Sunday, November 10, 2019

1979 Pontiac Trans Am Rescue

A bird in the hand is way better! Have you considered that our treasured dream cars are rapidly becoming endangered species? Cars we could have bought even 20 years ago in decent shape are disappearing. Junkyard Life speaks to a high number of enthusiast with reverse buyer’s remorse… 
  “Why didn’t I buy a Trans Am 20 years ago?
  Combine that thought with modern sticker shock. We are paying more for whatever is left of whatever Pontiac carcass we can find. Rust waits for no one, especially us. The combination of the effects of time and rising prices due to glamorized auctions geared toward very deep pockets have taken these cars out of the hands of most of us.

New owner, Carl Brownbridge, holds the keys to a rough but worthy one-owner 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.

Well, meet our new best friend Carl Brownbridge. This 19-year-old is somehow immune to the powerful effects of physics and economics. He did it! He set out to find a late 1970s Pontiac Trans Am (in good shape) and he made it happen. Tenacity paid off rather quickly when he set his search on Bird Watch 2019. 

Check out what he found and all the reasons we have to be jealous. A 1979 Pontiac Trans Am 301 Hardtop in (kind of) a rare color with a very rich history! Can you believe Carl is only the second owner? At his age? Owner number two of a 1979 TA? With full documentation and a new lease on life, Carl let us take a closer look.  

Silver paint, worn thin, gave way to surface rust on the top of the T/A.

Dig in!
After we exchanged pleasantries with this disco Bird, we got to know it a little better. We actually became very acquainted when Carl let us disassemble the back seat in our quest for the factory build sheet. Sometimes referred to as “the body broadcast sheet”-this coveted piece of paper went down the assembly line with the car as it morphed into the finished product that a lucky owner was to soon be cruising in. We found it hiding in the usual location for most GM F-bodies. Behind the back seat in the upright section. 
  “Carl, I have some good news for you.” 
  I confirmed the build sheet was still in place for the excited new owner.

Factory build sheet still tucked behind back seat of the 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.

What the build sheet could not tell us
The story the build sheet could not tell us was that the original owner got this Pontiac brand new for his 16th birthday! What a present that must have been! Can you imagine? It really did mean something to him, because he kept the car until very recently selling it to Carl. We also found an inscription from 1979 on a keep sake under the back seat. 

Engraved memento found under back seat of 1979 T/A.
It reads "Michael 9-6-79."

What did the build sheet tell us?
This Bird was delivered to Brownell Pontiac in Birmingham, Alabama in paint code 15 Platinum. Intended to be more of a long term car than a rumbling street fighter, this Bird served duty with a 301 4-bbl Pontiac motor. This was a new power plant for 1979, allowing a third engine option for the sporty Trans Am. When equipped with a 2:73 rear gear, this car would move it down the road and not max out the gas card.    

301-V8 under the shaker on the 1979 T/A.

No tunes
According to the grail, this Pontiac was ordered with no radio whatsoever.
That in itself is not too unusual. Dealers and customers didn’t mind this so much because they intended to rock their own systems provided by the aftermarket. What usually happened in cases such as this, most cars were equipped with a provision to easily install such melody makers as the dealer or customer saw fit. This car was not. They were like Patty LaBelle when it came to wiring up the driving music — own their own. 

Unmistakable second gen Trans Am instrument cluster.

How was it optioned?
Like most cars randomly put together by Pontiac, moderately. Tilt wheel, but no cruise. It has the deluxe lighting option that shines a light on the floor, the trunk and the console. However, it doesn’t have the deluxe map light. It came with standard black vinyl interior that looks really great against the silver. It had a positive traction rear differential (G80) as most Trans Ams of that era came with. 

1979 brought a restyled nose to the Pontiac Firebird lineup.

Decal option?
The Trans Am currently does not have a hood bird, although it was indeed born with one according to the sacred build sheet. Ah, the build sheet. A cavalcade of information all crammed on one beautiful sheet of paper. Carl’s car was subject to a partial repaint at some point and the graphics were left off. The Bird is mostly straight, despite having suffered some slight side damage somewhere along the way. It has great floor pans and the louvers that we used to hate made us eat our words when we saw the level of protection they provided against the harsh Alabama sun over the years. We are envious of the great condition the interior panels including the dash. Some Carls have all the luck.

The truly great thing we learned on this find is that these cars are still out there. Carl focused and then he found the Bird he wanted. He paid what we would have paid when these cars were more plentiful. His enthusiasm is contagious and we can’t wait to see how this project rewards Carl and gives the silver Bird a new lease on life!

Ron Kidd
— Junkyard Life: The Story Beneath the Rust

Junkyard Life’s 1979 Trans Am Fun Facts
  • Debut of 301-V8 engine option for the Trans Am.

  • Last year for the 400 W72 Pontiac motor. Interestingly, that motor could only be had with a 4-speed.

  • First year for square headlights. A new front nose that would be used through 1981.

  • First year for the tail lights to run across the middle of the car, with the middle fuel door hidden in the lights.

  • First year for the bright light switch to be located on the turn signal stalk. Previous to 1979, they were located on the floor.

  • First year for blacked out window trim. Only it was not prepped properly at the factory. The customer drove off the lot with black trim, only to have chrome eight months later.

  • 1979 was an anniversary year for the Trans Am. It was commemorated with the beautiful 10th Anniversary Edition. However, as it was the silver anniversary, most silver Trans Ams around today are anniversary editions. This is what makes Carl’s car so cool. A silver (Code 15 Platinum) non-anniversary Trans Am is seldom seen.

  • By 1979 it was becoming more difficult to special order a Trans Am. Dealers would much rather swap with another dealer to realize your Firebird dreams. Some people report having to put down a significant deposit and then pay a note on a car they didn’t have for several months. “Or we can get you this one today…” 

  • Most 1979 Trans Ams sold were of the 403 automatic persuasion. This would also be the last year for them. Engines only got smaller from there. 

Editors Note: We give credit to Ron for writing this article and not working in the phrase “Bird Delete” just to bug Scott Scheel of ‘Smoke Signals’ magazine. Our good friend Scott and Ron have argued this point for years. Scott says the famous hood bird was an RPO option, therefore there is no such thing as “bird delete.” Ron claims that most Trans Ams had them, and it was easier to get one with a hood bird and a buyer had to go somewhat out of his way to not have one. Plus, Ron says it is just easier to say “bird delete” than it is to describe a Trans Am with all graphics, sans the hood bird. These guys can go on and on...  

15x7 snowflake wheels with original, round, steel center caps.

The big hood covers a lot of real estate in the Trans Am engine bay.

Aftermarket power antenna added in trunk.

Rear seats in superb condition thanks to the louvers shading them.

Black back seat area in nearly new condition.

All the lights work on this 1979 Trans Am. 

Bird-less hood still looks good.

Seat covers hide the original front bucket seats.

Carl cranks up his "new-to-him" 1979 T/A.

Ron Kidd climbs inside the T/A for some seat time.

Aftermarket equalizer installed in the glovebox.

Tunes provided by the aftermarket on this radio-delete T/A.

If a Trans Am is on your bucket list get one soon, the prices are climbing.

Original compact spare still in trunk.

Full length Firebird tail lights were new design for 1979 models.

Got a classic car in your driveway? Send us details!  Send emails to Jody Potter at and Ron Kidd at

Friday, October 25, 2019

Making Ford Thunderbirds fly with turbos: Swapping a 2.3 into a 2002-2005 T-Bird

Retro Modern Boost. I admitted to myself and other staff members of Junkyard Life that I am indeed a Thunderbird fan. I really love to read about the 1983-1988 Turbo Coupes with their unique powertrains. Before I came out of the Thunderbird closet, I almost bought one one of the Turbo Coupes. That is what first started my infatuation with Ford’s versatile intermediate and forced a deeper dig into the history of the Thunderbird.

“Versatile” may not be the right way to describe Thunderbirds. Their evolution is unlike any car’s history. First introduced as a two seat sports car in 1955. The stylish, 3,000-pound car ballooned to nearly 5,000 pounds by the mid-1970s. The Thunderbird went from nimble and sporty, competing with the Corvette for buyers, to a really big, luxury cruiser. It was not the same animal. 

In 1987 the 2.3-liter turbocharged four cylinder received an intercooler and revised engine control, boosting output to 190 horsepower and 240-lbs.ft. of torque on Thunderbirds with the five-speed manual transmission.
(Photo by Joe Bays)

Return to roots minus the engine
But after many design changes and during in the infancy of the “throw back” designs (Volkswagen Beetle-1997, Dodge Challenger-2009, Chevrolet Camaro-2010) Ford brought it back! Yes! The sporty Thunderbird was back! A two-seater – stylish, and it was a sports car with a clear vision of the Thunderbird versus Corvette origins! Only one little thing. They forgot to put an engine in it.

Well, it had an engine. It was just not fun or strong and would not fare well at any American red light war. I thought it would only be a matter of time before the famed 5.0 would find its way under their hoods and give Camaro a run for its money. Later I had the same thought with the introduction of the Coyote motor. A new Coyote motor in a tiny Thunderbird? Bring on King Corvette! Now the blue oval guys have something for you.

They didn’t. They had nothing of the sort. It appears that the chassis design on the new T-Bird is not what a Coyote engine would need to live under there. Are you kidding? Ford, who would shoehorn a Modular 4.6 into a Mustang, how could you let this happen? Where the heck were the focus groups? 

“Let us bring back the Thunderbird-well, half of it.”    

1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. Ford built 128,533 turbo T-Birds from 1983-1988. 
(Photo by Joe Bays)

"We are gathered here today to join this engine and this…" 
Okay, stay with me here…what if?…a Turbo 2.3 was transplanted under the "new" (2002-2005) T-bird’s bonnet? That’s right, a Retro Modern Turbo Thunderbird! Would you like it then? I would!

Ford did it with the Turbo Coupes in the 1980’s. It seems like there are plenty of nice examples of these 2002-2005 Thunderbirds still around. If they made it where a V8 would not fit, fine. Let us do it with a smaller motor. Under boost, the Turbo would assume the characteristics of an engine twice as big. I know the Thunderbird demographic evolved over the years. It was not the same buyer in the early 2000s that craved the Thunderbird’s appeal in the 1950s. But what about us?

Leave it to hot rodders to take something no one wants and turn it into something cool. We were the original recyclers. In an era where transplants are common place, why not have one that makes sense and gives a right pedal appeal to a whole other world of enthusiasts? 

1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe with the 5-speed manual transmission. 
(Photo by Joe Bays)

More ideas

Wait! I have another idea. A very enthusiastic proposal…what if we could transplant the Ecoboost twin-turbo power plant in that very Thunderbird? That has very real possibilities of being an absolute terror on the streets. Maintaining a balance, if you will, of drivable manners that Miss Daisy would be pleased with and a tire shredding persona that wakes up when provoked. 

Are 2002-2005 Ford Thunderbirds prime candidate for a turbo swap? 

Barbie car?

I realize the power plant was only part of it. These cars somehow missed their target audience and landed somewhere south of manly and dare I suggest…even a little girly at times? So, let’s stay away from light wispy colors and go with more masculine shades of whatever Ford will give us. What if we ditched the factory wheels (Editor’s Note: Ron has never uttered the words “ditch the factory wheels-this may be historic) and go with some aluminum slots. Black exterior, aluminum wheels and a very unusual sound we have not associated with these new T-Birds. Okay. Now, we are talking. 

Official mandate
I must wrap this fantasy article up with a disclaimer. If I find a Thunderbird in the Junkyard Life garage that must live with our Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, it would be a 1988 Turbo Coupe, similar to our buddy Joe Bay's Thunderbird. You already know that. Here is the situation. They sold a good bit of those throw back Birds and they are NOT in the junkyards. So, someday, someway, you may be presented with the opportunity to pick up a nice low-mile example of Ford’s attempt at retro. So, whatcha gonna do? 

Ron Kidd
— Junkyard Life: The Story Beneath the Rust

1983-1988 Thunderbird Turbo Coupes were a blend of Lincoln Mark VII luxury and Mustang performance. Some say it's the perfect touring car with a stick.
(Photo by Joe Bays)

1988 was the high water mark for the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. More than 35,000 were sold. I'm sure the success on NASCAR speedways by Awesome Bill from Dawsonville had a little to do with the sales peak.
(Photo by Joe Bays)

Got a classic car in your driveway? Send us details!  Send emails to Jody Potter at and Ron Kidd at