from the Red Bird.

Unlike the Sky Bird and the Red Bird, the interior was tan instead of a matching yellow, which was definitely a gentler treatment than the Bordello in the Red Bird. The Yellowbird also got a version of the “Gold” edition Trans-Am’s dashboard, but with different gauges befitting an Esprit.

An option package on the Esprit, the color cars were never common but the Yellow, being that only 17,277 Esprits were made in 1980, was the rarest.

Because it was an entirely cosmetic package, there’s no real number on how many were built but certainly not more than 10-15% of production. You could also alter the appearance of the color cars a little – some came with a rear spoiler, some didn’t.

The Esprit rarely had the most powerful engines, which were reserved for the Trans-Am, and was typically powered in these years by either a base Buick 231 V6, the Pontiac 301 V8 (the most common version) or the Pontiac 350 (pre-1978), Pontiac 265 (1980-81 only) or Chevy 305 (1978-81).

With the 3rd-generation replacement due in late 1981 and Firebird sales taking a hit from the 1980-81 recession, the Yellowbird did not return for the 2nd-gen’s final model year, 1981.

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