Run, Bandits, Run
April 24, 2008
By Joe Lorio
Photography by A.J. Mueller
In the depths of the automotive depression that was the 1970s, the Pontiac Trans Am towered like a giant among Lilliputians. A garishly dressed and badly coiffed giant perhaps, but a giant just the same. And the impression it made among that decade's youth is one that, for some of them at least, hasn't faded with time.
"My brother's friend had a '79 Trans Am," recalls Bill Halsey, who has a red '79 today. "I saw the car only one time, but it had all those wild colors on the hood, and it was kind of extreme for back then. I just loved the car. It always stuck with me."
This is not an isolated feeling. For a certain generation of car nut, Pontiac Trans Am worship is a near-universal part of one's past--and, for many, the present. There was a time when nearly every red-blooded American male had a picture of a Trans Am on his wall, probably not too far from the poster of Farrah Fawcett-Majors in a red bathing suit.
Although the Trans Am is associated with the '70s, the option package actually debuted in 1969, on the first-generation Firebird. But it was restricted to a white-with-blue-stripes color scheme, and it wasn't very popular. When you say "Trans Am," the cars that spring to mind are the second-generation body style, model years 1970-1/2 through 1981. Like most muscle cars, though, the bad-boy Firebird spent the first half of the Me Decade lying low. (Sales reached their nadir in 1972 at 1286 units.) But unlike most, the Trans Am never checked out entirely. Meanwhile, the Ford Mustang had become a joke (Mustang II Cobra II, anyone?), and the once-mighty Mopars had fled. So when the dark clouds over muscle cars began to lift slightly in the latter half of the 1970s, the Trans Am was there to take center stage.
An available black-and-gold color scheme, introduced in 1976, gave the Trans Am a distinctive look, one that caught the eye of movie director Hal Needham. In an interview years later, Needham remembered: "I saw a picture of the Trans Am, with the T-tops, in a magazine--and it was black--and I thought, `Boy, that's a slick, sexy-lookin' car.' " In what is perhaps the most successful bit of product placement ever, Pontiac agreed to give Needham three black-and-gold 1977 Trans Am Special Editions (plus two sedans to use as police cars) for Needham's Burt Reynolds flick, Smokey and the Bandit. Sales skyrocketed.
One sale was to Jim Middleton of Panama City, Florida. Ask him when he got his black '77 T/A, and his wife answers, "About two weeks after we saw the movie." They still own it.
But for many of the young theatergoers who were starstuck in 1977 by the Pontiac supercar that jumped creeks and eluded Smokies, the wait was longer than two weeks. A lot longer.
"I was eight years old when the movie came out," says David Hershey, who's in his mid-thirties now. "Honestly, I don't really remember the whole plot. I didn't understand why they were doing what they were doing. All I remember is that they had this really cool black car that could outrun anything. And that always stuck in my head."
So much so that last year he sold his 2003 Acura and bought a $1500 Honda Civic to drive to work. "I took the money I was spending on my new car and I bought this." "This" is a fully restored 1977 Trans Am Special Edition, which Hershey found through Trans Am restoration specialist Dave Hall of Restore a Muscle Car in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"When I went there, of course we were talking about the car," Hershey said, "and I mentioned this whole idea of 2007 being the thirtieth anniversary of the movie and the idea of doing this run . . . "
"This run" is the Bandit Run, a drive Hershey and Hall organized that follows the bulk of the movie plot, a blast from Texarkana to Atlanta. In the movie, Burt Reynolds drove a Trans Am with Sally Field riding shotgun and his partner, played by Jerry Reed, driving an eighteen-wheeler loaded with Coors beer (which was then illegal to transport east of Texas). Jackie Gleason, as Sheriff Buford T. Justice, gave chase.
We're making the run in a black 1979 Trans Am, purchased for just this occasion by Automobile Magazine's auction reporter, Dave Kinney. Seconds after our car first rolls into view outside the Little Rock, Arkansas, airport terminal, we attract our own Sheriff Buford T. Justice, in the form of an overexcited Arkansas state trooper. He interrupts his important business of ticketing cars at expired meters to harangue the delivery driver who, after trucking the car down from Missouri, is now picking us up in the Trans Am. Evidently, our driver has chosen the wrong one of the three empty lanes in front of the terminal and is thereby Impeding the Flow, an offense that carries a $185 fine.
Despite demonstrating a complete lack of respect for the law, we get out of there without a ticket, but only because Buford fails to notice that the car has no license plate. (It arrives with Kinney on a later flight.)
With Kinney on board and the plate on the back, we roll down I-30 and into the setting sun, with the warm breeze carrying the smells of Arkansas--luckily here it's mostly forestry and not hog farming--through the open windows. The CB antenna almost immediately blows off the roof (we reel it in by its cord), but the car, with 99,000 miles on its Oldsmobile 403-cubic-inch V-8 and three-speed autobox, is running like a train; even the ominous slapping sound coming from the rear end has gone silent--or at least is drowned out by the rumble of the engine and the rush of the wind.
The next morning, at the Tex-Ark Antique Auto Museum for the official kickoff event, we got a very different reception from the representatives of officialdom. The state line-straddling city turns out both its mayors (Mayor Bramlett, of the Texas side, and Mayor Shipp, from the Arkansas side) to give speeches, and the Bandit Runners, in some forty cars, are given a police escort out of town. We're soon "eastbound and down" on state highway 82, getting nothing but friendly waves from the Smokies we pass.
The view over the long hood, punctuated by the center scoop with "T/A 6.6" on the side, is every bit as cool as I imagined it would be back when I stared at the picture of a Trans Am on my wall and built my model Trans Am--both '79s, as it happens. The worn-slick, leather-wrapped steering wheel feels great, and the
burnished-metal dash is fun to look at--despite the fact that the tach doesn't work and the see-no-evil speedometer reads at least 10 mph slow.
Hershey's black '77 is leading the group, his wife Lori's wedding veil trailing out the T-top, Sally Field-style. The '77 and '78 black-and-gold Special Edition ("Bandit") cars are the obvious stars of our traveling road show, but participants' rides run the gamut and include Trans Ams from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, plus a GTO, a '68 Catalina, and a General Lee Dodge Charger (apparently one southern hero car deserves another). Hall's Restore a Muscle Car pickup and box trailer full of tools ride toward the rear.
Somehow we end up behind them, however, which proves to be a bummer when a burning smell prompts a stop on the side of the road. We pop the giant hood and see wisps of smoke curling up from the air-conditioning compressor. After cutting the belt to the compressor Kinney had just spent $600 to have fixed, I console him by pointing out that A/C is for wimps. This makes him feel much better.
Soon a downpour arrives and knocks all the heat out of the air anyway, but not before the T/A starts squealing like a pig (which brings to mind an entirely different Burt Reynolds movie). At lunch, the Restore a Muscle Car guys swarm under the hood and tighten the power steering and alternator belts. They also notice that the T/A has the wrong fan clutch; no problem, we'll pick up a new one when we get to Tupelo, Mississippi.
But shortly after crossing into Mississippi, a sudden severe shuddering sends us diving into a gas station. Expecting to find a flat tire--a potential problem, since we have no spare--we instead see the left rear snowflake mag hanging on by just one lug nut. Removing the wheel reveals that there are two missing studs. Not good. Just then, the Restore a Muscle Car rig bounds into the station. With the speed of a NASCAR pit crew, the guys set to work borrowing one stud from the other side to give us four lugs for each wheel, enough to get us to Tupelo.
The next morning starts with the Bandit Runners, whose numbers have increased, showing their cars outside the Tupelo Automobile Museum. The downtime gives the guys from Restore a Muscle Car--which we've renamed Restore Dave's Muscle Car--a chance to install the wheel studs and the new fan clutch Kinney purchased. Others use the time more wisely by doing smoky burnouts in the empty parking lot next door.
While some Bandit Run enthusiasm takes the form of Bandit-worthy burnouts, other participants are content to show off by displaying framed movie posters, movie stills, and even Smokey and the Bandit models. Rick Rodriguez has all three with his '77 Trans Am Special Edition.
"I saw the movie with my mom when I was ten years old, and I swore I'd have the car someday," he says. "If you study the movie, it's hard to find a difference between this car and the one the Bandit drove."
Back on the road, we're headed to Birmingham, Alabama, and Kinney's Trans Am is once again running strong. Although it's behaving well, it is drinking heavily (10 mpg!). The group stops at a gas station in Alabama, and the semis driving past give an air-horn salute. Smokey and the Bandit didn't just lionize the Trans Am, of course; it also made heroes of truckers. Unfortunately, we don't have a tractor trailer full of Coors along with us, but there's plenty waiting at the bar in Birmingham's Redmont Hotel.
The next morning, heading out onto I-20, our numbers have swollen again. At our stop at Talladega Superspeedway, I count sixty-five cars that have muscled in for a group photo. After a tour of the NASCAR museum--where the lone Trans Am, a white, early '80s pace car, is ignominiously displayed dirty and spotted with bird crap--the Run heads to its final destination, Road Atlanta.
"This is something I've always wanted to do--drive an SE from Texarkana to Atlanta," says Tyler Hambrick, who's driving his '77 Special Edition. For those who want to do a little bit more, Hambrick will lead a tour two days later that takes in the Atlanta-area movie shooting locations, which he's researched in the Georgia archives.
What is it about Smokey and the Bandit--which Reynolds himself played down as "a rainy Saturday afternoon kind of movie"--that gave it such a powerful impact for so many people? Perhaps the best answer comes from Regina Johnsey, who drove the full length of the Run with her brother, not in a Trans Am but in his '68 Catalina coupe. "To me, one of the best things about the movie is that it has a wonderfully anarchic sensibility." More so than so many highbrow car-guy events, the Bandit Run captured that same sense of fun. And 10-4 to that. Yes, I bought a '79 Trans Am
Just to answer a few of the inevitable questions: no, I've never owned a Members Only jacket, worn my hair in a mullet, or dated a Camaro-driving bleached blonde from New Jersey named Donna. I just checked my iPod, and there are two Abba songs on it, but I swear they were put there by an evil force. I write the auction column for Automobile Magazine, and I go to more than twenty collector-car auctions every year. I watch what's hot and what's not among the collectors, dealers, and buyers who attend the sales. Even before the proposal to go on the Bandit Run was first floated, I had noticed that the once-hopeless late-1970s Trans Ams had a growing coolness factor. I found this car at the Cox Auctions event in Branson, Missouri. I was ready to step up for it, a '79 in factory black with a gold screaming chicken on the hood. Trans Ams from the late '70s were down on horsepower compared with earlier models, even though the big engines remained. That's a major negative. But the positive side far outweighs the bad stuff. The cars have aged well in the looks department, and now that they are no longer everyday fixtures on streets and used car lots, they get more than a passing glance when you drive one. I really wanted a T/A with T-tops and a factory-installed CB radio--if you're going retro, why not go all the way? Hey, is "My Sharona" available as a download? I've already got "East Bound and Down." - Dave Kinney
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