Friday, November 29, 2013

Two Years and no Trans Am post?!?!

What the hell is wrong with me?!?!  I have been giving you great car information for two years and have not made a post dedicated to my 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.  I have offended the car and car gods.  Maybe this is why the T/A has been giving me so much trouble.  LOL  I wish that was the case.  Time to get some of my man card points back and get back on the good side of the gods.

The search for a hobby began about five years ago.  Turns out that the hobby was going to be fixing up an old car.  Man, was I in for a rude awakening.  Having not worked on cars before, I was up for learning something new.  I had always watched automobile racing and car programs on various networks growing up.  Yeah!!!  It's not as easy as they make it look.  This process, which isn't done, has taught me a lot about my abilities, patience and the car.  Will I do stuff differently with the next car?  YOU BET!!!!

After some Ebay and Craigslist searches and my wife's input on what she would like to cruise in and drive, we settled on a late 2nd generation Trans Am (1979-1981).  One of my favorite movies is Smokey and the Bandit (I and II...III was not that good) and Suzanne had a HotWheels car.  I found a 79 on Ebay for sale locally and made the deal to buy it on June 18, 2008.  It was in decent shape and needed very little to get it driving.  The body and paint were good enough for a drivers car, but the interior was trashed.  Luckily the guy was selling the car with a bunch of parts which included reupholstered front and rear seats.

The adventures with the car started when I went to pick up the car.  I rented a car hauler and had a friend, with a big truck, go to haul it back home.  As we tried to load the car the tongue of the trailer popped off the hitch ball.  The hauler, the car and me behind the wheel roll forward and smack into the tailgate of the guy's truck.  I get the car off the trailer and find that there is a dent and nice crease in this fairly new truck.  I told him that I'd cover the repairs, but he filed a claim with the place I rented the trailer from and got his truck fixed.  Here is what it looked like when I got it.

This is the pile of stuff that came with the car.  Check out the cheesy 80s wheels that came off the car.
 Junk in the trunk.
 Base Firebird tail lights on a Trans Am.
Busted door handles on both sides.
 All the years of dirt still on it while work starts.
 Let the fixing existing problems and finding new problems as I go, merry-go-round start.

 My in-laws came to VA to visit right after I got the car home.  My father in-law helped inspect the car to make sure it was road worthy.  Big problem to start...One of the previous owners lost the key to the wheel locks.  The wheels needed to come of to check the brakes and the tires were very old, dry rotted and worn out.  Plus someone put on fake Centerline wheels with very wide tires on the back.  So wide that they rubbed the inside of the wheel well.  Paint was worn off and the tires where chewed up.  After a couple hours with an angle grinder he was able to grind each lock to hex lug nut.  Pretty slick idea.  After a brake pad swap, new battery, oil change and new spark plugs and wires, the car was road ready.  I found an original set of 15" snowflake wheels and new BF Goodrich Radial TA tires had the car looking good.

I drove the car for a bit.  Man this car is so loud!!!  Someone had put on huge Flowmaster mufflers and didn't run tail pipes out the back.  They stopped at the muffler, so the exhaust exit was right under the rear seats.  A new exhaust was on the list of repairs, but that was waiting until I had the engine rebuilt.

I swapped out the seats with the set I got from the previous owner.  WOW, did that make a difference!!!  The seats in there were torn and the springs were broken and poking through in spots.  I ordered a new set of interior door panels from  The interior is pretty much perfect now.  The original radio was gone and the opening was cut to fit a newer unit.  I got a good deal on a new head unit that was AM/FM/CD with iPod connection.  Speakers are still crappy, but now I have tunes.
Nasty, torn up interior.
Seat comparison.

The first major repair strikes.  We went out for a drive and noticed the car was shifting a bit funny.  I come to realize that second gear isn't catching in normal drive.  It will grab, but slip, if I start to shift from low, to second, to drive.  Amazingly, I was able to get a year of driving out of it before first gear goes out too.  I had the car towed to a reputable transmission shop for a rebuild.  It was sad because I had it picked up before I went to work and ended up following it, on the flatbed, for half of my commute.  Picked up the car a few days later.  Car drove so much better.  I didn't realize how worn out the transmission was.

Over the next two years we drove the car, fixed small things and sold parts that I no longer needed.  Selling off the parts helped fund new parts and saved for the future engine build.  I got rid of the moldy, stinky trunk mat and used used truck bed liner on the truck floor.  A neighbor helped polish the car to try to get rid of the cheese cloth look on the hood, but it didn't work.

After the good polish.

In the mean time, I was driving the car and going to local car shows.  I tried a couple times to start a car club.  I met up with a few guys from Frederick, MD.  Drove up there a few times, even with the ailing transmission.  My friend, Tommy, had looked at the car and spotted the few pieces of the gold trim the car had.  He asked me if it was a Y84, Special Edition car.  I told him that I didn't know and figured one of the owners swapped these parts in to make a clone.  He told me I should send my VIN number to the PHS (Pontiac Historical Society) and get the details on my car.  A month or two go by and I get a large envelope in the mail.  I started going through the papers and found a copy of the original dealer invoice.  Someone at PHS made a point of highlighting one of the options.  Yes, you guessed right.  It was the Y84, Special Edition code.  That means I have a car that should have all the gold interior trim parts and the exterior has the gold hood bird and all the gold stripes.  It doesn't have them now, but it will when I get to the body work stage.
Out with a couple friends and their GTOs.

I refinished the snowflake wheels to match those on the Special Edition models.  Talk about a lot of labor.  It took almost four days to do a pair of wheels.  I kept the tires mounted to save some cost.  The time sucking came from taping off the front edges of the cut-outs of each wheel.  The cut-out portions are the only parts to be painted.  I could not find any kind of tape thin enough to cover the face.  So, I had to use standard masking tape and used an x-acto knife to trim the excess tape off.  I went through 3-4 blades because they kept dulling on the wheel.  After that a coat of etching primer, to help the paint stick, and a couple coats of gold paint and the wheels were done.  Now the car is starting to look how a Trans Am is supposed to look.

The Frederick club didn't work out.  I tried, one last time, to set up a Pontiac club.  That one had the same fate as the MD club.  The right group of people will come along and be there for the long haul.

The day had finally come when the engine was ready for a rebuild.  The oil and exhaust leaks were just too much to ignore.  At the time I had a friend that had been building a 1967 Firebird over the last 10+ years.  I should have taken that as a sign of what might be coming my way.  I was getting his advise on how to build the engine and what parts to buy.  I had a very tight budget and working with someone that was used to spending money like there was no end, was challenging.  I ended up keeping the engine mostly stock.  New pistons and cam were the only major mods done to the engine.  I had the heads and carb rebuilt while it was at the machine shop.  I found a machine shop within an hour of me that wasn't going to charge me an arm and leg for the work.  HAHAHAHA  Yeah, I ended up paying an arm and leg and LOTS of aggravation.
Tearing down the front end to get the engine out easier.

We had gotten the engine out of the car, torn down and looked over to see if it was suitable for a rebuild.  I had my "friend" look over my parts list, before ordering through Summit, and he agreed with everything on the list.  The engine was already at the shop getting "worked on" while I was waiting for my parts order.  I use "worked on" loosely because there was no work being done on the engine.  I deliver all the parts to the shop and a few days later I get a call saying I ordered the wrong pistons.  Here the engine was rebuilt before and bored .030 over.  The friend agreed that I needed .030 over pistons and rings.  The cylinders were worn too much to re-hone and use the parts I ordered and the cylinders had to be machined .060 over.  Another trip to the shop and parts order and a delay in work.  All the while, I fought getting the builder on the phone or to return messages.  There were a few times I thought he took my deposit and engine and closed up his business.  I had it out with the "friend" and told him to take a hike.  His claimed engine knowledge did not benefit me.  All I ended up with were excuses and a lost friendship.  He got a visit from karma.  About a year later, after he built his super-fantastic-highly-engineered-monster-engine and the car mostly done, one of the lifter housings broke and all of his work went down the drain.
Engine all torn apart.
 A cool view of the cam through the lifter valley.

With the engine at the shop, I had plenty of time to get the rest of the crappy exhaust out and do some work on the frame and firewall.  Many years of greasy road dirt build up had to be scraped off.  A gallon of paint thinner was used to to clean the frame and firewall.  Man, that was a huge, stinky mess.  The garage floor still shows the battle scars.  A couple rattle cans of semi-gloss black paint and the car was ready for the engine to be put back.
What I thought would be a 2 month turn around ended up being 4 months and about double my money.  Before I brought  the engine home, I had the shop do a dyno tune on it.  The 1st pull registered about 313hp and 381 torque.  The builder de-tuned it slightly for better road manners.  The final numbers were 288hp and 372 torque.  These numbers are at the fly wheel.  That's still pretty good, considering the stock engine was rated at 180hp.

A real friend helped me get the engine home and on the engine stand.  It took me a few days of beating and banging, but I got the engine back in the car all by myself.  That is a major accomplishment that no one can take from me.  It was a hassle trying the get the right combination of engine and headers to get it between the frame rails.  Lots of fine adjustments with the engine hoist and piece of pipe.  Yes, I used a big pipe as a pry bar for getting the engine just right to get the engine mounts lined up and the transmission lined back up.  I still have no idea how I got the 2 upper transmission bolts in with my big hands.  There was really no room from the top or bottom to reach them.  After that it was all a matter of putting the accessories and radiator/core support back on and running the new wire harness.  After all that, I was stoked to actually fire up the car.  It was going to be crazy loud since I was running open headers.  All the car wanted to do was turn over.  It would not stay running without me keeping the gas pedal pushed down.  Time for another break from working on the hunk of junk. 

A couple weeks go by and my in-laws come through town on their way to their vacation.  My father in-law wanted to help get the engine going and help me get the new 2.5" exhaust in place.  After spending a few minutes checking over my work, he decided it was time to see what might be going on mechanically.  The electrical seemed fine or else the engine wouldn't even turn over.  A choke and some minor carb adjustments was all that was needed to keep the engine running.  After that the exhaust took a couple hours to get in place.  Simple measuring and pipe cutting and hanger fabrication seemed like a cake walk compared to everything else I completed.  This car sounds bad-ass now.

Now it was time to put the front end body work back on.  That job was pretty uneventful.  Swinging the one fender around to mount, I ended up clipping the door.  I put a nice ding in the door that was spotless.  Needless to say, I was pissed at myself.  There are some alignment issues with the panels, but that's due to the fact I put new body bushing on the core support.  I still need to change the body bushing where the sub-frame connects to the body.

The day has finally come for taking the T/A out of the garage for it's first voyage.  It lasted about a block when I heard the distinct sound of metal dragging the ground.  Back in the garage and some more work to raise the exhaust up.  Time fore another trip out.  That went well until I had to make a quick stop for someone crossing the street.  The brakes didn't feel right.  There was very little feel in the peddle.  Up on jack stands we go again.  Check all the lines to make sure none got damaged while dropping the engine in.   Made a couple minor adjustments too and put the car back on the ground.  Still no change.  My mind went to the engine not creating enough vacuum to supply the power booster.  The engine vacuum tested out fine.  Well, now what am I going to do?!?  The next thing to swap out was the brake booster and master cylinder.  I'm not sure of their age, so it's time for a new set.  Replacing a brake booster, with all the body panels on the car is difficult.  I ended up buying a set of those ratcheting crescent wrench because it was impossible to position a standard wrench on the nuts behind the booster.  Got those swapped out and the system bled.  Time for another drive.  NOPE!!!  The new booster didn't work either.  Maybe I still had air in the lines.  More bleeding the system and still nothing.  I go back to thinking of a vacuum issue with the engine.  I buy one of those reserve tanks and bolt it in.  Yeah, don't waste your money on one of those.  The next part to try was adding one of those external vacuum pumps.  Wired that in and sealed the vacuum connection to the engine.  Still nothing.  Maybe I still have air in the lines.  Bleed some more brake fluid out and still nothing.  At this point I'm thinking there may be stuck calipers of clogged lines somewhere.

Part of my brain refuses to let the vacuum issue go.  With the engine taken out of the picture with the new pump, I go to the new booster, but how could I have a string of two bad boosters.  It was worth a shot swapping that out again.  Before I do anything with the current one in the car, I connect the vacuum pump to it to see, more likely hear, any change in the pump and how it runs.  I turn the key and sit in the drivers seat for 15 seconds.  Like the clouds parting and that first ray of sun coming through, I hear the glorious sound of the pump changing pitch.  A few more seconds later the pumps electric cut-off kicks in.  The new booster works.  CRAP!!!  Now I have to change out the booster again.  A job that isn't fun on the hands.  While I was pulling the old/new booster out a few parts come out of the back of it.  Turned out that the booster I put in was broken from when I bought it.  As luck has it, I'm right at the end of the one year mark of the parts store warranty running out.  I take the booster back with my original receipts, which took forever to find, and get my money back.  Yeah, that's right.  It took a year, working on and off, trying to catch the problem.  More bleeding of brake fluid.  At this point I have gone through three bottles of fluid.

Test drive number....Oh hell, I've lost count at this point.  I'm just excited to have this issue fixed and be able to drive the car.  Not so fast, big guy.  The car has one more trick up it's wheel well.  Turns out that the headers I installed almost two years ago drag while braking.  I think it's the flange that connects the header to the reducer going into the exhaust.  Another Summit order for all the parts to rebuild the front suspension.  I read some posts on forums of guys changing the springs and the new springs giving them a little extra ground clearance.  I'd be happy with them being stiffer and prevent the nose dive.  I wanted to get the car into a shop for it since I know it will take me multiple weekends making the changes, but job troubles caused me to postpone the shop and re-evaluate what our future holds for us.  I wasn't sure if I was going to get it to the shop or try to tackle it myself.  The only thing that has me worried is getting the springs out and in.  Many professional mechanics caution DIYers about this because you could get seriously injured.  The spring holds a lot of energy.  If you don't secure the spring, while relieving the pressure, it could fly out and hit you.  I wasn't sure about taking on that risk, even though I would secure the spring to prevent any incidents.

During a company shutdown I started to tackle the suspension rebuild.  The bad thing was that I only got 4 days of work in before going back to work.  It took about another 4 weekends to get everything done.  I lost some prime fall driving time.  I started with the driver side first and left the passenger side put together as a reference.  At some points I turned to YouTube to get some pointers on how to remove some of the pressed in metal parts.  Lots of beating and banging and cutting and everything was apart.  I followed all the safety precautions for getting the springs in and out and had no issues.  All the parts going back on the car where cleaned and painted.  I must have scraped pounds of greasy grime off everything.  It made quite the mess. Now I did the reverse procedure and put all the new parts in and reassembled the car. I knew all the little tricks and it was time to move to the passenger side.  All that work was done without any problems.  I ended up gaining about 1.5" of ground clearance up front.  I took the car out for a spin and there was no exhaust scraping.  I did another brake system bleed while the wheels were off and the brakes feel way better.  I won't win any stopping competitions, but who needs to stop in a Trans Am.  The Bandit just kept his right foot planted on the gas pedal.  The steering is very stiff, almost like something is binding up, but it works.  Time to take it to the shop and have the alignment done and get the good tune up for some spring driving that's only a few short months away.

So folks, after two years, here is my history of the 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.  Many thanks go out to all who helped me out and to my wife.  She has had to put up with me threatening to sell/burn/destroy the car when repairs haven't gone as I expected.  Stay tuned for more misadventures of the T/A.