Car Restoration Projects
1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
During the 70s, as the muscle car era dispersed into a vast sea of compact commuters, performance lived on at Pontiac. The world met the Bandit in 1977, and Trans Am sales were on the rise.
The distinctive styling of the 1979 Trans Am, front and rear, aped the famous Burt Reynolds mount, but the square headlights were recessed into unpretty sockets by 1980/81 and became pop-up lights in 1982.
The 1979 model was also the last one to get big bore engines like the 403 Oldsmobile and 400 Pontiac, factory-fitted, making this a prized model. Blokes who didn’t have one wanted one. The owner of this featured Trans Am, Tassie-based Howard Shanks, was one who wanted one…
Here’s his Trans Am story:
It’s funny how life turns out sometimes. I well remember this particular day back in mid-2011, although it started much the same as any other: emails to answer, quotes to do and a presentation in the afternoon.
In my office later that day, the afternoon light reflected lazily off a thin layer of dust that covered a display case housing a 1:18-scale, die-cast model of a Black and Gold SE Trans Am.
“Nice model,” the client nodded as he took a seat. “Why that car?”, he casually inquired.
“My kids gave it to me as a birthday present years ago,” I replied, rather nonchalantly.
“I’ve wanted one of those Trans Ams ever since I was a kid and saw Burt Reynolds drive his out of the Snowman’s trailer in Smokey and the Bandit.
“But I’d figured that model was as close as I’ll get to owning one.” I added.
My client took a closer look at the model and announced:
“I know a guy who has one of those cars down the back of his shed,”
“Are you sure it’s a Black Special Edition Trans Am?” I asked, thinking the car he described was something less rarefied.
“Yes, it’s exactly the same as that,” he replied. “Even has that bird on the side and that’s what I remember about it.”
I became very busy and by the end of that week, after a few phone calls to track the actual whereabouts of the car and owner, I’d secured an appointment to see it the following week.
Sure enough, tucked down the back of this shed was the old Trans Am. It barely resembled the gleaming model in my display case on the desk: instead, a thick layer of dust covered the body panels and cobwebs hung lazily from the wheel arches. It was missing the bonnet and both front quarter panels.
“She runs okay,” the guy that had owned it since new said. “I’ll start it up for you”.
He connected a set of jumper leads to a battery on the floor, then turned the key. The 403 Oldsmobile cranked over a couple of times, before erupting into life.
The 6.6-litre Olds V8 had plenty of oil pressure and it certainly sounded sweet for a car that hadn’t been on the road since 1998.
He showed me the car’s ID plate and the coveted Y84 clearly stamped in the middle; then explained that it had been ordered with every option except for cruise control. He added that it did include the WS6 performance package, which gave it rear disc brakes and larger sway bars from the factory. It also had 15×8-inch snowflake wheels.
Other options included the rear window Lift Louvre, additional body moulding, deluxe dome-reading lamp, electric windows, windscreen antenna, air-conditioning, rear window defroster, space saver spare wheel and tow bar.
He had purchased it new, in late 1979, from a car dealer in Queensland and then drove it back to Tasmania, where it was eventually shedded in 1998.
The car definitely needed a lot of TLC to bring it back to its former glory, but when the inspection was over, I casually remarked that if he ever thought of selling it, to give me a call, so I handed him one of my business cards.
A fortnight later, he called: “I’ve had plenty of people wanting to buy it,” he began. “But I want it to go to someone who’ll appreciate it and look after it, and you’re the first person who actually knew something about Pontiac cars.
“So, if you’re still interested in purchasing it, I’ve decided to sell it to you – mind you, the family isn’t too happy about it!”
We settled on a price and made an appointment for me to pick it up in a few weeks. I knew right there and then I’d have a lot of long Tassie-winter nights ahead of me, out in my shed.
We arrived with a tilt-tray to pick it up and temporarily fitted the outer guards and bonnet for ease of transportation. Once it was up on the truck, I got my first look at the car’s underside, which wasn’t pretty. Over the years, oil had leaked from the engine, transmission and diff, and had hardened into a thick, grease-like paste.
“Consider it rust prevention,” I thought to myself.
Later that afternoon, after we’d unloaded the car at home, I liberally soaked it with truck wash and a strong degreaser.
While the fluids were soaking into the grime, I unpacked a folder that the owner had placed on the rear seat. It contained the build sheet and an original 1979 receipt from Jack White Pontiac in Anaheim, who sold it to the car dealer in Brisbane.
Also in the folder was the original 1979 Queensland roadworthy certificate, following its right-hand drive conversion, along with the original owners’ handbook and warranty papers.
After a thorough cleaning, which took the best part of a weekend, I drove it gently into my shed and work commenced on restoring the running gear.
The answer on whether to do a complete concourse restoration or functional, practical rejuvenation came late one night, while I was reading about road trips in Pontiac Torque magazine.
I decided to opt for a functional restoration, so the Trans Am would be reliable and capable of long, comfortable journeys. However, I have kept all the original pieces I’ve taken off, in case I get the urge to complete a concourse restoration on it one day. The only thing I still need is the original eight-track radio the build sheet says it should have had.
I removed the brakes and sent the discs away to be machined. Interestingly, purchasing new callipers and pads turned out to be far cheaper than rebuilding the old ones.
I did learn that there is a slight language barrier when ordering parts from the USA. For instance, when I asked for the rear disc calliper with a ‘handbrake’, no one had that part. It wasn’t until one parts guy pointed out they refer to our handbrake as an ‘emergency brake’ in the USA that the right callipers were sourced.
The heavy-duty four-core radiator was sent to Launceston and given a new core. In the meantime, the window winder motors had seen better days, so a new pair was ordered, along with all-new door rubbers.
The TH-350 transmission was removed and sent to Harry’s Gearboxes in Perth (Tasmania) for a complete overhaul. While there, it was given a shift kit and 1700rpm-stall converter – up 500rpm from standard.
The diff had a massive oil leak from the rear cover plate and from the pinion seal. The original Pontiac workshop manual is very informative, so I opted to rebuild the diff myself. It even described the required tools, including special tool J 8614-10, to achieve the correct pre-load on the pinion nut.
Figuring that not every DIYer would have this tool, Pontiac had included a drawing required to fabricate one in the manual! Imagine that happening today.
I soon fabricated the required tool and set the diff up without much trouble.
The old exhaust had seen better days. After an extensive search, I found a 2.5-inch polished stainless exhaust system, with rear splitters, in polished, three-inch stainless that was specifically designed for 77–79 Firebirds.
It was easy to install, according to the literature. It did fit, but it took a lot of thought and some additional engineering to get the pipes and muffler to mount off the original body exhaust mounts.
While researching the exhaust system, I noticed that some Firebirds in the USA ran header pipes that complemented the new exhaust pipes. After several emails and assurances that they would fit, I settled on a set of ceramic-coated Flowtech headers. They looked impressive when they arrived and bolted straight up perfectly.
However – there was bound to be a ‘however’ – the right-hand side pipe fouled on the steering shaft. After a few emails back to the USA, where I’d purchased the headers, the guy in the States requested some photos of the problem, which I duly sent off. All I could do was laugh at his reply: ”Your steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car.”
Needless to say, after several cold beers and much thought, a plan was hatched to modify the problematic pipe, to give more clearance for the steering shaft.
Back in 1979, when the right-hand drive conversion was done, someone fabricated a shaft and linkage system from the gearshift on the transmission to the neutral safety switch up in the steering column. While it did work, it made the gearshift bind and very stiff. That old linkage was in the way of the new exhaust system. To overcome this problem, I retrofitted a switch from a 1968 Firebird directly to the shift lever that does away with the complicated linkage system.
Once I completed most of the mechanical work, I shipped the Firebird to Chris Atkins at Custom World Auto in Bridport for a new coat of paint. Chris rubbed the body back to bare metal and fixed a few imperfections in the bodywork, before he liberally applied the Starlight Black paint and topped it off with a generous number of clear coats.
By the start of summer 2015, four years after picking it up, the Trans Am was operational and registered.
It still needs more work to be finished to the standard I’d like it to be. Nevertheless, there are no oil leaks and it is looking a treat. Driving it around during the summer has revealed a few squeaks and rattles that will go onto next winter’s job list.
Of course, the job list is still growing and includes tidying up the wiring in the engine bay. Eventually, the original R12 AC system will be converted to R134a. The old heater core sprang a leak, so a new one is now on the list – vital in Tassie!. One of the last jobs will be repairing the rear window louvre. But for now, I’m going over the entire car to ensure reliability.
Model: (Y84) Trans Am Special Edition with T-Top
Total Made: 9874 (Van Nuys)
Engine: 403 Oldsmobile (6.6-litre)
Power: 185 HP (138kW)
Torque: 320 lbft (430 Nm)
Transmission: Turbo 350 (modified 1700 RPM Stall Convertor)
Rear Axle: 10 Bolt Chev Limited Slip – Posi-Drive (2.73:1 ratio)
Front Brakes: Disc
Rear Brakes: Disc
Front Sway bar: 1.25 inches
Rear Sway bar: 0.75 inches
Wheels: 15×8 inch Snowflake
Header Pipes: Flowmaster BIG-31150FLT Headers – modified to suit Right-Hand drive.
Exhaust: SGF70S 2.5″ X-F Crossflow T304 polished Stainless Steel with custom made with 3-inch split tips.
Muffler: Pypes Race-Pro with dual in/out 304SS
Sound System: Pioneer DEH8450B-T Bluetooth car stereo Pioneer TSG 1044RS front speakers Pioneer TSA 6964S rear speakers
Pioneer TS WX110A Amplified under-seat subwoofer (boot mounted)
Code Factory Option Description Cost (1979)
1979 (Y84) Trans Am Special Edition: $10,620.00
Y84 Special Edition with T-Top windows: $1329.00
WS6 Performance Package: $250.00
AK1 Custom seat belts: NC
AU3 Electric Door Locks: $86.00
A01 Tinted Glass: $64.00
A31 Power Windows: $132.00
A51 Power boot release: $24.00
B18 Custom Interior with Hobnail Cloth: $150.00
CD4 Controlled – cycle window winders: $38.00
C49 Electric Rear window defroster: $99.00
C60 Custom AC: $529.00
C95 Dome/Reading light: $19.00
D34 RH Visor vanity mirror: $6.00
D35 Dual sport OSV mirrors (remote LH control): $43.00
D53 Hood Bird decal: $95.00
J65 4 Wheel Disc brakes (included in WS6): NC
K81 HD 63-amp Alternator: $32.00
NK3 Formula Steering wheel: $35.00
N33 Tilt Steering wheel: NC
N65 Space Saver tire: NC
N90 Cast Aluminium Wheels (Gold): $268.00
QGR 225/70R-15 White Letter tires: $53.00
UM2 AM/M stereo with integral 8 track player: $345.00
UP8 Dual Rear Speakers: $38.00
U25 Luggage Compartment Light: NC
U27 Glove Box Light: NC
U35 Electric Clock: $24.00
U76 Windscreen Antenna: NC
VJ9 Calif emissions equipment: $83.00
V02 Heavy Duty radiator: $59.00
1979 US$ prices sourced from Motorbooks International – Firebird Redbook .