Monday, April 27, 2009

R.I.P. Pontiac

Pontiac will always have a place reserved close to my heart. At 15 years of age, my first car was a 1989 Pontiac Firebird, Maui Blue with a 305 TBI and 5 speed transmission. That same Pontiac was also my last gift from my Grandpa, prior to him unexpectedly passing from a heart attack. So it also had sentimental value to me. Looking back, I'm surprised my parents agreed to allow me behind the wheel of a V8 powered modern muscle car. Granted, it was a base model, the 305 only pushed 170 hp. If there were a saving grace, it would be the fact that the engine was backed by a 5 speed. Only many years down the road would I realize just how rare finding a 5 speed in these cars really was. Over the years I think I've only seen a couple other cars equipped with manuals.

The styling drew me in during my childhood, featured during a made for tv show starring Gary Coleman. I can't recall a single detail about what the movie was about, but I do remember the black Pontiac Trans Am with gold ground effects and gold eagle on the hood. I'll never forget that car. I later had a slot car that was an exact copy of it. Perhaps that's why at a time when S10 pickups were the latest craze, I fell in love with the Pontiac instead. I wasn't the only one, as 4 or 5 of my other friends at the time also got Firebirds for their first car, and even today, I often run into more recent friends that state they had one back in the day.

I've heard the mullet jokes, the jabs at t-top cars, and the 1 generation off "JOE DIRT" comments. Yet unless you've been behind the wheel of one of these cars, you wouldn't realize the "EXCITEMENT" that the gave the driver. Now there were plenty of downfalls of the 3rd generation, such as the t-tops that almost always leak, the structural integrity...or should I say lack of? The flip up headlights sooner or later fail, and are not cheap to fix by any means. No, the cars were far from perfect, yet options during that era were far and few between. You had the Camaro/Firebird or the Mustang. Including the Monte Carlo/Regal is sort of a stretch, since they were gone by 1987, and never really offered the same level of handling or power. The Corvette, well, how many of us can afford Corvettes?

Shotly after I got my Firebird I began wrenching on it. I did what I could to help the engine breath, on a high school budget. A new exhaust and open element air cleaner gave it a bit more of a throw back to the muscle car era sound and look. Over the years I had that car there was perhaps one defining moment, and instance that sticks out among the first pass down the drag strip.

I traveled down to Norwalk, Ohio to hit up the Pontiac Nationals at Norwalk Raceway Park. It was a car show/drag race event. I had planned to enter my car into the car show portion of the event. I was initially disappointed when told I was too late to register for the car show, but then the attendate informed me I could still register to race. Race? The thought hadn't even crossed my mind. Perhaps slightly pressured by the attendant taking the money when informed that my class was about to run, and I'd have to hurry through tech inspection. With the encouragement of my friend in the passenger seat, the decision was easy.

That first trip down the track was undescribable. It wasn't fast by any means, as I think I ran high 15's, maybe even 16's, at around 80 some mph. Yet to me, that was the hook, line, and sinker. It's the reason my 69 Camaro sits with a 12 point roll cage, awaiting it's 900-1,000 hp engine to be built and dropped between the rails. That Pontiac was the ground work, it's what pursuaded me to enter into an Industrial Technology program at CMU, something that I don't regret even today while working in law enforcement. That program taught me much of what I know today about cars, and gave me access to machinery that I'll likely never get to use again first hand.

Sadly, the car, along with the sentimental value, was lost during the spring of 1996. I had stored the car at my parents while off at college. While home for spring break, I took out insurance and got the car out. A few hours later, it was totaled, thanks to another driving blowing a stop sign. Perhaps as important as the sentimental value and the memories, the fact that I had put blood, sweat, and tears into that car only to see it turned into a ball of metal was heart breaking. For those who customize cars, give them an owners personal touch, modify them over the years, there is a whole different attachment that somebody who uses a car just for tranportation. It's not just a car, it's a way we express ourselves, what we build and how we build it is telling a story about who we are.

I got the insurance money, which was a surprisingly good pay out, and that's when I went older, 20 years older. Ironically, my 1969 Camaro rolled down the same assembly line my 1989 Pontiac Firebird did 2 decades later, a 2nd generation cousin of my Camaro if you will. My attachment to my Camaro is as strong today as it ever was, though I never forgot about my Pontiac.

In the spring of 2004, my parents hand-me-down 1990 Regal was on it's last leg as far as the body went. It was lookin' rough, and it was time to replace it. I knew what I wanted, I simply had to track it down. I got online, did a nationwide search, and surprisingly I only had to travel as far as the thumb of Michigan to find the car I wanted. Of course, as you may have guessed, another Firebird was in order. It had to be a 1989 since that's what I had. It also had to be Maui blue, since that's what my first one was, and secondly, because you just don't see too many that color. 170 hp wasn't gonna cut it this time around though, neither would a base model. Though the Trans Am is what first caught my eye, my years of wrenching on cars convinced me that lighter is better, and I had no need for 150-200lbs of ground effects. A 1989 Pontiac Formula 350/auto Maui Blue was what I was heading to look at, and what I would end up buying.

I really miss the 5 speed, but given the choice between a 5 speed or a 350, I went with the 350. As most know, Chevy/Pontiac never put the 5 speed behind the 350, so it was an either/or situation. The first drive was creepy, and moving just the same. Felt like my first car all over again, except now there was a bulging hood out the windshield instead of the flat draping hood. Power was great, and the gearing with the 700r4 made the thing a beast from a dead stop!

Here I am, 5 years later, and looking at the surface rust and age starting to show. 141,000 miles now, about 70,000 more than when I bought it. I'm hoping to get at least one more winter out of her, then she'll get her due. Parked during the winters, and then an ongoing restoration that will spray on new paint, more power, a manual transmission, a stiffened chassis, and put on a diet. I'm not letting this one get away! Though perhaps not technically my first car, it has all the feel good emotions of a first car, and in my mind, I'll always see it as my first car....just reincarnated as a Formula!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bench racing with the neighbor

Today while out walking the dogs I stopped by to talk with the new guy in the neighborhood, the "$100,000 Camaro guy." I already had established a perception of what this guy's car must be like. I pictured one of those high dollar cars that you see at Cobo, the ones never driven on the street, the ones with chrome plated brake rotors and wet sanded/buffed floor pans. Man, I couldn't have been further from the truth! This guy showed me pics and vouches that he has knicks and scratches and pushes the car to the limit. Perhaps even more importantly, many of the future mods I was planning for my Formula, he's already done.

First and foremost, I wanna put my car on a diet and get it down to the 3,000 lb range. That's a drop of about 440 lbs! This guys car tips the scales at 3,100 lbs. Many of the weight saving materials had already crossed my mind, but I was shocked to find that he still has an iron block/iron heads in the bay. Drop in an LS1 and the weight would likely come in at about 2,950 lbs! A weight that is simply unheard in today's performance market. Our conversation really made me realize, 3,000 lbs is more easily obtainable than I had imagined.

Having already traveled down the path, my new neighbor will be good for a wealth of knowledge later on down the road. I'm sure I'll be able to show him a thing or too when it comes to old school performance as well, as I'm sure he's never played in the big block arena.

Give me a brake!

Awhile back my brakes started squealing, and as usual, while annoyed, I let them go until they stopped squealing. I knew what would be coming next, grinding. Sure enough, about a week ago while applying the brakes I heard just a faint sound, a sound that sounded a bit like metal on metal. A day later, there was no mistaking it, my brakes were done for!

So I milked my brakes along for a few more days, until my two days off where upon I could repair them. I waited until my dad was visiting, as I knew if I simply drove to the store, bought the parts I thought I would need, something would be forgot...right about the time the brakes were all torn apart and the car undrivable. My prediction would have been dead on too.

I no more than got the car jacked up and wheels off when the first obstacle presented itself. Now I know that at some point in the past I had an allen wrench that fit the brake calipers. I looked everywhere, and it was nowhere to be found. So, I added that to the list of things I needed and ventured to the parts store in my dad's truck. By the looks of things, one rotor was toast, no turning that one to clean it up. The other side appeared ok, so I went with 1 rotor and a set of pads. Upon returning home, I removed the calipers on both sides, then the rotors. It was then that I realized that while the surface seemed ok on the passenger side, the thickness was beyond gone. After some thought, I'm pretty sure these are the factory original rotors...with 141,000 miles on them! While putting the new rotor on the driver side of the car, I realized something else, they neglected to sell me the rear seals to hold the wheel bearings in the new rotor. Oh well, since another trip was in order, I'd simply pick up a set up seals to go with my 2nd rotor I needed.

As luck would have it, the 1st rotor I picked up was the last rotor in stock. The Murray's employee called up the road and verified that another store had one they would hold for me. After returning home, I realized that this is why I hate working on brakes so much. For whatever reason, it just never goes smoothly for me...and it appeared the fun wasn't over.

After installing the used bearings inside the near calipers, I finished up the driver side. I pumped the brakes a few times, just to see how they'd feel, forgetting that I had the passenger caliper off, so the pedal felt soft considering the caliper extended the piston all the way. As I ventured over to the passenger side, I so the piston fully extended and attempted to push it back in. I no more than touched the piston and it fell out, breaking the rubber seal, and emptying all the brake fluid onto the garage floor. Yeah, this is why I hate doing brakes!

After removing the brake line from the caliper I placed it on the bench. After fighting with it for what must have been a good 30 minutes, I got the piston back inside the rubber seal, and pushed back into place. Everything went smoothly from then on, with my neighbor assisting with the bleeding of the brakes. I crossed my fingers during that first drive, hoping everything went together ok. After several hard stops, the brakes started to come alive, and now the car stops better than it has in many years.

As I flipped throught he pages of one of my new magazines, I see that Baer has a kit out for Firebirds/Camaros. It's a 6 piston kit with 14 inch rotors, all for the price of $2,500! I'm sure when the day comes to rebuild/restore my Formula, something along those lines will be in order. Till then, I guess I'll make due with the Chinese crap from Murray's to slow my car.