Joe Conigliaro has never been able to leave well enough alone when it comes to his Pontiacs. He’s been transforming them into more than they ever could be in stock form for over 30 years.

Part of the blame has to fall upon his good friend Nunzi Romano of Nunzi’s Automotive in Brooklyn, New York, who has shown him how carefully selected mods can vastly improve what is already a great Pontiac.

Nunzi built various projects for Joe over the years, but a change of address to Naples, Florida, left the 49-year-old restaurateur and his latest quest, a ’78 T/A, too far from the borough to have Nunzi turn the wrenches. How would Joe find a shop that could transform his latest vision into reality, and what would be the result?

We’ll find out, but first, here’s a little history.

How It Started

Joe’s passion for Pontiacs started back in the late ’70s. "I like to think that Nunzi injected me with Pontiac medicine because he’s the man who got me into them," he says. It was late 1979 when Joe decided he would listen to his mentor’s advice and purchase a Pontiac--a brand-new ’80 Trans Am.

Immediately afterward, the car was in a service bay at the dealership for something a little more elaborate than a hot tune. "I had them remove the motor and transmission and took the T/A to Nunzi so he could install a fresh 455 with a Tri-Power and an aftermarket hood," Joe recalls. This swap garnered some attention, as the local Pennsylvania papers found it to be quite an interesting topic for a story on why anyone would install a different engine into a brand-new car.

It turns out it was only a sign of things to come. Starting with that ’80 Trans Am, Joe made a hobby of buying Pontiacs and adding his own personal touches over the years.

Around 2003, when he moved to Naples for work, Joe decided he would try and find a ’77 or ’78 T/A on the Internet for his next project. "The bat nose for these two years makes it the best looking of any car," he tells HPP. "I wish they all looked like that because it drives me crazy!"

EBay Motors turned up an immaculate, low-mileage ’78 in Texas. It had factory A/C, a Cameo White exterior, and a Carmine interior. Under the hood was a 400 backed by a four-speed. Joe knew it was in terrific shape, but leave it to him to not be satisfied. He decided he would apply his 30 years of experience modifying Pontiacs to build his ultimate ’78.

"After I got the car, I tried taking it to a Pontiac dealership to have them work on it, but they couldn’t--they said it was too old," Joe says.

It wasn’t until he heard about a father/son team at Barr’s Performance Restoration in Naples that things began to take off. Joe learned of the company’s work through the grapevine and went to check them out for himself. He soon decided they would perform the build.

Time For Surgery

The T/A was brought to Barr’s, where the body was sanded clean of the original urethane enamel single-stage paint. The T-top roof was replaced with a solid roof, and the rust and dent-free body was prepared for paint. Four coats of DuPont primer were applied, followed by a coat of DuPont sealer. Their painter then filled the paint gun with DuPont Basic Black urethane and carefully applied three coats of base, followed by two coats of clear. A wet-sanding session with a progression from 1,000 to 3,000 grit paper, and 3M compounding and polishing left the Second-Gen in a shiny new coat. Since Joe isn’t a big fan of hood birds, he deleted it for a smooth, clean, and sinister look.

Inside, the Carmine upholstery and trim weren’t to Joe’s liking, so the T/A was sent to Pepe’s Auto in Naples to replace with custom black carpeting, headliner, door panels, dash, and new Recaro seats for the driver and passenger--the rears were covered to match the fronts. Auto Meter gauges were installed in lieu of the factory gauges for their increased accuracy and race-inspired look, and mount into a faux carbon-fiber, custom-made dash plate.

Joe cracked open the Global West catalog and checked off all the suspension goodies he was looking for. Up front, Global West tubular upper and lower control arms replaced the factory stamped-steel arms and make better use of the new QA1 coilovers, Global West 1.25-inch sway bar, and Del-A-Lum bushings. The story is no different out back, which received Global West bushings and springs, and QA1 shocks. The 3-inch exhaust caused interference with the sway bar so the latter was left off until the issue could be resolved.

Barr’s also fabricated a set of subframe connectors to tie together the unibody, and installed a set of Aerospace brakes, with 13-inch front and rear rotors, four-piston calipers, and a Wilwood master cylinder and proportioning valve. For the wheels, Joe went with a set of Billet Specialties Stilettos, which measure 17x8 up front and 17x10 out back. They wear 245/40R17 and 275/40R17 Cooper Zeon 2XS tires, respectively.

The hood now disguises a completely different source of power than the original 400. Barr’s Performance sourced a 455 block and bored it 0.060 to push 468 ci. A Mallory 140-gph fuel pump feeds a single Holley HP 900-cfm carburetor sitting atop an Edelbrock Torker intake manifold. Edelbrock Performer RPM heads were ported by Barr’s and flow 310 cfm at 0.700-inch lift with 2.11/1.66 valves, and the 87cc chambers deliver 10.2:1 compression when combined with the J.E. forged, flat-top pistons. The pistons are pinned to a set of forged Crower rods, which are attached to a 4.21-inch-stroke Pontiac crankshaft. A custom Crane hydraulic roller camshaft, with 242/252-degree duration at 0.050 and 0.558/0.558 lift on a 109-degree LSA, spins inside the block as it commands 1.5:1 Crane Gold roller rockers, Comp lifters, and Comp pushrods.

Barr’s Performance modified the ignition system to better handle the high-power burden. An MSD Pro-Billet distributor was wiggled into place and bolted down to feed a set of Taylor 8mm spark plug wires and NGK plugs, and 36 degrees of total timing was dialed in. An MSD 6AL ignition controller augments the spark and adds an all-important rev limiter to keep the Pontiac mill safe.

Everything stays properly oiled thanks to a Melling high-volume pump and remote, twin oil filters. The big-cube Poncho exhales through a set of Hooker headers with 2.00-inch primaries and 3.50-inch collectors, a custom 3.00-inch X-type pipe from SpinTech, and 3.00-inch Flowmaster mufflers and tailpipes.

Bucking the Pro Touring trend, Joe decided not to install an overdrive trans in his T/A. That makes the Super T10 four-speed the only factory drivetrain piece that remains in the car. It has received a performance rebuild to handle the power of the 468, and is complemented by a 12-inch McLeod clutch. It’s shifted by the original Hurst stick, and uses an aluminum driveshaft to turn the Moser 12-bolt with steep 4.11 gears and an Eaton posi.

Conclusion

Through the process of building this car, Joe became friends with everyone at Barr’s Performance, and thereby found a shop in the South that’s able to bring his ideas to light and offer its own suggestions to projects.

Some of you may ask, why would he do this to a rust-free, excellent-condition T/A? The answer is simply this--it’s his car and he wanted to have it built his own way.

"It puts a smile on my face every time I drive it, and I just love looking at it, too," Joe says. That’s the whole point.

  • «
  • |
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • View Full Article