Concept Car of the Week: Pontiac Firebird Type K (1978)

25 August 2017 | by Karl Smith

When Chevrolet introduced the Corvette Quartet in 1954, an unusual amount of interest was shown in the shooting brake/wagon variant, the Corvette Nomad. Chevrolet wanted to develop this car as a competitor to the Ford Country Squire, but elected to build the car on a Bel Air frame instead. The two-door Nomad wagon sold in modest numbers but became an instant classic, an iconic car of the 1950s. The Nomad name was transferred to a more conventional wagon later, but the idea of a two-door, sporty wagon stuck in the minds of GM design staff.

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The Corvette Nomad. A classic that morphed into another classic, the Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad of 1955-57

In the mid 1960s, a rumour was going around Detroit that Ford would introduce a sport wagon version of its wildly popular Mustang pony car. The rumour was both true and false. Ford did develop a design for a Mustang shooting brake or sport wagon, but there were never any serious plans to put it into production.

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Just the rumour of this proposed Mustang wagon convinced GM to pursue a Kammback design program

But GM was once again facing a situation where the Blue Oval would force it into playing catch-up with a strong innovative product, just as they had with the aforementioned Country Squire, the four-seat Thunderbird, the Ranchero, and of course, the Mustang itself.

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The Camaro Kammback model. A similar design was planned for Pontiac, but the design teams couldn’t agree on the styling of the shared components

Work had already begun on the next generation of Camaro, and a shooting brake version was developed with both Camaro and Firebird teams. But GM had mandated that the design used identical body panels, and the teams couldn’t agree on the design direction of the car. An impasse was reached and couldn’t be broken, and so the project was shelved, and an opportunity was lost.

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The Chevrolet Kammback – a clean design with a generous glasshouse

Meanwhile, the subcompact Chevrolet Vega was about to enter production. GM had high hopes for the Vega, which it planned to extend to variants for all other divisions except Cadillac and GMC. Initially, during the first design phase in 1968, there was only one body design – a notchback sedan – being considered. But by December of that year, a hatchback, a station wagon and panel wagon were in the planning stages.

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The 1973 Vega Kammback and Panel Wagon – clean, functional design. Both are now highly prized by collectors and hot rodders

The wagon variants, named Kammback after the aerodynamic theories of Dr. Wunibald Kamm, were squared-off utility versions of the Vega. These actually went into production and sold in sufficient numbers to be produced for several years. Purists argue about whether or not these were true shooting brakes. Like the Nomad, they were much more wagon-like than a European sports car-based shooting brake.

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By 1976 the Kammback had evolved into an ‘Estate Wagon’ Note the ‘de-luxe’ interior and wood panel decal

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The Ford Pinto Station Wagon. Ford kept it simple with names, nothing exotic. The ‘Station Wagon’ name tied it to Ford’s larger wagon offerings

Additionally, the Kammback name confused people not familiar with the good Doctor’s aerodynamic experiments. Ford had also produced a wagon variant of its subcompact Pinto, but had named it simply the Pinto Station Wagon. The marketers at the Blue Oval correctly intuited that the ‘Station Wagon’ name would imply the utility of Ford’s larger wagons.

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The Firebird Trans-Am T-Top, shown here on the cover of Motor Trend magazine – the High Baroque phase of Firebird design. Purists hated the overwrought colourway and cheesy firebird decal, which they nicknamed the “screaming chicken”

Still, the Kammback’s modest success inspired designers at Pontiac to revive the shooting brake Firebird. It should be recalled that the mid-1970s were great days for the Firebird. It had retained its large size when the Mustang had moved downward to a Pinto frame. It had a powerful V8 and decent handling, with a great Hollywood presence to boot, appearing in movies such as Smokey and the Bandit and television shows like The Rockford Files. It did not seem too great a risk to develop a concept car that incorporated a little more function into the Firebird, which despite its size was notoriously deficient in both passenger and luggage space.

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The Type K rear three-quarter view showing the glass gullwing hatches. The rear window was fixed, not a liftback, so access to the storage was from the sides. See main photo too

The program began in 1977 and the Firebird variants were named the Firebird Type K , implying Kammback, but not using the actual name to avoid confusion with the Vega program, which would soon exit the market. The first Type K was a really just a conversion of a Firebird Formula car with a fibreglass shell bolted to the rear. There were still some issues to be worked out but, internally, GM designers and management, including the mercurial Bill Mitchell, were pleased with the effort.

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The Type K front three-quarter view. Virtually a stock Trans Am up front, including the unfortunate (but popular) “screaming chicken” Firebird decal.

It was decided to let Pininfarina polish the design and build two more concepts. Two Firebird Trans Am cars were shipped to Torino, and returned to Detroit with steel shooting brake bodies and glass gullwing hatches. One had a gold exterior with a saddle interior, and one a silver interior with a silver colourway on the exterior. Both were emblazoned with the Firebird emblem on the hood.

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The Type K in side elevation. A clean, well-resolved transition between the Firebird front and the shooting brake cargo area made for a handsome composition and a very functional car. Its only shortcoming was the lack of a rear liftgate

Subtle but significant changes had to be made to the doors, B pillars, and rear deck and fascia to accommodate the new shooting brake format. But the revised design holds together well, showing the confident hand of its designer Bill Porter (designer of the legendary Pontiac GTO), and the polish and craftsmanship of Pininfarina. The interior, though handsomely dressed in Italian leather, was largely stock, with no science fiction controls or television sets or the like. The Type K was meant to look like a production car, not a futuristic dream car.

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The Type K made a guest appearance on TV show The Rockford Files in 1979. The main character, Jim Rockford, played by James Garner (right) drove the stock Firebird beyond. Note the clean design of the coupe and also the changes to B pillar and rear fenders necessary to create the Type K

Pontiac placed the Type K cars on the show car circuit for 1978. There was the expectation at GM of a mixed reaction, and so Pontiac did its best to promote the car, especially in Hollywood where the Firebird already had a strong presence. Some would love the concept, it was thought, and some Firebird purists would hate it.

As it turned out, the car was widely admired, even among the hard-core Firebird faithful. The airy glass roof, with its gullwing hatches, looked vaguely futuristic, while many liked the interior that was much more spacious with the squared-off roof. The car drew so many to the Pontiac stands at shows around the country that it was updated for the 1979 shows and sent out to tour again.

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The Firebird Type K on the show circuit. It had the unusual distinction of being modified with a new red interior and refreshed front fascia and was sent out for a second year of touring

Bill Mitchell would hint to the press that a production version was in the works for the 1980 model year... but it was not to be. Production cost estimates soared to $25,000, an unbelievable sum for a car whose base price was around $6,000. Mitchell and his team had hoped to get the sales price down to $16,000, but there was just no way to do it. After much discussion, the Type K project was dropped, and the dream of a signature shooting brake was put to rest. Only the silver version of the Type K, shown here, survives in GM Heritage Collection in Michigan.

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The Type K at a recent Pontiac gathering. It is still one of the favourite Pontiac concepts

Interestingly, others were not so quick to give up on the car or the shooting brake concept. Pininfarina took the project back, re-engineered it and came up with a way to make basically the same car at a much lower price. But Pontiac had moved on, Bill Mitchell had retired, and there was just no interest at GM by then. Deco International, a coachbuilder in California, began building fibreglass and steel conversion kits and would transform your Firebird into a shooting brake for $15,000, plus the price of the donor car. There were few takers.

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The Hurst Hauler – a 2000 Trans Am transformed into a shooting brake. Dramatic, but no production plans. Typical of post-Type K shooting brake experiments

But for every subsequent generation of the Firebird and the Corvette, a shooting brake conversion kit has been engineered and installed in a few vehicles, including by Pontiac itself in 1985.

The shooting brake or kammback concept has a small but dedicated following. Just why is hard to define. Certainly function has a part to play in the attraction, but certain buyers – and many more designers – find the squared-off glasshouse that contrasts with a sporty lower body strangely compelling. As the new Aston Martin Zagato Shooting Brake showed us recently, there is still great enthusiasm for this format, especially in a luxury sports car. That indicates a bright future for the shooting brake.

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Aston Martin’s recent Zagato Shooting Brake proposal. The format lives on, and still fascinates us…

Want to know more about shooting brakes? Try this fascinating overview.