by Chuck Lincoln
I refer you all back to an article from the January 2010 issue of the National Firebird and Trans Am Club Eagle. I am the original owner of a 1976 Trans Am. Living in Upstate NY and wanting to “keep this car for its life;” it has not seen a Syracuse (a.k.a. “The Salt City”) Winter – stored every year since I have owned it. This year I decided to take it into a local, full service speed shop (White’s Auto & Speed, Cicero, NY) to discuss what critical maintenance needed to be done to a 40 year old car with 120,000 miles on it. As we put it up on the rack, one could see that all the rubber bushings and spacers were shot – dry rot mostly; some even gone. So we elected to get the Energy Suspension bushing & frame kit and replace them all. Also, it was also noted that the engine was leaking oil. Leaks were coming from the valve covers, oil pan, intake tray, timing cover, around the fuel pump, the rear engine seal and a few other places. So we also purchased the engine gasket kit.
As we totally took the front suspension apart, we decided to replace other worn items: upper & lower ball joints, new front shocks (the third set for this car), and coil spring isolators. While most of this stuff is boring, it needed to be done and should bring the handling to better than Factory original. While this work was contemplated, it was determined that in order to properly get at the rear engine seal, the engine would have to come out of the car. So once the engine (a 400 cu. in. Pontiac engine) was out of the car, we did a leakdown (compression) check which revealed that four of the cylinders (1, 8, 4, & 7) were leaking 30%. Two more, 2 & 5 were at ~ 23% blow by. The normal guideline is < 20%. So we decided to consider an engine rebuild. Bore & hone all the cylinder walls, new oversized pistons & rings, polish the camshaft & crankshaft (keeping the original components), new connecting rods and main bearings, a valve job, new oil pump, new valve guides and new brass soft plugs. While removing the engine, we also removed the radiator – the original 2-core. We saw the condition and decided to recore the unit with a 3-core replacement as these Firebird engines were noted for their overheating issues.
While this was certainly a good plan, the 64 million dollar question was: “is the engine still in good enough shape to merit a rebuild?” As we took the engine apart, we all agreed that it was still in good enough shape the warrant a rebuild. This Pontiac engine is strong, all cast iron: block, heads, intake, etc. I have religiously changed the oil and have used nothing but Mobil 1 since the first oil change at 1,000 miles. While the cylinder walls had the expected wear ridges at the spot where the pistons reversed direction (< 0.006″), they were Bored then honed out 0.030″ and the pistons were replaced with oversized ones to accommodate this machining. The crankshaft was in great shape and needed to be just cleaned and polished std/std and fitted with new bearings. The camshaft was another thing. Three of the lobes were worn past their Factory specs and so we decided to replace it. We put in a new OEM camshaft to stay “original.” In the cylinder heads, three of the exhaust valve seats angles were out of spec – probably from the Factory, so all the valves and valve seats were machined back to original tolerances. Also, 3 of the valve guides were worn past Factory specs and were fitted with new valve guide inserts. The cylinder heads were also resurfaced .005″ for a good head gasket seal. All engine parts were dipped, cleaned and shot blasted and repainted the original Pontiac Blue. (see photo).
We also rebuilt the carburetor, which was the original Rochester Quadrajet 4-barrel carb and actually really didn’t need anything more than a good cleaning, but we did it anyway, while it was off the engine. [Note: I have always used HiTest gas in it.]
Before the engine came back together and went back into the car, we power washed, painted and detailed the engine compartment and overall spruced it up. We also changed the oil in the rear differential and 4-speed Muncie manual transmission. All looked well with both so no other work was done here. The clutch was fairly new and was in good shape. We also put in a new (rebuilt) starter as the electrical connections on the original one were pretty well shot.
Once I had the completed car back the first very noticeable improvement was how quiet it was cruising down the road. When I hit a bump, there were no more rattles and noises – those new bushings along with tightening things up really did the trick. Next was how much cooler the engine was running after obviously cleaning it all out and recoring the radiator, now much more efficient. The engine starts quicker, the choke engages properly (had always been a problem before) and it runs super smooth. As I presently have break-in oil in it, I haven’t yet really gotten on it to see what real performance improvement I gained, but more to come.
Also, since we put in all new bushings throughout the frame and steering suspension, I took it into a local body shop with new digital alignment equipment to insure that everything was properly aligned. My 1976 Trans Am has been given a new life with this expensive rebuild and will provide many, many more years of pleasurable driving and cruising. I am truly looking forward to it!
This is a story in progress with more to come (photos too). I made additions to this as the engine was being rebuilt.
The November 2008 featured car is the ‘76 Trans Am of Brian Deines. Here is his story:
In 1975 I was ready to order a new 1975 Trans Am; but because of emissions controls G.M. didn’t offer the 455 Engine in Canada. I had decided that I wanted to have the 455. So buying a new Trans Am went on hold.
A few months passed when I read an article that G.M. was coming back with the big Block 455 in the TA for 1976 and this would be the last year. The car was ordered April 1976 from our local G.M dealership. Options were 455, 4 speed, screaming eagle on hood, custom white interior and carousel red exterior. After 10 weeks of waiting and checking the dealership about every other day at last a Trans Am appeared on the front lot. Wow! This was mine, beautiful ORANGE color and white interior. As I got me closer to the car I went into a cold sweat, it was 400 not the 455 that I had ordered and it was an automatic, my heart stopped. They had messed up the order. As I stood over the car for while, one of the head salesmen came out and told me some good news. This wasn’t my car. What a relieve. It had been ordered for the local race track to use as a pace car.
Two long weeks later my T.A. came in; it was perfect. I enjoyed the T.A. for 5 years. Getting married to my best girl, we took the car south on our Honeymoon. Those were great times. After those 5 great years, we decided (with the wife’s regrets) that we needed something more practical. Children were in the near future and I had to build my garage. Sad, but I sold the T.A. and bought a ½ ton truck.
After having two great children, 20 years has passed and I still missed the TA.
With encouragement of my wife, I decided to look for another TA. Both of my children are into cars, and they though it was a cool idea. Searching on the web, eBay there was many beautiful Firebirds on line. But if you can’t see it in person, you don’t know what you are buying.
Finally one day, my wife suggested why not try to hunt up our old ’76 TA. Wow, what a great idea. Since having kept the bill of sale, and if it still registered I should be able to track it down. After some investigating, I found the person that had the TA registered. She was just west of Ottawa; not very far away. When I talked to her at first I thing she was suspicious about my call, but she came around and we finally got to talking about the car. She had the car for almost 20 years, and changed the color to blue. It was stored in the barn, so when I heard that, I thought the car should be in good shape. Then the big blow came. She had just sold the car and would not give me the new owner’s name. I left my phone number with her and asked if the new owner ever called her back that I would like to talk to him. It seemed like the end of the trail. Then one night, approximately 6 months later, I received a call from the guy saying he was the owner of a 76 TA and heard that I was the original owner.
Finally, I was talking to the guy that has our car; what a rush! He wanted to know what the color code was when the car was new, as he wanted to change back to the original color. I asked him if he would call me when the car was painted as I would like to see it again. I never mentioned about buying it since I wanted to see what shape it was in first.
Another 6 months passed, when I got his call and the car was done. He was going to a car show, and I said I would see him there.
The day of the car show my wife and I went early and got a good spot to see all the cars drive into the show grounds. We were both exited to see our honeymoon car again. Then, all of sudden you could hear it coming down the road. You can’t only miss the carousel red, but the sound of it gave it away. We both felt 25 years younger. I got weak in the knees as it came closer and parked with the rest of the show cars. There it was looking almost as good as the day I saw it for the first time in front of the dealership. It didn’t take us long to go and join up the owner. The outside of the car had been all refinished, new paint, rally rims painted, new screaming Eagle and all decals. Inside was original and looked very good for the age.
We talked to the owner for a couple of hours, as he was very proud of the car and was having fun telling his friends that I was the original owner.
The next question was; is the car for sale. My wife and I talked in private, as we both wanted the car back. That was all I wanted to hear. He was very reluctant at first to sell, but after the right price and help from his wife a deal was achieved. The TA was coming back home.
I enjoy taking my prize to shows, where I never have time to rest; always sharing my story with other car owners and spectators. Lots of memories that will only grow.
’76 Trans Am of Brian Deines