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
Smokin' hot looks aside, Ken approached the build with functionality as a top priority, so he didn't monkey around when selecting the Firebird's mechanicals. Suspending the F-body is an Art Morrison front clip that includes beefier framerails, and C6 Corvette aluminum control arms and spindles. In the rear, there's an Art Morrison three-link suspension featuring a Watt's link for enhanced lateral control of the Ford 9-inch rearend assembly. Strange coilovers situated at each corner provide a wide range of adjustability, and since no high-end Pro Touring build would be complete without a set of fat rear tires, JCG tubbed the 'Bird as well. Not surprisingly, the braking hardware is all Wilwood, including the pedals, master cylinders, and Aerolite 14-inch rotors and calipers. To turn all that potential grip into real grip, the cutting-edge chassis rolls on Nitto rubber wrapped around 18-inch front and 19-inch rear Forgeline RB3 wheels.
With the amount of effort that went into building the Firebird's ultramodern chassis, an old-school carbureted motor simply wouldn't cut it. Seeking power, reliability, low mass, and fuel economy, opting for LS power was a no-brainer for Ken. He pulled a low-mileage LS2 engine and Tremec T56 transmission out of a wrecked 2006 GTO, and transplanted it into the Firebird. To pull off the swap, Ken carved out a custom crossmember and motor mounts from billet, then fabricated a set of custom headers. Except for a mild COMP 222/224-at-.050 hydraulic roller camshaft, the engine is all stock, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Thanks to the airflow potential of the factory LS2/LS6 cylinder heads, combos this simple routinely put out 450-475 hp.
Granted that Ken brought in the big guns to handle the body and paint, as well as the interior, there are literally hundreds of custom machined parts he designed and built himself. The condensed version of the list includes custom chassis braces, engine accessory pulleys, radiator core support shrouding, crossmembers, valve covers, a shifter handle, a cold air induction system, switch panels, trim rings, cupholders, a center console, and exhaust hangers. "Sometimes you have to go with what you know best, and I've been a machinist since I was 18 years old. If you added up all the hours spent on designing and machining all the custom billet parts, they're probably worth more than the car," Ken quips. "I enjoy designing something as a 3-D model, then transforming it into a real part. I did a lot of the design work at night, after hours, and I also have a machine shop at home. I had a lot of fun building this car and designing all the custom parts that went into it."
In the process of fabricating a bunch of custom one-off billet components and bolting them to a nipped and tucked body, Ken also built a truly stunning, fully modernized Pro Touring Firebird. While it's oh-so common to find 1969 Camaros done up in such a fashion, it's very refreshing to see such craftsmanship and determination materialize in the form of its oft-neglected F-body sibling. Who needs marble and travertine when you can have billet blocks and CNC machines?
By The Numbers
1968 Pontiac Firebird
Ken Ramey, 59
Thousand Oaks, CA
Type: GM LS2 small-block
Block: factory Gen IV aluminum
Rotating assembly: factory cast crank, rods, and 10.9:1 pistons
Cylinder heads: stock cathedral-port aluminum castings
Camshaft: COMP Cams 222/224-at-.050 hydraulic roller; .566/.568-inch lift; 112-degree LSA
Induction: stock LS2 intake manifold and throttle-body
Ignition: factory GM coil packs and plug wires
Exhaust: custom stainless steel headers, X-pipe, and dual 3-inch Borla mufflers
Many billet addicts dig it for its bling, but not Ken. He sprayed all the custom billet pa
Transmission: Tremec T56 Magnum six-speed trans, stock clutch, custom shifter
Rear axle: Ford 9-inch rearend with 3.92:1 gears and limited-slip differential
Front suspension: Art Morrison front clip, upper/lower control arms, spindles, and sway bar; Strange coilovers
Rear suspension: Art Morrison three-link, sway bar, and Watt's link; Strange coilovers
Brakes: Wilwood Aerolite 14-inch discs with six-piston calipers, front; Wilwood 14-inch discs with four-piston calipers, rear
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Forgeline RB3 18x8, front; 19x12, rear
Tires: Nitto NT05 255/45R18, front; 315/35R19, rear