On a recent daytrip to visit our friends at National Parts Depot headquarters in Ocala, Florida, we were fortunate enough to be invited to take a peek behind the scenes at owner father-son duo Jim and Rick Schmidt's personal car collection. That's where we came across this awesome and rare 1979 Pontiac Fire-Am.
To be perfectly honest, one could easily be mistaken for a regular Trans Am at quick glance, but it came as no surprise that Schmidt's unbelievable collection was home to one of the rare specimens. It got us thinking - what is the real story behind the Pontiac Fire-Am? Derek Putnam of NPD was super helpful in explaining their in-house Fire-Am (short for Firebird-American) and giving us a history lesson.
This specimen is considered "Stage Three," the most modified of the three stages, but more on that later. It also features parts that could have been individually ordered from Very Special Equipment (VSE) - an Edelbrock intake sits atop the Oldsmobile 403 engine, along with a Holley carburetor, original MSD-6A box, and Holley electric fuel pump. Those Fire-Ams that were equipped with Oldsmobile 403 engines exclusively were paired with 3-speed automatics, like this one, but Doug Nash 5-speed transmissions were also an option.
Vice President and COO of NPD, Rick Schmidt, bought the all-original car you see here at the Charlotte AutoFair in the '90s and put it through a full-on restoration at Legendary Motorcar Company in Ontario, Canada. They did an exceptional job restoring the Fire-Am to its original glory, and now the beauty sits nestled among the Schmidt's 200-car collection at NPD headquarters. Derek explains that the most difficult part of the restoration was finding someone who could reproduce the Fire-Am graphics that you see on almost every panel of the car.
"Back in the mid-90s, no one knew what the Fire-Ams were. Now, it's a big deal to come across one," Derek told us about the car.
A story in the March 2007 issue of High-Performance Pontiac entitled "Pontiac Firebird Vintage Tuner Cars - Fearsome Fire-Ams" (link below), explained that Fire-Am creator Herb Adams [of VSE] recalled in a 2000 interview with HPP, "Though Pontiac's proposed race program didn't fly, we still knew that we had a good car that performed better than anything the division was building. We asked Cars and Concepts' Dick Chrysler and Dave Draper to build a turnkey package to be sold through Pontiac dealers." According to Herb, Pontiac was less than enthused, which meant that the required logistics of the endeavor would increase the price by $1,000-2,000 over the premium already paid for the conversion. As a result, very few Fire-Ams (or Cheverras, the Camaro version) were actually built at Cars and Concepts.
However, Adams did decide to sell all of the components of the Fire-Am via mail order either individually or in three-tiered packages, so that those Trans Am owners could do their own conversion. VSE also offered installation services on privately owned Pontiacs, from simple bolt-ons up to complete stages. Because of this, these cars were not numbered or heavily documented, making it extremely difficult to verify whether or not the car was built at VSE and also making it impossible to find exact production numbers. Derek told us that there were eight originally made in 1977 to satisfy a contractual agreement with Pontiac. The idea was to prove how easily Trans Ams could be converted into race cars for competition in the 1977 IROC series.
Derek explained the three stages to us. The first stage included an upgrade to the front and rear suspension, battery relocation to the trunk, a roll bar, front end lowering kit, VSE oil pan and pickup, and an appearance package that featured the red, orange, and yellow "Fire-Am" graphics (designed by John Schinella), Appliance 15x8 wheels, and tires.
Stage two came complete with all of the above, in addition to a brake cooling kit, metallic brake shoes and pads, Koni shocks, racing-style seatbelts, Corbeau seats, and an oil cooler. Stage three was composed of the whole kit and caboodle with an added solid suspension bushing pack in front and rear, dry sump system, heavy-duty rear axle, and front axle and spindle setup. You can read the complete list below.
Read more about the history of the Fire-Am here.
To order Herb Adams VSE parts - or just about any restoration parts for that matter - visit www.nationalpartsdepot.com.
FIRE-AM STAGE I: STREET PERFORMANCE
•VSE 1 5/16-inch front stabilizer bar with spherical rod-end-equipped end links
•Revised wheel-alignment specs
•VSE 1.00-inch rear stabilizer bar
•VSE modified rear-spring hangers
•VSE front-structure kit
•VSE front-end lowering kit
•VSE battery-relocation kit
•VSE 8-inch-wide wheels and recommended tires
•VSE advanced-design oil pan and pickup
•VSE large-diameter bolt-in rollbar
FIRE-AM STAGE II: AUTOCROSS
•VSE brake-cooling ducts and backing plates, drill cooling holes in the rear drums
•VSE metallic pads and shoes
•VSE Koni shocks (later VSE/Moroso adjustable)
•VSE Corbeau bucket seats, racing belts, and harnesses
•VSE oil cooler and remote-filter kit, wet-sump system
FIRE-AM STAGE III: ROAD RACE
•VSE solid front-suspension bushings, heavy-duty front hubs and spindles
•VSE heavy-duty Ford rear, solid rear-suspension bushings
•VSE Hurst/Airheart 12-inch disc brakes, front and rear
•VSE Doug Nash five-speed transmission
•VSE dry-sump lubrication system