1974 Pontiac LeMans - Moonshine Special
Think running bootleg whiskey is a thing of the past? Until recently, Tim Smith’s ’74 LeMans made the midnight run
From the July, 2012 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Johnny Hunkins
Photography by Robert McGaffin
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners TV show was a runaway smash hit last fall. The reality show is an unvarnished and unapologetic look at the underground business of distilling and delivering illegal moonshine whiskey. The stars of the show are Tim Smith and his trusty sidekick, Steve Tickle. Over the course of six nail-biting, cliff-hanging episodes, Tim and Tickle locate a secret hideaway, erect a clandestine still, brew their whiskey, and deliver it, all while evading Virginia state revenue agents. Love it or hate it, the tradition of making and bootlegging moonshine liquor has been passed on through generations for hundreds of years. It’s not fakery for movies; it’s a real part of daily life in Appalachia.
You already know Tim and JT...
You already know Tim and JT as father and son moonshiners, but they are also die-hard DIY hot rodders. While shooting was going on during the 2011 season of Moonshiners, they were also building the 350 Pontiac motor—much to the chagrin of the TV production crew.
Moonshiners was already a breakaway hit when in episode five a rapt audience was introduced to Tim’s moonshine-running ’74 Pontiac LeMans, launching muscle car Internet forums and Facebook pages into a feeding frenzy that has yet to abate. Suddenly, it seemed like the whole world wanted to know more about the erstwhile bootleg mobile—one of mother GM’s 7 million forgotten ’73-77 “colonnade” A-body intermediates. As Tim tells it, the film crew, impatient to begin taping more moonshining exploits, found itself cooling its heels one day while Tim put the finishing touches on the LeMans with his son, JT. This hot rodding business was not supposed to be part of the reality show deal—until Tim set them straight.
“We put the engine in it in three hours, but we coulda done it sooner. We’re trying to put the engine in, and the crew kept interruptin’ me,” says Tim in his characteristic Virginia drawl. “They wanted to catch me moonshinin’, and I said, ‘This is all part of moonshinin’.’ They wanted to know if the car was going to run, and I told them if we get the car runnin’, we’re gonna run moonshine in it. I was tryin’ to clean it up, and I was showin’ JT how to make it look pretty. They had their doubts if the car was gonna run again. You know, they’ve never seen an engine taken apart to where you can see into it. The film crew never seen anything like that before.”
You might think the oft-quoted connection between fast hot rods and running bootleg whiskey (stock car racing roots, yada, yada…) are the reason for Tim’s hot rodded LeMans, but the real explanation is much less dramatic. In 2006, Tim was hauling it to the junkyard for scrap when his then 9-year-old son, JT, laid the guilt trip on him. Tim told us: “I sold a Lincoln to this woman in North Carolina and I delivered the car down there on a rollback. I salvage cars for scrap metal, so I’m always looking for junk cars to scrap out. When I delivered this Lincoln, I saw this old car sitting under a barn with weeds growing around it. I asked if she wanted to get rid of it, and she told me it was her son’s car. He had been killed in an accident, and she didn’t want to see it no more. I could have the car for free if I would just take it. I get back home with the car and my son started asking me questions about it, like what am I going to do with it? I told him it’s a junk car, and I’m going to haul it to the junkyard. He then asked me, ‘Why do people throw their cars away, why don’t they fix them?’ I took it off the hauler, and he started showing interest in it. He was fascinated with it—it’s an old car, about 20 years older than him. I told him, you can fix it up if you want to, so we started working on it.”
Tim’s ’74 LeMans is both a vessel of enjoyment, and a tool of his trade—running bootleg whiskey until a short time ago. It is neither the prettiest nor the fastest hot rod we’ve ever seen, but it’s damn near the most interesting.
Incredibly, the interior was...
Incredibly, the interior was almost this nice when Tim pulled it out of a North Carolina barn in 2006. All it needed were some Sunpro gauges (monster tach on the trans tunnel and water temp, oil pressure, and voltage under the dash), and a slight upholstery repair (by Waller’s Upholstery in Danville, Virginia). Check out the mint dash, steering wheel, and carpet.
Despite the fame of a top-rated TV show, Tim and family—comprised of wife, Shelby, and son, JT—are of modest means. Tim—a Gulf War army veteran—works several jobs to make ends meet (he’s also the chief of his local volunteer fire department and a maintenance mechanic at a mattress factory) and spending big coin on a hot rod project car is out of the question. The ’74 LeMans was no exception. In its initial state, the faded burgundy-colored LeMans looked pretty sorry, but looks can be deceiving. After changing the oil, swapping the plugs, replacing the battery, putting in new transmission fluid, and a B&M holeshot converter, the stock two-barrel Pontiac 350 fired right up. “We got a new exhaust system for it, new springs, and shocks. It was sitting way low to the ground in the back—like it had been haulin’ a lot of moonshine,” Tim says with a chuckle.
As a point of practicality, any sort of “Pro Touring” visual treatment by way of huge wheels and a low stance would be out of the question—flashy rolling stock would be too expensive, it would draw undue attention to the car, it wouldn’t be appropriate for dirt and gravel roads encountered during covert activity, and low ground clearance would hinder accessibility to the still site. Says Tim: “I got some heavy-duty station wagon springs to hold it up. I needed more ground clearance, so I took the 14-inch wheels off, and put the 15-inchers on.” Tim’s choice of budget-minded 15x8 PMD steel rally wheels with bigger Cooper Cobra tires (225/70R15, front; 275/60R15, rear) would give the large coupe ample visual mass while giving it extra ground clearance and sharp looks.
For several years, this is the form Tim ran the LeMans, including for much of its bootlegging duties. The faded burgundy paint, humble two-hole Pontiac 350 mill, and ragtag appearance allowed Tim to blend right into the background when making his illicit whiskey runs. We tried our best to get Tim to embellish his exploits behind the wheel, but he didn’t bite; hauling down the highway with contraband like Burt Reynolds or Robert Mitchum is the easy way to the slammer, contends Tim. “The goal is to outsmart the police; you don’t want to outrun ’em. You gotta blend in with the traffic flow—that’s the best thing. You don’t want to be a loaner—you want to have cars in front of you and cars behind you. You don’t want to be in the left lane.”
The older that Tim’s son, JT, got, the more interested he became in the disco-era LeMans. The desire to build it up was shared by both father and son, so in 2011 it was finally time to sharpen up the looks and add some power. Tim and JT got going on the bodywork, stripping off all ornamentation, then smoothing out and filling most of the small dents. “I did as much as I could to save on the paintwork, then I carried it to Maaco, and they shot it for $500,” Tim says. The black single-stage urethane finish is by no means car show perfect, but it looks good enough to turn heads while it’s rolling down the street.
Underhood resided the original two-barrel Pontiac 350 mill. Considered by snobbier enthusiasts to be the Rodney Dangerfield of Pontiac motors (because they get no respect), Tim and JT saw potential, and decided to do a simple .060-over rebuild using the stock cast crank, stock rods, and new Sealed Power forged pistons and rings. Farming out only the machine work to Taylor’s Engines (Providence, North Carolina), Tim and JT assembled the engine in their detached blockhouse garage. The plan was to reuse as many of the factory parts as possible to hold the cost down, and spend money where it would make the most sense. With that in mind, Taylor’s Engines ported and polished the stock heads, and cut them for bigger 2.11-/1.66-inch valves. Interesting factoid: Tim says even with the small bore of the Pontiac 350, no notching of the block was required to fit those huge valves.
Rather than toss the original 350 Pontiac motor for a more popular 400 or 455, Tim and his son, JT, rebuilt the 350 on a skinny budget, reusing the stock crank, rods, block, heads, water pump, and oil pan. (All Pontiac V-8s, regardless of displacement, share the same exterior dimensions and the same 3.75-inch stroke crank, making repairs, rebuilds, and aftermarket parts a relative cinch.) Tim’s a fan of Edelbrock stuff, giving the nod to a Performer intake, Thunder Series carb, and air cleaner assembly. COMP Cams supplied the Thumpr cam, roller rockers, and valvesprings. Power tops out at a healthy 400 hp.
If you’ve seen the Moonshiners TV show, you’ve heard this motor’s seductive crackle, and that’s due to the snappy COMP Cams Thumpr camshaft. Fresh air flows through a 4-inch Edelbrock air cleaner assembly, into a 650-cfm Thunder Series Edelbrock fuel mixer and Performer dual-plane intake, then gets ignited by a late-model GM HEI ignition, and expelled through 1⅝-inch FlowTech ceramic-coated headers. For the rest of the path, Tim bent his own 2.5-inch dual exhaust and mated it to a pair of Flowsound mufflers and some Trans Am-style turn-down tips. Valvetrain duties are handled by COMP Cams valvesprings, COMP 1.5-ratio roller rockers, and stock-length pushrods. Tim has never dyno’d the engine or run it at the drags, but he figures power output at a conservative 400 hp. On a side note, Tim says final assembly and installation of the engine happened just like we saw it on TV—with about three hours edited out by the Discovery Channel.
As for the interior, Tim’s ’74 LeMans is a colonnade lover’s dream. Other than a rip in the driver-side seat (which was repaired by Waller’s Upholstery in Danville, Virginia), the cockpit was mint the day he pulled it out of that North Carolina barn. There were no cracks in the dash, no missing trim, no worn touch points, and a perfect steering wheel with no cracks. Even the carpet was pristine due to some clear plastic covering the entire floorboard. The only upgrades Tim made were a set of Sunpro gauges (water temp, oil pressure, voltage), and a Sunpro tach on the transmission hump.
No doubt you’re pondering the fate of Tim and Tickle, and the quirky little ’74 LeMans. Will there be a second season? Will the LeMans return to the scene of the crime? We aren’t allowed to say just yet, but let’s put it this way—in our estimation the Discovery Channel would be out of their minds to walk away from such a wildly popular reality series. To learn more about Tim Smith, the LeMans, the moonshine, and any updates on the return of the show, log on to www.TimSmithMoonshine.com
Tim Smith On Hillbilly Hot Rodding
Hanging with Tim Smith at the moonshiner’s redoubt was undeniably cool. During our two-day photo shoot, we frequently whipped out the smartphone and rolled video. We brought up the subject of Southern-style automotive improvising, and Tim laid it out for us like this: “I got some redneck buddies that’s got some hot cars. They got crazy stuff. I mean they throw stuff together. Talking ’bout they put Pontiac motors—I had one guy that’s got a ’66 Chevrolet truck, and it’s got a 455 Pontiac in it. They love them Pontiac motors. If something’s running, and it runs good, and you wreck it, you don’t want to lose the engine and running gear, so you pull the motor and transmission out and you stick it in whatever else is a good body. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, whatever. [Around here] you may raise the hood, you may find anything. It might be from a Cadillac to whatever—in a truck. We’ll fabricate a motor mount in a minute. You know, throw a crossmember in, put a transmission mount on it, cut the driveshaft, and hook it together.”
All told, Tim has about $8K...
All told, Tim has about $8K tied up in the car—and that includes getting the car for free. The LeMans was literally saved from the crusher in 2006 by Tim’s son, JT, who at age 9, laid the defining guilt trip on dear ol’ dad. As a result, the car is now ensconced permanently in moonshine lore.
Once Tim and JT decided to...
Once Tim and JT decided to fix up the ’74 LeMans, they rebuilt the stock brakes and swapped out the 14-inch rolling stock for larger-diameter 15-inch wheels with Cooper Cobra radials (225/70R15, front; 275/60R15, rear). Hey, not all roads are paved, Pro Touring guy!
By The Numbers
1974 Pontiac LeMans
Tim Smith, 45, Chatham, VA
Type: Pontiac 350
Displacement: 365 ci (.060-over)
Block: factory, 1974 vintage
Bore & stroke: 3.935x3.75 inches
Compression ratio: 10:1
Rotating assembly: OEM cast-iron crank and rods, Sealed Power forged pistons
Cylinder heads: OEM cast iron, ported and polished by Taylor’s Engines (Providence, NC)
Camshaft: COMP Cams hydraulic flat-tappet Thumpr; 235/249 degrees at .050, .490/.475-inch lift
Valvetrain: 2.11-/1.66-inch valves, 7⁄16-inch screw-in studs, COMP Cams valvesprings, COMP Cams 1.5 ratio aluminum roller rockers, stock pushrods
Intake manifold: Edelbrock Performer
Carburetor: Edelbrock 650-cfm Thunder Series
Exhaust: FlowTech 1.625-inch primary ceramic-coated long-tube headers, 3-inch collectors, 2.5-inch dual exhaust into Flowsound 2.5-inch mufflers and Trans Am dual tips
Cooling: stock water pump and radiator
Transmission: factory Turbo 350 three-speed automatic
Torque converter: B&M Holeshot, 2,500-rpm stall speed
Rearend: factory 8.5-inch Positraction 10-bolt with 3.73 ring-and-pinion
Frame: factory perimeter frame A-body
Front suspension: factory radial-tuned suspension (RTS), double A-arm, new factory coil springs, factory antisway bar
Rear suspension: factory triangulated four-link radial-tuned suspension, new factory heavy-duty station wagon springs for hauling ’shine
Steering: factory recirculating-ball sector-gear steering box
Brakes: factory 11-inch discs and D-52 calipers, front; factory drums, rear
Wheels: steel 15x8 Pontiac Rally wheels
Tires: Cooper Cobra; 225/70R15, front; 275/60R15, rear; ’cause not all roads are paved