Michelangelo had marble. The ancient Romans had travertine. Ken Ramey's material of choice is much harder to whittle into shape than natural stone, but raw blocks of billet aluminum are no match for his mastery of lathes, mills, and five-axis CNC machines. With 40-plus years of machining expertise on tap, Ken can carve everything imaginable—from valve covers to brake calipers to shifter handles—out of billet, and that's exactly what he did while building his 1968 Pontiac Firebird. Although Ken's handiwork will never command as much universal acclaim as David or the Colosseum, when a man goes through the trouble of machining parts as insignificant as exhaust hangers out of billet, mad props from his fellow hot rodders inevitably ensue. With that kind of attention to detail invested into the most significant and insignificant of parts, there's no way that the rest of the car can disappoint. And it doesn't. Complementing all that billet is a Firebird packing LS power, six forward gears, and an aluminum suspension all wrapped in surgically enhanced sheetmetal. As it turns out, machinists don't just build cool parts. They build killer cars, too.
To tag Ken as a machinist—albeit a darn good one—would be selling his talents short big time. He's an R&D engineer at Wilwood, and during his 26-year tenure he's served a pivotal role in ramping up the company's automated manufacturing capabilities. Chances are he designed the brakes on your hot rod. Ken's been working in machine shops and building cars since his teenage years, which eventually culminated in the form of a 1970 Mustang fastback. Although he made some very good memories in the Mustang, time had passed it by and it lacked many of the modern features Ken sought in a street cruiser. "It didn't ride very nicely and it had no air conditioning, so my wife didn't like going out to cruise night in it. I sold it to a guy in Australia and started looking for a new project car," he recalls. Interestingly, building a Firebird was the furthest thing from Ken's mind. "I originally wanted to build a 1940 Ford coupe or maybe a 1956 Ford truck. Then I heard about a Firebird for sale that was owned by a former Wilwood engineer. When I went to check it out, the car was in pieces and it had been in storage for 14 years. I hauled everything home and started working on it right away."
Since Ken bought the Firebird as an opportunist, and not as a Pontiac fanatic fulfilling a life-long dream, his plan for the project was to put it back together and sell it. "That all changed when I went to JCG Restoration and Customs four years ago and saw a 1968 Firebird built up Pro Touring style. [Make sure to check out JCG's other work in this issue, Karl Dunn's blue '68 Camaro on p. 21. —ed] The car looked great, and I fell for the Firebird after that," he explains. "I didn't have any definitive plans at the time, but I knew I wanted to build a modernized, reliable car that I could just hop in and drive long distances in comfort. Pro Touring was becoming very popular at the time, I decided to take the car in that direction, and everything snowballed from there. I think that my background in engineering and machining definitely helped me envision how I wanted the car to look and perform from the early stages of the project."
In essence, Ken sketched up a rendering in his head, then commissioned Cris Gonzalez at JCG to transform his vision into sheetmetal. Fortunately, the rust-free body meant that the JCG crew could get straight to the good stuff. Although the sheetmetal modifications are subtle individually, their cumulative effect is much more profound. The most noticeable tweaks are fenders and quarter-panels that have been stretched fore and aft of the wheel arches. Custom inner fenders open up real estate for wider tires, and the driprails have been shaved for a smoother appearance. Likewise, the bumpers have been flush mounted for a tighter fit, and out back the exhaust outlets protrude through a custom valance panel. Carbon fiber front and rear spoilers add visual muscle, and Jerry Cransler of Paintin' Place (Westlake Village, California) gets credit for spraying the finished body in silver and black paint.
JCG re-profiled the front bumper to create a more pronounced beak. Paintin’ Place came up
The interior boasts Vintage Air A/C, C5 Corvette seats, and a Pioneer navigation system. J