Humans are peculiar creatures. As kids, we dream of growing up and doing grown-up things like drinking beer, buying car mags, and driving hot rods. However, as grown-ups we pine for the activities of our youth like living rent-free, building model kits, and collecting toy cars that make us feel like kids again. Strange, isn't it? While most adults can't seem to decide between toy cars and real cars, John Wargo's solution combines the two. The result is a creation that looks more like a 1:1 scale die-cast than a real car.
From most angles, John's '68 Firebird looks the part of a subdued street machine wearing a handsome coat of PPG Black Cherry Pearl metallic. It's clean and uncluttered, and its beak is far more aggressive than that of its F-body counterpart. From the side profile, however, it's a dead ringer for a die-cast on the shelf at a toy store. By far, the staggered front-to-rear wheel combination contributes most to that visual impression. When John acquired the Firebird, it was already done up Pro Street style. Although he wanted to keep the big-and-little look, John felt the need to round some of the tacky edges off the car. Thank goodness.
In lieu of slicks and skinnies, John spec'd out a set of custom 20-inch American Racing Torq-Thrust IIs out back. In conjunction with 305mm BFGs that sport super-tall 50-series sidewalls, John was able to achieve 31 inches of tire height. The 17-inch front wheels look utterly insignificant in comparison, which was precisely the point. "I've always liked the 'Hot Wheels' look," says John. "I've seen lots of Camaros built like that, but not Firebirds." The final step was stretching the quarter-panels. "Big wheels and tires in small wheel wells just don't look right. Opening them up makes the car look a whole lot more proportional."
Speaking of Firebirds, what's almost overlooked due the car's caricature-like appearance is the fact that it's a Pontiac. That in itself makes the car rather unique, and for John, building a Firebird was a way of bringing back fond childhood memories. "My first car was a '75 Firebird I bought when I was 15 years old, so Pontiacs have been in my blood ever since I was a kid," he says. Coincidentally, he also grew up in the town of Pontiac, Illinois. "I worked on that car for a year and painted it myself so I'd have a cool car to drive when I turned 16."
As time would tell, that Firebird was more than just a first car. For John, it was the start of what would one day become a successful career. "I learned how to paint by reading magazine tech articles and trying out new ideas on my own," he explains. "I've never gone to school for it or had any formal training, and I thought it was awesome what I could do with my own hands after painting my '75 Firebird." John's passion never subsided, he eventually opened up his own shop (www.customshop.org), and today he lays down custom paint jobs for a living. "Not too many people can say at 37 years of age that they've been doing their job for 22 years. It's a lot of fun and I love doing it."
Although John loves Pontiacs, brand loyalty didn't dictate his engine choice. Just ignore the "400" badges on the twin-nostril hood. Between the shock towers is a 502ci big-block Chevy crate motor from GM Performance Parts. Other than dress-up items like a Billet Specialties air cleaner and valve covers, the motor is completely stock. "I know a lot of purists will probably get upset when they see a Chevy motor in a Pontiac, but you can't beat the power of a big-block Chevy and the reliability of a crate motor," he says. "It was a bang for the buck thing, and it's not like they build good Pontiac crate motors anyway." Like it or not, you have to admire the guy's candor.
Since Pro Street usually means that tasteless form takes precedence over function, John went to great lengths to civilize the Firebird from its past life. There's a 12-point roll cage inside, but it's been covered up in black tweed upholstery to blend in with the rest of the interior. The instrument panel houses an Auto Meter speedo and tach that peer out from beneath the rim of a Grant billet steering wheel. Front occupants sit in custom leather buckets, cinched into place by Simpson five-point harnesses. One of the nicest interior touches is the custom center console with integrated fuel level, coolant temperature, oil pressure, and volt gauges. Directly above them rests a Sony head unit, which controls a slew of Alpine amps and subwoofers. Braking duties are handled by a set of 13-inch Wilwood discs front and rear.
Considering most Pro Street vehicles can hardly limp around a parking lot, John's Firebird has come a long way, however, it still retains some of the quintessential elements that define the Pro Street motif. It lacks sway bars at either end, and features a four-link and tubs out back. Not surprisingly, it leans mightily under lateral load. With a TH400 three-speed trans and 4.56:1 rear gears, extended freeway cruises probably aren't a good idea. If you're a Pro Touring elitist, it's easy to take a condescending stance and declare such anomalies as shortcomings. However, it can be argued that this Firebird is a car that's creating its own genre, not following the hackneyed tread marks of the latest fads in hot rodding. It's not a traditional execution of Pro Street, and it's definitely not Pro Touring. Sure, at the very least we'd love to see some quarter-mile ETs, but John prefers leisurely street cruises and car shows. In reality, that's no different than the preferred activity of most g-Machine aficionados.
While not everyone may see the need to build a car like this, for John it was a matter of standing out from the crowd. John says that his shop cars and customers' cars have appeared in a total of 93 magazine features, and he loves the challenge of trying to one-up himself with each new project. "You can't get that many magazine features by doing the same thing each time," he explains. "Bikes, jets, cars, and helicopters-you name it and I've painted it. Each car is a new challenge, and that keeps me on my toes." Now that the Firebird is done, he's already thinking about selling it and starting another project. "I really don't know what I'll replace it with, maybe a wagon. I'm always coming up with new ideas, doodling them onto paper, and looking for that next unique project car."