Thunder on wheels

Even after having his 1972 Pontiac Trans Am out for less than an hour, Jesse Richardson III dusts it off when he returned it to his garage in Charleston last week. Richardson said he feels like he has a piece of American history and has no plans to part w

When he turns the key, the ground shakes, gas pumps go dry and subcompacts tremble in fear.

Jesse Richardson III is sitting inside 3,700 pounds of pure muscle, with a 455-cubic-inch engine capable of 300 horsepower, functional hood scoop, four-speed transmission. It has the most vicious roar on the road, and is a looker to boot, decked out with front and rear spoilers, honeycomb mags, a blue body-length racing stripe and the screaming chicken on its nose.

This is the baddest ride you have ever seen: a '72 Trans Am.

This is Richardson's baby.

"She never sleeps outside," he said, petting her under the guise of dusting imagined pollen off the hood.

She is the last of a long-dead breed, the Pontiac muscle car.

With GM's announcement that the Pontiac line will be discontinued next year, Lowcountry motor heads are slowly coming to terms with a bittersweet truth: The muscle cars are never coming back. Their flagship has sunk.

In truth, it's been a long time coming. The cars that struck fear in the hearts of Mustang and Camaro owners — the LeMans, the GTO, the Firebird — long ago went the way of the dinosaur. But at least the line remained, and hope was alive.

No more.

Richardson's Trans Am is one of the strongest links in a long line of cars that inspired songs, movies, an entire generation. Those were simpler, better times.

"They were trying to keep up with the Pony cars, the Mustangs," Richardson said. "I was in Iraq for two years, and these are the cars they talk about. Everybody wants these. You hate to see them go, but at the same time I'm glad I got to own a piece of American history."

Richardson fell in love years ago, when a guy down the street had a '70 Trans Am. He and his father bought it but later sold it. Richardson scoured the Internet for four years before finding this pristine, all-factory-original '72 Trans Am in Pennsylvania and brought it home.

He calls his Trans Am the last of the muscle cars, built in the year before government regulations saddled muscle cars with all sorts of junk that took some thunder out of the herd.

Comer Williams Jr. of West Ashley knows what he means. Williams has both a '65 GTO and a '70 Trans Am. He fell in love with the Pontiacs a long time ago, felt they were an attractive alternative to the Camaros and Chevelles all the other muscle car guys aspired to.

"I've loved Pontiacs for a long time. They know how to put the performance with the power," Williams said. "I was hoping they'd come back with another Trans Am."

The GTO, which Pontiac debuted in 1964, is widely considered the first muscle car. Originally the GTO was an option package on the LeMans, and it marked the beginning of Pontiac's love affair with high performance.

Regas Kennedy of Folly Beach has a '64 LeMans convertible, the same as a GTO except for the name plates. He shows off his wheels at local car shows, and laments the loss of the line.

"The older cars are distinctive. You could tell them apart," Kennedy said. "The cars today are all cookie cutters. In 2004, they came out with a new GTO, but it didn't look like the old ones."

The real GTOs disappeared in 1974, their place atop the food chain assumed by the Trans Am, especially after Burt Reynolds tore up the South in a '77 special edition Trans Am in "Smokey and the Bandit."

The muscle cars' reign did not last long. Manufacturers started downsizing the muscle-car engines in the mid- to late 1970s. Then the bodies followed in the 1980s. The best days on the road were essentially over. But as long as the line remained, there was hope.

"No telling what's going to happen next," Williams said. "Rumor is they're going to get rid of the Corvette. I'm going to hold on to my Pontiacs. One day they'll be worth some money."

Of course, for many people, the classic Pontiacs already are. Some of the older Trans Ams will fetch upwards of $100,000 today. Richardson treats his like a million bucks. He washes and waxes her every weekend, whether or not she's been out on the road. His work does not go unnoticed.

"When I drive down the street, I usually get a lot of thumbs up," Richardson said.

That's because his car reminds a lot of people of the days when muscle ruled the road.