COAL: 1970 Pontiac Firebird Espirit – Out of the Frying Pan and into the Firebird



So I finally got rid of my Opel Kadett. After that boondoggle, I figured that ANY other car would be better than what I had before. I was almost correct.


At the time, I really wanted to own American cars. While my Opel was sold as a Buick, it was technically made in Germany. Nonetheless, it sounded American, so I decided to keep the American thing going. I bought myself a Chevy. More specifically, a 1974 Chevy Vega.

Now, understand that the Vega is not your ordinary Chevy. You see, in the early 70’s Chevy had this bright idea that if they manufacture the engine block with a lightweight material, the car will get better gas mileage. Perhaps so, especially in light of the oil crisis that the economy was suffering through during those times. Herein lies the rub: ALUMINUM MELTS WITH HEAT.

Aluminum has a melting point of about 1200° Fahrenheit. Internal engine temperatures can run as high as 3600° Fahrenheit. HELLO? CHEVY ENGINEERS? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?

That car didn’t last long. I sold it to a friend who ultimately experienced it’s demise shortly after he bought it because it developed a slight coolant leak eventually overheating, causing the aluminum heads to melt. I thought I lost a friend, but as it turned out, I only lost another American car. It was now time for a change…

Unlike a tiny sedan with power nothing, I was in the mood for a sportier car. I was working at a department store, in Paramus, New Jersey, that hasn’t been in business since the 1980s. One of my coworkers just happened to be selling his car, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird. I asked him what he was asking for the car, and he told me $1,200. I looked at the car, I looked at the engine compartment, he let me take it for a ride, and everything looked good as far as I could tell.


The owner told me that the price was not negotiable, since the new owner would be getting a nice car which, I have to admit, was very sporty looking. The body was painted a metallic silver color and it had a vinyl top. The interior was black and the transmission was a Powerglide, which is a two-speed automatic transmission that, back in the day (in the 1950s), was used in race cars. The car had a 350 cubic-inch engine with a two-barrel carburetor. The base model was the 2-door coupe, which came standard with a 250 CID six-cylinder engine that produced 155 horsepower. When a buyer upgraded to the next Firebird model, the Esprit (the model I had purchased from my co-worker), a 350 CID V8 that produced 255 horsepower was standard equipment.


So now I finally had the sports car that I wanted. It wasn’t a Trans Am; it wasn’t a Pontiac 400; but it was an Esprit, and it was MINE. I decided to add a few amenities to my new car: air shocks in the back, rally wheels (which I believe had been standard but were not included with this car), and fog lights. Of those upgrades, the only one that I regret were the air shocks, since they gave the car a very hard ride. Nonetheless, the car looked really “neat.”

Mechanically speaking, compared to the Opel the car didn’t give me much trouble. The only thing that I needed to replace was the starter motor, but then my luck ran out. As it turns out, the previous owner was a bit of a racer with the car. I bought the car on July 1, 1976, and by February 1977 I was beginning to experience what I thought might be transmission problems. I brought my car to AAMCO, the leading authority in transmission repairs. I’ll never forget the advertising jingle:


“ Double A… MCO.” It was because of that jingle that I brought my car to the company for transmission diagnosis. After spending an hour looking at my transmission, the technician came out to give me the bad news: It was going to cost them more than what I paid for the car to rebuild the transmission. That’s right– over $1,500!

Okay, I figured my investment so far for the cost of the car, the starter motor and the transmission rebuild: a total of about $3,000. Then the real trouble began.

Unfortunately for me, I was living next to a neighbor who had severe emotional problems. She was actually kicked out of her last apartment complex because the neighbors created and signed a petition to have her removed, or else they were going to move. Invariably, she created major problems for whomever she lived next to. In my case, I suppose she was jealous of my car. I went out to my car one day and I found a really gooey substance splattered all over it. It turned out to be naval jelly, which is a substance that is normally used to remove rust from metal. In my case, it removed paint from metal. I needed a complete paint job. I looked high and low for a place that would paint my car for a cheap price. I finally found one: Earl Sheib. Earl Sheib was a company that would paint cars for very little money. In my case, I recall spending only $500. My total expenditure was now up to about $3,500.



While working at that department store in Paramus, I ran into a customer who rebuilt engines. The reason why this interested me was that the Firebird had over 100,000 miles on it, and I figured its compression was getting low. So I asked this customer what he would charge for a valve job. Now, you must realize that I was not sending out the heads to have them reconditioned at a machine shop. This was someone who was going to manually replace the valves himself, as he proceeded to do, in his garage, over a several-month period. I remember visiting him on many occasions in his garage, wishing and praying to get my car back. Of course, I wasn’t going to say anything to him–wouldn’t want him to “mistakenly” install the rocker arms in the heads in the wrong direction.

I got a quote from him in the amount of $500. When all was said and done, the job ended up costing $750. I supposed that this money would be a good investment if it would restore some compression to the engine. Little did I know that I was in for more trouble.

You see, unless you completely rebuild a tired engine you can always run the risk of worsening another problem after you have fixed one. In this case, that’s exactly what happened. Yes, I did restore compression to the heads, but so much so that I started to experience what is known as “blow-by.” Blow-by is a condition in which gas leaks past the piston rings under pressure. In my case, this pressure was the increase in compression caused by the rebuilt heads. The piston’s rings could no longer contain this pressure. The symptom that the car was displayed was extreme oil leakage in and around the PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) valve.


Now I knew that I simply could not afford to have the rings replaced, as this would probably have been the most expensive single repair that I would have performed on the car. So, sadly, I decided to sell my “sports car.” The best I could manage was $500 since the engine was so old. By now, the car had about 120,000 miles on it. Time for my next car…