Some people are content blending in with the crowd, while others thrive on being "different." To some, that might conjure up thoughts of wild hairstyles or outlandish clothing, while to others it entails eccentric lifestyles or peculiar obsessions. Whatever the case, Craig Blake, of Lincoln, Nebraska, proudly considers himself "different," and it's all because of the 500-plus-horsepower punch his stealthy 403 Olds-powered '79 Special Edition Trans Am is capable of dealing.
The 40-year-old restaurateur's interest in Firebirds began nearly 20 years ago when then-22-year-old Craig purchased a 403-powered Mayan Red '79 Trans Am upon reentering civilian life after a stint in the Army. Over the next few years, his interests changed and he ended up selling the T/A-a decision he later regretted. "I always liked Firebirds and wanted another '79 after I sold my first," he tells HPP.
Restore A Muscle Car refinished the Trans Am's original 15x8-inch Snowflake wheels, which
"I started searching and in 1998 found this '79 S/E T/A in San Rafael, California, on the Internet. The original black paint was faded, but the car was otherwise very clean and the 403 ran well. I bought it for $5,000 and drove it 22 hours back to Lincoln."
Following a couple years of enjoyment, Craig sold the T/A, as the birth of his second child in 2000 neared. The Pontiac was bought by an employee of Craig's, and it was all but destroyed over the following three years. Craig was horrified by what he saw, and by December 2003 the T/A was his again. He relocated the Trans Am to his father's shop and began a complete restoration. "My dad was a mechanic and had all the tools, so we planned on a complete disassembly, sending the body out for paint and then reassembling it ourselves," says Craig. Though the car was virtually rust free, he stripped it to its shell and had the body blasted to bare metal. "Many people ask me why I went that far," says Craig. "The best answer I can give is that the T/A had a bad aura about it, and I wanted to give it a fresh start."
Craig felt the performance of his T/A's original 185hp 403ci engine left much to be desired. A stickler for original-type combinations, he wanted to retain the Olds mill despite advice from many to replace it with a Pontiac engine.
An out-of-box 650-cfm Demon carburetor from Barry Grant received only minor jet changes to
Building The 403 Olds
"Very few owners build 403 engines for their Trans Ams, and I wanted to be different," says Craig. "I was looking for 350-400 hp and really didn't know what was available for the Olds engine. The guys at Trans Am Country (www.transamcountry.com) mentioned Terry Fritsch at FCR Performance in Omaha, and since he was only a few miles away I gave him a call. He had all kinds of great ideas for building a high-horsepower 403, so I dropped off the engine at his shop that summer."
Starting with the numbers-matching 403 block, Terry increased bore diameter 0.024 inch to 4.375, boosting total displacement to 408 ci. Though the cast-iron crankshaft retains its original 3.385-inch stroke, it received a series of significant modifications. Its counterweights were knife-edged and narrowed to reduce weight, the main journals were cut 0.010 inch, while the rod journals were reduced 0.020 inch to 2.10. Both pieces were then cryogenically treated by Cryo Nebraska in Omaha before Terry applied an oil-dispersing coating to the crank's counterweights.
FCR Performance treated the 403 Olds block to a 0.024-inch overbore and added forged rods
A custom set of forged-aluminum pistons from CP Pistons that feature thermal barrier-coated crowns and antifriction-coated skirts fill the cylinders, and they're wrapped with Mahle plasma-moly rings. Complementing the slugs is a set of SIR-series, forged-steel, small-block Chevy connecting rods in 6.00-inch length from Eagle Specialty Products. An FCR main-bearing support and ARP main studs ease Craig's mind while revving the engine toward its 6,000-rpm redline.
The entire reciprocating mass was balanced, and it rides on Clevite 77 bearings. Oil holes of the upper main bearings have been enlarged to promote greater crankshaft lubrication. A modified Melling high-volume pump provides 55 psi of pressure, is driven by a hardened Milodon driveshaft, and resides within a 7-quart Moroso pan.
Aluminum cylinder heads from Bulldog Performance replaced the original No. 4A castings and feature 2.15/1.75-inch-diameter valves and large 240cc intake ports. They are advertised as flowing over 290 cfm at 0.700-inch lift as measured at 28 inches of pressure in as-cast form. Modern, fast-burn-style combustion chambers were thermal-barrier-coated and contain a volume of 76 cc, which produces a pump-gas friendly compression ratio of 10.2:1 on the 408ci mill.
The custom-ground, single-pattern Ultradyne hydraulic roller camshaft from Bullet Racing Cams boasts 238 degrees of 0.050-inch duration, 0.565-inch of gross valve lift, and a lobe separation angle (LSA) of 112 degrees. It's complemented by a set of Crane hydraulic roller lifters and Comp Cams valvetrain hardware, including No. 930 springs. To restrict the amount of oil reaching the top end, Terry employed a set of custom-length, oil-restricting pushrods from Smith Brothers, which also actuate the 1.6:1-ratio Harland Sharp roller rocker arms.
Feeding the engine is a 650-cfm Demon carburetor and a modified Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold, while an MSD ignition system fires the compressed mixture. With four-tube headers, minor jet changes, and 35 degrees of total timing, the mighty 408 generated an astounding 517 hp at 5,700 rpm, and 508 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm on the engine dyno at WAM Performance in Omaha. The finished engine then sat at Terry's shop waiting to be reunited with the finished body.
Before recovering the seats with original GM hobnail and Lombardy material, the front seat
"The engine was already in Terry's hands, but the bodywork was very time-consuming," says Craig. "I really didn't have the time to finish it and began looking for someone who could. I knew Dave Hall through the hobby, and he had just started Restore A Muscle Car, so I turned the project over to him."
"Craig delivered the body to us on a flatbed trailer in July 2005 and we immediately mounted it onto our rotisserie," says Dave. "The body was very solid and had a few of the typical minor dents and dings we see. It did have some light hail damage on top, and one small spot of rust on the floorpan that we welded up. We worked the body by hand, pulling all the dents and fixing any low spots to get it as smooth and straight as possible before prepping it for paint."
Restore A Muscle Car's Todd Otto and Jon Novak treated the entire dent-free shell and body panels to three coats of PPG epoxy primer followed by three coats of PPG Starlight Black. A total of three coats of PPG clear were applied atop the basecoats, and each was sanded with papers ranging between 1,000- and 2,500-grit depending upon application layer. A mirrorlike finish was achieved during final buffing using a plethora of 3M products, including the company's buffing compound and a wool pad, swirl-remover compound and a foam pad, and Ultrafina SE polish and a waffle pad.
With the body and its panels freshly painted, Dave and his team began assembling the front subframe so Terry could install the engine and fit several other components before final assembly. "The subframe and associated suspension and engine components were sandblasted and powdercoated semigloss black. We installed urethane bushings from Kanter Auto Products, while Inline Tube supplied new stainless steel brake and fuel lines. All of the original bolts, the power brake booster, master-cylinder cap, and several miscellaneous pieces were refinished in their respective original zinc, cadmium, or phosphate coating by Industrial Plating in Omaha," says Dave.
The ceramic-coated exhaust system is comprised of a set of 1.875-inch-diameter Kooks four-
In January 2006, Dave trailered the rolling Trans Am chassis from his shop in Lincoln to FCR's shop in Omaha. Over the next few months Terry fabricated solid motor mounts, fit the Kooks headers and Pypes exhaust system, and then dropped the engine into the subframe. "Restore A Muscle Car had a large display at the World Of Wheels event in Omaha that March," recalls Dave, "and we wanted to include Craig's partially assembled T/A to show the extent we go to during a restoration. So we picked it up from FCR for the four-day event. Terry completed his portion that July, which gave us just enough time to finish it for the Trans Am Nationals in Dayton, Ohio."
Once back at Dave's shop, he and his team put in long hours readying the car for its late-August debut. "We had about three weeks to install the front clip, finish wet-sanding and buffing the paint, and then install the stripe-and-decal kit from Phoenix Graphix. We also had to install the exhaust system after it was ceramic-coated, along with the entire electrical system and interior," he says. "There isn't a bracket, plate, nut, or bolt on this car that wasn't refinished or replaced during reassembly. Our tech Jon Logue made sure everything worked correctly, was tuned and adjusted properly, and he troubleshot any issues. After that every square inch was detailed and we headed to Ohio."
Though it retains its original 8.5-inch GM 10-bolt disc-brake rear, it has been upgraded w
Living With The Results
Dave says the T/A was very well received at the T/A Nationals, adding, "We got compliments from everybody." Craig too: "The car came from Dave's shop better than I ever expected. Those guys are just awesome," he exclaims. "The motor got a little out of hand with all of Terry's great ideas, but I couldn't be happier with the end result. It's one of the most responsive cars I have ever driven. It seems to wind like a small-block Chevy. And it's definitely a tire smoker! Everybody builds a Pontiac engine to replace the Olds, and nobody expects to see what's under this T/A's hood. It's just a fun car to take places and to be different.