The 1968 Firebird
Believe it or not, the 1968 Firebird you see before you is an import. Before it ended up in London, it rolled out the doors of GM's Opel manufacturing plant in Antwerp, Belgium, packin' an OHC straight-six and a four-speed stick. Nearly three decades later, Chris spotted it sitting in some bloke's backyard. As a kid raised in a Pontiac household, Chris had to knock on the door and make an offer. "I knew I wanted a first-gen Firebird from the time I was 10 years old, having seen them in muscle car magazines and books. At the age of 18 in 1995, I found a 1968 Firebird rotting away beneath a tree," he recalls. "The original inline-six was long gone, and the owner bought the car just to pull out the small-block Chevy that was in it. For £425 (or quid as the Brits like to say) it was mine. My non-car friends thought I was nuts for buying this huge, rusty old car but I could already see it lowered down on 17-inch wheels with big brakes. I drew a rendering of what I wanted the car to look like, and I had a Pro Touring vision for the car before the trend had really caught on."
Considering that 425 pounds converts to roughly $642, Chris got himself a smoking deal, even by 1995 standards. The bad news is that a $642 car is still a $642 car, which is another way of saying that it needed a lot of help. The Firebird's dozen or so prior repaints were the least of Chris's worries, as the quarter-panels and trunk floor were completely rotted out. Since English junkyards aren't exactly well stocked with American muscle car parts, Chris faced the prospect of searching tirelessly for parts that didn't exist in the UK, or paying outrageous fees to ship them across the Atlantic. Neither option seemed particularly appealing, so he came up with a far more creative solution. Over the next several years, Chris made a habit out of taking family vacations to America, then coming back home with a stack of parts. In fact, the transmission, bellhousing, clutch, bumper, and wheels that would eventually get bolted up to the Firebird boarded the plane back home to England as carry-on luggage.
All the cool kids have four-links, but Chris needed a more affordable rear suspension solu
After gathering the bulk of the parts, Chris hauled everything to a body shop owned by his friends Robin and Martin Walters to tackle the sheetmetal repair. Chris and his brother, Nick, pitched in on nights and weekends, and together the quartet gradually completed the paint and bodywork over a span of three years. Once back home from the shop, tragedy struck. "About five years into the restoration process the car caught on fire, burning the paint off the back of the body and melting the taillights," he laments. "I was crushed. Since I had no insurance, I had to work two jobs to get the car back on the road."
Although Chris didn't know it at the time, his fortunes were about to change. In 2000, during a trip to the GTO Western Region car show in California, he met a nice young lady who would eventually become his wife. "She came back home to England with me, helping Nick and I finish the car and get it back on the road. We put a stock Pontiac 400 in it, bolted up a Richmond five-speed, and took it to an airbase where it ran 14.02 at 102 mph," he recalls. To ensure that the Poncho could hang with the nimble European late-models on the curvy UK roads, a set of Hotchkis drop springs and sway bars replaced the tired stock hardware. Up front, Chris installed Global West control arms, then lowered the mounting point of the upper arms for improved camber gain. To put the new chassis to the test, the crew went for a European-style shakedown run. "We drove out to a big car show for F-bodies and Corvettes in Antwerp, Belgium, where the Firebird is from, and took home the trophy for Best Modified Car. On the way back, I took the car up to 140 mph before my nerves ran out."
By 2003, Chris decided that a change of scenery was in order, and relocated to Arizona. The Firebird came along for the ride, and over the next 10 years, Chris and his wife hopped it up even more. To coax some more grunt out of the 400, he bored it .030-over, bolted up an Edelbrock intake manifold and cylinder heads, and then installed a COMP 242/246-at-.050 solid-roller camshaft. The result is an estimated 550 hp. Next, the old trans got swapped out for a Tremec TKO600, and the wheels were upgraded to a larger 17- and 18-inch combo as well. These days, Chris enjoys wringing the Firebird out for all its worth on the Goodguys autocross, where he engages in some friendly competition with brother Nick and his Nova.
While the Firebird is plenty cool in its own right, the human element of Chris's journey embodies what hot rodding is all about. He made countless trips across the Atlantic to ferry parts back home, persevered through major setbacks, and built the entire car himself with the help of friends and family. He's even made sure that there will be another generation of hot rodders to carry on the family tradition. "In the last 10 years, my wife and I have gotten married and brought two awesome boys into the world to get hooked on the hobby," Chris gloats. "My boys love the Firebird, and have helped me work on it in addition to a 1965 Chevelle that Nick and I restored for their granddad. Rest assured that there are two new recruits to carry on the muscle car hobby for years to come."