COAL Update: A Painted Poncho

Color and a stripe

Last year, I told the story of my (formerly) Fire Engine Firethorn Red 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix, a car that has been in my life in one form or another since I was 10 years old in 1983.

As a quick recap, the car became mine in 1989 and was my solid high school ride for the next year and a half, carrying me through all the adventures of an otherwise uneventful, awkward suburban high school boy life of school, sports, activities, jobs and dating.  In the fall of 1990, I replaced the tired 350 smog engine with an equally tired-but-bigger-is-better 455 culled from an otherwise clean 1973 Safari wagon in a junkyard in Eastern Long Island.  That 455, after being swapped in, swapped out, swapped back in, sitting for 17 years, put back into service, blew up and now has been rebuilt in 2012 to pre-smog specs, making it a very torquey, fun-to-drive car that pulls hard, smooth and linear, like a freight train.  A suspension rebuild and fresh brakes make it a corner carver a lot more fun tackling interstate on-ramps.

But it still looked like a giant bag of red ass.

Several years ago, I located a nearly rust-free 1976 Grand Prix that was a theft recovery car with no title, a seized engine and a near perfect red bench seat interior that matched my car.  It was even Firethorn red that had faded in a similar pattern as my car.

I de-rusted the body with the fenders, doors, bumpers, hood and deck lid from the ’76 parts car, which is pretty much every panel that is bolted to the car, and luckily, the structural panels like the floorboards and quarter panels were pretty rust free, requiring only some minor patching and scuffing that I was able to do at home.  I aligned all of the panels as best as I could but I’m no body man (look at the gap between the hood and the grille header panel in the picture above; I’ll take the credit for that)

I had it set up with my favorite bodyshop, the one that painted my Charger and several of my other cars over the years, to bring it in for paint back in the spring time, but life being what it is and a management change at the shop pushed the date of the Pontiac’s paint job back to December.

I love bringing these old cars back to life.

A faceless Pontiac

I brought the car into the shop just before Christmas and within a week, the quarter panel that I had smashed in the spring of 1990 when I bounced it off a tree in the woods was knocked out and smoothed over.  The grille header panel on 1973-77 Grand Prixes is fiberglass and mine was cracked in several places and banged up in others.  After hours of sanding, smoothing and straightening out 43 years of smashes, thrashes and hits, Sam the painter laid down a gorgeous coat of Dodge’s Octane Red over a gold base, which is very similar to the original Firethorn Red but is much more brilliant.  I had him leave the door jambs and inside of the trunk in the original paint for reference, just in case I ever decide to paint it the original color (not likely.)

…And finally, my high school hand-me-down beater is now a shiny new car and this is what I drove out of the shop in the last week of January.

It’s the end result of a 13 year, drive-as-you-go restoration.  Every major component of the car is new, rebuilt or replaced.  I still need to do a few minor things; the bumpers and chrome now look horrible against the new paint so I need to shine them up and there is some chrome peeling off of the rear bumper that I will need to get to.  I lost misplaced the passenger side rocker molding;  I need to find it and then I will mount them on both sides on the car.  The front bumper fillers on both my car and the parts car were unusable.  They are not reproduced and nice originals are near unobtainium so I left it off and had them paint the top of the inner bumper frame as a stop gap measure until I can find a decent replacement.

I added a couple of touches as a nod to its pimptastic ’70s personal luxury coupe heritage; an NOS Radio Shack AM/FM/8 Track to replace the occasionally working Jensen cassette deck that my brother installed in the ’80s, modified with an AUX input, making it possibly the only car stereo with an 8 Track player that you can also plug your phone into, and I made a reproduction 1970’s era USCG base parking decal.   That GRAND PRIX script license plate?  I bought it at a custom car show back in the 1980s, just after my brother bought the car.

But, going against the grain of its ’70s PLC heritage, it’s not broughamy.  There’s no vinyl top.  There’s no pillowy velour mouse fur interior, just a vinyl bench seat straight out of the ’60s.  It has round gauges with actual readouts, not idiot lights.  I pulled the ‘extra’ trim, most notably the awful plastic door edge molding that ran the length of the car.  Nothing to detract from the great factory Bill Mitchell lines on this car; cars aren’t ‘styled’ like this anymore.  The painter also redid the factory pinstripe in gold to accent the body lines.

Now I’m going to use a phrase that’s rarely used to describe a big mid-1970s American coupe.

It’s really fun to drive.

Yes, really.  Like I mentioned, the 455 is built to 455 HO pre-smog specs, but with a pump gas-friendly 9.5 compression ratio.  It has ported and milled 6X heads and a custom ground RV-style cam that is lopey but not obnoxiously rumpity that runs fine in traffic with no vacuum or overheating problems.  I run an Edelbrock 650 carb with an aluminum Performer intake, 1970 GTO exhaust manifolds and a 1973 GTO true dual exhaust.  The original Turbo 400 transmission has a shift kit and it still has the original highway ratio gears.  It’s easy to get a 455 to run right, even in a 3800 lb car.    The suspension is mostly stock and I added a factory rear sway bar.  It’s not an ACR Viper but it’s not a wallowy ’70s barge either; I’ve said it for years and have proved it with this car; it doesn’t take much to make these ’70s cars run right and I have no problem comparing it to my Charger police sedan in terms of handling and acceleration.  It has surprised more than a few modern hot cars.

Future plans for the car:  I threw out all of the air conditioning components back in 1990.  1970s air conditioning systems were heavy and power-robbing (but when they worked, they worked!) and the compressor caught fire sometime back in the ’80s when my brother had it so it didn’t work anyway.  So, at some point, I’d like to add a Vintage Air system since I do drive the car a lot.  It typically gets around 13 mpg; not bad for a 455 with a 3 speed transmission in a 2 ton car but it can do better and go faster; a Turbo 700 is on my wish list.

My high school playlist is awesome, dominated by Rush, Van Halen, Ozzy, Metallica, Guns ‘N Roses, AC/DC, Dio, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, The Smiths, The Cars; pretty much anything with a guitar.  I listened to a lot of The Cult in high school too, and their Love, Electric and Sonic Temple albums were in heavy rotation in my car stereo when I was in the Pontiac.  When I need to forget 2020 for awhile, I go out to the garage, fire up the 455, plug in the playlist, find an open road and get lost in my youth for awhile.

Old cars can do that.