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Thursday, March 10, 2016

World’s largest, running, Firebird Trans Am collection; 80 Pontiacs and counting

80 pristine examples of Pontiac Firebirds, Formulas, and Trans Ams are owned by Indiana’s Steve Hamilton.


Meet the Bird Man. Indiana’s Steve Hamilton owns the world’s largest, running, Pontiac Firebird Trans Am collection. The semi-retired electrician is not an automotive speculator, he just likes Firebirds. Hamilton bought his first Firebird in 1969. He liked the style, size, and the way the car handled. The next 100-or-so Firebirds and Trans Ams just happened. Hamilton’s automotive passion combined, with shrewd purchases made during several decades of car hunting, gave birth to a collection of some of the most prized Pontiacs ever built.
  Arrowhead emblem enthusiasts know that a Super Duty, or First-Gen Trans Am is a rare bird. Hamilton bought them in multiples, when their values were low. He was not content to stick with one generation of Firebird. All four generations of Firebird, from its debut in 1967 through the end of the model’s production in 2002, are represented. 

  Follow along as we see the collection and meet the man behind the wheel. 


Hamilton wheels his 1979 Pontiac Redbird, 4-speed around the parking lot.
Hamilton wheels his 1979 Pontiac Redbird to a car show in Louisville.


First meeting

  Steve Hamilton arrived at the Louisville Expo Center driving a 4-speed 1979 Firebird “Redbird” edition. Windows down, armed with his signature cigar, he had the look of a man who has been to more than his share of these Pontiac rodeos. Hamilton pulled his all-original, console-delete Redbird into the giant building for the annual POCI convention. Although, the understated Redbird was the only one of its kind at the Pontiac-Oakland show, it hardly suggested that the 70-year-old owner was the titleholder to the largest, running, Trans Am collection in the world.
  Lucky for us, we knew that where there’s smoke, there’s Firebirds. The wheels were in motion for Junkyard Life, with help from fellow ’Bird lover, Scott Scheel, to visit Hamilton’s ultimate Trans Am show in Indiana. Let’s go!



Whether it is a Super Duty, or a 1-of-8 convertible 1969 Trans Am, all generations of Pontiac’s Firebird are represented.
All generations of Pontiac’s Firebirds are represented in Hamilton’s collection. A flock of Second Generation (1970-1981 models) surround a super rare 1969 Trans Am convertible.


100 miles to Trans Am-ville 

  Junkyard Life hit the highway northbound to a cornfield in Indiana. Hamilton’s huge stash of fine feathered Birds will forever be our Firebird ‘Field of Dreams’ moment. Eighty Firebirds/Trans Ams. Housed in four buildings. All surrounded by corn.
   The doors swung open to Hamilton’s “Bird’s nests” and a flock of time capsules sat before us. Hamilton, a gracious host after a long day and a 100-plus mile road trip, guided us on a first-class tour and answered hours of questions about Trans Ams and collecting. 

  Where to begin? There were nine Super Duty T/As. Nine! Nine of the most sought-after, and valuable Trans Ams in existence. That’s not to say we scoffed at Hamilton’s three first-year 1969 Trans Ams coupes. Did we mention there was a ’69 T/A convertible clone in the mix, too? Restored to perfection in 1985 with correct T/A parts. We were blown away!
  So much to see. Every inch of the buildings were packed with cars and parts. There were Trans Ams in every color imaginable, Anniversary Editions on racks, a one-of-146 Brewster Green ’73 T/A. A one-of-17, 6-speed, solid roof (non t-top) 1994 25th Anniversary T/A. Bandit car, yes! Don’t trip over that 4-speed W50 Formula in Goldenrod Yellow. We didn’t want to miss anything. It was overload!


Hamilton owns nine Super Duty optioned Trans Ams.
Super Duty optioned 1974 Pontiac Trans Am in Buccaneer Red.


Wheels of fortune
   “I’ve owned Firebirds since 1969,” Hamilton said as he chewed on his cigar. “I started collecting in the mid-to-late 70’s and continued through the 1980s.”

  Hamilton bought most of his collection when the market was ripe and used Birds were plentiful. During those decades, old Trans Ams were just viewed as used cars. Nobody wanted the early models. It’s just the opposite now. Those low-production 1969-1973 Trans Ams get all the attention, and command a premium when a new owner takes the keys.
  “I paid $3,000 to $4,000 for them back then.”
  That wasn’t chump change, but Hamilton selected wisely, and built his collection on quality. Not junky cars. Some have been restored, but many remain complete and factory original.
  Word soon spread to would-be sellers that Hamilton was the man to see if you had an old Firebird Trans Am. That meant many beat-on, and banged-up T/As with Keystone mags, fat tires, and louvers over their rear window also landed at Hamilton’s doorstep. Intent on keeping the desirable ones, he culled the junk to make room and funds for restorations and better purchases. The collection grew.
  “I never intended to have this many Firebirds.” With that, Hamilton shrugs, “The collection just happened.”



So many treasured Pontiacs under one roof. The silver 10th Anniversary Trans Am gets overlooked next to the Goldenrod Yellow 4-speed Formula.
So many treasured Pontiacs under one roof. A silver 10th Anniversary Trans Am may get overlooked next to a 1976 Formula in Goldenrod Yellow paint with a 4-speed.

Who’s counting? 

  Hamilton claims 80 of his cars are “runners” worthy of being listed as part of his car collection. His definition of a “runner” means that the car is drive-able and presentable at your local car show. Not a pile of junk.
  Others may claim to have a larger collection of Trans Ams, but are they rust buckets, parts cars, and fields full of junk? Hamilton does not count the dozens of parts cars, non-running projects, and hulls that he owns as part of his collection. 


Although Hamilton does not considered the parts and project cars a part of his collection, if we counted you would find he owns more than 100 Firebirds and Trans Ams.
Hamilton’s project cars are not considered part of his collection. A total of more than 100 Firebirds and Trans Ams could be counted on the property. 


Hamilton owns four 1969 Trans Am coupes and a convertible clone.
1969 Pontiac Trans Ams are rare, unless you are a visitor to Steve Hamilton’s collection. 


Rare Birds
  Rounding up a list of the rarest of the rare in
Hamilton’s collection is no easy task. He owns multiples of Pontiac’s first Trans Am - the iconic 1969 model, of which, only 697 were built (8 convertibles, 689 coupes). Three complete 1969 Trans Am coupes would give pause to any Firebird fan. A fourth ’69 T/A coupe (Ram Air III, 4-speed) is now undergoing restoration. Hamilton was quick to note that his 1969 Trans Am convertible “clone” was built in 1985 using correct Trans Am parts. The drop top gets driven often and causes whiplash at car shows.
  “I figured that I would never own one of the original eight, so I built one,” said Hamilton.

Super Duty 455
  Nine Super Duty Trans Ams equipped with Pontiac’s fire-breathing 455-cubic-inch engine are also part of the collection. Some would say these valuable ’Birds are the collection. Only 1,296 Super Duty-equipped Trans Ams and Formulas were built during the 1973-1974 model years. With a scant 353 built in 1973, and 943 produced in 1974. I had never seen one of Pontiac’s race-bred engines in a Second Gen, let alone nine, before visiting Hamilton’s collection. 

  The Super Duty was built using many forged internals, free-flowing heads, and a beefy, reinforced, 4-bolt main block. A high-pressure oil pump (80-psi) and a baffled oil pan also provided plenty of lubrication inside the race-ready SD-455s. These under-rated, torque monsters (rated at 290hp at 4,000 RPM and 395-ft-lbs at 3,600 RPM) were capable of making more than 500hp with a few modifications. Pontiac’s flagship engine forged a potent reputation that pays big dividends when a pristine Super Duty crosses the auction block.
  Note: A limited number of Formula SD-455 were produced 43 in 1973; 57 in 1974. Each SD-455 Formula was equipped with a Trans Am shaker set-up. 


 Pontiac, still beating the drum for the all-but-extinct muscle car, developed their Super Duty 455 engine despite compromised compression ratios, gas wars, and ballooning insurance premiums. The detuned engine was the closest thing to the glory days of the muscle car.


Favorites 

  As we stood in one of Hamilton’s four “Bird’s Nest” buildings, we asked him to name his favorite Trans Am.
  “I like the round headlight cars,” Hamilton said, referring to the 1976 and older models.
  A quick survey of the collection and you will discover his favorite year of the round headlight ’Birds – 1976.
  “I have 12 of the ’76 models,” the collector noted. “But sentimentally, the black 1977 ‘Bandit’ car, that I bought in 1977, after seeing “Smokey and the Bandit” has to be up there.”



Hamilton owns 12 Firebird Trans Ams of 1976 vintage.
Every paint color offered on 1976 Firebird Trans Ams can be found in Hamilton’s collection.
1973 Super Duty Formula in Brewster Green.


Paint by number
  A collection of Trans Ams all painted the same color would be boring to some. Hamilton does not disappoint. He owns a Trans Am in each of the six colors offered by Pontiac in 1976. (Cameo White, Sterling Silver, Starlight Black, Firethorn Red, Goldenrod Yellow, and Carousel Red, which is actually a shade of orange.) Along with eight 1975 T/As, six 1974 models, covering each of the three paint options offered (Cameo White, Admirality Blue, and Buccaneer Red). All three 1973 Trans Am colors are accounted for, too (Cameo White, Brewster Green, and Buccaneer Red).
  Based on numbers alone, Hamilton attempted to complete his collection by covering the color palette of all the early Trans Ams. If I counted correctly, Hamilton owns 29 Firebirds/Trans Ams covering 1973 through the 1976 models. That’s just over 36 percent of the 80 total “runners” in the collection.
  The first-year Trans Am, a 1969 model, was only available in Cameo White. From 1970 until 1972, Trans Ams were offered in Cameo White or Lucerne Blue. Owning all factor color combos was easy until Pontiac started to expand their exterior colors options.



Stripes were painted on first generation Trans Am.
1969 Trans Ams featured painted stripes in Tyrol Blue.

Ron Kidd and Hamilton discuss the finer points of owning dream cars.
Hamilton has collected a few parts during the last 40 years. Ron Kidd has a few questions for Steve Hamilton. 


T/A Nats
  In 1985, Hamilton attended the first Trans Am Nationals in his 1969 Pontiac Trans Am. That same car has been to every Trans Am Nationals since – an astounding 31 consecutive years. Hamilton’s first-year Trans Am (1-of-697 built) was the only ’69 T/A to attend during the show’s first few years at the Dayton Airport Hotel in Ohio. Each year, more of Hamilton’s cars have appeared in the show as his collection grew. Transporting multiple cars (as many as nine) can be a challenge. Oftentimes, Hamilton has relied on eager members of the Indy Firebird Club to ferry the cars to Ohio, or he secures a car hauler to deliver a few of his revered Ponchos to the T/A Nats.



1973 Firebird Formula in Ascot Silver with black vinyl top.


Drives them, snow or shine
  Hamilton believes that his collection should be driven and enjoyed. After a recent trip to a weekend-long car show in Indianapolis, Hamilton faced a dilemma. Should he drive one of his prized 1969 Trans Ams home in three-inches of snow? The unexpected snowstorm had surprised the contingent of car owners. Making wimps out of many owners – not Hamilton. He drove the ’69 T/A home, undaunted by salt and snow. Nothing a careful driver, good bath, and detailing couldn’t handle.



Steve Hamilton is not afreaid to drive his collection of Pontiac Trans Ams.
Driving a rare 1969 Pontiac Trans Am in 3 inches of snow.
Hamilton steered the 1969 Trans Am home safely.

Hood up on this Lucerne Blue Trans Am for easy battery access. Maintaining a fleet of 80 ’Birds requires continual attention.


Magazines/publicity
  Hamilton’s collection has been featured in High Performance Pontiac and Pontiac Enthusiast magazines. GM and the Pontiac Motor Division also provided a publication to new buyers in 2001 that included a feature story on Hamilton’s collection.


Future Plans

  Sharing the collection with like-minded enthusiasts has always been part of Hamilton’s plan. As the hospitable host to hundreds of guided tours, Hamilton and his collection have become a legend in the Pontiac world. His blue collar blueprint shows that the average guy, without deep pockets, can build a garage full of dream cars purely on dedication and determination.
  A Trans Am museum is the next logical step. Hamilton has bounced that idea around, but that may not happen until he increases the size of the buildings currently storing his collection.

  “The buildings keep shrinking,” Hamilton says wryly. “I’ve added onto one of them, three times already.”
  In the meantime, this full-time Trans Am collector has no intentions of slowing down.

  My visit to Hamilton’s, and exploring the 35-year evolution of the Pontiac Firebird was a treat for this Firebird-Trans Am fan. I can’t wait to go back!

Jody Potter

— Junkyard Life



Anthony Powell, Jody Potter, and Ron Kidd mug with Steve Hamilton in the midst of the world’s largest running Trans Am collection.
Anthony Powell, Jody Potter, and Ron Kidd with Steve Hamilton in the midst of the world’s largest, running, Firebird-Trans Am collection.


 

Questions?
I’m sure he’s heard them all before, but we had to ask:

Do you drive them all?
“Yes. That’s the point. They were meant to be driven.”

Which one’s the fastest?
“Hate to say it, but it’s the V6. 1989 Anniversary turbo car is tops,” said Hamilton.


Hamilton owns Firebirds from each of the four generations, from 1967-2002.
A notch back optioned 1988 GTA in red.

This silver 1973 Formula will make you forget about the optional trunk spoiler. The lines are striking.

Hamilton has enough parts to build plenty more ’Birds.

Steve Hamilton has cornered the market on 1970-1981 Pontiac Trans Ams.
Steve Hamilton has cornered the market on 1970-1981 Pontiac Trans Ams. How many do you have?

1973 Trans Am in Cameo White — the first year for the John Schinella designed giant hood bird decal.

Under hood shot of a 1974 Super Duty 455 Formula with shaker.
Crestwood Brown Super Duty 455 Firebird Formula, 1-of-57 1974 SD Formulas.

Buccaneer Red 1973 Formula with a stack of honeycombs wheels.

Hamilton bought a black 1977 Bandit Trans Am in 1977 after watching Burt play the "Bandit.” It was a repo bargain.

Hard to find, Brewster Green 1973 Formula Super Duty 455 in close quarters.

Hood up detail photo of Pontiac’s Super Duty 455 engine.

Just another 1974 Super Duty Trans Am.

A Ginger Brown 1975 Firebird Formula with stripe.

Hamilton looks over a few Trans Ams and one that serves as a storage shelf for extra parts.

You could find the Firebird of your dreams somewhere in Hamilton’s vast collection.
Trans Ams are packed like sardines in one of Hamilton’s buildings.

Third Gen 1988 Trans Am GTA notchback.

A large hood bird frames the shaker hole in the raised yellow Trans Am hood.
Several original, but worn, vintage project Firebirds are waiting for restoration in Hamilton’s shop.

Having too many Firebirds is never a problem unless your buildings keep shrinking.
A 2002 Collector Edition Trans Am convertible is perched above thirty-or-so ’Birds.  

Just beyond the solid roof 1994 25th Anniversary T/A sits the vintage firetruck that divided the Firebirds in Hamilton’s main building.

Know an interesting car collector or about a junkyard that we need to visit? Tips for our projects? 
Send emails to Jody Potter at junkyardbull@gmail.com

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Barn Find: 1968 Corvette big block 427, 4-speed, convertible mothballed after police chase


Uncovering a legend. Urban legends have a way of surviving the years. In car guy circles, urban legends can take a somewhat true story and stretch it, until it becomes simply unbelievable. We love those stories and chase them, often into futile labyrinths.
  Not this time.

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?
  Jody and I called each other names, and made fun of the other one, for even thinking this legend could be true. 
  “You are not going to believe this,” I said. 
  Jody replied, “You’re right, I don’t.” 
  I really didn’t believe it myself. A 1968 Corvette convertible 427, with a four-speed, hidden in a north Alabama garage since the late 1970s after a police chase? What kind of folklore is that?


This 1968 Corvette has been parked in seclusion most of its life in a rickety barn in north Alabama.
Ron Kidd points out that this big block 1968 Corvette was part of local hot rod folklore and has been hidden for the better part of the last 42 years.


Seeing is believing
  But, the legend was true! Jody and I owe each other apologies. Our chase ended, as the aforementioned police chase did, in a garage that had seen far better days. The doors on the ramshackle garage opened for the first time ever, to anyone outside of a small, family circle. A 1968 Corvette awaited.

Excalibur, Is that you?
  This story began in 1974, when our hero, Mike, needed a car. He was a high school teen with Corvette fever, working at a part-time job at the S&H Green Stamp store (see the Fun Facts below). Lucky for Mike, a dealership that specialized in Corvette sales, service and restoration, was temptingly located close to his job. Stern negotiations and $2,900 later, the dealership pronounced him into a lifetime marriage to this 1968 Corvette.



427 emblems on the hood alert would-be racers that this is a Big Block Vette.
Big block glory! Emblems notify all lookers that 427-cubic-inches of muscle reside beneath the hood.


It’s good to be King
  Can you imagine growing up in a small town as the Corvette guy? Spending your senior year of high school driving a big block Vette is inconceivable for most of us. Kings are made off lesser criteria than that!
  Could you be trusted at that age to not smash a loud pedal? We couldn’t be. 



A barn is not the best place to store a vintage muscle car, because rodents and other critters like to make nest, and destroy your prize.
The big block 427 (not the L88 kind) has seen better days. Critters have deposited something besides high-test gasoline on and around the carburetor.


Options? We don’t need options!
  The only options we could spot on the barn-banished Vette were the 427 ground-pounder and the removable hardtop. This muscle machine was made to run without a lot to worry about. 
  Manual windows almost go without saying, when you consider the lack of power steering and power brakes. Air conditioning would take up precious space and rob a little horsepower, so leave that off too. How about the famous Corvette tilt and telescoping steering wheel? That was a pretty cool option that was offered in only a couple of GM cars in 1968. Not this time. If the turn signal stalk wasn’t required, it may not have been optioned on this Vette either.


Mike made a few changes inside the 4-speed 1968 Vette during his teen years – he ditched the stock steering wheel and installed some first-gen Camaro seats. Remember custom was all the rage in the 1970s.


Street outlaw
  Big Block Mike used the car for transportation and fun. One night at the local cruise haunt, Mike was challenged by four guys in four cars. Usually, one hot rod would call him out then hand over his hat, but this time four were ready to run. They drove to a secluded area and Mike lined them up, one after the other, and took their ice cream money. 
  A brief monetary gain for the fun of racing. That “fun” cost him clutches and rear tires at rates greater than if he had bought any other car.


 “That” guy
  The only problem with everyone knowing you drive the fastest car in town — is that everyone knows you drive the fastest car in town. People talk and during the 1970s, the Citizen’s Band Radio craze was everywhere. CB’s were the latest, really cool thing. Then, the police got them. That is not good for a young hot rodder with a big block Vette.


The Vette has suffered damage to the fiberglass tail section and is missing the rear bumper.
The fiberglass-bodied ’68 Vette has been beaten and abused. Housed in a structure with a deteriorating roof, and piled with decades of "stuff", the Vette suffered damage to the left quarter panel when a wheel came off.


Which way did he go?
  After outrunning local law enforcement embarrassingly bad, south bound, Big Block Mike turned around and met them again, this time, north bound. This stunt angered the cops even more, as Mike’s friend listening on a newly acquired police scanner overheard. 
  Could we say it was another guy in a red Corvette convertible? No, that small town thing came back to haunt Mike very quickly. So, that left one option… Grow a beard, join Green Peace and have them ship Mike, and the Corvette to Alaska for whale watching duty.* Then again, there may be another option. Hide the car. So he did. And it is still there.

Junkyard Life Uncovers the Ultimate Barn Find
  Yes, we did. Thank you, Big Block Mike, for letting us even near the car. It really is not every day we uncover a mystery 427 Corvette in the dark recesses of a single car garage. That’s what dreams are for!

Ron Kidd
— Junkyard Life



Mike shuffles in the darkened building that has housed his Corvette for 42 years.
Big Block Mike, left, walks in the shadows around the 1968 Corvette he purchased in 1974 when he was 17-years-old.


Corvette Fun Facts:

  • 1968-1969 Corvettes equipped with 427 engines had a predisposed condition of overheating, due to a design flaw that didn’t allow the beast within to cool properly.
  • Despite higher production numbers for the 427 C.I.D and four different horsepower configurations, enthusiast grew to prefer the 327 and the 350 small block in the 1968-1969 Corvettes. If they were going to drive them at all, the 327 cars did not feel as “nose heavy” as the 427 cars. Also, the 327 cars had street manners more refined than the rumbly Rat motor.
  • 1968 was the year Chevrolet used the Corvette center piece from the famous Rally Wheel on other cars to promote the new power disc brakes. Although four-wheel disc were already in place for the Corvette, other cars now had them as optional equipment on the front end.
  • Power door locks were not available on Corvettes until 1978.
  • Despite lightweight fiberglass bodies, Corvettes actually are quite hefty. Our feature car, according to books, weighs almost 3,500 lbs.
  • S&H Green Stamps, although not synonymous with Corvettes or really even Corvette owners, actually helped Big Block Mike buy the feature car. (S&H Green Stamps were a huge fad of the 1930s until the late 1980s. Shoppers earned the stamps during everyday purchases, saved them, and redeemed them for items in the huge S&H Green Stamp catalog. Which at one time, was larger than the Sears Catalog.)
 

* Editor’s note: A line that we can almost guarantee has not been used before on Junkyard Life and hopefully will not be used again -“Grow a beard, join Green Peace and have them ship him and the Corvette to Alaska for whale watching duty.” — Also never ask Junkyard Life’s Ron Kidd for legal advice. This is what you could get.

67% of all 1968 Corvettes were equipped with a big block 427 engine.
Barn find truth - it can get ugly under the hood. More than 19,126 of the 28,566 (67%) 1968 Corvettes were equipped with one-of-seven available 427 engine options.

A look into the seats of a 1968 Corvette time machine. Left sitting untouched for decades in a wooden barn/shed structure.

Low down angle of the 1968 Corvette "gills" designed by Larry Shinoda.
Side pipes have been removed. 

Only 46% of the 18,630 Corvette convertibles were optioned with the hardtop.
18,630 Corvette convertibles were built for 1968. Of those, 8,735 (46%) had the optional auxiliary hardtop. 3,050 (16%) of those were covered in the optional vinyl covering.

All Corvettes are red may be true, if enough time passes. British Green was the most popular color in 1968.
Paint code 983 tells us this ’68 Vette was originally painted British Green. British Green (4,779 or 16.7%) was the most popular color on Vettes in 1968. Lemans Blue (4,722 or 16.5%) was a close second.

Radio was missing and gauge surround was hanging by wires.
The gauge cluster and radio surround was pulled out of the dash and left on top of the 4-speed console in the ’68 Vette.

Driving old Corvettes is the best way to keep them alive. Parking them is death.
Every inch of the storage space surrounding the big block Corvette was filled with decades old clutter. 

Steep gears used to break these tires loose in any gear.
The hot rod Vette, with steep gears, still wears the big rear tires and Cragar S/S Super Sport chrome wheels from its glory days of street racing. 

Racing-themed emblems helped make the Corvette a legend.
The Vettes famed crossed flags adorn the nose of the ’68. Missing in 1968 was the "Sting Ray" badge. In 1969, Chevrolet would add the "Stingray " name back on the Corvette, but as "Stingray" - one word.

The muscular hood was required to clear the big block 427 engines.
Big block 427 Corvettes received this special hood in 1968. The L-88 versions, only 80 built in 1968, needed an even taller hood to clear that engine’s high-rise aluminum intake. 

After suffering abuse at the hands of a teen driver then spending decades in seclusion, that teen driver is in no shape to care for his beloved Corvette.
We hope better days are ahead for Mike’s ’68 Vette. A dealership repaired the quarter panel after a loose wheel mishap ripped away a chunk of the body.

Huge aerodynamic advantages were seen in the 1968 versus the 1967 Corvette.
The sloped-nose on the redesigned 1968 Vette provided a huge aerodynamic advantage over the C2 models. 

Critics complained that the 1968 Corvette was bigger on the exterior but smaller on the interior.
Proper storage situations make a big difference when protecting your classic car investment and your memories.

The Vette’s owner hid the car after a outrunning the cops during a police chase.
The mystery Corvette remains in hiding until its owner can fund a restoration and relive the glory days once more.

Ron Kidd, left, and Jody Potter, right, brave the frigid 20-degree temps to explore the Corvette barn find legend.



Do you have a classic or muscle car barn find? Send us details and we’re on the way!  Send emails to Jody Potter at junkyardbull@gmail.com or Ron Kidd at Kidd403@bellsouth.net.