Major Johnny Hamilton is a...
Major Johnny Hamilton is a USAF A-10 pilot, but his '88 Firebird looks like an honest-to-goodness stealth fighter. The front and rear bumper covers were changed to the 1989 versions for a cleaner appearance and a Formula hood and Trans Am ground effects complete the look. It is painted in Code-41 Black with PPG basecoat/clearcoat.
Major Johnny Hamilton, 33 years old, of the USAF, has loved Firebirds since college. In fact, he still owns the very same '88 model that he purchased before his junior year of academic studies in 1994. He tells HPP, "I liked the Firebirds but couldn't afford a V-8, so I bought the 2.8L V-6 as my sole driver. Since I wasn't working at the time, my father helped me buy it."
Money was tight, and Hamilton was barely able to buy a Formula hood, aftermarket ground effects and a cheap paint job, let alone the V-8 conversion he really wanted for his Firebird. He recalls, "The car ended up looking like a Ferrari Testarossa. I drove it like that throughout my last year of college and my first year in the Air Force, when I was in pilot training." That year he also installed some stereo equipment and Centerline wheels.
Hamilton began the long road to his Firebird's current configuration upon his second Air Force assignment, a one-year deployment to South Korea. He says, "My uncle Jack in Alabama had been rebuilding cars as a hobby for many years and he agreed to work on my Firebird while I was away in Korea." The good-deed uncle replaced several Bondo-ed body panels and added '89 Trans Am ground effects. "Since Jack's son owns an automotive paint store, he provided the paint," Hamilton recalls. His Uncle Jack also installed a GM 2.8L crate engine and a Dynomax after-cat exhaust.
Though well on its way, the Bird was still far from "mission accomplished."
The Next Phase
"My goal at the time was to spend money on one expensive project per year, while doing smaller projects as time and funds became available," Hamilton explained.
After a tour of duty in Iraq, he installed '99 Firebird front seats, a new carpet and a reproduction console. Mark's Custom Upholstery in Converse, Texas, added GTA door panels and covered the rest of the interior and the dashboard in dark grey ultra leather with light grey microfiber inserts. "The ultra leather is very soft to touch, but it's more durable than real leather and the micro-fiber is much easier to clean than suede," Hamilton reasoned.
A year after being stationed in Tucson, Arizona, the brakes, wheels and tires were upgraded. Technology had advanced since Hamilton's college days and the Firebird's rear drum/front disc setup was outdated. He dumped the rear drums for a Baer Track kit featuring slotted/drilled and zinc-washed solid 13-inch rotors and matching calipers, and upgraded the stock front discs with similarly-featured Baer two-piece 13-inch rotors and calipers. Ronal LZ 17x9 and 18x9.5 wheels with silver painted spokes and a polished lip wrapped in BFG KDW-NT rubber followed.
Off to war again, this time in Afghanistan, Hamilton says he had a lot of time to think about his next move. Consulting with Hawk's Third Generation Parts (www.hawksthirdgenparts.com) and using the online forums of www.thirdgen.org, he decided his next modification to the Bird would be as intense as the attack planes he pilots for a living.
"I searched for an LS2 for a few months," he told HPP. "Eventually, I found one at Motorsport Technology Inc (MTI) (www.motorsporttech.com) in Houston, Texas. The company was removing a 364ci 6.0 liter LS2 from an '06 GTO with only 58 miles on it." Hamilton explained to MTI that his goal was 500 hp at the flywheel and they discussed the upgrades to accomplish his mission. MTI suggested its Stealth II cam with 224/220-degrees duration at 0.050 and 0.581/0.581 lift on a 116-degree LSA. David Coates of MTI told HPP, "Our Stealth II cam is designed for someone who wants the benefits of an aftermarket cam without the idiosyncrasies. It's got little or no cam lope and no cam surge. This cam makes excellent power from 3,000 rpm up to 6,500 rpm and offers a good blend of power and drivability."
After pulling the stock LS2 "243" heads, they were hand-ported to Stage 2E specs by Robert Manza of MTI, who has 30 years of experience in performance head porting. They were milled only enough to clean the surfaces, thereby maintaining the stock compression ratio of 10.9:1. The company then outfitted the heads with 7.4-inch hardened pushrods, stock GM 1.7 rockers, Comp 921 high performance dual valvesprings and 2.02/1.56 Ferrea stainless steel one-piece valves. Testing revealed that the modified heads flowed 305 cfm intake and 205 on the exhaust.
Before delivering the LS2 to Hamilton, a Nick Williams 90mm throttle body and a FAST 90mm intake were installed to work with the stock 85mm MAF and 28 lb/hr fuel injectors.
Can't believe your eyes? Look...
Can't believe your eyes? Look again. This Third-Gen Firebird features an '06 GTO's LS2 engine with a top end reworked by MTI. A Stealth II cam and Stage 2E ported heads from MTI are augmented by a Nick Williams 90mm throttle body, a FAST 90mm intake, a custom wiring harness and an '04 GTO ECM. Up front, a natural aluminum finish Be Cool aluminum radiator with dual electric fans keeps the LS2 at a 180 degree operating temperature. A K&N conical air filter connected to a custom 3 1/2-inch powdercoated black aluminum cold air intake provides plenty of incoming airflow. On a Dynojet chassis dyno, this '88 Firebird pulls a healthy 409 rwhp and 402 lb ft of torque.
"While collecting the parts, I kept looking for a shop to do the conversion because I didn't think I would have the time or know-how to do it all myself," Hamilton recollects. "A friend ran across Hi Speed Customs in Tucson, Arizona. After visiting the shop, I was impressed with the work, so I dropped off my car in October '06."
While Hi Speed mounted the LS2 in his Third-Gen F-Bird, the Air Force "Top Gun" would learn that the swap required a series of carefully conceived mods. First, he scrapped the Third-Gen K-member. A "correct" one was ordered from BMR Fabrication of Thonotosassa, Florida.
Hi Speed swapped the LS2's oil pan for an LS1 pan, thereby changing the front sump designed for the '05-'06 GTO to a rear sump compatible with the Firebird's steering linkage. Hi Speed also installed an aftermarket A/C compressor and relocation kit from Street and Performance (www.hotrodlane.cc), placing the compressor high on the passenger's side to gain more clearance at the K-member. According to Hamilton, this kit came with its own pulleys and an adjustable arm. A Walbro 340 fuel pump was installed in the Third-Gen fuel tank to feed the LS2 and uses an adjustable Aeromotive fuel regulator.
Then came the wiring harness. An '06 GTO uses "drive by wire" throttle, and Hamilton's Firebird required cable throttle actuation. An '04 GTO uses a cable actuated throttle, but its wiring harness is not a stand-alone one. Rather, the power, ground and fuel pump circuits are in the vehicle system itself, not on the wiring harness. When you pull the OE harness off of the '04 GTO, there are no power or ground wires. Hamilton had to research the solution, and it came to him by way of Fuel Injection Specialties (www.fuelinjection.com) of San Antonio, Texas.
Don Sutherland, the company's director of sales, tells HPP, "As all our wiring harnesses are custom designed to each customer's needs, we built a harness for Hamilton's LS2, which included power to the ECU, the ignition, the injectors, and the appropriate grounds. In other words, we built a stand-alone harness that Hamilton could use with the '88 Firebird, the '06 LS2 engine, and the '04 GTO computer."
This short-throw Pro 5.0 stick...
This short-throw Pro 5.0 stick allows this Bird to row through six-forward gears in its Tremec T56 transmission as quickly as you can say, "Get the pilot to the flightline."
Ronal LZ 17x9 and 18x9.5 silver...
Ronal LZ 17x9 and 18x9.5 silver spoke wheels wrapped in BFG KDW-NT 255/40ZR17 and 275/35ZR18 rubber make this Third-Gen handle as well as its Fourth-Gen younger brothers.
Believe it or not, it worked nearly perfectly. Sutherland told us there was one glitch to figure out: the tach signal. The '04 GTO wiring harness knows how to read the signal from each of the eight distributorless coils only on an LS1 and combine these signals into the correct wavelength to be recognized by its computer. Because the signal sent from the custom wiring harness collected the individual coil signals into the wrong wavelength, Fuel Injection Specialties had to add an inline"signal calibrator" to modify the tach signal into a wavelength readable by the '04 GTO computer. With this one modification, the custom wiring harness worked flawlessly.
The most puzzling obstacle of the LS2 transplant, however, was the coil pack set up. After its installation, the LS2 engine would not run properly. As Hamilton and Hi Speed learned, LS2 coil packs do not work with an LS1 ECM. After trial and error, Hi Speed installed a set of LS1 coilpacks and the GTO motor sprang to life. According to Hamilton and Hi Speed, "It turns out there are several versions of coil packs, and because we used the '04 GTO ECM, we had to use LS1 coilpacks designed for a '98-'02 Trans Am and for the '04 GTO exclusively." The coil pack system sends sparks through Taylor Thundervolt wires to NGK Iridium plugs.
The rest of the modifications to Hamilton's Firebird were a piece of cake. Hawks LSX conversion headers with 1 3/4-inch primaries and 2 1/2-inch collectors are bolted to the LS2 and are coated in silver by Jet-Hot Coatings. Random Technology cats feed into a 3-inch midsection that's connected to a Hooker Aerochamber muffler with dual 3-inch stainless steel tailpipes.
A SPEC Stage 3+ clutch and flywheel transfer the power from the crank to a D&D Performance Tremec T56 with a Viper back-half chosen by Hamilton for its ability to handle significantly more torque than a GM T56 unit. The T56 is mounted to the custom-made transmission crossmember and sends power through a 3-inch chrome-moly driveshaft to a Moser Ford 9 rearend with 3.50 gears, 31-spline axles, and a Detroit True Track differential.
A Bosch Hydroboost power brake system, from Power Brake Service, works off of the power steering pressure. It can create up to 2,000 psi of power assist for the four-wheel disc brakes with no vacuum required and lowers rotor heat by stopping the vehicle in a shorter distance.
Inside the Bird's interior,...
Inside the Bird's interior, we see a custom gauge-filled dash featuring Auto Meter electronic dials, '91 GTA door panels, '99 Firebird front seats and an aftermarket Momo steering wheel and shifter knob. The shifter plate, radio face plate and gauge plate are custom black anodized aluminum.
This Firebird's owner wants...
This Firebird's owner wants any lookers to know he is proud of the LS2 engine in his 80s-era Bird. The chrome oil cap is aftermarket.
The front suspension includes BMR tubular front control arms and Bilstein shocks using Eibach Pro front springs. The power steering is transplanted from a late '80s IROC. Other front suspension modifications include a Hotchkis strut tower brace and a Performance Suspension Technologies front sway bar (32mm).
Hi Speed installed a BMR Xtreme torque arm because "it came with a separate crossbrace to mount the front of the torque arm," according to Hamilton. This not only would increase transmission durability, since the torque arm was no longer mounted to it, but the design of the crossbrace allowed for a cleaner exhaust installation as compared to some other designs. "I also used a custom-made transmission crossmember so the Y-pipe could go right under it," Hamilton said.
Attached to the Moser Ford 9 are Eibach Pro rear springs, Bilstein shocks and BMR tubular steel lower control arms. Handling capability is further accentuated with a Performance Suspension Technologies (PST) sway bar (24mm). Hotchkis subframe connectors tighten up the chassis and BMR tubular upper and lower-adjustable panhard bars locate the rear.
To finalize his mission, Hamilton installed a Kenwood stereo with 7 channel EQ,Eclipse 5 channel amp, JBL speakers and 10-inch sub-woofer.
Then, he upgraded the factory dash and cluster with Auto Meter Sport Comp gauges. "The speedometer works off the transmission speed sending unit. The oil pressure works off its own sending unit that came with the gauge; it was mounted on an unused, pre-existing hole above the fuel filter. The temperature gauge had its own sending unit as well," Hamilton says.
To match the interior's theme, Hamilton had a local neighbor and friend (who owned a steel-fabrication shop) cut aluminum panels for the gauge fascia, the radio trim panel and the shifter plate, which was then sanded smooth with 900 grit and anodized black before being mounted with the gauges and attached with button screws into the Bird's original dash. Black mesh was installed above the in-dash speaker grills and the window defogger openings. Silver mesh was used as speaker grilles in the door panels.
With over 180,000 miles on the chassis and almost 5,000 miles on the LS2 since February 2007, Hamilton loves to spend every day that he can with his Firebird. Currently stationed in Germany, he just couldn't leave it back in the States. So when he shipped off in April 2007, his LS2 Firebird followed. For the time being, he can enjoy the spirit of American adventure where there are no speed limits-on the German Autobahn.
BMR's tubular K-member not...
BMR's tubular K-member not only makes the LS2 swap easier, but also reduces weight up front.
The tubular upper and lower...
The tubular upper and lower control arms contain the Eibach Pro coil spring and soon to be installed Bilstein shocks.
Out back, we see the trick...
Out back, we see the trick BMR panhard rods and torque arm set-up, the exhaust system and the fat PST rear sway bar.