photos by: Joe DiDario
A Lifelong Firebird Fanatic finds his Golden Bird in an Unusual Situation
Your author is just going to start this off by pointing out that one of my all-time dream cars is a ’78 Pontiac Trans Am — due largely to Smokey and the Bandit, but partly because it was the year that performance was again on the rise, after being emasculated by the EPA and CAFE. Available with the W72 package and with the WS6 handling suspension, dished wheels and 4-wheel disc brakes, it was the best of both worlds; Hollywood frame and (some) actual performance to back up its image.
Various other project vehicles, time, money and effort has kept second-gens out of your author’s garage up to this point, but some day I hope to remedy that. Until then, I’ll have to admire cars like this particular example, owned by Larry Middleton from Hackettstown, New Jersey.
Larry scored this ’78 T/A out of a classifieds section of Special Interest and Auto Classifieds dating back to May, 2004. As he tells us, “I was in the market for a BMW M3 at the time, because I had always liked the way German cars handled. In an ad that read, “1978 Trans Am G-Machine. EFI 455, T-Tops, gold/tan, many suspension mods, Herb Adams & Trans Am Specialties parts, nitrous, 200 MPH speedo, one owner …..etc., etc.”
He continues, “The ad was quite long and was in the direction of what I was planning to build. Still wanting the M3, I let it pass. Four months later, in September 2005, I saw the same ad in the same publication and on the Performance Years forum with pictures. After talking with the owner, I decided to take a look at the car not far away in a neighboring state tucked in a garage. Upon opening the garage door, I was greeted by a T/A with no front end sheet metal, engine on a stand, bent frame horn, ’80s-era two-tone gold/brown paint, .45 caliber bullet hole in the driver’s quarter panel, many boxes of parts on tables and a shed full of more parts. This wasn’t the numbers-matching, all-original fairly tale car and for this build — that wasn’t even a remote thought.”
Sounds like the typical “Craigslist joke” that’s so common today, but inspecting a car that’s not quite what the seller’s description is nothing new. Larry bit anyway, and kissed his dreams of M3 ownership goodbye. However, being as how he’s enamored with the road racing/autocross set, and the idea of putting a well-balanced machine in the corners, Larry wouldn’t be building this car for a Saturday night cruiser or a street/strip warrior. It’s built to handle and look the part — as well as compete in open road events like the Silver State Classic and Pony Express.
We initially caught up with Mr. Middleton while at the 2015 Trans Am Nationals in Dayton, Ohio, and although scheduling conflicts kept us from shooting it that weekend, we did manage to send one of our troopers to Larry’s neck of the woods in Jersey. The car looks just as stunning as it did last August, and that’s not without the complete overhaul that Larry performed with the help of a few friends. It’s also become a reason for Larry to start his own business, 2nd-Gen Engineering — combining his love for second-gen Firebirds (he’s had a few of them) and his background in mechanical engineering.
Offering performance upgrades and suspension hardware for classic vehicles, a lot of Larry’s own insight has been landed to his personal Trans Am you’re looking at on this page. It’s a blend of aftermarket hardware compiled from Global West, Koni, Viking, Pro-Touring F-body, Rancho, a Watts link, and a welded subframe — adding some much-needed rigidity to the Golden Bird’s uni-body construction.
However, the drivetrain needed to be severely upgraded if this car was even going to be remotely compete in modern road course and open road racing. So under the hood you won’t find a mildly warmed-over 400 or 455 — what you will find, is a Holley fuel-injected, 474 cubic-inch Pontiac powerplant. Sporting TRW .060 overbore pistons, factory connecting rods and crankshaft in the bottom end with a 10.7:1 compression ratio for a pump-gas friendly foundation, it’s basically ready to handle just about anything you can throw at it.
Sitting on top of the stroker Poncho block, are aluminum Kaufman Racing Equipment cylinder heads that flow 312 cfm (intake)/244 cfm (exhaust), with the help of Crane 1.65:1 rocker arms, maximizing airflow for ultimate performance. A COMP Cams bumpstick and Edelbrock intake manifold help create a well-breathing mill that delivers exactly what Larry needs it to.
With a lot of air flowing in and out of the engine, it only makes sense to ditch the OEM exhaust and replace it with Tribal Tubes Tri-Y ceramic coated headers with an oval X-pipe, 3-inch tubing and Spintech mufflers that exit through factory-style dual dual tips to provide a bit of nostalgic appeal. Feeding the thirsty big-inch mill is a Walbro GS342 fuel pump, Holley 900 CFM throttle body and Projection adjustable regulator and 85-lb. injectors. Keeping the engine cool is an Afco aluminum radiator and Delta PAG 12-inch/16-inch dual electric programmable fans — a perfect compliment to when its stuck in traffic or hitting the corners on an autocross track.
Larry rows the gears, via a T-56 manual gearbox that has benefited from a Centerforce dual-friction, 12-inch clutch, triple carbon fiber syncros, C5R main case with a Viper tail housing, a GM flywheel and a shorted SRT10 Ram shifter. All of that spells out a strong combination to handle the power and abuse that’s so typically common in a road race machine. A 3.5-inch aluminum driveshaft spares both, dead weight and rotating mass, and connects to a 8.5-inch 10-bolt rearend, stuffed with 3.73 gears, an Eaton Trutrac diff and stock GM axles.
All of this rolls on a set of Forgeline WC3 wheels (measuring 18-inches in diameter, with a staggered width front and rear; 8×5, front, 9.5, rear). These very attractive, effective and functional steamrollers are wrapped in Toyo TR1 rubber. Taking into account the staggered dimensions of the wheels, the tires continue that trend; 255/40 in the front and 285/35, putting the power down. Bringing the car to a halt, are Corvette C6 Z06 calipers with Hawk Performance pads and DBA slotted rotors. You have to remember, this car is now putting down 540 horsepower and 600-pound foot of torque to the tires. That’s almost triple the output of the original 400 cubic-inch powerplant, and the old discs just weren’t up to par with such a build.
The exterior modifications are subtle — adding custom touches, without negatively effecting the timeless style and presentation of a 1978 Trans Am. Sporting a Y88-esque theme (aka, Gold ‘Bandit Edition’), there a some tweaks that will otherwise set it apart from a more pedestrian version of its contemporaries. The body lines are about as perfect you can get, miles improved over how these cars left the factory. The classic “German-style” lettering typically found on the ’77-78 Y88, Y84, and Y82 cars, are accounted for, albeit, with some red inserts incorporated into the color pattern. Likewise, the “screaming eagle” on the hood. Adding some darkening contrast to the exterior, are rear twilight blackouts and tinted windows.
Larry is continuously upgrading the car and is always putting the car though its paces. It’s an ever-evolving process of trial and error, and consistent upgrading to ensure competitiveness and relevance in a 21st century sport. When he’s not at the track, he’s either attending car shows or is in the shop crafting, building or tweaking on his projects. He’s actually gearing up for this year’s Trans Am Nationals with an aftermarket EFI system, where your author is potentially looking forward to taking a spin in the Golden Bird. Fingers crossed!
Rick Seitz is the owner and founder of AutoCentric Media, and has a true love and passion for all vehicles. When he isn’t tuning, testing, or competing with the brand’s current crop of project vehicles, he’s busy tinkering and planning the next modifications for his own cars.