Classic Curbside Classic: 1968 Firebird 400 – Reliving Childhood Memories, Twice Daily

How would you like your earliest memories to be of sitting in the back seat of a 1968 Firebird 400, watching your Dad work that Hurst shifter and hearing the bellowing of its healthy engine getting its exercise?  Maybe the smell of rubber reaching its melting point to add to a toddler’s vivid  multi-sensory experience? Well, that would be nice indeed, but not nearly as nice as ending up with the very car twenty-five years later through a fortuitous sale ($1000). Yes, the marks where Jayson’s babyseat rubbed against the back seat when Dad created some g-forces are still there, and will never be re-upholstered away. And the original 400 still snorts and bellows its lullaby, as Jayson drives it to work everyday. Sigh…

This is my favorite kind of Curbside Classic: take a scouting detour through a little town (Junction City) nearby after a Sunday hike, and stumble on my first parked gen1 Firebird ever; and a 400 no less! But that’s just the preamble to the story: its owner comes out and tells me the heartwarming story behind it. Which has actually become a bit of a local legend.

Jayson’s Dad bought the Firebird new for $3315, the year he was born. Three years later, when little sister came along and Firebird was feeling a bit cramped, it was sold to Jayson’s uncle, and a ’68 Plymouth GTX took its place. Now there’s a Dad who knew how to properly accommodate a growing family: more cubic inches! Reminds so much of my own. Not.

Well, he wasn’t totally perfect either (which Dad is?). When the 1974 gas crunch came, the GTX was traded in on a Vega. How many folks made that mistake, in order to kick themselves forever over it? Almost half a million, actually, in 1974 alone. Well, they didn’t all trade in GTXs, but yes, the Chevy OK Used Car lots had plenty of hot Detroit iron cooling off their crackling exhaust manifolds that year. Buy low; sell high. 1974 was the year to have bought that hemi-Cuda for peanuts. Must stop sighing.

So while our featured Firebird spends the next twenty-two years in limbo, let’s take a short diversion from its story and talk a bit about the origins of Pontiac’s F-Body; the short version.

John Z. Delorean wanted to build a real sports car, his beloved Banshee. Another two-seater at GM? Given the Corvette’s fairly modest sales, the bosses’ “nyet” was probably the right answer. Instead, he was tossed the Camaro’s new F-Body as a bone. If you’re given lemons…

I may not be wildly enthusiastic about the gen1 Camaro, but John Z’s Pontiac guys did a credible job of differentiating it, at least from the front. Actually, “differentiating” doesn’t do the Pontiac designer proper credit, because what they really did is finally bring the F-Body to its proper level of development, at least from the front, where all of the design budget or opportunity must have been.

The ’67-’68 Camaro has a profoundly undeveloped front end, which was mostly fixed with the ’69. But the Firebird: it’s the real deal. The faceless Camaro was a pretty generous bone to be thrown, and it finally got the lovely, curvaceous and sensuous front end it deserved. Pontiac’s vaunted styling studios were still at the top of their game.

Of course, Pontiac had established itself in the number three sales slot largely on that design prowess, especially with its nosy front ends, so given what little free reign and budget they were given, it was well spent. Obviously, once one gets to the windshield heading back, the story becomes increasingly…familiar.

Except for the silly little “vents” on the rear hips, and the rather pathetic GTO-esque  slotted tail lights, it’s a Camaro. Oh well; just keep looking at that handsome face. Which ironically was butchered for the ’69 Firebird; the same year the Camaro finally found its proper face. Trading places…

Under the skin, the Firebird got something commonly know as “traction bars” to settle down its skittish rear end under the influence of Pontiac’s healthy V8s. The Firebird 400 was the top of the line in ’68, a year before the first TA appeared. Its standard 400 CID (6.6 liter) V8 was rated at 330 (gross) hp, but it was essentially a 360 hp GTO motor, with a little obstruction in the throttle linkage to keep the secondary barrels from fully opening. That was easily fixed; in thirty seconds or less, in order to get the 0-60 times to six seconds or less, maybe. It was there to keep it in compliance with GM’s “thou shalt not have a horsepower to weight ratio better than 1 to 10″ commandment. Sinning was easy, and the penance was just as likely a promotion. John Z’s next gig was GM of Chevrolet. Repeatedly stretching or stepping on GM’s rules was working for him, so far.

Yes, technically there was a 335 hp Ram Air option in 1968, but the numbers actually built were minuscule. The 400-4 was the hot ticket, and Jayson’s Dad checked the right boxes in 1968. And just how did it end up back in his hands?

His aunt called him one day in 1993 and told him she and her uncle were getting a two-for-one deal from their lawyer: a divorce and bankruptcy. Want the Firebird? Make an offer. So he swallowed hard and did: $1000. Well, it wasn’t in the best of shape at the time, and had been sitting immobile for a dozen years, so that offer was as not so easily refused.

But the 400 fired right up, and with a bit of cleaning up and a new paint job (by Jayson), the ‘Bird was soon looking and running good again, to his uncle’s consternation.

The Firebird hasn’t always been used it as a daily driver, but times have been hard here in Junction City. When the local RV industry collapsed a few years back. Monaco and Country Coach both tanked, Jayson was out of work for over nine months, so the previous DD had to go. No way the Firebird would ever be sold.

Now that Jayson is back to work, it’s back to front line duty for the Firebird. Worse things could happen, than to have to hear the 400 bark and rumble to life every morning. It’s got some 150k miles on it, and has never been opened up; literally, that is. That’s one way to keep those childhood memories fresh: relive them every day, twice no less.