The fact that my first Rescars article was ‘Why Classic Muscle Cars Will Always Be Cool’ probably gave away the fact I’m a fan. Obviously muscle car culture is everywhere in the U.S, but the biggest influence came from my father. During his early days, he ‘owned a bit of everything’, and being a mechanic basically his entire life, it was always likely to be part of my genetics.
My childhood was a mix of the Dukes of Hazzard on Saturday mornings, going to car shows, and working with him on some of his projects, including my first car.
It may have been a 1985 Chevrolet Camaro 5.0 V8, but being the 1980s, it still only managed to put out something like 150hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. On the plus side, it was a Berlinetta special edition, which meant some extra digital gauges, T-top and a fancy spinning cassette player which must have been a big deal back in 1985. It was also free, as the previous owner literally found himself with a spare Camaro sitting around.
Free cars do tend to have their problems. The Camaro issues included, but weren’t limited to, obvious rust issues, non-working digital stuff, and a major leak in the oil pan. Then again, when you got the Camaro started, it was awesome for burnouts, and a plain 1986 donor car was sorted.
All this occurred between my 14th and 16th birthdays, but after I was 16 my parents started to look at insurance costs. It turns out than an American teen in a V8 Camaro is seen as something of a risk. As a result, the Chevrolet had to be sold after I’d driven it just once. The next owner managed to blow the engine just a few months later, and the last time I saw the car it was sat in a junkyard waiting to be crushed. For the next 5 years I made do with a Jeep, a Chevy Monete Carlo and an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
But then when I was 21, I got my hands on another muscle car. And this time it was a 1996 Pontiac Firebird.
At least the Firebird was in a better state when I found it. But it’s not quite the muscle car dreams are made of. As a base model it’s a 3.8 V6, rather than the 5.7 V8. Which means that although it has a classic T-top, the wind saunters by rather than rushes with just 200hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. Not what you’d imagine from the successor to the V6 in the famous 1985 Buick GNX.
As a trade-in, the Pontiac was priced to sell at $2000, and the previous owner had focused on looks rather than performance with some Magnaflow exhaust tips and a Kenwood stereo system with 13 inch subwoofers able to shake the car. Unfortunately he also managed some less-than-brilliant rust repair on both rear corner panels, and some issues with the front suspension that need sorting.
The 1996 Pontiac Firebird did also have some faults from the start. It’s one of the smallest cars I’ve driven but the length of the doors mean you can’t get in and out without a mile of space. Or removing one of the T-Top roof panels and sliding in like a race driver. Not as cool as it sounds.
And then there’s the biggest problem. The engine. Besides being smaller than desired, it also self-destructed when both head gaskets went at the same time. 20 miles from home, I took several stops as I nursed it back, but still caused both heads to crack. And this in the first year of owning it.
Time and money meant repairs took about 12 months, and the Firebird came back to life in May 2014. Then a month later, my dad noticed a strange knocking sound when he was driving it, which turned out to be the piston rod snapping in half and bouncing around inside the engine block. It destroyed two cylinder walls and cracked the engine block in the process, convincing me the Firebird was officially cursed.
There was no point in even trying to repair the hunk of scrap metal that used to be an engine, so we looked around for several weeks and finally settled on another 3.8, from a 2002 Camaro. With basically the same power and torque, it did have a lot less miles. We had to switch the intakes as the 1996 engine was set up for ‘fly-by-wire’ whereas the 2002 had an electronic throttle. Plus my Firebird came with an automatic, and the new engine had been attached to a manual gearbox.
I’ve since managed to put about 750 miles on the new motor, and the car now has so much more life. Plus it sounds faster than it is, thanks to those fancy exhaust tips.
The Firebird is still a bit of a problem child. The heater hoses need replacing, the front suspension is in need of attention and I still need to improve the rust repairs. But for now, the car is still running, and I’m finally able to remember why I loved the car so much. It’s very comfortable, a great cruiser, and as a pretty tall guy I can manage 4 hours straight driving without my back cramping up. And the mark of a good car is that when I drive it, I enjoy myself so much, I forget what a pain the Firebird has been.