COAL: 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix – My First Car, In Fire Engine Red

That’s not a 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix in the picture, it’s a time machine.  No DeLorean and no flux capacitor are needed because every time I lift the handle and open the 2 ton door, every time I slide onto the vinyl bench seat and put that square-head GM key in the ignition and hear the Delco-Remy starter fire up the 455, and every time I look down that mile-long hood at the “GP” hood ornament, I’m a 16-year-old high school kid again.

My brother is 7 years older than me and in the fall of his senior year in high school in 1983, he purchased the Grand Prix. The GP replaced his first car, a brown 1973 Camaro that had been (poorly) hot rodded with the standards of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s street machine era, including side pipes, N50s, traction bars; the works, on top of what was probably the stock 350 2 bbl.

(not his car but close; lose the cowl induction hood and add sidepipes and slapper bars and that’s pretty close)

Anyway, as a result of its poor shadetree mechanical ‘improvements’ made by its previous owner, the Camaro wasn’t very reliable and didn’t last long.  My brother is not a car guy and wanted something more stable and less hot rodder-ish but still cool for a high school kid.  So, he and my Dad set off car shopping, and as a car-crazy kid, I often tagged along. We spent most of our time looking at Colonnade-era Cutlasses and Grand Prixes at all of the used car lots on Long Island’s south shore, and I remember him saying that he liked the pre-downsized cars.

Much to my dismay, the Camaro was sold and his search was narrowed down to two favorites here at CC: a beige 1976 Cutlass Supreme and a Firethorn Red 1977 Grand Prix. Since the Grand Prix had very low mileage, something like 10K, even though it was 7 years old at the time, and the reason for its low mileage has been lost to time, but given its low mileage and near immaculate condition, it won out over the Cutlass and became his high school ride just before Christmas.(Unfortunately, all of my “back in the day” pictures are at my Mom’s house 500 miles away, so all of the pictures here are either current or lifted from them internets, but minus the vinyl top, this is what it looked like when he bought it in ’83)

It’s a lightly optioned base Model J, with a bench seat, column shifter, roll up windows, and manual door locks; it doesn’t even have the half-vinyl roof that so many Colonnades have, and which also helped contribute to their deaths from roof rust.  It does have air conditioning and power steering and brakes but I think that was pretty much all standard on GPs by the mid ’70s.  It had a 350 4 bbl, which was the first level engine option in 1977 after being the standard engine in 1976, with the 301 being the base engine and the 400 as the top option in 1977.  The only other option I that I can tell it has are the Pontiac Rallye wheels.

The Grand Prix served him well for several years. He graduated high school in 1984 and commuted to a local community college for a couple of years before going away to college for his last 2 years, taking the GP with him and coming home on the weekends.  He put a decent stereo in the GP with a cassette deck, which was a must-have in the ‘80s.

My brother was a big rock fan and he turned me on to all the great bands of the time-Van Halen, AC/DC, Scorpions, The Cars, U2, and my favorite, Rush.  In the fall of 1984, he took me to my first concert, which was Rush on the Grace Under Pressure tour at the Nassau Coliseum, and we went in the Grand Prix.  Often, he would take me with him to the record store to check out the new albums.

(Not my picture but that was our engine, a 1973 American LaFrance, my all-time favorite fire truck)

When he turned 18, my brother became a volunteer fireman in our town and was very active with the department, and I remember him racing off to fire calls in the Grand Prix.  Sometimes he would take me with him and thrill of hearing the Poncho engine roar going through the gears of the Turbo 400 through town coupled with the adrenaline rush of running to a fire call to save the world were intoxicating.  I was hooked and I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I remember him doing donuts in the snow with me in the Grand Prix just before Christmas one year just after he gave me my first beer with his fire department buddies.

I turned 16 in 1989, which was my junior year in high school, and just as the wild and wonderful 1980s were coming to a close, two life-changing events took place.  First, I scheduled my road test as close to my birthday as I could and passed the first time out, so I now had the freedom of a driver’s license.

Then I also joined the same volunteer fire department as my brother.  I got totally into the fire department; I got hooked on the rush and the brotherhood and camaraderie of the emergency services world and subsequently discovered my career path.  And what a rush it was!  Back then, we could still ride on the tailboard of the trucks.   I got onto the department drill team where we ran the hose and bucket races.  Back then, in the small towns on Long Island, the volunteer fire departments were a big deal and it seemed like the whole town would come out for our parades and drill competitions.

In May of ’89, my brother graduated from college and had been hired as a cop, and he was about to start the police academy.  After 5 1/2 years, the GP had run its course with him, and even though the car was 12 years old at that point, it only had about 80K miles on it.  He bought a gold 1986 Cutlass and offered me the Pontiac for whatever I had in savings at the time, which was maybe a couple of hundred dollars.  Even in 1989, $400 didn’t buy much of a car, much less one that had been a member of the family with a documented service life, so it was a no-brainer for me to take the deal.

Even though I was (and am) primarily a Mopar fan, I always genuinely liked his Grand Prix; its a nice car to look at and ride in, plus it had a non-computer controlled, carbureted Pontiac V8 in it that had its own distinctive sound.  I studied its beautiful, classic Bill Mitchell lines-there is not one body panel that doesn’t have some kind of crease or design line, which makes these cars a nightmare for painters but gorgeous to look at.   By the late 1980s, cars had become style-less blobs that have carried over into today but this was a car that was a throwback to the era from when cars were “styled.”   I had my first car.

(It doesn’t look bad when its wet)

So, I was a pretty good kid in high school.  My grades weren’t great (I was mostly a C student) but I never smoked dope or cigarettes and only drank occasionally under the radar, mostly with my brother and his friends.  I played sports and depending on the year, it was either football, lacrosse or baseball; I wasn’t a star player but I was happy just to be on the team.  I was a Boy Scout until I joined the volunteer fire department, plus I worked part time jobs after school and on the weekends, so I really didn’t have time to get in trouble even if I wanted to.  But, every kid has some kind of rebellious streak and mine was that I was a die-hard gearhead.

My parents knew it and probably secretly dreaded me getting my license and a car.  My Mom liked cars and had some nice ones in her time as she grew up in an old Southern family in rural South Carolina but, you know, she is Mom, so she wanted me to focus on school and my grades.  My Dad, on the other hand, was from New York City and grew up riding the subways and therefore had no use for cars other than for transportation.  Meanwhile, my walls were plastered with pictures of all the hot Pro Street cars of the ’80s as well as all the race cars and musclecars that I tore out of every Hot Rod and Car Craft magazine I could get my paws on.  I had more than 100 model cars, all hot rodded appropriately.  To top it off, my part time job was pumping gas at a full service station in town with 3 service bays.  So there I was, a kid with a new drivers license, a car of my own, and no money but access to a shop and tools.  Here we go…

I drove the Grand Prix mostly without any drama for the remainder of my junior year as it was a good, solid reliable car and I don’t remember having to make any serious repairs other than having to replace a leaky radiator, which was solved with a $25 trip to the junkyard and about an hour of labor.  I had my gas jockey job but because of sports and the fire department, I didn’t work a whole lot of hours, mostly just Saturdays and the occasional weekday afternoon so I didn’t have the money to do any real serious damage to the car yet.  I’m a bit of a loner and prefer spending my free time by myself, but I had a couple of friends here and there and spent weekends cruising in the Pontiac if I wasn’t hanging around the firehouse, burning what gas money we could come up with and blaring Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue tapes.

I was a lacrosse player in my junior and senior years, and after long practices and late games, it was so much nicer getting into the quiet confines of my own car and listening to my own music to unwind rather than ride the late bus home and have to deal with the antics of the other kids.  I remember getting into the Pontiac after one of our first practices of the year, freezing cold and shivering after a shower as it was early March in New York, and the car’s heat was a treat that the school bus would definitely not have.  My face had a habit of breaking out as I was a teenaged victim of oily skin, coupled with sweat from my helmet and I looked into the rearview mirror to pop a zit.  I was giving one of my teammates a ride home and I remember commenting that I always wanted to pop a zit in the rearview mirror of my own car.

When it came to dating, I was a bit of a late bloomer and didn’t really have a girlfriend until the spring of my junior year in high school.  By the grace of God, towards the end of the school year, she was willing to ‘welcome me into manhood’ one night in the front seat of the Grand Prix when we were parked in a secluded spot in the woods. Why the front seat?  Remember, it is a bench seat/column shift car, plus we here at CC know how cramped the backseats of the Colonnades are.  There’s also that grab handle on the dash.…

Heading into the summer of 1990 was such a good time.  It was my last summer in high school and my first summer with a driver’s license,  I had the Grand Prix, a somewhat steady girlfriend and a cool car-kid job at the gas station.  Warm summer nights were spent driving the GP to hang out at the firehouse waiting for a call to go out or with my girlfriend at the beach.  Like I mentioned, Rush is my band and just before the summer kicked off, I went with my brother in the Grand Prix to see them at the Nassau Coliseum again, this time on the Presto tour; but now it was my car and I got to drive.  I picked up a promo bumper sticker from WBAB, the local rock station, and stuck it in the window, where its still today.

As I started my senior year, I was still working at the gas station. By that time, in addition to pumping gas and fixing flat tires, the owner trusted me enough to do light mechanical work that was leftover from the full time mechanics from the week when I came in to work my shift on the weekends.  Things like tune ups, brakes, oil changes, and occasionally a water pump or an alternator here and there; I could knock those out pretty quick. Sometime early in the fall, I had some money saved up and headed over to one of my local junkyard haunts and found a 1973 Grand Safari wagon that still had its 455 intact.  I borrowed the engine lift and the Chevy shop truck (pickups were not common on mostly suburban Long Island in 1990)  from the garage I worked at and relieved the wagon from the 455 (if I remember correctly, it was dark brown and in otherwise pretty good shape and Im sure it was crushed not long after; poor car).

Then I ordered the cheapest, biggest camshaft kit I could find in the PAW catalog (remember those?)  and in one weekend I swapped the cam out in the junkyard 455 and had one of the mechanics show me how to look it over to see if it was salavageable; we pulled a cylinder head, and it all looked OK so it went right back together and I did a quick rattlecan sprayjob.  The next weekend, I pulled the Grand Prix into the shop on a Saturday after my shift and by Sunday night, it was running with the 455 just in time for class on Monday morning.  I don’t remember where the original 350 went, I think it just went to the scrapyard.  We even bolted it to the original single exhaust and catalytic converter because I didn’t have the money for a new dual exhaust.

The 455 sounded so cool with the rumpity cam, although with the smog heads and single exhaust, it probably wasn’t all that much faster than the original 350, but in high school, it doesn’t matter as long as you look cool, right? I would go hunting for 5.0 Mustangs and Grand Nationals but all I did was make a lot of noise.  I did feel like the king of all creation when I pulled into my high school parking lot that Monday morning with my new engine rumbling and echoing off of the brick gym wall that faced the student parking lot.

(Mine was nowhere near this nice, but that’s what it was except it had Rallye II wheels)

But as luck (good, bad or otherwise) would have it, about a month later, I came across a clean, solid 1980 Firebird for $200 with a 231 V6 that was on its way out due to oil pressure issues.  It was a base model and it was white with a red interior.  One more weekend in the shop later, and I pulled the 455 from the Grand Prix and swapped it into the Firebird.  Luckily, the 455/TH400 and accessories slipped right into the Firebird without me having to buy any more parts, although I did have to scrounge up a couple of hundred dollars for an exhaust and I had to get the driveshaft shortened.   My parents were having a fit, thinking that I was spending too much time and money on cars and not enough time on school work and college applications and/or some kind of post-high school plan, and of course, they were right, but it led to some heated arguments.

I parked my beloved Grand Prix under a covered lean-to behind my parent’s garage so it was out of the elements while I tore the streets up in my Firebird. That lasted for about 3 months before I spun out on an icy road while doing stupid teenage boy stuff one night and crashed into a fire hydrant, bending the rear axle and severely damaging the quarter panel and obviously my parents were furious.  I was becoming an expert in Pontiac engine swaps, as I once again swapped the 455 from the Firebird back into the GP and I scrapped the Firebird.

(Again, not my car but that’s what it looked like, except someone put a 1972 hood scoop on it and it had steel wheels)

Right around the same time that I wrecked the Firebird, which was in January or February, 1991, I found a 1971 Dodge Demon 340 with a 4 speed for $1500.  It was originally FY1 Top Banana yellow with a black interior and stripes but had been painted metallic blue and someone added a ’72 twin snorkel hood scoop and painted the bumpers black, but it was a real 340 4 speed Demon.  Remember, Im a Mopar guy, but the Demon came and went by the time I graduated in May, since it was, in fact a $1500, 20 year old, used and abused musclecar, so you can imagine what kind of shape it was in.  In short it was too much car, both in power and in need of repairs, for a 17 year old with no funds to keep up with; it just needed a little bit of everything, and since it was a factory 340/4 speed/bright yellow car, I’m pretty sure it eventually got the restoration it deserved.

Meanwhile, it was on a very cold morning in January, 1991 at Fort Hamilton that, after spending most of the day duckwalking in my underwear and getting poked, prodded and examined in all kinds of new ways I didn’t care for, I stuck my right hand up and took the oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all foreign and domestic enemies and to break ice and scrape buoys to the best of my ability by swearing into the United States Coast Guard. I enlisted into the Delayed Entry Program, which meant that I would be shipping off to boot camp in May, where I would be leaving the Pontiac behind at my parent’s.  After boot camp, I was stationed only about an hour and a half away and came home pretty often, but being in the military, I now had a steady income and relatively few expenses, and went through a string of cars that I will talk about in another COAL.  The Pontiac now entered a 17 year sleep hiatus, thus ending Part 1 of the story.

Its intermission time:

Welcome back.  Fun stuff, right?  Part 2 starts with the unexpected passing of my Father in 2006 from a sudden massive heart attack.  To say my family and I were devastated is an incredible understatement but I will talk more about my Father in another car story. Within 2 years, my Mother remarried, moved in with her new husband and was selling the house.   I had to come get the car which had essentially sat in the same spot I left it in 1991, or it was going to the scrapyard.  I had since gotten married, had a couple of kids, added a few cars, made a couple of cross-country moves and was now living in Virginia in a house on a couple of acres so storage wouldn’t be a problem.  I went up to NY with my car trailer one weekend in the fall of 2008 to rescue my old car.

(It wasn’t quite this bad but it wasn’t that far off either)

I opened the Pontiac’s door and all of a sudden, the memories…  But unfortunately, memories are fleeting and reality is always there-my Dad was still gone.

Another reality was that it was 2008 and not 1988, and as soon as I sat down on the bench seat, the entire vinyl seat cover cracked.  Time does not forgive.

Since it was factory undercoated and it was what seemed like a rare ’70s A-Body without a vinyl roof, it was spared from any significant rust and therefore did not succumb to the cancer like so many other cars from the era where the New York salted roads and Long Island salty sea air eat cars alive.  Not that the car wasn’t rusty; there was quite a bit of rust on the leading edge of the hood and in the bottoms of the doors, both common areas of rust on these cars but the structural body panels, floors and frame seemed to be OK.

I hadn’t started the 455 in years so I didn’t dare try to start it cold. I winched it up on to my trailer and thankfully the wheels hadn’t locked up.  After getting it home, I assessed the damage, and while it was rough, it wasn’t too far gone.  The paint was faded almost to bare metal in some spots, the interior was all but destroyed by time and mice, but it started and ran.

It didn’t need much to get back on the road; a new set of tires, fresh fluids, a tune up, a heater core, a set of ball joints and the dual exhaust I had wanted since I was 17 got it rolling again.  By the time I got the car back on the road, I was back on active duty at Camp Lejeune, nearly 4 hours away.  The last time I had driven the car, I was a high school kid about to ship out to boot camp and now, after having gotten my  commission in 2001, I was an older, wiser, saltier officer, and boy did I take a lot of ribbing from the other officers, most of whom drove late model pickups, SUVs and CamCords so they didn’t get what it meant to be a car guy.  The enlisted guys, however, loved me and the rumble of the 455, plus the fact that that I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty, and I spent many late nights in the base garage working on the car, just like I did in high school.  The faded paint and crusty interior ensured that I wasn’t asked to drive when we would all go out for lunch, which was an added bonus, but I did cover the seats with Mexican blankets and old bedsheets.

By 2010, my marriage was failing and I needed to keep my mind clear, so I got active with the volunteer fire department again;  I guess playing with my high school car and doing what I enjoyed doing in those years helped keep my mind in a good place.  Plus, I just loved the fire department.  The camaraderie and thrill of jumping out of the car and into gear, grabbing a hose or a tool off of a truck and trying to save someone’s home, car or even their life is still a rush.

Just like with my Charger that I talked about previously, I spent many hours piloting the big ol’ Grand Prix on the 200 mile drive between home and Camp Lejeune for several years and spent those hours rebonding with my car, listening to the 455 rumble along on the highway along with great music and putting more miles on it then then I ever did in high school.  In September, 2010, Virginia and North Carolina had a record 6 days straight of torrential downpours, causing the rivers and creeks to overflow the roads with major flooding and sinkholes, but the big heavy Pontiac with its “Radial Tuned Suspension” held steady and laughed at lesser cars that ended up in ditches on the side of the road.

On a very hot August afternoon in 2009, I interviewed for a defense contractor position and when I pulled into the parking lot, the temperature idiot light lit up and steam came pouring out from under the hood; the radiator was almost completely dry.  Good job on that early warning, idiot light.  The car cooled off during my interview and I filled up the radiator at a gas station across the street and made the 3 hour drive home without any further issue.  Immediately after, I found a factory Rallye dash bezel with working gauges.  And that overheating incident possibly helped lead into…

In June, 2011, I was coming home from duty on a Friday afternoon, and when I was about 20 miles from home, the car overheated again but this time it was a blown head gasket.  Stick a fork in it, my high school junkyard-find 455 was done.   I had it towed home and then the car sat for a couple of months before I was able to pull the engine and send it out to the machine shop for a rebuild,  This time I did it right-I built the engine to be a low compression torque monster perfectly suited for highway driving; ported 6X heads, an Edelbrock carb and intake, a good HEI ignition, GTO exhaust manifolds, (I hate headers) and an RV-style cam really woke the engine up and now that legendary Pontiac torque pulls it like a freight train without being obnoxious.

Performance-wise, it has the stock OE rear end which is (I think) 2.73 gears so its not going to pull the front tires off the ground, but punch it from about 30 mph and, just like my high school girlfriend found out on that magical night in the spring of 1990, you better hold on to that grab handle on the dash for a good time.Good, torquey things are happening here.  The hood is so long on these cars that I had to remove the tire and pull the engine from the side because the arm on my engine lift isn’t long enough to clear the front end of the car.
It just ate a Camry.

Since now, mechanically, the car came together and was working soundly, it was time to start making it nice to look at again.  While aftermarket restoration parts are finally starting to turn up for the Colonnade cars, ‘soft’ resto parts like dash pads and door panels are limited and I needed to basically restore the entire interior of the car as not much was salvageable.   Because these were big, heavy, smog-era cars, unless they had one of the big engines that could be easily swapped into a more desireable LeMans or Firebird (just like I did back in 1990,) they were generally scrapped and crushed so parts cars these days are hard to find, and the ones that I did come across had the same issues as mine.  Nice, original Grand Prixes are getting quite pricey as well.

Finally in 2015, after several years of looking, I found a complete 1976 Grand Prix parts car in central NC that, except for the year, was an exact copy of my car-it was Firethorn Red with a red bench seat interior, no vinyl top and a 350, and it had all the parts I needed.  It was a low mileage theft recovery car with no title and a seized engine.  As a theft recovery, the steering column was dismantled so I couldn’t steer the car, which made it a lot of fun trying to get it on my trailer.  It was actually too nice of a car to part out, but without a title, there wasn’t much else to do with it.The interior was near perfect.  The dash and door panels are especially vulnerable on these cars and they looked almost new.  As time permitted over the course of a few months, I swapped the entire interior from the ’76, as well as the bumpers, doors, fenders, windshield, hood, and trunk lid, onto to my car.  I guess that’s about as close to a rebodied car as you can get.

As Im writing this, its the end of 2018.  Its the 35th anniversary of my Dad and my brother finding it on a quiet car lot in New York.  Unfortunately, as far as the space/time continuum is concerned, it hasn’t worked as a time machine anywhere except in my head, as I’m thicker around the middle, greyer on the roof, retired from the Coast Guard with the aches and pains to prove it, I coach lacrosse now instead of playing, and now my oldest child is a senior in high school like I was when I was when I was raising hell in the Pontiac.  But guess what; not only am I still driving my Grand Prix but Im still driving it to respond to fire calls and blaring Rush on the radio just like my brother and I did in the ’80s.  My brother now drives a Pacifica and likes Maroon 5.I’m still an active member of a moderately busy volunteer fire department, but I’m doing more on the leadership and administrative side these days than I do as a ground pounder.  I’ve had my glory days and I have no problem letting the young bucks lead the interior attacks and wield the Jaws of Life but I’m always there when they need me.  Despite having several other vehicles including a late model 4X4 pickup that’s perhaps better suited for emergency response than a 42 year old Pontiac, I still use it as my ‘primary response vehicle’ for fire calls today; my gear is in the trunk, my fire radio is wired to the car, and there’s always a lingering hint of a smell of smoke inside the car.  Again, no flux capacitor needed.

Just for Paul, here is our Caterpillar powered ’89 Ford/Grumman engine, still hard at work, and by far the best truck in our fleet.

And here it is on the day I wrote this, still doing daily battle on the roads on a regular basis.  What a good old car it is.  There’s only about 96K on the odometer but with half the body and interior coming from my ’76 donor car and the engine is a ’73 455, you can interpret that as you see fit.  Hard to believe that car has been a big part of my life for 35(-17) years.  Now that it runs and drives great, the interior is done, and the body is straight, its finally due for a paintjob at my favorite body shop this coming year.

And of course, it will be Fire Engine Red.