Check out the restored '68. What do you think, concours gold winner? Definitely a trailer queen, right? Nobody in his right mind would actually drive a Firebird that rare and this meticulously restored, right? Wrong!
First, the Firebird is not a factory Ram Air II car. It left the assembly plant with a 400 H.O. between the fenders. Second, this Bird is not only driven, it's raced. And we're not talkin' about a few parade laps after concours judging, we mean RACED. And it's fast, very fast, posting 12.30s and it's not even broken-in yet.
How can it be that this restored Ram Air II transplanted Bird can run that fast while maintaining a completely stock appearance? Did I mention that owner has 20 years experience building and racing NHRA stock eliminator cars? Well it's true. Tony Goodman, a 43-year toolmaker from Zeeland, Michigan, is a 1320 warrior from the old school. He says, "The challenge of trying to go fast within a set of guidelines has always intrigued me." Hence his choice to go stock eliminator racing. His rides over the years included an '87 Cutlass with a 307 Olds that ultimately ran 12.07 in K/SA and a '71 Pontiac T-37 with a 455 H.O. that ran 11.16 at 117 with a short time of 1.47 in E/SA.
But how did this particular Bird come to be? As Tony tells it, "My first car was a '67 Firebird with the OHC six but my favorite car has always been the '68 Ram Air II Bird. Real ones were out of reach but putting together a clone car wasn't." So the search began. He finally located one that had not only spent most of its life in California accruing just 60,000 sun-soaked miles but it was also restored and was being sold without an engine. If ever there was a better match for Tony's situation, I can't imagine it. Tony thought so, too, so he bought it in 1999.
Body and Interior
Fresh paint in the original Starlight Black hue adorns the body, the chassis was rebuilt and detailed, and the interior features original upholstery, with only the headliner, carpet and package tray replaced. A set of Stewart Warner dials monitors the engine and a Sun Tach counts the revs. Outside, NOS and repro emblems and trim complete the look.
As you can see in the photos, this machine is no luxo-barge. It has manual four-wheel drum brakes, manual steering, and even the radio was deleted. Deluxe interior with fold-down rear seat, automatic trans with console, and Rally II wheels pretty much complete the comfort and styling options. Once again, a match made in heaven for a racer because there is less to take off to save weight.
Engine and Drivetrain
The foundation of the engine is a four-bolt 400 block that was machined at G&G Machine in Zeeland where it was align honed and the decks squared to the crankshaft centerline and to place the pistons just .005 in the hole (stock was .020). The cylinders were bored .030 and honed with a torque plate to mimic the distortion of the cylinder when the head is bolted in place. This process ensures more concentric cylinders. A nodular iron crank was reground to equalize the throws. In this case it also added .005 stroke. Oliver forged steel rods were chosen because as Tony explains, "These are NHRA accepted stock eliminator rods that are equal in weight but superior in strength to factory cast rods." JE forged pistons, with flat tops and four-valve reliefs just like stock, fit the same criteria for the same reasons and they're wrapped in Speed-Pro file to fit rings, which were hand fitted to each cylinder. The rotating installation was balanced prior to assembly.
DynaGear provided the oil pump, which labors from a stock pan and there is a full-length windage tray that saves a few ponies. A Rollmaster timing chain connects the crank to an Indian Adventures cam with 228/234-degree duration at .050 with .476/.488 lift, ground on a 112-degree centerline. Tony installed it advanced to 106 degrees to aid low- and mid-range torque since a stock converter was retained.
A set of Ram Air II round port heads was turned over to Dave Bisshop of SD Performance for machining and assembly. Milling to 67ccs from 72 bumped compression to 11:1. A multi-angle valve job aids flow around the 2.11/1.77 Nunzi stainless steel valves, which are activated by Comp Cams pushrods and 1.5:1 stamped steel rockers (with Poly locks) and then returned to their seats by Comp Cams 995 springs. No porting was done to the heads according to Tony.
A stock '68 Ram Air Q-jet breathes through a K&N filter and takes fuel from a stock GM fuel pump. The carb features .074 jets, .042 primary metering rods, and .030 "cc" secondary rods, and feeds the mixture to a stock cast-iron '68 intake manifold. Tony told us that, "The secondary opening rate of the carburetor is also very important for quick 60-foot times. Spring tension on this carb is light to medium. The vacuum pull off controls the opening rate. This can take as long as 2 seconds to fully open in a stock application. By using a set of wire drills, you can open up the orifice in the pull off to make the door open more quickly. Begin with .016-.018. If you go too far, the engine will hesitate or bog. The pull off on the Firebird opens the door in a 1/2 second. Every car is different so it will be a trial and error exercise."
A Pertronix electronic conversion has been preformed on the stock distributor to eliminate the points and the curve has been modified to get the timing all in by a quick 1,400 rpm. Total timing is 38 degrees and 110-octane fuel is always in the tank. The spark, provided by a 40,000-volt Pertronix coil, reaches AC R43S plugs via reproduction wires with correct date codes. Ushering out the combustion remains with mellow tones is initiated by a set of factory long branch manifolds. These works of art dump into a 2 1/2-inch system featuring a Dr. Gas X-pipe, a pair of Straightline Performance mufflers and 2 1/2-inch tail pipes.
According to Tony, the remainder of the driveline is very straightforward. A Turbo 400 with a TransGo shift kit takes direction from a stock GM 1800 stall converter and a set of 4.11 gears resides in a heavy-duty posi unit that was bolted into the stock 10-bolt housing.
Suspension Set Up
Goodman went through the suspension with an eye toward e.t.'s. The front stabilizer bar frame brackets have been shimmed an 1/8-inch down to allow the bar to move more easily. A set of adjustable shocks set to 90/10 aid in weight transfer as does another old trick that you don't hear about too often. According to Tony, "the stock upper control arm bushings ride a on serrated portion of the stock cross-shaft, which makes the controls arms more resistant to moving. I took apart the suspension and smoothed the serrated areas. Then I reinstalled the control arms with light grease on the bushings so the arms can move much more freely. This set up helps weight transfer a lot." You may be surprised to learn that all of the wheel alignment settings are stock BUT the toe is set with the frontend raised 3-inches to simulate the Bird's stance as it goes down the track.
In the rear we find some more incognito trickery. Though the stock rear multi-leaf springs remain, the shocks look stock but are actually adjustable units to aid in weight transfer. They have settings for 50/50 jounce/rebound, 70/30 and 90/10. Current setting is 50/50. Tony remarked, "In the future I will test multi-leaf springs that are modified to extend the second and third leaves forward to stiffen the front portion of the spring and act like a traction bar. This will make the chassis plant the tires and it will require a different shock setting. More like a 70/30. This setup will make the car push the tire into the pavement."
At the Track
What is all of this attention to detail worth in the real world? Believe it or not 12.31 at 110.8 mph on Rally II wheels with F70-14 bias-ply redlines weighing 3,560 with a 1/2 tank of gas and driver. How you say? Let's ask Tony. "It all starts with a good smoky burnout that is confined to within a few car lengths of the starting line. I stage at 1,300 rpm and when the last yellow lights, the pedal is pushed with a smooth, progressively quickening motion. Smoothness is the key with track conditions dictating the quickness. With good track conditions my foot is to the floor in about one car length. The best 60-foot time to date is 1.85, I shift at 5,800 rpm and go through the traps at 6,000 rpm."
Goodman also related that the reproduction redlines are actually a help rather than a hindrance when compared to modern tires because the rubber compound is much softer and the tread pattern is much tighter, thereby placing more rubber on the pavement. Tony runs a surprising 42 psi all around. Testing has shown that at the normal 30 pounds, the tires still cup, which means there are dark rubber marks on the pavement only at the edges but not in the middle. The 42 pounds provide a full-tread set of black marks on the pavement.
Tony thinks that there is still more performance to be had, "The car has been to three races since it was finished and has gotten quicker each time so with some tuning I feel that 12-teens at 112 mph is definitely within reach." Not bad for a restored '68 Bird that's easily mistaken for a trailer queen.