COAL Update: 1974 Pontiac Firebird – Apart At The Seams

In anticipation of a new COAL subject (a ’63 Buick Riviera) coming soon, I plan to update my fleet adventures of the past year or so.  Given the propensity for my mind to wander, we’ll see how it goes.

My urban convalescent home for the modestly priced and long neglected old car has, if I may say so humbly, been quite successful in its mission of returning worthy vehicles to their natural habitat: the highways of Michigan, the hub of the American motorcar.  Occasionally, however, a project will get away from me, and I’ll sheepishly have to call in a little help to put things right (or at least right from 10 feet away).  Thus was my summer and fall of 2021 with my super cool ’74 Firebird Esprit.

Those who have followed this website for some time may have a vague recollection of my finding this Firebird on eBay in December 2015 for the round sum of $4084.  It was largely as described (I have low standards for sight unseen buys), but the seller did not include pictures or commentary regarding this unsightly bulge where the passenger quarter panel and roof meet.  It wasn’t exactly a situation that sent me to the computer to dispute my charge with that well-known auction site, but once the paint began to crack, I knew something needed to be done.

Therefore, when I took a wire wheel to the offending area one July morning, I was expecting just about any brand of the Devil’s lipstick, and I wasn’t surprised a bit to find a brazed seam where a new quarter panel had once been installed.  As I’ve been guilty many a time of bondo abuse, there was no point in being a hypocrite by sending a steaming fog of off-color invective over my neighborhood.  But I had to decide what to do.  There’s no way I was tearing down a ’70s Firebird Esprit to “do it right” as the concours bunch might suggest.  I wasn’t even in the mood to strip the entire interior.

Thus, I cleaned the seam and sprayed it with some weld-thru primer, called my dad down to watch the interior for sparks, propped up some welding blankets, and proceeded to cut out a plate.

Then I slowly tack welded the whole plate around the brazed seam.  In retrospect upon looking at these pictures, I wish I would have sanded the filler back a few more inches to protect it from the heat, but it’s just one more thing to keep an eye on.  Normally, I don’t advocate overlapping metal, but this was my best and least intrusive option considering my self-imposed restriction on rendering a perfectly working motor vehicle inoperable.  It also saved me from using nearly an inch of body filler on this section, as the previous bodyman did.

I slathered a coating of “Tiger Hair” on the welded seam to waterproof my repair.

Then, I spent some time sanding and straightening the panel.

And this is where I ran out of talent, as they say on NASCAR broadcasts.  I couldn’t get the paint to blend correctly, and it certainly didn’t match; plus, Firebirds have almost no natural breaks to blend paint from the roof to the quarter panels.  A bodyman I talked to online explained that the roof and upper quarters should be treated as one panel.  Additionally, red is fairly translucent, so the primer shows through coat after nightmarish coat.  The first paint mix was too light.

So I tried a dark gray sealer in an attempt to darken the paint, but then the paint came out too dark.  Sometimes, being cheap is false economy, but I’ll never learn, so I put the Firebird in storage and let my local bodyman figure it out a couple months later.

Which he did.  My bodyman friend is now retired, but he and I got along well because each of us knew the other’s expectations.  He did what I asked for a very reasonable price knowing that I wouldn’t bitch at him because there were some imperfections in the paint and some more orange peel than a normal human might like.  I could always wet sand and wheel the paint if I wanted a smoother surface, but the repair matches the texture of the old paint job fairly well.  Please notice that I’m standing 10 feet away as I take this picture.  The color match is close but I can tell it’s a little off in low light and flourescent light situations, but it’s not bad enough to be upset about.  I can also be proud that the bodywork is very good.

To cheat the eye, I did have the trunk lid and spoiler repainted to match the quarters; the paint formula for Buccaneer Red must have changed over the last six years.  I had the trunk lid repainted when I bought the car (something had been spilled on it, peeling the paint), and that paint was significantly lighter than the current blend, and that was always something that bothered me just a bit.

Though 2021 was a rough year for our relationship, the Firebird and I have had an uneventful 2022, unless you count plenty of happy miles as eventful.  As I take it out to winter storage tomorrow (as I write this), I can say that it wins the “summer mileage award” of the fleet after coming in dead last in the prior contest.


If that isn’t what owning an old Firebird is all about, I don’t know what is.