The '70s was not kind to Pontiac. Aside from the Grand Prix and the Firebird, Pontiac's sales and image were way down from the glorious Wide Track days of the '60s. By 1975, the GTO was gone, and Pontiac seemed more interested in miles per gallon than miles per hour.

GM's performance division was in big trouble as sales continued to tumble. One of the flagships of the product lineup had always been the LeMans. Since 1961, the LeMans had been a sporty, intermediate model that provided an alternative to the Firebird. By the late 1960s, more than 80 percent of LeMans sold were two-door models equipped with bucket seats. The average buyer was under 35 years old.

The LeMans was drastically restyled in 1973, and it was more than just controversial. Styling is always subjective, but the buying public would quickly make their opinion known by staying out of the showroom. Although sales were up over the 1972 LeMans, Pontiac was highly criticized for the car's squarish front end and flat grille while the rear was all curves. One magazine noted it looked as if two totally different designs were screwed together in the middle. The only bright spot in the LeMans line was the European-inspired Grand Am, with its sophisticated styling and balanced suspension.

By 1976, LeMans sales were down to 96,229, and Pontiac was in damage control. Oldsmobile and Buick's intermediates were chalking up impressive 10-day sales results while the LeMans continued to slide. Pontiac's management was mysti-fied why LeMans sales were sinking to the ground.

The LeMans failure didn't puzzle Jim Wangers. Wangers had taken a Catalina to the 1960 NHRA Nationals and won Top Stock Eliminator. He was the marketing genius behind the GTO and creator of the 1969 Judge and Trans Am. Wangers knew more about performance cars than anyone in Detroit. He had left Pontiac's ad agency in 1969 but was back as a consultant on another project. Wangers recognized what Pontiac's management didn't-the stale LeMans line needed something to generate excitement and attract customers back into Pontiac dealer showrooms.

Wangers found his inspiration in a show car Pontiac had exhibited for the American bicentennial celebration. Pontiac stylist John Schinella had designed a package based on the Grand Am that sported a white body with red, white, and blue striping surrounding the side windows and flowing toward the front, meeting at a point in the center of the hood. Integral air deflectors were placed at the leading sides of the wheel openings, and a rear deck ducktail spoiler carried the name of the car, "All American." A set of stock honeycomb wheels painted white to match the exterior completed the package. The All American made the rounds of auto shows and was shown to several dealer councils, where the car received a warm reception for its sporty looks. They felt it was just the type of package necessary to stimulate the dying LeMans nameplate. Management felt the market was saturated with bicentennial cars in 1976 and made no plans to put the All American into production. Instead, it was parked behind the Pontiac engineering garage and forgotten.

Pontiac's General Manager Alex Mair agreed with Wangers that the LeMans needed some pizzazz and commissioned him to work up a proposal. Wangers equated the importance of his idea behind the '69 Judge as a promotion to bring attention back to the GTO. Wangers went right to work. Starting with a 1976 LeMans, he added the All American's rear spoiler, modified the striping to reflect the original 1969 Judge motif of orange and black, and installed the shaker hood from the Trans Am. Wangers included market research that indicated the Judge nameplate still had considerable respect from performance car buyers.

When presented with the 1976 Judge proposal, Pontiac management gave it an emphatic thumbs down. They rejected the use of the Judge nameplate, and the package as presented was unacceptable. Pontiac had missed the entire thrust of Wangers' proposal. "I licked my wounds and put my ideas away," Wangers recalls, "and participated in watching Pontiac continue on its way to the grave."

The idea of a packaged car to put some pop into the LeMans wouldn't die, however. Mair was intrigued with Wangers' idea and instructed Ben Harrison, who was responsible for new markets, to work with him on another proposal. Harrison had been responsible for the idea to redesign the 1969 Grand Prix that breathed new life into that dying model.

Wangers dusted off his Judge proposal and showed it to Harrison. They both agreed it was a base from which to work. Harrison knew it was important to get the backing of Pontiac's design staff if any project was to succeed, so they went back to the All American once again. This time, the package would be built around the introduction of the 400-cid T/A 6.6 engine in the LeMans, set for a 1977 release.

Harrison and Wangers began with a Cameo White LeMans sports coupe and installed the All American's ducktail spoiler. The Trans Am shaker hood was lifted off Wangers' Judge since they felt it had a powerful performance image needed in the package. A three-color stripe of orange, gold, and yellow flowed from the bottom of the C pillar to the front of the car, meeting in a point at the center of the hood. To make the car even more distinctive from a standard LeMans, the Grand Prix instrument panel was installed and white Pontiac Rally II wheels were added. Working with engineering, it was determined that the M40 Turbo Hydramatic was needed in place of the LeMans Turbo 350. To enhance the car's ride and handling, Pontiac's sophisticated Radial Tuned Suspension was added. The RTS featured higher-rate springs and shocks, with fat stabilizer bars in the front and rear and GR70 x 15-inch steel-belted radial tires.

Schinella was pleased that Harrison and Wangers had used his All American as a base. However, he was opposed to using the Trans Am's shaker hood. He soon changed his mind, realizing the importance of the performance image so desperately needed. With design and engineering both signing off on the proposal, it was almost time to bring the car to management for approval. All that was needed was a name.

Harrison once again went back to the All American and took a pair of scissors to one of the decals. He cut out the letters "A-M" and "C-A-N" off the decal, rearranged them to spell CAN AM, and had new ones made for the proposal's hood, fenders, and rear spoiler. The car now had a name and a personality that vibrated with power and performance.

Mair liked the new presentation and approved the Can Am over the protests of his sales and production managers. Their main concern was the use of the Grand Prix instrument panel. The Grand Prix was extremely profitable for Pontiac, and installing it in the Can Am would reduce Grand Prix production and company profits. Mair overruled the objections, and plans were made to produce 5,000 1977 Can Ams.

Because the Can Am would require special tooling for the shaker hood, spoiler, and other modifications, it couldn't be completed on the Pontiac assembly line. Instead, local Detroit company Motortown was tapped to do the work. It would develop the tools necessary to cut out the hole in the hood for the shaker and produce the tool for the rear spoiler.

Production began at the Pontiac assembly plant in mid-April 1977 on Cameo White LeMans coupes with the T/A 6.6 engine, the GP dash, RTS suspension, and Turbo 400 transmission. Then, in what's known as "interrupt shipping," the cars were sent to Motortown, where the spoiler, stripes, and shaker hood with the Trans Am shaker were installed. The completed cars were then shipped back to Pontiac, which in turn distributed them to dealers.