Many younger readers may not remember a day when American engineering and automobiles were the standard of the world. Rather than resorting to badge engineering to offer a quality automobile, manufacturers developed their own vehicle in house. As difficult as it may be to comprehend today, U.S. musclecars, struck fear in the hearts of foreign sports cars, in some cases even on their own turf. Before the days of fancy marketing and focus groups, GM built exciting vehicles with few compromises that were revered by many worldwide. A case in Pontiac point is 27-year-old HVAC service supervisor Chris Hall's '68 Firebird.
People who wanted a Firebird in Europe back then would not get a Firebird-like vehicle. They got the real thing--even if GM had to build it in Europe to get it to them. In this case that's what the General did. Using the Opel AG company and its Antwerp, Belgium, facility (which GM purchased in 1929) Pontiac was able to originally make this '68 Firebird with an OHC Sprint Six and four-speed powertrain, with performance on par or better than the many European-bred sports cars available to those across the pond.
Now, before you get your hopes up for a great history lesson on Pontiac Firebirds imported to Europe, we are saddened to report there was absolutely no information at our disposal to bring the like to you. PHS and even GM Opel resources were contacted and all led to dead ends. The best we could speculate about these First-Gen F-body exports was that they were shipped to the Belgium plant without an engine. Was this done in an effort to avoid the hefty tariffs placed on large-displacement engines? Engines, among other things, were probably shipped separately for final assembly at Antwerp. Further, being built and rebuilt overseas, parts were scarce, and Chris, a native Englishman, had to surmount quite a few obstacles to restore and modify his Firebird.
With that disclaimer out of the way, we are happy to report the cool stuff about this Firebird that we DO know. First off, Chris literally rescued this Bird. Found under a tree in September 1995, in a small town north of London, England, this '68 had been badly abused and neglected. It was raced with a small-block Chevy for a few years, had been repainted 12 times--one coat above the other--and had been stripped clean of most of its remaining good parts. However, thanks to the vision of then-18-year-old Chris Hall, the Bird became a less rotten apple of his eye. "I restored it in England, carrying most of the parts home from family vacations to the USA--the wheels, bumper, Richmond five-speed trans, clutch, and bellhousing were all hand-carried luggage on the airplane home to England," he shared. Obviously these were pre-9/11 days.
No stranger to Pontiac Firebirds, Chris, tells us he was the editor of the Pontiac Owner's Club U.K. newsletter (www.poc-uk.org) when he was living there. He recalled, "In 1980, I was four years old when my folks bought their first American car, a '78 Gold Edition T/A with T-tops, gold interior, a 400, and an automatic. It wasn't a typical purchase for an average English family (living in England), but it sure was a head turner with that big ol' hood bird! We had that car for around four years before exchanging it for an '82 black, 305, four-speed 'Knight Rider' Trans Am. Then in 1989 my folks shipped over an '88 GTA in bright red with a 350, an automatic, and an ASC power moonroof. It would become my driver/fun weekend car when my folks bought a '97 Firebird Formula with the WS6 Ram Air package and a six-speed--also in bright red. My parents still own this car and my brother, Nick, is driving the '88 GTA Trans Am back in England."
After two years of transporting parts, Chris was ready to redo his '68 Firebird. Friends Martin and Robin Walters, who had a small body shop, were enlisted to do the bodywork. They took the following three years or so to do the sheetmetal. The original bodywork repairs consisted of replacing the quarter-skins and the trunk floors. Doing what they could, brothers Chris and Nick were at the body shop most of their nights and weekends pulling, cleaning, and painting all of the rear suspension.
Martin Walter's buddy, Nick, painted the Poncho after Martin did the bodywork and prep. Using water-based Mercedes factory Glasurit paint, the Firebird was shot in Jaguar Gunmetal Grey and clearcoated for a spell-binding finish. Hey, it got our attention, didn't it? To ensure the destructive process of rust did not harm his '68 again, Chris had the undercarriage layered in Por-15 gloss black. The OHC Sprint Six engine and four-speed Muncie trans were M.I.A. when Chris bought it, but after years of SBC sacrilege, a more appropriate'71 YS-Code block Pontiac 400 (with '67 #670 heads) was yanked from a '67 Firebird convertible and set, internally untouched, behind the sinister-looking '68 grilles. A Kauffman Racing Equipment valley pan was added before bolting in an aluminum '71 vintage 455 H.O. intake (without crossover) and 750 Q-jet with .072 jets and .044 rods on the primary side and secondary rods from Barry Grant. The stock points-style ignition system has given way to a Petronix setup with a Flamethrower coil, Taylor SpiroPro wires, and AC Delco plugs. Hedman four-tube 1 7/8-inch headers pump the exhaust through a dual 2 1/2-inch Flowmaster American Thunder, two-chamber system.
Backing all this Pontiac torque is a Richmond Street five-speed transmission, Centerforce dual-pressure-plate clutch, Hays flywheel, and Hurst shifter. Beyond the tranny lies a lengthened stock driveshaft and a '77 corporate F-body 10-bolt rearend with top-speed-in-mind 2.41 gears in the Posi.
Keep in mind, we're talking about a Firebird built for the narrow roads and high fuel prices of England. Chris never lost sight of this: "I'll never forget my friend Phil saying that it was 'big.' That goes to show how small cars are in Europe where a 2.0L four-cylinder is a 'big-block' for most. However, I wanted late-model driveablity in an older Pontiac, so the Bird had to handle and stop well. I had to keep up with the modern European cars on twisty U.K. roads." Of course, the torque from the 400 combined with the high final drive ratio and the low First gear of the five-speed could handle anything else on the road--provided it was a straight and open road.
Knowing his mission, Chris left no chassis and suspension stone unturned. A massive 1 1/8-inch Hellwig stabilizer bar controls lean up front along with the 1/2-coil-cut front springs, which also place the Firebird nose low. Gulstrand modified geometry upper A-arms, Energy polyurethane bushings, and Koni adjustable shocks do their fair share to keep the 16x8-inch American Racing Torq-Thrust IIs and Avon 245/50-16s connected to the road. Matching wheels, tires, and shocks were fitted to the rear along with Magna Mid-Eya 1 1/2-inch drop leaf springs and a 1-inch Hellwig stabilizer bar. Stiffening things up altogether are Competition Engineering subframe connectors. Lastly, just in case Chris and his Poncho 400 got in over his head, 12-inch, two-piston PBR caliper SS/Drag Baer brakes were slipped in up front with complementing single-piston calipers on discs in the rear.
Unfortunately, the dashboard is the only original surviving interior component. Chris explains, "I had a fire in my garage in January 2000, whilst restoring. It burned a pile of new parts [carb, ram-air pan, front spoiler, wiring, original deluxe front and rear fold down seats, etc]. It also scorched the back half of the Firebird--melting the taillights, fuel door, and new paint. I had no insurance. I was devastated. It took me another two years to get it on the road."
Lifting spirits up again, at the '00 GTO Western Regionals in Long Beach, California, Chris met his wife, Mandy. They moved to England and over the next two years they re-resurrected the Firebird. "She painted the motor and cleaned up many parts. The Pontiac was repainted and reassembled and on the road for the start of the U.K. show season in 2002, so it ultimately took seven long years to realize the dream."
By now the two were ready to enjoy their lives together in the U.S. Arrangements were made to have the Bird shipped to their current Surprise, Arizona, residence by way of California's Port Huneme. After a bit more than a month's wait, they arrived at Port Huneme to a most unpleasant surprise. Chris shares, "The Firebird had been left in the ship with the windows down. The interior was wet and full of mold, white, furry, hairy mold. It had so much salt, dirt, and mud on it from the journey it took a whole weekend and most of the week for Mandy and I to clean it." However, they counted their blessings when they heard that another large car carrier ship had sunk off the coast of Southampton, England, after being T-boned by another ship in heavy fog. We agree with Chris: "It could have been A LOT worse!"
Two years later and now active in the Phoenix area's Cactus GTO club, the Halls are content with their Pontiac household consisting of a two-door '01 Grand Am GT and Mandy's 400 '71 LeMans coupe, which is currently under restoration. Although 17-inch Boyd Smoothie II wheels, Hotchkis springs, aftermarket A/C, and a stroked and Edelbrock-headed motor are planned, this Pontiac buff was most pleased with his finished project when all was said and done. "I love the front bumper/headlights and the roofline. First-Generation Firebirds are some of the best looking cars in my opinion. I was 18 when I bought this car and took on the project. If any younger readers are considering tackling a project like this, you have to do it. I love the way it drives. It's very tight and has precise handling and braking. I must admit there were many times I wondered what I'd gotten myself into when it was all torn down and didn't look like a car anymore. Remember, though, whatever you do, don't buy an import!" Agreed, ol' boy. Agreed.
Chris reflects on his motor from an international perspective, "The engine is a bit of a m
The original sheetmetal was too far gone, so new GM front fenders, repro doorskins, quarte
Chris is delighted to share his inspiration, "Helping tear the Bird down to the framerails
The second time around an ACC carpet kit, Corbeau GTS II bucket seats, and a regular Fireb
As there were no VIN or cowl tags, except for this plate, we have no clue how many '68 Fir
The Line-Loc button on the shifter was not originally installed for racing but rather for
About The Restoration
The following photos will provide insight into how far Chris Halls' Firebird has come...and we don't mean miles traveled.
Here is the before photo of the '68 with 12 coats of paint and a feline hood ornament.
The nose was stripped off for repair, and here the subframe is ready for removal.
Reproduction quarter-skins were employed on this project.
Lots of metalwork was required to save this Bird. Here we see the trunk floor being instal
Reassembly continued with the 400 engine installed and the engine bay coming together in a
A major setback was a fire in the garage that destroyed quite few parts and damaged the in