Do you want to see the Pontiac hobby go the way of the dodo? It certainly will, without an infusion of new blood. HPP preached this for years and we have done what we can to attract the younger generation to the wonders of Pontiacs. Well, we aren't the only ones. Enter Patrick Kelly.
Patrick Kelly has 26 years in the autobody business--with more than half of that time spent smoothing out Pontiacs. Three years ago, he became an instructor at Career Prep Center in Sterling Heights, Mich. It was one of those moves that automotive scribes know well--a six-figure paycheck it's not, but the fringe benefits can't be beat.
"I love doing bodywork, but I wanted to be able to work without people complaining that their car wasn't going to be done in a day," Patrick explains. "And I wanted to teach, as well. I took a pretty big pay cut to be an instructor, but what a fulfilling job!"
It was around this time when he and his friend of 15 years, Dan McKiernan, found a new project to succeed Dan's restored 1975 Corvette.
"Dan had been looking for a Pontiac to replace that Vette for awhile--it had to go because he needed more seats for the family," Patrick states. "I remember ribbing him, saying 'Why not get a Camaro; nobody owns one of those!' He knew I was kidding, and we began the search for just the right Pontiac--it took two and a half years."
Patrick and Dan decided that the Poncho had to be a convertible, it needed a big engine, and it should be loaded to the gills with options. And, in a twist of fate that has become pathetically frequent, Patrick found this once Carousel Red beauty three miles from his house--yes--in a barn.
"I was going there to look at another vehicle and I saw Pontiac Rally wheels and redline tires. Dan was with me, and I said to him, 'Hey, that's a convertible Firebird.' Then I saw that it was a 400. It looked pretty good to us, so we got the owner's number and bought it."
Once in their hands, Patrick and Dan found that the droptop was, shall we say, more of a project than they had anticipated? "It was parked real close to another car in that barn and the tires were flat, so I couldn't get under it and give it a good look," Patrick says. "We found out later that it needed two quarter panels and new floor pans."
Dan wanted to turn the Pontiac into a fun daily driver, but Patrick saw an opportunity to return this Bird to its former glory while making mechanical and visual upgrades--and give his autobody students the chance of a lifetime.
"I told Dan that it would cost 25 grand to restore it anyway," Patrick explains. "This way, the kids could get a ton of experience, and we could display the finished product at Autorama."
At this point, anyone in the possession of such a rare combination (numbers-matching '69 Firebird convertible with a 400--loaded save for a Safe-T-Track!) would recoil at the thought of autobody students--kids, mind you--refurbishing it. Knowing Patrick as he did, however, Dan didn't give it a second thought.
"It's just wrong that Vo-Tec centers are looked upon as a place to dump people who can't make it elsewhere, I have some really sharp kids here. I work these students very hard, and I make sure they know what they're doing, so taking on the project wasn't even a concern."
The class tore the convertible down and inspected it, and a list was made of work and materials it needed to be show-ready. A rotisserie was purchased to hold up the shell and make it maneuverable. Once stripped of all bolt-on pieces, the body and its parts were sent out to Strip It in Clinton, Mich. to be media blasted. Since the floor panels and rear rails were pretty much gone, they had to be replaced. Installing, welding, grinding and finishing them took almost six months, after which the team replaced the quarter panels. After a break in the summer of 2000, Patrick's students really jumped into the project, finishing the weld seams in the floors and getting the Bird in primer by early October.
At this point, the Pontiac was primed with Glasurit high-build and blocked four times from top to bottom. Then, students Dave Floyd and Dan Sarah cut in the door openings with a basecoat and shot the floor pans. After the subframe and suspension parts returned from a date with the sandblaster, they were primed and sanded, and then painted with BASF Diamont charcoal gray and black.
Eaton springs lowered the front 1.5 inches and the rear 1 inch, and KYB gas shocks were installed for increased control on the road. The Firebird's suspension was also upgraded with a PST Polygraphite bushing kit, and then the crew attached the subframe to the body. Stainless brake and fuel lines were bought, and the students hand-polished them for that chrome look.
While the bodywork was moving along nicely, the 400-cubic-inch engine was transported to Thomson Automotive in nearby Redford, Mich., for freshening. It was treated to machine work and a host of performance parts listed in the Feature Pontiac Specs., before a dyno test nailed down a horsepower figure of 345 at 5000 rpm. The Turbo-400 was rebuilt by Warren Transmission in Detroit, and a shift kit was added to enhance those peg-legged burnouts. Once these components were finished, they were brought back to Career Prep Center, painted gloss black and installed.
Thanksgiving came and went, and Patrick knew they were running out of time to make Autorama. But just like before, his students rose to the challenge. "My classes are long, almost two and a half hours. I got to the point where I said, 'I'll be staying late; you are all welcome to stay as well.' And over half of them stayed, on their own time, to get the project done before the show. There were days when 15 people would be working on the Firebird at the same time! When I get pumped up about a project, they get pumped up, too."
This project began moving rapidly. The doors soon found their way onto the body, as did the front end. Finally, it was time to paint. Dan Sarah mixed the BASF Diamont Hugger Orange and Orange Pearl hue, and then Ron Best and Kevin Malek sprayed the Bird with three coats Hugger and two pearl. Three layers of BASF clearcoat were applied, then wet-sanded with 2000-grit sandpaper. Finally, a Parchment Custom interior kit and a black carpet from Next Generation, which were installed by Al Bohn of Roseville, Mich., provided the finishing touches, just in time for the Autorama in February 2001.
After scoping out the competition, fielding questions from impressed onlookers, and convincing the Hooters girls to display their own Hugger Orange selves by the Pontiac, the students had a good feeling about the event. Career Prep Center's 1969 Firebird went home with top honors in the high school class, and it received a second place in the open class for 1949-up convertibles. But that's not what impressed Patrick Kelly.
"These kids acted like proud parents at the show," he explains. "It really gave them a boost to work on this project. We also showed the Firebird at Sterling Heights High School, and four or five of my kids came and talked about what they had done on it. It was really something special to them. Some of them come from South Warren, a bit of a rough area, so involving them in a deal like this brings only good things. In fact, I see around 60 percent of them go on to careers in the automotive industry."
And Dan McKiernan? Not only was he delighted with his Pontiac's transformation, he also came away in awe of the students' handiwork.
"The Firebird came out better than I ever thought it could be," Dan says. "Patrick's course really emphasizes quality workmanship, which gives these kids a taste of what this type of job would be like. I was very impressed with their work ethic, and I'm very impressed with the car." With more students like this entering the hobby, its future appears bright.
In-process shots courtesy of Patrick Kelly