COAL: 1998 Pontiac Firebird V6 – “Unmet Expectations”

Aah…last gen F-body Firebird. All these years later, I still think these are beautiful cars. Unfortunately, the beauty was mostly surface-level. I took this photo in the fall of 2009 with my flip phone camera. Not too shabby!


It is January 2009. I have been driving on my own for about a year. At this same time, I am beginning to share the Saturn with my sister, and sharing a car was putting a stain on our relationship. In researching this entry, I thought the date of purchase for this car was later, but I found proof that on January 31, 2009, my newest ride would find its way to our family’s house.


At this point, my dad was itching to do a project other than a Fiero. While he still had his Fieros, he wanted to work on something different. He happened to be on Ebay one afternoon and saw a local dealership was auctioning off a 1998 Pontiac Firebird V6, a 5-speed manual, and no reserve. The listing mentioned the car needed some mechanical work and the photos proved bodywork would also be in order.  He asked me what I thought of it. I had always liked those cars and told him that would be a good next project. A deal was struck between us, and we agreed to go 50/50 on purchasing this car. My dad went bidding on Ebay and soon we were the proud owners of a 1998 Firebird.

Facebook helped me remember that January 31, 2009 was the day we brought home the Firebird. Note the missing wheel well liners. On the drive home, we managed to pack the front fenders with a mixture of gravel and snow!


When we arrived at the dealership, the car was at the very back of the lot; that last row where all the unwanted trade-ins go to be forgotten about. We found our way to the car and what the listing photos did not show, was every horizontal panel on the car was keyed and the finale was a “F*** JAMES” carved into the hood. Opening the driver’s door greeted your nose with a strong cigarette smell and a trashed interior.  None of the tires matched, and the front wheel well liners were missing.  Underneath, there was not much rust. When my dad started it up, the 3800 sounded rough, but there were no lights on the dash. Going down the road, the rear end made a howl. If memory serves me correctly, I think we paid $2,250 for the car. My dad and I were not turned off by our new purchase.

At first glance, it does not look too bad to work on. Wrong. Most of the engine is under the windshield.


Once the car was home, we went to work immediately. While the 3800 Series II motor only had around 90,000 miles on it, you could tell it was abused and needed some attention. Within a couple of weeks, the entire drivetrain was pulled from the vehicle. I went to work pulling the entire interior out of the car. I spent a whole weekend shampooing every fabric surface in the car (including the headliner) to get rid of the cigarette smell. My dad and I spent that winter rebuilding the engine and fixing whatever needed to be fixed on the car.  By early summer, the refreshed engine and transmission were back in the car, a limited-slip differential was added, four new tires were installed on the beautiful factory chrome wheels, and the freshly cleaned interior was back inside the car. All it needed was a new paint job. The car went to the body shop, where it took a good part of the summer to be completed. Just before the start of my junior year, the “new” Firebird was ready to be driven.

My interior was identical to this, minus the slushbox. Note how long the doors were. A pain in tight parking spots!


My Firebird was a 1998 V6 coupe. As far as features go, it had power windows, mirrors, and locks, but no keyless entry, a factory Delco CD player, chrome wheels, a power antenna (which was pushed inside the fender when we bought it), ABS (which the Saturn lacked) and the very cool T-top package.  This was the feature I came to love the most about this car. If it was sunny and nice out, you best believe the T-tops were off and stowed in the trunk. The car did not have keyless entry, which meant it had the classic GM two-key setup; a key for the door locks and a separate key for the ignition. I cannot confirm this, but I wonder if these were the last GM cars with this setup. 

The back seat in my car got used regularly to haul around my youngest sister and friends. Not overly spacious! The seat did fold forward, which made it more useful for hauling bulky items.


So what was ownership like with the car? As you might tell by the headline of the article, it was a mixed-bag experience. I loved looking at this car. I thought then and still think now these final F-body Pontiacs are beautiful. Simple and elegant. However, I soon learned about 90’s GM quality. When you shut the 6’ long driver’s door, the dew strip would pop up from the lip of the door. Purchasing a new dew strip proved not to solve the issue, nor did new clips that held it to the door. Apparently, this was a common build issue with these cars. Randomly one of the headlights would not want to come up, but if you were lucky, they would take turns not working! Working on the engine sucked. The beautiful body had the motor crammed under the windshield. Doing simple tasks like oil changes proved to be a challenge. I cannot remember why, but after we had the car roadworthy again, we had to change the sparkplugs. Doing so took the good part of a Saturday. Working on the V6 made me not want to think about what the V8 would have been like. While the T-tops were my favorite feature of the car, they soon proved to be leaky. There was a joint where the top of the A-pillar met the top of the windshield and the top of the frameless window glass. When seated in the car, this was right above your left thigh. If it rained, you could expect to have a wet thigh, or a wet butt if the car was parked. I would keep an old towel in the backseat and drape it across my lap in rainy weather. My car was missing the sunshades that went inside the T-tops. If the car was left in the sun, you could expect the seatbelt buckle to be about 500 F. One time I was buckling the seatbelt and got a nice branding of the square seatbelt buckle on my forearm. Parked in the sun would also cause the plastic front fender and door (like the Fiero and Saturn) to expand and not want to open. Parking in a shady spot became a must. 

The T-tops; my favorite feature of the car! I regularly had mine out in nice weather. In the top LH corner of the picture, you can see the joint where water would leak onto my legs while driving.


Up to this point, my baseline for driving fun cars was my Fiero and my dad’s 1988 Fiero Formula. The Formula wanted you to rev it and throw it around a corner. One would think the Firebird would be just the same…well they would be wrong. The 3800 motor is a great engine. However, it best belongs in grandma’s Buick LeSabre and not a “sporty” car. The 3800 did not like to rev. It also did not feel as sporty to drive on a twisty road like the Fiero. It often felt like driving a whale. There were no smiles left on your face as you had with the Fiero. I may be harsh on my take, but the Firebird was a step backwards compared to the Fiero. 

Such an oddly shaped trunk. The T-tops stowed in the lower part, but only with the flimsy liner flipped forward. The upper part was only good for small items.


Life moved on, I drove the car during my junior and senior years of high school. It proved to be reliable and served me well. Winter proved that the RWD layout was not as nice as the FWD Saturn. My parents live at the bottom of a slight hill. Getting from their driveway apron to the top of the hill was sometimes the most challenging part of winter driving. Once my sister passed me in her Saturn as I struggled to climb the hill! Winter driving in this car proved to be difficult enough, that I found myself parking this in winter and driving something else. Speaking of the Saturn, the government classified both cars as coupes with the same amount of interior space. I can say from experience that the Saturn was a much more comfortable and usable space than the Firebird.

I was always fond of the rear end of these cars. Most F-bodies had extra lower cladding that in my opinion, ruined the overall look. The V6 cars had much cleaner lines. Note: it is very hard finding photos on the internet of these cars that are not Trans Ams.


In the spring of 2011, I was gearing up to graduate high school. I wanted to study engineering, run cross country, and attend a small college. This made my college selection easy, and in the fall of 2011, I found myself a freshman at Dordt College in the NW corner of Iowa doing all three of these things.  The Firebird followed me to school during my freshman year. It soon became relegated to parking lot status that first year. At the end of the year, I loaded the car up and drove back to Iowa City for the summer. Toward the end of the summer, I realized I did not have enough money to make my tuition payment for the following year. What was I going to do? My dad and I talked about it, and it was decided the Firebird would be sold. Was I sad to sell it? Initially, I was, but after thinking about it, I was eager to let someone else deal with the shortcomings of 90’s GM.  I left it at home for my dad to sell, and I headed back to school in something borrowed for the upcoming year(s).

Like before, this is where my COAL story gets a little confusing. We will have to wait to hear about what came after the Firebird for another time.  During my Firebird ownership, I had two different vehicles that served me during the winter months. Next week’s chapter will be something purchased for parts but proved to be too good to take off the road.