The ’70s were difficult years for Pontiac. They had difficulties with sales numbers except for Grand Prix and Firebird.
Pontiac had restyled the intermediate Lemans in 1973 with new GM Colonnade styling. 1973 intermediate Lemans sales were good during its intro year, however, sales steadily declined in 1974 and 1975. Dealers complained they were loosing customers who were interested in a Trans Am for its performance, but needed a car with a back seat that had more room. Leading those customers to a bland looking Lemans did not make the sale.
Pontiac’s General Manager Alex Mair agreed with the godfather of the GTO Jim Wangers that the LeMans needed some spice and commissioned him to work up a proposal.
Jim’s recommendation was to come out with a limited edition one year only promotion car to generate Lemans showroom traffic for the spring season. Utilizing a 1976 Lemans loaner provided by Pontiac, Jim had it painted Carousel Red, added a shaker scoop, some stripes, rear spoiler and named it The Judge.
hen he presented the car to Pontiacs Marketing Group, the concept was immediately shut down. The red/orange color and graphics were too loud for the groups taste. Some members of the group didn’t even know what a Judge was. Further, Pontiacs Sales Manager Jim Vorhes and Division Controller Bill Hoglund were against the idea because of cost.
But Steve Mair prodded his father to give the concept car consideration. With some influence from Product Planner Ben Harrison, Alex Mair agreed to take a look at the concept. A private viewing of the car at Pontiac’s Engineering garage was arranged, Alex Mair liked the concept.
Knowing that the Pontiac Marketing Group did not like the concept in orange color, Jim was able to win their approval to produce the car in white color, similar to the 1975 All American Grand Am prototype that John Schinella designed. The Judge concept car was renamed to Can Am to capitalize on the Trans Am name and the Can Am series race.
After a press release to dealers was sent out, Pontiac received approximately 15,000 potential orders of the 1977 Can Am. Motortown was awarded the contract to convert Lemans to Can Ams. All of the cars were white, had Grand Prix dash boards and equipped with either the T/A 6.6 400 or a 6.6L 403 Oldsmobile motor. 5,000 units were planned to be built. The conversion at Motortown’s Troy facility required cutting a hole in the hood, installing the shaker scoop (1976 version of the shaker), installing the rear spoiler and adding stripes and Can Am graphics.
Motortown was off to a good start producing over 1,100 Can Ams. Production was running full blast, with 30 to 40 cars converted daily. But due to a failure with the rear spoiler tooling equipment, production at Motortown halted. Meanwhile, the Pontiac Plant had produced a yard full of white Lemans with 400/403 motors to be shipped to Motortown. These cars sat at the Pontiac marshalling yard for several weeks awaiting shipment to Motortown for conversion.
Unfortunately, Motortown was unable to repair the rear spoiler tooling equipment. Pontiac immediately decided to cancel the Can Am program. The remaining white 400/403 equipped Lemans that had sat in the marshalling yard were sold off as white Lemans Sport coupes. All those cars were sold with their Grand Prix dash installed.
Several dealers had contacted Motortown and Pontiac requesting to buy Can Am parts, decals, stripes and seek approval to convert dealer stock Lemans to Can Ams. However, Motortown did not recommend that since the conversion was somewhat laborious for a dealer to handle. Additionally, the location for the shaker hood cutout was different if a Lemans was equipped with a motor other than the Pontiac 400 or Oldsmobile 403.
The cancellation of the Can Am program pretty much ended Motortown. The assets of Motortown were sold to Evans Automotive. In 1978, Alex Mair was promoted within General Motors. Jim Wangers direct consulting agreement ended.
Prior to the cancellation of the Can Am program, it was suggested to convert the existing Lemans in the marshalling yard without the rear spoiler, ship the converted car out and later when the rear spoiler tooling equipment was up and running, forward the rear spoiler to the dealer for installation. It is believed that Pontiacs Controller Bill Hoglund had something to do with that idea not getting approved due to the cost involved in shipping the cars from the Pontiac yard to Motortown and back.
The number of LeMans Sport Coups converted into Can Ams has never been accurately determined, but the numbers are between 1,133 and 1,377 (no one seems to pin down a hard number).
This one-year only car has gained much interest in recent years, and collectors are buying them up, especially ones that are original with low mileage.