Cowland on Cars

The 1984 Pontiac Tojan Is the Production Car That Beat the F40 to 200mph 

by Paul Cowland
3 May 2024 5 min read
The 1984 Pontiac Tojan Is the Production Car That Beat the F40 to 200mph 

Forget what the car books and the Internet tell you. The first production car to hit the magic 200mph mark didn’t come from Maranello, in the shapely silhouette of the impressive F40. It came from Nebraska in the US, in the slightly more challenging shape of the Pontiac Tojan. And it was three whole years earlier than the annals of automotive history might have you believe. Forty years ago precisely, in fact.  

Ask any petrolhead of a certain age – particularly those who were schoolchildren in the late ’80s – what the first ‘double century’ was, and it’s always Ferrari’s homologation machine that gets the honours. Who can blame them? It’s what Google tells you, it’s what the press of the time proudly heralded, and, of course, it’s the card in every Top Trumps pack that you crossed your fingers for, hoping to issue a ‘Vmax Takedown’ during those playground card games.

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Which is all well and good, except for the fact that three years previous to this remarkable achievement, another vehicle, one available from the showroom floor of selected Pontiac dealers, had already clicked past the magical 200mph mark. And almost without a whisper in the wider press. This car was the Pontiac Tojan, America’s blue-collar precursor to the mighty Ferrari and one that was perhaps a little more affordable to most enthusiasts, at around a tenth of the F40’s sticker price.

The Tojan story is an interesting one. Founded by Russ Knudsen in 1978, Knudsen Automotive began building ‘neo-classic’ luxury cars along the lines of Great Gatsby era pastiche designs like the Excalibur. The models were called the Baroque and were based on a GM G-body chassis and drivetrain to create a car that gave modern dynamics with classical styling. This small coachbuilder was keen to move with the times, however, and as the 1980s rolled around, Knudsen looked to see whether it could create something that suited the excessive aesthetic of the period, built once again on a GM-sourced chassis – and with the full blessing and support of the Detroit giant. 

Based on the F-body Trans Am (to translate for our UK readers, the car that became 1982’s ‘K.I.T.T.’ from Knight Rider), Knudsen, alongside stylist Harry Bradley, penned his ideas for a svelte coupe, to be built from glass-reinforced plastic panels. The result is a hybrid construction that features a fibreglass bonnet, wings, quarter panels, bumpers, and tailgate, built around the steel shell and doors of the Trans Am. If you squint a bit, you can very much still see the original car and its door swages peeking through, although the resulting design hangs together pretty well, in my humble opinion. Sketches were snail-mailed between Knudsen and Bradley, with little changes being made each way, until they’d managed to fine-tune the look of the thing. And whether you love or hate the final result, there’s no denying that it is both different and VERY representative of the design influences of the era. 

1984 Pontiac Tojan side

So, they had a design, they had a proven drivetrain, and in 1984 they were ready to press the button on a prototype. The very first car down the line, however, the car that would be used for all of those early motor show outings and brochure photoshoots, needed to hit a little harder, to make a noise in a sea of exotica, so Knudsen brought in fabled forced-induction guru and precision engine builder Gale Banks to create something truly special.

Banks had made a name turbocharging marine engines as far back as the late 1960s, but he also knew how to transfer that engineering prowess into a street-driveable motor. The solution he and Knudsen settled on? To simply drop Banks’ frankly insane marine-proven 900bhp twin-turbo small-block V8 into this first machine. 

1984 Pontiac Tojan engine

Still able to make a reliable 800bhp on pump fuel, the Tojan suddenly had what it took to create headlines and rock the supercar establishment. The resulting top speed run of this car allegedly took place on a very long, very straight road in Nebraska, easily clicking over 206 mph on the car’s digital speedo. Totally illegal. Totally unofficial. But there it was. The mythical double ton.

Now, there may be a few of you at this point doubting Mr. Knudsen’s anecdotal evidence of this wild achievement, but when you start to examine what Banks was capable of – namely, creating a 1700bhp 454-cid V8 engine that clocked an insane 283 mph at a rainy Bonneville in another F-body Trans Am with minimal body mods – then it all starts to enter the realm of believability. Now, 900bhp is a lot of horsepower, and even with the glacial lag of those dustbin-sized turbos, you can imagine that with a road long enough, and a driver brave enough, it’s all decidedly possible. Sorry, Enzo…

So, what happened to these crazy machines? After the success and press splash of the prototype, Knudsen went on to sell another 135 cars, mainly through Pontiac dealers and distributors, and with wildly varying specs that reflected the more bespoke nature of the machines and the intended clientele. Many options were available, like the aforementioned digital dash, a huge Countach-esque rear wing, Recaro seats, Gotti split-rim wheels, and, within reason, anything the customer wanted. Prices ranged from $36,000 to $62,000 – and with TV appearances in shows like Miami ViceAlien Nation, and even the Jay Leno movie Collision Course, the car began to make a name for itself, and for its creators. 

As is almost always the case with these endeavours, and being the boutique manufacturer that they were, the Tojan was never going to be a volume seller, however. With the exception of one supercharged build, not one customer was brave enough to tick the ‘nuclear’ option of the rather expensive, full-fat Banks motor, despite it being an option available on every car. This makes the 200mph car the only one of its kind ever made.

1984 Pontiac Tojan driving
(Courtesy YouTube/Carfection)

And what happened to that prototype, you ask? Believe it or not, it was shipped to an enthusiast in Poole, England, back in the mid-1980s, where it stayed up until a few years ago, when I was fortunate enough – or perhaps persuasive enough – to add it to my collection. I’m delighted to say that Chassis #001 is still in the very rudest of health, although I can also attest that it probably hasn’t been within a sniff of 200mph in a verylong time. A previous engine rebuild many moons ago means that the choice Banks internals are no longer there, and although the car is still very much capable of picking up its skirts and going… eventually, thanks to all that lag, I’ve never been brave enough to drive it through the insane front end lift it generates at 140mph – where safe and legal to do so, of course. That’s plenty of speed for both a 40-year-old car and 50-year-old driver, anyway, don’t you think? 

Just as Hagerty is celebrating its big 4-0 this year, it seemed only right to dust the old girl down for her celebration of four decades since this incredible first, and give her another moment in the sun. You can expect to see the Tojan in pride of place at this year’s Radwood show, as well as in a slew of magazine and web features throughout the year. I may not have the official timing slip that the guys at Maranello got in 1987, but I’ve got Mr. Knudsen’s word as a gentleman, and Mr. Banks’ mark as an engineer, that I’ve got the world’s first 200mph production car in the garage. And in my book, that’s even better. 

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1984 Pontiac Tojan front over head
1984 Pontiac Tojan dash
1984 Pontiac Tojan lineup
1984 Pontiac Tojan letter
1984 Pontiac Tojan interior
1984 Pontiac Tojan nose
1984 Pontiac Tojan front 3/4 low
1984 Pontiac Tojan rear 3/4
1984 Pontiac Tojan front 3/4
1984 Pontiac Tojan badge
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  • Ben hunter says:

    Super cool..
    I’m seen there on the TV.. hadn’t no idea what it’s was. That’s a piece of modern history


    What a fantastic story, thank you Paul Cowland. You’re also a very lucky man to be able to own this car, I’d love to own it! But then to be fair, I’ve owned the very first factory built Ultima GTR since April 2007, powered by a Knight Racing spec 6.8 SBC naturally aspirated, so only 500BHP and 500lb/ft of torque in a car that weighs in at circa 900Kg that is now 25 years old!

  • Chris Pollard says:

    So this thing needs 800bhp to reach 206, whereas the F40 makes do with a piffling 471 to do 199 mph? Looks like Ferrari might have the better grasp of aerodynamics. And that’s before you show either of them a corner…

  • Chris Pollard says:

    … And isn’t it a bit of a push to call 135 cars, all of which were different, customised and bespoke, a production car? Even Ferrari, whom you would hardly call a volume manufacturer, managed to make more than 1300 F40s, and they’re all basically the same.

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